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The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan New Edition
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"Mahatma Gandhi called the traumatic experience of Partition 'the vivisection of India'. In this book, Yasmin Khan shows how this operation was performed. She describes the suffering of the victims with great sensitivity, and traces the perceptions of contemporary observers, most of whom were at a loss when trying to imagine the contours of the new states. To a country that took its territorial unity for granted, the partition of India came as a rude shock; its impact reverberates through the pages of this illuminating book."--Dietmar Rothermund, Professor Emeritus of South Asian History, Heidelberg University, and author of The Routledge Companion to Decolonisation and (with H Kulke) A History of India
"This is a compassionate and devastating book. It charts the long, complex and often brutal processes that engulfed millions of unsuspecting people in chaos. Few among the South Asian and British political elite could have imagined what they were letting loose, while many of those swept up even tangentially had no clear idea of what it might mean. Its long aftermath still scars the subcontinent, as India and Pakistan see each other through the lens of carefully constructed nationalist history which feeds on the partially understood history of Partition. This is a book for all who wish to understand attitudes on the subcontinent today."--Judith M Brown, Balliol College Oxford, and author of Nehru
"Yasmin Khan makes a significant contribution to the ongoing study of the Partition of India in this lucid account. Her eye for detail strongly evokes the issues, personalities and events at this crucial moment in the subcontinent's modern history. Narrative and sharp analysis go hand in hand in a work which bears all the hallmarks of a first-rate scholar."--Ian Talbot, University of Southampton
"Yasmin Khan's The Great Partition vividly and memorably portrays the sheer turmoil of decolonisation. In turning the spotlight away from high-level politics to bitter personal experience, she exposes the bewilderment, brutality and mayhem that followed the hasty British decision to 'divide and quit.' This book will be a touchstone in the retelling of one of the twentieth century's greatest calamities."--David Arnold, University of Warwick and Fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Asiatic Society
"This is an exceptional book. Yasmin Khan has written a vivid, authoritative and accessible account of one of the greatest human tragedies and dislocations of the modern era. Her particular achievement is in weaving the lived experience of Partition - the agony, the uncertainty, the conflicting identities and loyalties - into a broader account of the turmoil and confusion which so gravely soured India's and Pakistan's achievement of independence."--Andrew Whitehead, editor of History Workshop Journal and former BBC South Asia correspondent
One of the first events of decolonization in the twentieth century, the Great Partition of 1947 was also one of the most bloody. In this sweeping reappraisal of India’s liberation from British rule and the emergence of Pakistan, Yasmin Khan uncovers the recklessness of the Partition plan, its catastrophic human toll, and the unshakable animosity left in its wake.
- Item Weight : 12.3 ounces
- Paperback : 288 pages
- ISBN-13 : 978-0300230321
- ISBN-10 : 030023032X
- Dimensions : 7.8 x 5.1 x 1 inches
- Publisher : Yale University Press; New edition (August 29, 2017)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #105,960 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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Khan maintains the brevity of this book by giving little background material leading up to 1947. The history of the Congress party is taken forward from the release of Gandhi and his associates from prison, at the end of WWII. If you want know about Jinnah and earlier League politics you also won't find it here. As independence approached the Congress party had grown to a great size, and more members joined to take part in the future leadership. Competing factions had ideas that varied from Gandhi's ideals, and he had less ability to avert communal rioting and deaths.
In the spring of 1946 a delegation was sent from Britain to negotiate with the independence leaders and plan British withdrawal from the rapidly dissolving empire. Khan makes a point that if the resulting Cabinet Mission Plan had succeeded, Pakistan as a separate country may not have existed. Opinion was divided on all sides whether a strong central government or a loose confederation of Hindu and Muslim states was the goal. It wasn't a foregone conclusion that only separate sovereign nations would suffice. After the plan collapsed street violence exploded.
Although the mayhem that ensued is described in some detail, I still have difficulty grasping how it happened. Perhaps simple revenge and retribution played the greatest role in the escalation. Ultimately between 500,000 to 1,000,000 lives would be lost, on the scale of a civil war, although an unorganized one. None of the parties would remain free of guilt. As a scholar of the British empire, Khan delves into the disorganized and deficient way the former colony was turned over for self rule. Crippled at the end of WWII, Britain hadn't the means nor the will to help.
