November 07, 2016

Freedom at Midnight: Some thoughts on the Book

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What went wrong, Mountbatten admitted to us, was this sheer, simultaneous reaction which nobody foresaw. No one predicted millions of people would pull up stakes and change sides. No one. 
Partition has always been an intriguing event for me, probably more intriguing than the freedom struggle. What happened that led to partition despite some prominent leaders opposing it till the end. What went wrong that partition led to loss of lakhs of precious lives, and forever bitterness between people of the two nations? These questions always kept nagging me from time to time. And that was the reason, even though I seldom read non-fiction books, and hardly have any interest in historical books, slowly I started reading partition related books. The first one was, “Pakistan, Or the Partition of India” by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, second one was “Train to Pakistan” by Khushwant Singh (the book is a fact inspired fiction), and the third one is this “Freedom at Midnight” by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre”. 

The Book is probably one of the most popular, and one of the most extensive account of the partition, and in a most captivating way. Primary, it has focused on below few issues:-
  1. What led to partition? Why did partition become inevitable?
  2. Mahatma Gandhi's life, and his efforts in bringing together peace in the pre and post-partition times. Also, why all his efforts failed to stop partition.
  3. The efforts and events that went into division of Punjab and Bengal, into Indian and Pakistani area. 
  4. The widespread riots and violence in pre and post-partition times and the reasons behind them.
  5. The hundreds of princely states of India, and the detail of efforts that went into forcing them unite them into either India or Pakistan.
  6. The detail behind the murder of Mahatma Gandhi by Godse and his accomplices.
On Partition
The biggest reason of partition, was the rise of Jinnah as one of the most formidable power among Muslims. Among Muslims, he had as much popularity as probably Mahatma Gandhi had among Indians. But of course he was exact opposite of Gandhi in nature.  He had literally held Indian leaders to ransom, under threat of widespread violence by Muslims under his command.
Quoting from the Book:-

In a tent outside Bombay in August 1946, he had evaluated for his followers in the Moslem League the meaning of Direct  Action Day. If Congress wanted war, he declared, then India’s  Moslems would ‘accept their offer unhesitatingly .
Pale lips pressed into a grim smile, his piercing eyes alight with repressed passion, Jinnah had that day flung down the gauntlet to Congress, to the British. ‘We shall have India divided,’ he vowed, ‘or we shall have India destroyed.’ 
Such was his devilish nature! Why he turned into someone like this, and how he was able to turn a large Muslim population against Hindus, is another matter and that Dr. Ambedkar has dealt with better in his book on partition. But needless to say, Jinnah was the biggest factor for partition. In fact, it has been mentioned in the book that, Jinnah was suffering from a critical illness at the time of partition discussions, and was counting his last days, but this was a top secret. Had this fact be known to them, the last viceroy Mountbatten and Indian leaders, would preferred to wait for him to die, so that partition could have been avoided! 
Apart from Jinnah, another reason was that the patience of Indian leaders was running out. They have had enough, they just wanted freedom from Britishers as soon as possible. And Britishers led by Mountbatten, didn't want to leave without a proper system in place here!! Interesting fact is that, had Mountbatten not been sent to India, there was a chance that partition won't have happened. Because the predecessor of Mountbatten, Lord Wavell, had no plan to put in a system in place before leaving. Funnily enough, he had a plan named "Operation Madhouse". :) Quoting from the Book (Lord Wavell talking to Mountbatten):-
‘This is called “Madhouse”,’ he explained, ‘because it is a problem for a madhouse. Alas, I can see no other way out.’  It called for the British evacuation of India, province by province, women and children first, then civilians, then soldiers, a move likely, in Gandhi’s words, to ‘leave India to chaos’.
One more reason was the lack of time for decision making. During those times, the Hindu-Muslim divide was getting wider. There was widespread violence every now and then. On the "Direct Action Day" call of Jinnah in 1946, there had already been bloodbath in Bengal. Mahatma Gandhi's peace calls used to be temporary and were not effective for longer times. Jinnah was always on lookout for adding fuel to the fire. Leaders were clueless how to put things in control. Everyone agreed that some decision had to be taken, and it had to be done quickly. So in that haste, they went for something, which aggravated the situation rather than pacifying it. Essentially, everyone miscalculated the mood of millions of population. 

