- - Monday, August 24, 2015



By Nisid Hajari

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28, 328 pages, illustrated

Sixty-eight years ago this August, India finally realized what its founding father Jawaharlal Nehru elegantly phrased its “tryst with destiny” and finally cast off British rule. Yet what should have been an occasion for unalloyed joy was marred by the sundering of the subcontinent into two nations, with a separate Muslim state of Pakistan being carved out of the multi-ethnic Indian Dominion. If this separation was intended to put an end to the sectarian violence that had been going on for the past year, it was one of history’s greatest failures: The birth pangs of these new countries proved to be a huge escalation in savage killings by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs of each other.

Nisid Hajari, who writes for the editorial board of Bloomberg News and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, pulls no punches in “Midnight’s Furies,” his impassioned account of this pivotal event. He begins with the Sikh bombing of a train carrying Muslim civil servants from their jobs as employees of the British Raj in Delhi to their reassignments in the newly designated Pakistani capital Karachi. From this specific atrocity, he immediately launches into a horrifying tale of mass migrations of populations — at least 14 million — from where they had lived for countless generations: ethnic cleansing on a vast scale accompanied by cruelty and slaughter on a level almost impossible to comprehend. There have been many accounts of this tidal wave of suffering, but it would be hard to better “Midnight’s Furies” for its unflinching gaze and far-reaching analysis of the ongoing consequences of this tragedy:

“Today partition is a horrific memory for millions — but it is just that, a memory. What truly continues to haunt today’s world are the furies that were unleashed in 1947 — the fears and suspicions and hatreds forged in Partition’s searing crucible.”

Mr. Hajari makes it quite clear that we do not know where the rolling consequences of this tragedy will yet take the subcontinent and the rest of us, for as he writes portentously but convincingly, the lingering enmity between its nuclear-armed neighbors “poses one of the greatest threats to the stability and security of today’s world.”

It didn’t need have happened like this. It is hard to come away from this book without thinking that Britain bore the greatest responsibility for its long rule’s denouement. If there was a worse way to leave, root and branch, it is hard to imagine what it might have been. Much of the blame seems to rest with the last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, and of course the Labor government, desperate to quit India, which gave him pretty much carte blanche to do what he wanted, no matter how bizarre. His decision to move up the herculean task of dividing and disengaging from the original date in June 1948 to Aug. 15, 1947 seems cavalier at best. When his focus became ticking off days on his calendar, it is clear that this was a prime example of putting speedy achievement of a task above ensuring its essential value and effect, vanity at its most malign.

Add to this assigning the actual partition to an English judge, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who “had never been to India before. After finishing his task, he would never return. ‘I suspect they’d shoot me out of hand, both sides,’ he candidly admitted Radcliffe knew next to nothing about the lands he was tasked with dividing, nor did he have the time to learn. He only arrived in Delhi on 8 July, with barely five weeks to finalize the border.” The result of such uninformed paper butchery was the real thing on the ground. Not only was Radcliffe gone from India, but, incredibly, not even the leaders of the new nations knew the dimensions of the actual borders with one another when they became independent on that hot August midnight. When they found out next morning, they were flabbergasted and horrified. With good reason too, for it is no exaggeration that all hell then broke loose.

Few others emerge with enhanced reputations from this book. Each nation’s leader, Jinnah and Nehru, seem Olympian figures more remarkable for their egos and dislocation from the people they led than for statesmanship. Even the supposedly saintly apostle of nonviolence, Gandhi, is revealed to be a wily politician, whether transforming the nationalist movement during the Raj or indulging in gestures such as fasts to end the sectarian murders while supporting Nehru and his uncompromising policies. With characteristically precise concision, Mr. Hajari warns readers at the outset:

“The story features no easy villains — and few heroes. The very same men who led their peoples to independence — India’s dashing first leader, Nehru, and his irascible Pakistani counterpart, Jinnah — would play a central role in creating the rift between their nations. And it must be said that they did so for the worst of reasons: inexperience and ineptness, vanity, intellectual arrogance, unspoken prejudice, and plain, petty dislike of one another.”

“Midnight’s Furies” will enlighten readers to no end, but it will also infuriate them that such wicked mayhem should have been allowed to take place at all.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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