Much of this book was culled from previously published primary and secondary sources. Khan doesn't indicate new material was researched from archives or agency reports. This isn't an intrinsic fault. Written material on the subject is vast, and to present it succinctly is a worthwhile effort. However the book's structure is a problem. It is organized chronologically, but moves randomly between locations and topics. Personal anecdotes and stories describe the dislocation, violence, famine and disease. The chaos of the events seems reflected in their analysis.
'Midnight's Furies' by American journalist Nisid Hajari (2015) covers much of the same ground in a somewhat more expansive and gripping way. Both books provide a balanced overview of a politically fraught period. Perhaps of interest to some, Hajari is from a Hindu-Indian and Jewish-American family, while Khan is of Pakistani and Anglo-Irish ancestry. I mention this as aspersions are often cast at the background and agenda of anyone who writes on the subject. 'The Great Partition' takes an unbiased approach, but the focus on vignettes falls short of a theme.
People do not often think that freedom can sometimes be an awful thing, and this is exactly what it must have been for many. What could have made the book stand out, for me, is if she had analysed the factors - and the effects - of the social transformation of the time. People identified themselves with their region, and not so much along religious lines. This changed. There are lessons in this, which we would do well to remember.
THE GREAT PARTITION contains the basic facts: In 1946 and 1947, Great Britain, worn out and broke after World War II, abandoned the Raj; it cut its losses and ran. On June 3, 1947, it announced that the Raj would be partitioned and the constituent parts would be given their independence ten weeks hence, on August 15, 1947. As matters developed the lines of partition were not released until August 17, two days after the independence (and simultaneous birth) of India and Pakistan. Before partition, there had been widespread violence, primarily Muslims against Hindus and vice versa, but some of it involved Sikhs. That violence intensified after August 15th, and ethnic cleansing was conducted in many areas. One of the largest migrations in history ensued -- Muslims within the territory of India fleeing to East or West Pakistan, and Hindus fleeing from the two areas of Pakistan to India. About twelve million people were displaced. Hundreds of thousands died, in some accounts as many as a million.
Britain's drawing of national boundaries, on both the east and west of what became India (a total of 3,800 miles of border determination), was hasty and arbitrary. The imperial mapmaker, Cyril Radcliffe, had never been to India before he arrived on July 8th, and in six weeks he and his assistants had finished the job. Their line drawing was done remotely, working with maps and dubious census figures. It seems farcical.
One might naturally wonder whether an alternative to Partition was ever explored. The answer, as I learned from the book, is yes. In May 1946, a high-level British "Cabinet Mission" presented a plan that would have devolved power to Muslims within a united India. There would have been a central government to handle matters of foreign affairs and defense, but otherwise individual provinces would have enjoyed considerable autonomy, including the ability to join together on certain matters, thereby allowing large Muslim blocs to act in concert within the Indian Union. But diehards and extremists on both sides of the Muslim/Hindi religious divide rejected the plan, after which the more moderate leaders didn't fight against partition. As Nehru later admitted: "The truth is that we were tired men and we were getting on in years . . . The plan for partition offered a way out and we took it."
The book covers all the above and considerably more factual territory. In a way, it packs quite a bit of history into its 210 pages of text. Supplementing that text are a glossary, a timeline, four maps, and about two dozen photographs.
Nonetheless, I am not enthusiastic about the book. First, there are problems with the written presentation. Khan's prose is very smooth, but the text seems to have been written in discrete paragraphs, almost as if each was envisioned to stand alone. As a result, there is a choppiness to the presentation and, worse, considerable repetition of many points.
Second, I would like to have been given some idea of how things might have been handled differently. Near the end of the book, Khan writes that "[t]here was nothing inevitable * * * about the way that Partition unfolded." But never in the course of the book does she discuss how the former Raj could have become self-governing without hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of people transplanted, and a continuing state of religiously-based tension and hostility between abutting nations.
Top reviews from other countries
The book records both the negotiation of regime change and those affected by the resulting mess. It is a work of narrative history, from which important lessons should have been learnt.
