ERRORS AND MISSED OPPORTUNITIES DURING THE PARTITION OF INDIA
Author: Barney White-spunner Publisher: Simon & Schuster Price: £10.99
Barney White-spunner brings a unique set of credentials to a subject that traditionally has been the preserve of academics and historians – narrators too often carrying a personal axe to grind. The author has commanded British and allied troops at every level, in the Balkans,
Iraq, Africa and Asia. As a soldier and military historian, White-spunner explains that he has written this book “from a soldier’s perspective”.
White-spunner’s objective is to explore the thinking of and pressures on the politicians, administrators and soldiers of nearly 70 years ago, as well as the effects their subsequent actions had on the people of the Indian subcontinent.
The implementation of Partition and its aftermath is graphically illustrated by the nearly 1 million dead as a result of sectarian violence, three Indo-pakistani wars, waves of terrorism and polarisation around the Cold War powers. The book could not have appeared at a more timely moment: the wounds inflicted by this single event in August 1947 cut so deep that today we find India threatening to strip 4 million people of citizenship in Assam. The Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi alleges that these people came to India after the 1971 war in which Bangladesh emerged as an independent state. Modi claims this initiative is necessary to identify illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, but it is regarded by more than a few as a witch-hunt against Muslims.
For his month-by-month account of the events leading up to the Partition of India, the author has drawn on a wide range of research work, official documents, letters, diaries and interviews. White-spunner maintains a measured and balanced tone throughout his tale of bitter division and exploitation, clashes of personality, incompetence and missed or unseen opportunities. He is adamant in his belief that much of the tragedy of Partition, in particular the enormous loss of civilian life, could have been reduced had more extensive use been made of the British and British Indian armies in the Punjab.
“It could have ended so much better, as with British involvement in other parts of the globe,” the author says, “had it ended when it should have done, when the age of empire was demonstrably over and when subject peoples were demanding self-government.” He writes that Britain stayed on too long – a persuasive though of course unverifiable affirmation.
What is certain is the viceroy’s determination to exit in all haste. Louis Mountbatten was convinced that only Partition could avert full-scale civil war. In April 1947 he sent a report to Prime Minister Clement Attlee warning that India was engulfed in communal riots and on the brink of civil war.
“I am convinced,” Mountbatten said, “that a fairly quick decision would appear to be the only way to convert the Indian minds from their present emotionalism to stark realism to counter the disastrous spread of strife.”
“AS A SOLDIER AND MILITARY HISTORIAN, WHITE-SPUNNER EXPLAINS THAT HE HAS WRITTEN THIS BOOK “FROM A SOLDIER’S PERSPECTIVE”
Consequently, the viceroy announced that Indians would get their independence on 15 August 1947. The time was subsequently moved to midnight on the more auspicious 14 August, to satisfy astrologers fearful of the malign conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Venus. Mountbatten believed that speed was essential to save India from complete breakdown, but as this book shows, this is what actually helped to precipitate a holocaust.
BELOW, LEFT TO RIGHT: Refugees crowd onto trains, Lord Mountbatten visits the Punjab following riots, and a train filled with refugees heads to the newly created Pakistan