On Mahama Gandhi   
A great portion of the book is devoted to Mahatma Gandhi, his life, his ideals, his efforts to keep India united, and why his efforts failed.
Unlike popular perception, Mahatma Gandhi fought till the end to keep India united, and avoid the partition. That he failed in his efforts is another matter.
Quoting from the book:-
So desperate was he to avoid partition that he was prepared for a Solomonic judgment. Give the Moslems the baby instead of cutting it in half. Place three hundred million Hindus under Moslem rule by asking his rival Jinnah and his Moslem League to form a government. Then hand over power to that government. Give Jinnah all India instead of just the part he wanted. He could not budge Nehru and Patel. There was a limit to the price they were prepared to pay to keep India united and handing over power to their foe, Jinnah, transgressed it. They did not share Gandhi’s conviction that partition would inevitably lead to terrible violence. Broken-hearted, Gandhi would have to report to the Viceroy that he had not been able to carry his colleagues with him. 
Finally, Mountbatten held parleys individually with Sardar Patel and Nehru, to convince him on partition, and they agreed. Two of their crucial men going against his opinion, Gandhi was broken and felt helpless. He was also not sure how the common Indians will respond to his calls for opposition to the partition. Mountbatten also tried to convince Gandhi through all means, and was able to somewhat subdue his resistance. But in a nutshell, all Congress leaders turning against his opinion, was the breaking point for Gandhi. Quoting his own words from the book:-
‘They call me a Mahatma,’ he bitterly told a friend later, ‘but I tell you I am not even treated by them as a sweeper.’ 
Another quote deserves a mention in the same regard:-
Walking the streets of Delhi early one morning, one of his workers said to him: ‘In the hour of decision you are not in the picture. You and your ideals have been given the go-by.’
Yes, Gandhi sighed bitterly in reply: ‘Everybody is eager to garland my photos and statues. But nobody wants to follow my advice.’ 
Gandhi's life and ideals have always been controversial. The book also touches upon one major aspect for which Gandhi ji is criticised heavily even now - his views on sexuality, and why he used to sleep on same bed with his 19 yr old great-niece "Manu". The book gives Gandhi's perspective on those practices. (These views were actually views as told by Gandhi's personal secretary Pyarelal, and his Doctor Sushila Nayar). It also touches upon other related aspects like, why he used to get massaged by female followers, why he used to walk hands on shoulders of the two girls Manu and Abha. (All these were related aspects).
Even though I don't agree to his practices on this issue, his rationality behind it did make some sense, although it didn't look a practically possible thing to imbibe. I am quoting the related text from the book:-
As his confidence in the mastery of his desires came back, he gradually extended the range of physical contact he allowed himself with women. He nursed them when they were ill and allowed them to nurse him. He took his bath in full view of his fellow ashramites, male and female. He had his daily massage virtually naked, with young girls most frequently serving as his masseuses. He often gave interviews or consulted the leaders of his Congress Party while the girls massaged him. He wore few clothes and urged his disciples, male and female, to do likewise because clothes he said, only encouraged a false sense of modesty...... For Gandhi, secure in his own conscience, there was nothing improper or even remotely sexual in his relations with Manu. Indeed, it is almost inconceivable that the faintest tremor of sexual arousal passed between them. To the Mahatma, the reasoning which had led him to perform what was, for him, a duty to Manu, was sufficient justification for his action. Perhaps, however, deep in his subconscious, other forces he ignored helped propel him to it. 
Boundary division of Punjab and Bengal by Cyril Radcliffe

This is probably the least discussed issue on partition, but is most crucial in a way. When partition was agreed, exact boundary and which princely states will go to which Nation, were not decided. In fact the surprising fact is, even on the day of India's freedom, the India Pakistan boundary lines were not announced. There were two major tasks, deciding on which princely states will go to which nation, and then deciding the boundary of the two nations in Punjab and Bengal. These two areas were very crucial, because they contained a great mix of population and interdependence on one another. For sake of neutrality, Cyril Radcliffe, was invited from Britain, to decide on the exact boundary. In the end, the partition in Bengal didn't cause any issue, but the boundary division announcement in Punjab, led to great bloodshed. Population transfer took place in millions, and there was immense bloodshed.

The riots and situations surrounding them, have been dealt in great detail in the book. The princely states, the lives of their princes too have been described in great detail. Most of the princely states wanted to get total independence, rather than going with Pakistan or India. How they were forced to merge with either of the Nations, is another aspect dealt in great detail. Some of them were convinced, some were blackmailed, and some like Raja Hari Singh of J&K was conditionally convinced under foreign attack pressure. The Pakistani tribal led attack on J&K too has been explained in detail, explaining how it ended up with the agreement with Raja Hari Singh. The book ends up with devoting another great portion on the murder of Mahatma Gandhi. 

