The evening television news has of late been reporting on a massive migration of refugees out of the warring regions of Libya, Syria, and Somalia into Europe. A van filled with some 50 dead bodies of men, women and children was found in Austria. Dismal tent cities have sprung up, including one near the French end of the Chunnel where nightly forays are made by desperate people wanting to walk 31.4 miles to England. One might think that such things are unprecedented but they are not, nor is the the kind of religious hatred powering the wars.
This was brought home to me by a shocking article in the New Yorker magazine’s issue of June 29. Titled The Great Divide, it reviews the causes and events of the partitioning of the Indian subcontinent by its British colonial masters in August, 1947, two years after World War II and at a time when the 10-year-old me was learning in my geography and history books about quaint foreign cultures. So far as I know, those text books never did catch up to the reality that was happening and despite having bachelor’s degree and a master’s, and despite having a lifelong interest in history and the news, I was ignorant of the details until now. An excerpt of the article:
In August, 1947, when, after three hundred years in India, the British finally left, the subcontinent was partitioned into two independent nation states: Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Immediately, there began one of the greatest migrations in human history, as millions of Muslims trekked to West and East Pakistan (the latter now known as Bangladesh) while millions of Hindus and Sikhs headed in the opposite direction. Many hundreds of thousands never made it.
These are Syrian refugees, but the message is the same. Credit: Alsiasi.com
Across the Indian subcontinent, communities that had coexisted for almost a millennium attacked each other in a terrifying outbreak of sectarian violence, with Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other—a mutual genocide as unexpected as it was unprecedented. In Punjab and Bengal—provinces abutting India’s borders with West and East Pakistan, respectively—the carnage was especially intense, with massacres, arson, forced conversions, mass abductions, and savage sexual violence. Some seventy-five thousand women were raped, and many of them were then disfigured or dismembered.
Nisid Hajari, in “Midnight’s Furies” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), his fast-paced new narrative history of Partition and its aftermath, writes, “Gangs of killers set whole villages aflame, hacking to death men and children and the aged while carrying off young women to be raped. Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse: pregnant women had their breasts cut off and babies hacked out of their bellies; infants were found literally roasted on spits.”
By 1948, as the great migration drew to a close, more than fifteen million people had been uprooted, and between one and two million were dead. The comparison with the death camps is not so far-fetched as it may seem. Partition is central to modern identity in the Indian subcontinent, as the Holocaust is to identity among Jews, branded painfully onto the regional consciousness by memories of almost unimaginable violence. The acclaimed Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal has called Partition “the central historical event in twentieth century South Asia.” She writes, “A defining moment that is neither beginning nor end, partition continues to influence how the peoples and states of postcolonial South Asia envisage their past, present and future.”
After the Second World War, Britain simply no longer had the resources with which to control its greatest imperial asset, and its exit from India was messy, hasty, and clumsily improvised. From the vantage point of the retreating colonizers, however, it was in one way fairly successful. Whereas British rule in India had long been marked by violent revolts and brutal suppressions, the British Army was able to march out of the country with barely a shot fired and only seven casualties. Equally unexpected was the ferocity of the ensuing bloodbath.
The question of how India’s deeply intermixed and profoundly syncretic culture unravelled so quickly has spawned a vast literature. The polarization of Hindus and Muslims occurred during just a couple of decades of the twentieth century, but by the middle of the century it was so complete that many on both sides believed that it was impossible for adherents of the two religions to live together peacefully. Recently, a spate of new work has challenged seventy years of nationalist mythmaking. There has also been a widespread attempt to record oral memories of Partition before the dwindling generation that experienced it takes its memories to the grave.
I submit that the parallels to the second Iraq War are unmistakable. Angrily
Credit: Time, Inc.
determined to round up the usual suspects because of 9/11, America attacked the thuggishly brutal regime of Saddam Hussein, confident in our hubris that we would be greeted as saviors and would thereby make out of the two conflicting religions an island of peace in the Middle East. The control Hussein wielded over the majority
Sunni’s was broken and we made everything worse, much worse.
How could this happen? I don’t think I am the only one with delayed knowledge of this historical catastrophe? There was no shortage of egg heads in the Bush administration who should have known of it, not least of whom was Dr. Condoleezza Rice who held three degrees in political science and had served one term as National Security Adviser. Perhaps her text books also omitted from essential history events that society prefers to ignore. Even now there is a strong movement in the GOP to deemphasize from history text books material that is critical of our nation. Even more to the point, ought we not think soberly about this example as we consider the statements of contenders for the presidency during the present campaign? Do they have a sense of history? Do they have gravitas? Do they react emotionally? Do they take slights personally? Do they display some humility about power? These things matter. Stuff happens.