It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of August 14, 1947. On this signal date of the 20th century, British India ended and two nations emerged – Pakistan and India, which declared independence a day later – the fortunes of which continue to define the region and influence the globe.
The end of Britain’s rule on the Indian subcontinent was the culmination of a nearly 70-year independence struggle that could not be checked or beaten back. “Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny,” Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, famously proclaimed in Churchillian tones, “and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”
The moment was a fulfilment; but the man who would lead India until 1964 had to acknowledge – by that “not wholly or in full measure” – the disappointment of an Indian nation shorn of the territories that would now make up Pakistan. The separation known as the Great Partition created a violent dynamic with consequences that resound to our own time. In his timely new book, Midnight’s Descendants: South Asia from Partition to the Present Day, the historian John Keay looks at the evolution of Pakistan and India since the Partition, along with three other nations – Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan), Sri Lanka and Nepal. This is a history not for the faint of heart. Those looking for congratulatory rhetoric about India’s democracy triumphant should look elsewhere. Keay, a veteran observer of India and prolific author of many works on South and East Asian history, might be too pitiless for some. He does not let anyone off the hook, least of all the world’s largest democracy, which, “despite its newly trumpeted affluence ... still has more of the malnourished, the unlettered and the socially deprived than Pakistan and Bangladesh combined”.
His account sometimes seems like an endless catalogue of atrocities, assassinations, political chicanery and sectarian strife – but as recent election results remain disputed in Dhaka, and India prepares to go to the polls in May, Keay’s fine if troubling book prompts a look back at the fraught modern history of the region.
“The story of postcolonial South Asia is seldom inspirational,” he writes. “The subcontinent continues to be defined in terms not of shared interests but of past traumas, contested loyalties and irreconcilable ambitions. Encouraged by governments of every hue, national identity still owes much to an obsessive awareness of the hostile ‘other’ just across the border. Antagonism reigns, officially. The euphoria of freedom has been silenced by the shock of division.”
Yet, though it may seem so today, such a split was not a foregone conclusion of the run-up to independence. The jockeying for position between the Indian National Congress, led by Nehru, and the Muslim League, with Muhammad Ali Jinnah at its head, and the hasty departure of the British in 1947, led to the division, “but throughout 1946 the country lay within a whisker of attaining full independence as a single sovereign state”. It would not turn out that way.
Keay describes well the practical consequences of instituting partition on the ground. In a place like Punjab, with its rich mix of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs sharing certain traditions and even lineages, this proved vastly challenging. Muslims and Sikhs, notes Keay, were “often descended from converts whose caste or tribe was still that of their Hindu neighbours”. Or what about the Meos, who attended mosque irregularly and worshipped the Lords Krishna and Rama? The resulting bloodbath and mass movements of peoples claimed several hundred thousand lives – exact figures are highly contentious, as Keay notes.
One of the themes of Midnight’s Descendants is how the blunt instruments of nation-state devolve onto kinship, creed, locality, language, tribe, clan, profession and caste. In some places, the borders fashioned were absurdly over-defined, with enclaves within enclaves carved out of territories in extreme acts of sovereignty. In others, like the watery mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans, where West Bengal and Bangladesh meet, the frontier is preposterously porous. Keay livens his accounts with tales of his own South Asian journeys and encounters over the years. Nonetheless, his book is a resolutely political history, chock full of names, dates, facts and figures. He pays scant attention, say, to India’s rich post-war literary achievements or Bollywood’s booming film industry.
Keay briskly moves through the post-1947 decades, taking a few brief detours into Nepal’s own difficult progress through convulsions of Maoist insurgency and the bloody fates of the Nepalese royal family. India and Pakistan naturally get the lion’s share of coverage here – he is good on the ongoing dispute over Jammu and Kashmir, the most nettlesome of the 500 or so princely states that acceded to India and Pakistan. The lingering dispute there has drawn much attention from the world, but Keay makes a trenchant case for a distinctive Kashmiri identity beyond the Indo-Pakistan poles. “Kashmir,” Keay observes, “might be seen as hostage to the abnormality of Indo-Pak relations,” not the other way around.
The rush of events that Keay describes is, at times, breathtaking. Pakistan and India undertake the difficult work of state building in the 1950s and 60s. Nehru championed anti-colonial struggles while India and China tangled over borders that run through icy mountain redoubts. With little of the infrastructure that was bequeathed to India, Pakistan stumbles through dictatorship and grows tense as the country’s two wings split apart in 1971, in what Sunil Khilnani calls “the most violent and disruptive year in South Asia’s history”. At independence in 1947, Bengal had been spilt into western and eastern halves, with the latter forming Pakistan’s other wing. West Pakistan, however, treated its eastern component little better than a colony. The emergence of Bangladesh, after an Indian invasion and fierce Bengali resistance, was another ultimate consequence of Partition.
In the rump Pakistan deprived of its eastern half, General Zia Al Haq committed himself to a vigorous programme of Islamicisation, which he thought would restore Pakistan and validate his dictatorial rule. With the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan found itself lavished with aid and investment from the Reagan administration, which gave Zia a free hand in his attempts to reshape Pakistan. But over his 11-year rule (1978-1988), “he conjured up what was not Islamic solidarity but cut-throat Islamic contention”. There would be a steep price to pay for unleashing such forces of contention.
Among the most striking consequences that Keay describes on these pages are the dynamics of the vast global South Asian diaspora and its effect on the politics and economics of the home countries. Cash remittances from abroad propelled South Asia’s economies, particularly Pakistan, with its traditional links to the Gulf. But the same channels fed liberation movements of every stripe. Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers were funded by Tamils who lived in the West. Kashmiris in Britain subsidised the Jammu and Kashmir National Liberation Front. Disturbingly, Keay observes of the destruction of Air India Flight 182 in 1985 how “coordinated attacks on prestigious civilian targets would soon come to be reckoned the prerogative of well-financed Islamist groups such as Al Qaeda. That it was in fact diasporic Sikh militants who pioneered this form of horror has been largely forgotten.”
Keay catalogues India’s post-Nehru years, the reign of his daughter Indira, and her son Rajiv, both felled by assassins, and the grave crises of Indian democracy in the 1970s and 80s as Sikh and Hindu nationalisms surged. He chronicles the savage civil war in Sri Lanka. He sees enduring trouble with the Indian constitution, but hopeful flickers of detente between Pakistan and India, the region’s two great antagonists. “For at least 20 years New Delhi and Islamabad have professedly been committed to normalising their relationships … bilateral tensions have been reduced and the Kashmir issue temporarily sidelined. But tacitly it is agreed that resolving the Kashmir conundrum remains the key to Indo-Pak rapprochement.”
Keay recognises the perils of writing about a recent past that’s not even past in an area of the world that will soon account for a quarter of the people on Earth. “This book will probably be challenged and certainly will be superseded.” He’s probably right, but he’s certainly game to concede it.
Matthew Price’s writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.