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Seventy years of Partition

It was seventy years ago today that India won its independence from the British Empire. Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister of the new country, described the winning of independence as India’s “tryst with destiny,” the culmination of decades of struggle.

Yet not one but two nations emerged from British India that fateful week in August 1947: India and Pakistan. The Indian National Congress of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru had called for a unified secular state for all Indians, regardless of religion. The Muslim League of Muhammad Ali Jinnah wanted a separate homeland for South Asian Muslims, out of fear that Muslims would be a marginalized minority in a unified India.

Bending to pressure from the Muslim League, the British and Congress agreed to the partitioning of India on religious lines, with the two Muslim-majority regions becoming the eastern and western wings of Pakistan. (East Pakistan would become Bangladesh in 1971.) For Bengal and Punjab, states on the border, a commission led by British judge Cyril Radcliffe drew a new international boundary running between Muslim-majority and Hindu-majority districts within the states. The Radcliffe Commission consulted no other data aside from population statistics, and they conducted no field surveys.

The partitioning of India caused a refugee crisis on an unprecedented scale, as Muslims left India and Hindus and Sikhs left Pakistan. Ten million people were displaced and between 250,000 and one million killed.

Why so much bloodshed? Partition corresponded with a surge of violence between the religious communities. This violence was not spontaneous, as it is often remembered (when it is remembered at all). The Indo-British co-production Gandhi, released 35 years after Partition, includes a scene of refugees on the move near the new border. One column of Muslims trudges and rides bullock-carts toward Pakistan; the other, of Hindus and Sikhs, heads the opposite direction. One of the refugees flies into a rage and hurls a rock at the people heading the opposite direction. This unhinges an avalanche, and in short order both sides have fallen on each other and are cutting one another to pieces.

Episodes like this may have happened on occasion in real life, but the majority of the violence was premeditated, not spontaneous. It was also perpetrated not by amateurs, but by professionals—veterans of the Indian Army from World War II, with training and weapons that they could use for ethnic-cleansing.

The final episode of the British miniseries The Jewel in the Crown (based on Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet) has a more authentic portrayal of the violence of Partition. A band of Hindu militants stops a train and murders all the Muslim passengers. The militants know where to look because one of their conspirators left chalk marks on the exterior of the carriages at an earlier station stop.

Only a small minority of Indians, Pakistanis, or Bangladeshis are old enough to remember Partition; but the scars of the event are almost everywhere in South Asia. There is of course the Indo-Pak border, and the seventy years of suspicion and hatred that it represents. In Pakistan, the province of Sind lost its business class, almost all Hindus, who migrated to India. (Some of them ended up in Jaipur, where their descendants run shops in the old city.) In India, Uttar Pradesh (formerly the United Provinces) lost its Muslim upper class to Pakistan. Hindustani, the common language of northern India, was split definitively into Hindi in India and Urdu in Pakistan. Urdu and the Muslims who spoke it were second-class citizens in India. Jinnah’s prediction had in a way become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Learn more

  • The Great Partition, by Yasmeen Khan, is an account of the human toll of Partition. Not for the faint of heart.
  • Midnight’s Descendants, by John Keay, begins with an excellent discussion of Partition. (The rest of the book, alas, is not so good.)
  • The works of Urdu short-story writer Sa’adat Hasan Manto are still read on both sides of the Radcliffe Line. (Hindi speakers read Devanagari transcriptions.) Some of them have been translated into English (including my favorite, “Toba Tek Singh”). Manto’s life story is itself a parable of Partition: Formerly comfortably ensconced in Bombay, he moved to Pakistan for his wife’s family, where he wrote stories of Partition and drank himself to death.
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A Not-so-great Great Man History of Jaipur

Jadunath Sarkar and Raghubir Sinh (ed.), A History of Jaipur, c. 1503-1938 (1984; repr. Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2009).