First the actors didn’t know what they were seeking to achieve. The Second World War and Partition bled into one another. The Moslem League had grown in influence amongst Muslims. However League supporters did not think of their call for Pakistan primarily as for a territorial unit. If they did, they hoped it would include large tracts of what had been Mogul India, larger and without the separation between what became East and West Pakistan. Jinnah, leader of the League and now thought of as father of Pakistan, sought a federal solution in which the Moslems would have regional and communal checks on majority power. He accepted Partition and the creation of Pakistan only as second best.
Second, bringing about regime change was always going to be difficult, attempting to effect it within an unrealistic time frame, meant it failed. The Radcliffe Commission was given a quite inadequate time to establish and document the land border between India and Pakistan. On Independence some 48% of the land area and 28% of the population remained within princely states, which had not yet been integrated into the new states of India and Pakistan. This further complicated the process. The Moslem ruler of Hyderabad sought a separate independence. In 1948 Hyderabad was forcibly annexed to India. In the North of Bengal the princely state of Cooch Behar included a checkerboard of territory reflecting historic land holdings between it and Mogul territory. This had not been sorted out by 1949 when Cooch Behar, bordering East Pakistan, joined India, As a result there were 123 tiny enclaves of East Pakistan, now Bangla Desh, in India and 74 enclaves, legally Indian territory, in Bangla Desh.
Third violence portrayed as random thuggery was not. It was routine, timetabled ethnic cleansing. It wasn’t disruptive background noise to constitutional decision making, but intended to influence the process, preventing reconciliation. There was no longer the appetite for Gandhian non-violence, instead an increasingly violent nationalism on both sides. Rape was used on both sides as a weapon, encouraging the "other" to flee. The British were shipping troops out, India and Pakistan dividing the Indian Army up between them, just when a disciplined military could have assisted in overseeing Independence and Partition. All this, and the uncertainty about where a border would be and what it would mean, created a perfect storm of ethnic violence. The leadership of both new states whilst washing their hands of the violence, to various extents, were complicit in it.
Fourth the actual outcome was very different from that intended. A functioning Raj was fraying. The British, exhausted by their war effort, sought a quick withdrawal, and a successor, with whom to negotiate and to whom to hand over power. If Congress and the Moslem League wouldn’t work together, Partition was intended by the British so power could be handed to Congress in India and the Moslem League in Pakistan. In 1946 there were serious intercommunal riots in Calcutta followed by the massacre of Hindus, largely the landlords, by tenant Moslems in East Bengal. Partition was seen as preventing further violence. In fact it became the source of new calamities, with some 80,000 women abducted and up to a million people killed.
No one expected, or planned for, the scale of population movement. Both new governments intended to protect minorities in their new states. If Pakistan protected minority Hindu and Sikh populations in Pakistan, this would help guarantee the rights of Moslems in India and vice versa. It was considered inconceivable that some 12m people would move between the new states. However with mass movement of population underway, both new governments reversed their plans, so population exchange became official policy and cover for further ethnic cleansing. The refugee crisis became a tragedy both for the refugees themselves and for the new states.
Finally, Partition is an example of application of the founder principle from biology and linguistics to history. What happened at the beginning, however unintentionally, disproportionately influenced what followed. A temporary solution became a permanent division, a border, thrown up in haste, fixed and impermeable. The two new states, which in many ways are very similar, created in violence, continued to view each other through a prism of violence. Both the Pakistan and India they ended up with were very different from those they had hoped for. Pakistan’s fragility when created means it became a largely militarised state, which, after further tragedies, split between Pakistan and Bangla Desh.
Writing this review now, it is hard not to see lessons which have not been learnt. In Myanmar ethnic cleansing of the Moslem Rohingyas has been followed by their flight to Bangla Desh, which lacks the space or resources to accommodate them. Brexit, whose meaning and implications were barely understood by those voting for it, is being implemented by parties who never intended, nor planned for, it over a quite impractical timetable. Brexit, like Partition, may well lead to permanent acrimonious rift.
Khan also plays down Bangladesh and it's 1971 partition from Pakistan. Partition has never ended, it is played out in Kashmir to this day.
I only give the book 4 stars as it is a must read for anyone who wants to try and Understand India or Pakistan. (And to a lesser extent Bangladesh)