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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.”


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

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