In the 1930s, the Maharaja of Jaipur State, Sawai Man Singh II, commissioned well-known Indian historian Jadunath Sarkar to write an official history of his state and his own ruling family, the Kacchawaha Rajputs. In undertaking this commission, Sarkar had access to the official records of Jaipur State, which had never been used by historians before. By 1940, Sarkar had finished his manuscript, but because of opposition by the nobles of Jaipur State (who generally come across negatively in the narrative), publication of the book had to be shelved indefinitely. It was not until more than forty years later, in 1984, that Sarkar’s book finally saw the light of day. By this time, the author and the commissioning Maharaja had both passed away. Sovereign Jaipur State also was no more; now it was just a district in the state of Rajasthan. Sarkar’s History of Jaipur was eventually published in a very different world than the one in which it was written.

I had been hearing about A History of Jaipur for a while when I finally got my hands on a copy recently and excitedly started reading it. My excitement did not last long, though. After the first few chapters, I had gotten thoroughly bored, and it ultimately took me more than a month to slog through the book. Had I known a little more about the context of the book and the background of its author, I would have been better prepared for the disappointment.

The most disappointing aspect of the book was that the title did not accurately reflect the contents. It isn’t A History of Jaipur; it is actually A History of the Rulers of Jaipur. Most of the book is just a dynastic history of the Kacchawaha house, from the early sixteenth century to Man Singh II. The narrative follows the Raja wherever he goes. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Man Singh I, Mirza Raja Jai Singh I, and Ram Singh I served as generals in the Mughal army, often spending years away from their capitals at a stretch. Sarkar wrote in tiresome detail about all these campaigns, completely ignoring whatever might have been happening on the home front at this time. I would love to know about economic and cultural life in the Kacchawaha kingdom, but Sarkar had nothing to say about these topics.

It isn’t really surprising that Sarkar wrote a Great Man history of the Kacchawaha house, since he was commissioned to write his history by the ruler of that clan. Surely Sawai Man Singh II wanted to be portrayed as a Great Man from a long line of Great Men.

Jadunath Sarkar was best known for writing about the reign of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707, contemporary with Jai Singh I and Ram Singh I). His magnum opus was the five-volume History of Aurangzeb (1912-24), which I now have absolutely no desire to read. As Mohammad Shah points out, Sarkar thought that (Islamic) Mughal rule in India had been oppressive, and British rule was an improvement.1 Aurangzeb comes across in Sarkar’s histories as a temple-smashing religious fanatic, emblematic of the broadly oppressive policies of the Mughal Empire.

In writing the official history of Jaipur State, Sarkar had to change his tack. The reason is that the Kacchawaha house was the first Rajput kingdom to join the Mughal Empire, when the daughter of Raja Bharmal of Amber married Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1562. Condemning the Mughal Empire would, in effect, condemn the Kacchawaha house, because they had willingly joined the empire through a marriage-alliance. Instead, Sarkar restricted his criticism to certain aspects of Mughal policy. Aurangzeb comes across badly in A History of Jaipur as well, but mainly because of his supposed mistreatment of Jai Singh I and Ram Singh I.

In contrast with Mughal rule, British rule in India was, in Sarkar’s eyes, a great blessing. As a princely state, Jaipur was technically sovereign. A treaty signed in 1818 surrendered responsibilities of defense and foreign relations to the British, but the Maharaja of Jaipur could theoretically do whatever he wanted within the confines of his own kingdom. In reality, the British meddled in the affairs of the princely states, posting residents in the capitals and arbitrating in succession disputes. It was in the best interests of the princes to maintain good relations with the Paramount Power (as the British rulers styled themselves). When the Indian Mutiny broke out in 1857, the princes stayed on the side of the British, providing essential support for the suppression of the rebellion.

The glowingly positive terms in which Sarkar describes the British read almost comically nowadays. Take, for instance, this statement about the modernizer Ram Singh II:

The dawn of the modern age in Jaipur was due to the initiative and fostering care of a number of British officers of exceptional ability and generous sympathy, and it was the good fortune of Maharajah Ram Singh II to have been trained by them at the formative stage of his life and to carry to full maturity the reforms for which they had done the spadework.2

Or this one, about Madho Singh II’s visit to England to attend the coronation of Edward VII:

The unifying force of such an Empire [the British Empire] rises above caste, creed, and locality.3

If nothing else, A History of Jaipur is a reminder that the way we interpret history can change drastically over time. No Indian alive today would prefer the British Raj over independence. This attitude can too easily be imposed onto the past, so that all Indians at all times seem to have desired independence. But many members of the privileged classes in India—including Sawai Man Singh II and Jadunath Sarkar himself—benefited from British rule. A History of Jaipur is a relic of a period that most Indians now are willing to forget.

