- - Wednesday, June 4, 2014

By John Keay
Basic Books, $29.99, 392 pages

Empires seldom die quietly. It took centuries of anarchy and darkness before European civilization would recover from the collapse of the Roman Empire. The extended death throes of the Ottoman Empire, with savage turmoil in the Balkans and the Near and Middle East, left bloody chaos in its wake and religious, ethnic and border conflicts still unresolved a century later.

Then there’s the British Raj, the incredible colonial project that brought an unprecedented period of peace, progress and stability to the vast, teeming Indian subcontinent. The end of that particular empire was accompanied by an orgy of sectarian killing — Hindus and Sikhs against Muslims and vice versa — that claimed as many as 3 million lives.

The horror and the tragedy of the partition that ended British rule were brought home to me in a personal way by an old English friend who witnessed it himself. Lt. Col. Douglas Gray was the last British adjutant of Skinner’s Horse, aka the First Bengal Lancers. As a young Sandhurst graduate, “Dougie,” as he was known to his friends, went out to India in the early 1930s and served with distinction in the British Indian Army until the end of the Raj. As an accomplished horseman, between campaigns defending the Northwest Frontier and fighting Axis forces in Africa and Italy, he managed to win the “1934 Kadir Cup for Individual Pig-sticking.” This was a more serious achievement than you might think, since it required riding down and killing a wild boar with lethal tusks and a ferocious temper, while armed only with a lance.

Most of Dougie’s Indian reminiscences were happy, dealing with that sort of sporting adventure, and with the deep mutual respect that bound together English officers like himself and their Indian counterparts, both commissioned and in the ranks. Once, however, as we happened to drive over a small bridge near Newmarket, England, where Dougie, an expert horse breeder, headed the National Stud, the memories turned somber. He told me about crossing another bridge during his last days in partition-era India. Dougie was being driven to an airstrip for the first leg of his home journey to England when his vehicle passed over that particular bridge. “I looked down into the river and saw nothing but dead bodies,” he told me. “They were floating with the current. There was no telling whether they were Hindu, Muslim or Sikh, but they were all victims of the communal slaughter that came with partition. Suddenly, I realized that, for the first time in my adult life, I was weeping. This was what it had all come to, a lifetime spent serving and believing in the civilizing mission of British rule. It was ending in a river of blood.”

In “Midnight’s Descendants,” veteran British journalist and author John Keay delivers a concise, competent account of the events leading up to and following the pivotal moment of partition. Mr. Keay, who knows the region well, leads the reader through the tortuous politics, diplomatic intrigue and armed conflicts that have shaped the fate of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other successor states to the British Raj almost up to the present day. “Almost” because his book went to press just months before the latest tectonic shift in the subcontinent’s political terrain: the landslide parliamentary victory of Narendra Modi, India’s new prime minister. Mr. Modi is in many ways a contradictory figure — a self-made man from humble origins, a free-market reformer who believes in bringing the benefits of economic expansion to ordinary Indians as well as to the old elites, and a devout Hindu who has played to sectarian prejudices in the past.

Initial signs, including the attendance of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at Mr. Modi’s swearing-in, offer hope that, having achieved power, India’s latest leader may be shedding some of his earlier extremism. If so, there is grounds to hope that — at a rare time when both India and Pakistan are led by peacefully elected and installed former opposition leaders — gradual progress toward lessened tensions, economic cooperation and stabilized borders may begin to dam up the river of blood that claimed the lives of Mahatma Gandhi, two Indian prime ministers, at least three Pakistani heads of government, the founding father of Bangladesh and millions of humbler inhabitants of the subcontinent.

Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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