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The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan, New Edition Paperback – August 29, 2017
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". . . Rather than dwelling on New Delhi’s political intrigue, [Khan’s] insightful book focuses on the oft-ignored social undercurrents that contributed to the mass violence."—Tarquin Hall, Sunday Times
". . . an elegant, scholarly analysis of the chaotic severing of two Pakistans (now Pakistan and Bangladesh) from India in 1947. Khan’s book is splendidly researched, and she has an eye for illuminating details of how Partition affected everyday lives."—Alex von Tunzelmann, Daily Telegraph
"Khan’s angry, unsparing analysis of catastrophe is provocative and painful."—The Times
“Much has been written on the partition of India and Pakistan, but no one work provides such a balanced account that also illustrates how few managed to foresee the consequences of their actions. . . This book, like all good history books, produces no smoking gun but shows how the blunder that resulted in so many deaths was a combination of a lack of preparation and political adventurism.”—Nesrine Malik, "100 Best Political Books", Observer
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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.
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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.
I found this book a very objective one in that while it tells exacting stories of failures of governmental work (British, Indian & Pakistani) & the way factions, groups & militias contributed to the bloodbath, at no point, I felt that Khan was taking sides.
I also felt that there are a couple areas where she might have missed the mark.
While 1945-46 was indeed the epicenter of partition politics, the seed of distrust, both as communal phenomenon sans the politics, & as political phenomenon manifest in the divide between the Congress & the Muslim league, was something that developed over a much longer period of time. I think Khan could have done more to bring this aspect out.
Secondly, I think the "open wound", from a Pakistani perspective, is more the India assisted creation of Bangladesh. In political influence, it is certainly more potent than partition in the current state of affairs.
So overall, if you're going to read one introductory book on partition, I think this book is a great one. It does enough to set context & tell the larger story. However, the politics of the subcontinent is tangled; often mired in feudal divides, lingual & cultural subgroups & a general hodgepodge of multiple conflicting identities & assertions. I'd recommend reading other books (Pakistan: A hard country, if you're an Indian like me, for one) to begin to grasp the drivers that led to this great divide & its repercussions.
Yasmin has done a good job of rendering this rather complex and heartbreaking time of political and sectarian violence -- renting the map left a large historical scar that still plays highly in international politics. This book is a good place to start to understand the difference in national identity when aspirations divide and become fault lines for violence.
Unfortunately I think that this study could have been a whole lot better if she had expanded the text about 1/3 its present size. Many aspects, although well described are dealt with in rather superficial terms... but keeping in mind that this is an introduction and geared for the general reader, it is an extremely well written piece.