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PARTITION. The story of Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan in 1947
by Barney White-Spunner

The story of Partition is deeply shocking, as this excellent book demonstrates, graphically in places. What happened in those few months in 1947 and 1948 was a tragedy, and as Barney White-Spunner explains, the worst excesses might have been avoided. Indians had fought bravely in the First World War, but India gained little if any recognition for this huge sacrifice. Dominion status was the least expected, but there was a British view that the Indians were not capable of ruling themselves. Who knows what the outcome might have been if the process of independence had begun earlier.

The book provides invaluable context, helping the reader to understand the events and missed opportunities that led to Partition. As the author says in his conclusions, the ‘British went to India to make money’, later governing the country, ‘but never resourced the government in a way that allowed any improvement in the lives of the Indians’. While the British administrators of the Indian Civil Service (a small group) were of the highest calibre, and dedicated to India, it was always a challenge for them to effect any real changes for the benefit of Indians. Britain stayed too long, and it was the Indians who suffered.

The human stories of Partition are heartrending, and difficult to understand or grasp. Niranjan Singh, a Sikh tea merchant, had served tea to his friend, a Muslim leather worker, for many years, and yet all changed a week after Independence. The same man rushed into Singh’s shop, screaming ‘Kill him, kill him!’, Singh was attacked by a Muslim thug, others killed his ninety-year-old father and only son, while his eighteen-year-old daughter was carried away on the shoulders of ‘a man to whom he’d been serving tea for fifteen years’.

Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims all have blood on their hands, with massacres in Punjab, Delhi, and elsewhere. Trainloads of refugees were slaughtered with the trains sent on to their destinations across hastily drawn borders. It was the largest human migration in history, and it took place in just a few months because it was decided, perhaps correctly, that further delay would make matters worse.

Mountbatten, as Viceroy, was not solely responsible for the tight timescale of a few months; others, including Nehru, saw no virtue in delay. As the author explains, the problem with Mountbatten’s legacy ‘was that he pretended he had more influence than he did, particularly later in life when his tendency to exaggerate was more pronounced’. He had gravitas and style, and he worked tirelessly and closely with all the leaders, although his relationship with Jinnah was not easy. Mountbatten was, to quote the author, ‘an important interlocutor, and a good one, but no more than that’. A fair judgement.

Gandhi was passionately opposed to partition, believing that the religious groups could live harmoniously in an independent nation. Nehru was determined not to form a federal partnership with Jinnah and the Muslims, and so agreed that he could have his ‘moth-eaten’ Pakistan, a country that would probably not survive. Jinnah did not really want partition, but the opportunity for real power in India had slipped some years earlier when Congress refused any form of power-sharing. Jinnah was tricky, but also brave. Had Mountbatten and Nehru known how ill he was in 1947, and that he would die in 1948, they might have played their hands differently.

Another sad story was the role of the Indian Army. The Commander-in-Chief, Claude Auchinleck, a fine soldier at the end of a long and distinguished career, became absorbed in the unpalatable task of dividing the Army while overlooking the real purpose of this great institution. As the author observes, armies ‘exist to do the bidding of their governments and of the taxpayers who pay for them; they should not adopt a persona of their own, thinking that they are in some way separate from or above the political system that sustains them’. The Indian Army’s problem was that it saw itself primarily as the protector of good order and British interests in India and beyond. The Army should have done more in 1947; for example, the British troops and Gurkhas stationed in India, arguably well-placed to prevent some of the bloodshed, were left idle and unemployed.

In the final few pages of this excellent book, the author challenges the romantic claims made about Britain’s legacy in India. Did we give Indians democracy, the railways, a legal system, and sound administration? Perhaps we did, to an extent, whether they needed or wanted them. The English language was certainly a useful legacy, providing Indians with a ‘unifying force’ in a country of so many languages and dialects. However, there is a sense that the British took more from India than we gave back.

Partition might have been avoided, but either way, Britain’s role in what happened in 1947, the events that led to the fateful decisions, and some of the legacy of those decisions, is not something of which we should be particularly proud. With Barney White-Spunner’s skills as an historian and his experience as a former soldier and senior commander, he has written a fascinating and well-researched book that tells the story as it is, in a balanced way. His sources are wide, and he has found the perfect balance between the political, personal, and military narrative, with much insight and analysis as well. While there are many books about Partition, this is certainly one to read.

The Editor

Published by Simon & Schuster. www.simonandschuster.co.uk

© Crown Copyright