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INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.
     CURRENT ISSUE DECEMBER 25, 2006
 
   SOCIETY & THE ARTS: BOOKS
 

Divisional Managers

Wolpert makes idiosyncratic judgements on Gandhi and Jinnah but fails to capture the process of Partition

 

SHAMEFUL FLIGHT: THE LAST YEARS OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE IN INDIA

By Stanley Wolpert

Oxford


Price: Rs 495; Pages: 238

It is an astonishing fact that the Partition of India is still seen by many as simply a consequence of the ambitions and blunders of particular individuals, whether it is the conspiratorial genius of Jinnah, or the misguided ambition of Nehru, or the obtuseness of Gandhi. Add to this mix Churchill's homicidal attachment to the idea of Empire, Mountbatten's sweet-talking perfidy, Wavell's lack of authority and you have the guilty-men-of-Partition version of history.

Despite all our disavowals and gestures towards a more sophisticated history, we all have a stake in this great-men version of history. It allows us to hold someone responsible for the grizzly violence that ensued. It allows us to hold on to a sense of an innocent and undivided India, for if a few conspirators are responsible, the idea of India itself remains unsullied. Or, strangely, if you believe in the two-nation theory, the great-men version allows you your share of heroes and villains.

  PICTURE SPEAK
HISTORIC MOMENT: Prime Minister Nehru (left), Mountbatten (centre), Jinnah (right) on the eve of Partition
And there was indeed plenty of blame to go about. It is a virtue of Wolpert's book to remind us of just how hasty and ill-conceived Mountbatten's tactic of simply pre-preponing the date by which the British were to leave was. India was simply abandoned. Strangely enough though, Wolpert is less severe on what was Mountbatten's real sin of omission: to fail to prepare the state machinery for dealing with the aftermath of Partition. The violence that ensued was, as it often is in part at least, due to the near-total abdication by the state of its responsibilities. But most of the book is devoted to the usual history of negotiations that led up to Partition: "Wavell said to Churchill, the Cripps said to Nehru, the Gandhi misunderstood so and so" version of history. Although it recounts a tale that ended in a colossal human tragedy, Wolpert's narrative itself comes across as, at best, reportage of what various people said, rather than a deep analysis of the process that led up to Partition. It is full of idiosyncratic judgements like: "Had either of British India's two greatest modern leaders (Jinnah and Gandhi) been willing to subordinate his own ambition to the leadership of the other, India might well have won its freedom much earlier and without Partition." It is not even clear what Gandhi subordinating his leadership to Jinnah would have meant, or what actually Gandhi's ambition in this context means, but Wolpert's judgement is simple and confident.

But more egregiously, any history of the Partition written in the 21st century should be open to considering two possibilities. First, as Nehru so poignantly recognised, this was a group of men trying to improvise conceptions of India and give it concrete institutional shape. It was not always easy to fathom each other's intentions or even imagine what the consequences of their commitments might be. The snap judgements of hindsight do little to advance our understanding of how complex this process of nation building was. Even if each of the characters in this drama had great integrity, you could have still ended up with disaster. Second, India's Partition needs to be put in a comparative perspective. The blunt truth is that once the question of representation is framed in terms of minorities and majorities, there is no stable solution to what counts as adequate power sharing. You go for simple one person, one vote and the threat of majoritarianism looms; you give minorities veto power or proportionally high representation and you set up a politics of majoritarian backlash. Ever since the negotiations of 1905, there was no credible solution to this conundrum. Nor has there been a single post-colonial society that has escaped large-scale violence once the problem of representation has been framed in communal terms. Wolpert is right in arguing that the British state needed to manage its responsibilities better. But the real lesson is that politics is framed in terms of group identity rather than a language of common citizenship, the best intentions in the world cannot prevent a slide into anarchy.

 

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INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.
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DECEMBER 25, 2006
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