If not for anything, one must read the book for the unbelievable real-life love story of Boota Singh and Zenib. A Sikh-Muslim love story leading to marriage, then cross-border run, court cases, suicide and Muslims supporting the Sikh guy's wishes post his death. The story will put even the modern day bollywood Indo-Pak love stories to shame.

In the end, I would like to put two more quotes from the book on two crucial issues:-

When Sardar Patel and Pundit Nehru turned against Gandhi's idea of United India:- 
Patel had been prepared to concede partition even before Mountbatten’s arrival. He was ageing, he’d suffered two heart attacks, and he wanted to get on with it, to end these ceaseless debates and get down to the task of building an independent India. Give Jinnah his state, he argued, it wouldn’t survive anyway. In five years, the Moslem League would be knocking at their door begging for India’s reunification.
Nehru was a torn and anguished man, caught between his deep love for Gandhi and his new admiration and friendship for the Mountbattens. Gandhi spoke to his heart, Mountbatten to his mind. Instinctively, Nehru detested partition, yet his rational spirit told him it was the only answer. Since reaching his own conclusion that there was no other choice, Mountbatten had been employing all the charm and persuasiveness of Operation Seduction to bring Nehru to his viewpoint. One argument was vital. With Jinnah gone, Hindu India could have the strong central government Nehru would need if he was going to build the socialist state of his dreams. Ultimately, he too stood out against the man he’d followed so long. 

When Nehru, Patel lost control of the Nation after partition, and requested Mountbatten to take complete control again! 
For the next quarter of a century the results of the meeting beginning in Louis Mountbatten ’s study on the morning of Saturday, 6 September 1947 would be the most closely guarded secret of the last Viceroy’s life. Had the decisions taken at it become known, the knowledge could have destroyed the career of the charismatic Indian statesman who would emerge in the years to come as one of the world’s major figures.
Three people were present: Mountbatten, Nehru and Patel. The two Indian leaders were sombre, visibly depressed men; they looked to the Governor-General ‘like a pair of chastened schoolboys’. The situation in the Punjab was out of control. The migration was exceeding their worst fears. Now violence in Delhi threatened to bring down the capital itself.
‘We don’t know how to hold it,’ Nehru admitted.
‘You have to grip it,’ Mountbatten told him.
‘How can we grip it?’ Nehru replied. ‘We have no experience. We’ve spent the best years of our lives in your British jails. Our experience is in the art of agitation, not administration. We can barely manage to run a well-organized government in normal circumstances. We’re just not up to facing an absolute collapse of law and order.’
Nehru then made an almost unbelievable request. That he, the proud Indian who’d devoted his life to the independence stmggle could even articulate it was a measure of both his own greatness and the gravity of the situation. He had long admired Mountbatten’s capacity for organization and swift decision. India, he felt, desperately needed those skills now and Nehru was too great a man to let his pride stand in the way of her having them.
‘While you were exercising the highest command in war, we were in a British prison,’ he said. ‘You are a professional, high-level administrator. You’ve commanded millions of men. You have the experience and knowledge colonialism has denied us. You English can’t just turn this country over to us after being here all our lives and simply walk away. We’re in an emergency and we need help. Will you run the country?‘Yes,’ seconded Patel, the tough realist at Nehru’s side, ‘he’s right. You’ve got to take over.’Mountbatten was aghast. ‘My God,’ he said, I ve just got through giving you the country and here you two are asking me to take it back!’
‘You must understand,’ Nehru said. ‘You’ve got to take it. We’ll pledge ourselves to do whatever you say.’
‘But this is terrible,’ Mountbatten said. ‘If anyone ever finds out you’ve turned the country back to my hands, you’ll be finished politically. The Indians keep the British Viceroy and then put him back in charge? Out of the question.’
‘Well,’ said Nehru, ‘we’ll have to find a way to disguise it, but if you don’t do it, we can’t manage.’ Mountbatten thought a moment. He loved a challenge and this was a formidable one. His personal-esteem for Nehru, his affection for India, his sense of responsibility, left him no way of escape.
‘All right,’ he said, the admiral back on his bridge, ‘I’ll do it, and I can pull the thing together because I do know how to do it. But we must agree that nobody finds out about this. Nobody must know you’ve made this request. 

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