The Holocaust of Indian Partition: An Inquest
Author: Madhav Godbole
Publisher: Rupa & Co
Price: Rs 795
"A great terror strikes… Dogs feasting on flesh and blood Blood-bespattered, the women move slowly."
- From Stree Parva, Mahabharata
This voluminous book can be regarded as the Mahabharata of India’s Partition. Running into 658 pages, it tries to focus on almost all aspects of the cataclysmic event, beginning from the ‘Prelude’ to the vivisection of a nation and ending with our own divided reality. The author firmly believes that the mindset of Partition is still controlling millions of lives in the subcontinent.
Based on the intolerant dichotomy between ‘We’ and ‘They’, this mindset is psychically responsible for all those carnages that have desecrated Calcutta, Noakhali, Lahore, Meerut and Baroda in the last seven decades. Hence, his concluding message rings loud and clear, “Whether India will be at peace with itself will depend on how well it remembers the lessons of Partition.”
This sweeping time-span, as well as the multiplicity of themes explored, prompts us to consider the title of this book as being somewhat misleading. The author has certainly conducted something more than a limited ‘inquest’ of the ‘Holocaust of Indian Partition’, a section that accounts for no more than 200 pages. Not only has he unravelled the sheer magnitude of the calamity with investigative precision but he has also, more importantly, examined in detail how and why this vengeful nightmare blinded so many.
In his attempt to answer the crucial ‘how’ and ‘why’, Godbole has clinically evaluated the roles of the protagonists who stubbornly refused to see the writing on the wall. With Gandhi rendered ineffective (“He is more a caricature… of the earlier times… his naiveté is unbelievable”), the other actors on both sides of the fence chose to wrest power as soon as possible while Calcutta and Noakhali, Multan and Amritsar turned into sites of the Indian Holocaust.
|Partition, illustration by Chittaprosad, 1947|
By quoting the exchange between Lord Mountbatten and Cyril Radcliffe in the fifth section, Godbole draws our attention to the criminal cynicism that prevailed at that point of time. Mountbatten appealed to Radcliffe on July 22, 1947, “We should all be grateful for every extra day earlier that you could manage to get the award announced… any chance of getting it out by the 10th?” Radcliffe’s reply was characteristically casual. “I do not think that I could manage the 10th; but I think that I can promise the 12th.” Realpolitik reached its nadir and its outcome was a frightful human convulsion of history that left 12 million uprooted and displaced, a million dead and 75,000 women abducted and raped.
No wonder then that the ‘humanist’ Nehru was compelled to admit four months later on November 29, 1947: “The catastrophe was a man-made catastrophe — not a natural phenomenon like an earthquake or fire.” But how could this stark confession be rationalised by the same Nehru when he added, “…but the something that has happened has been on such a cataclysmic scale that it passes human blame. It is in the nature, if I may so, of some mighty tragedy of which the Greek dramatists have written.”
|Street scene, north Calcutta, late 1946|
By juxtaposing these two conflicting statements, Godbole correctly concludes, “(Those) who took momentous decisions on the strategy for transfer of power, were not just the spectators of this Greek tragedy but were its authors.” While recalling the dangerous twists and turns of the principal actors, both Indian and British, the author accuses all the Olympians of deliberately nurturing a deadly myopia. We feel like asking with him: how could Nehru, Patel, Jinnah, Mountbatten et al possibly fancy that “once complete transfer of power was made… the parties would have time to think things over with leisure and sobriety”? (Discussion between V.P. Menon and Nehru on May 10, 1947.)
With Calcutta, Noakhali and Bihar staring at them in the face, how could they be so childish and childlike? Barely nine days later, on May 19, 1947, no less a figure than Tara Singh warned Evan Jenkins, Governor of Punjab, that “...in Pakistan the Muslims would massacre all the Sikhs and Hindus…and in the other part of the Punjab, the Sikhs and Hindus would massacre all the Muslims”. After such fore-knowledge, what forgiveness?
|Nehru at the All India Congress Committee meeting on June 15, 1947, voting for Partition.|
When the holocaust scorched the sub-continent for the remaining months following August 15, Sardar Patel could only reiterate his pious hope in a letter dated December 19, 1947, he wrote to E. Porter, former member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, “I had hoped that the Partition would be throughout regarded as friendly and brotherly arrangement.” It is this graphic account peppered with extracts from dialogues, letters and government records that vivify the text, reading almost like a screenplay at times.
Written in a style ranging from the matter-of-fact to the hyperbolic, this book is primarily dependent on the 12 volumes of The Transfer of Power series. Even after appreciating the classic texts on Partition written by historians like Mushirul Hasan, Gyanendra Pandey and Ian. A. Talbot, many readers will feel inclined to return to Godbole’s tome because he paints the entire scenario with broad and lucid brushstrokes. With him, we feel and understand the palpable agony as well as the callous chicanery of it all.
Subhoranjan Dasgupta is Professor of Human Sciences at the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata