Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition. Book review.

Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India's Partition by [Nisid Hajari]
Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition, by Nisid Hajari, 328pp, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publisher, 2016, Paperback, $17.99. ISBN: 978-0-544-70539-3

by Arnold Zeitlin 15 April 2020

       Reading Midnight’s Furies account of the 1947 partition of India through the prism of the year 2020 and the widening Hinduization of Narendra Modi’s India, one can summon sympathy for the obstinate villain of author Nisid Hajari’s piece — Muhammed Ali Jinnah.

       Jinnah, the revered Quad-i-Azam (Great  Leader), the founder of Pakistan, “drums his long, bony fingers,” writes Hajari. His “cheekbones jutted out of his cadaverous face like the edges of a diamond.” He is the “whiskey-drinking, chain-smoking” Jinnah. His demeanor is “frigid.”  The author compares Jinnah at one point to Il Duce, Italy’s long-time dictator Benito Mussolini. He prints an American intelligence assessment comparing Jinnah”s intensity on behalf of Pakistan to Adolph Hitler’s advocacy of Nazi-ism. This all in the first 46 pages.

      In comparison, we learn by page 2 that Jawaharal Nehru, who as leader of the Congress Party and later prime minister of independent India was to spar with Jinnah, “was famously handsome with high, aristocratic cheekbones and eyes that were deep pools…his body trim and skin smooth.” He had “coiled energy.”

     Of course, Hajari is not the only author to describe such an odd Jinnah. An early biographer of Jinnah, Stanley Wolpert, notes that Lord Louis Mountbatten, then viceroy of British India, on their first meeting found Jinnah “most frigid, haughty and disdainful.” Hajari repeats the same anecdote.

     However, in this narrative, there are no heroes, not even the saintly, if somewhat mystically, Hindu Mahatma Gandhi. Lord Louis is often referred to as “Dickie” Mountbatten, which tends to emphasize his playboy side. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel is the dark genius behind Nehru’s capricious, overly emotional performance. Tara Singh fails to rein in murderous Sikhs. Oddly, while there is considerable space given to the separatist plight of Pathans of the northwest frontier, there is no mention of Gandhi’s Muslim disciple, Abdul Ghaffar Badshah Khan, and his Khudai Khidmatgar anti-British separatist movement.

    And then there is the British, so anxious to quit India and so weary of the wrangling of India’s leaders that British Prime Minister’s Clement Atlee’s initial June 1948 date for partition abruptly was switched to August 14-15, 1947, when all concerned were totally unprepared. The process was a shambles. The line Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who had never before been to India, drew dividing the rich Punjab province was not announced until after the August separation. Pakistan at partition had yet to receive the 550 million rupees; it was due as its share of India’s riches.

    Britain’s concern was keeping whatever states emerged after partition within the British Commonwealth so the “Indian army would remain whole for the time being” — and available for the defense of the Empire.

    While this was going on, hundreds of thousands were slaughtered, and neither the British or the dithering homegrown leadership were able to stop it.

     Jinnah and Nehru, however, are the prime actors through Hajari’s description of the events leading to the bloody partition of India, the brutal communal slaying of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and anyone else who got in the way. He does not spare the reader a sense of the gore. Police find, for example, “limp corpses…blood pooling around their bony limbs”. Or in East Punjab, “thousands upon thousands of corpses….Vultures feasted so extravagantly that they could no longer fly.”

     Even Nehru — “suave, sensitive, handsome Nehru,” Hajari finally concedes, “contributed nearly as much as Jinnah to the poisoning of the political atmosphere on the subcontinent. His attitude toward the Quad — and by implication, towards million of Jinnah’s Muslim followers — was all too often arrogant and dismissive, rather than understanding.”

     The author deals with partition’s immediate aftermath, the creation of Pakistan, the fighting over Kashmir, and the deep distrust that has persisted between the two newly independent states. He starts a prologue with the beginning of a Sikh attack on a train carrying Muslim refugees to Pakistan, a seeming homage to Train to Pakistan, Khushwant Singh’s 1956 classic novel that underlines almost everyone’s account of the deadly partition.     

     Hajari leaves an assessment of the “deadly legacy” of his subtitle to a few pages of an epilogue. In a single paragraph, he goes from the 1965 war between the two states to the 1971 conflict, which resulted in the separation of East Pakistan and the independence of Bangladesh. There is no looking back to determine if Jinnah’s obstinate insistence of land where Muslims could live without fear was as obstructive as a Nehru feared to a united India. Or was Jinnah’s Pakistan the result of a reality that Hindu and Muslim could not live together. There is no determination of what Pakistani Muslims have made of Jinnah’s dream of a secular state where Muslim, Hindu, Christian, and Sikh could live in harmony. 

     As for the future of these two hostile states, the best Hajari has to offer is this:

     “What is needed is a dose of realism and political courage — both of which have been lacking in both capitals since 1947”.

     Hajari signed off the book in October 2014, a few months after Narendra Modi assumed power as India’s prime minister, so there was no opportunity to look forward at an India becoming increasingly threatening to its Muslims. There is no mention in this book of Modi. Perhaps, the time will soon come for another book examining in greater detail the legacy of partition.

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