  1. Mohammad Shah, “Jadunath Sarkar’s interpretation of Aurangzeb’s reign,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh 28 (Dec. 1983): 133-41. []
  2. Sarkar, A History of Jaipur, 325-36. []
  3. Ibid., 355. []

Forgetting the Mutiny

The Mutiny Memorial, North Ridge, Delhi.

The Mutiny Memorial, North Ridge, Delhi.

The Red Line of the Delhi Metro runs on an elevated trackway north of Shahjahanabad, or Old Delhi. Two stops west of Kashmere Gate, at Pul Banshgah, the view from the station platform takes in a forested hill that rises above the city. Close to the top of the hill, a Gothic spire rises incongruously out of the trees. From the metro station, it is just possible to make out a cross at the top of the spire. It looks like a steeple that has been separated from its church.

The structure is actually a purpose-built memorial. It was built by the British to commemorate the greatest armed revolt against their rule in India, the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857-58.

In 1857, the British-owned East India Company (EIC) ruled India as company property, in cooperation with local kings. Although the EIC had a trade monopoly granted to it by the British Crown, the company’s leaders were not under the authority of anyone but themselves. The EIC functioned as India’s government, because it had the authority to levy taxes, develop infrastructure, and raise an army. The company army consisted mainly of native troops known as sepoys (from the Hindustani word sipahi, soldier) serving under British officers.

The Sepoy Mutiny broke out after the EIC army introduced new gun cartridges that were more efficient to use because the soldiers tore them open with their teeth, leaving one hand free for holding their guns. A rumor circulated among the troops that the cartridges were greased with cow and pig fat, thus making them ritually unclean for both Hindu and Muslim soldiers. When the EIC officers refused to recall the new cartridges, sepoys across north India revolted. Rallying behind Bahadur Shah, the Mughal Emperor in Delhi, the sepoys managed to gain the upper hand temporarily. Ultimately, though, the EIC, with the help of local kings who had remained loyal, managed to defeat the rebellious sepoys. Bahadur Shah was deposed and sent to Burma to spend the rest of his life in exile. Since the EIC had done a poor job managing India, the British Crown stepped in to rule India directly. This was the beginning of the British Raj, which lasted until Indian independence in 1947.

The Sepoy Mutiny was a bloody conflict, and both sides committed atrocities. The Mutiny Memorial commemorates the British soldiers and loyal native troops who died defending Delhi against the rebels in 1857. In contemporary Indian memory of the Mutiny, the rebels were the heroes while the British troops were the villains. Indian history textbooks portray the Mutiny as the “First War of Indian Independence,” with the implication that Gandhi’s movement against British rule was the second. This portrayal is based on a selective reading of historical evidence, since large portions of India remained loyal to the EIC throughout the Mutiny.

Modern India has an ambivalent relationship with its memory of the colonial past. On the one hand, Indians are still proud that the British are gone and they are their own masters. But it has proven difficult to forget that during the colonial period, most Indians collaborated with the British most of the time. In some instances, statues of British monarchs and other embarrassing reminders of colonial rule have been moved to museums or sold to other Commonwealth countries such as Canada. Other colonial relics, like the colossal architecture of New Delhi, are too big to move, and therefore these relics have been adopted as symbols of independent India’s government.

The Mutiny Memorial in Delhi falls somewhere in between these extremes. In most cases, Indians after independence have not cared to tear down colonial monuments out of spite. This benign neglect has saved the Mutiny Memorial from destruction, and as of 2015 the monument still rises above the modern city of Delhi. But just because it still stands does not mean it is accessible or interpreted. When I visited in February of this year, it took me a while to locate the monument in the ridge park, as there were no signs pointing to it. When I reached it, I was disappointed (albeit not really surprised) to find that the gate at the base of the monument was locked and thorn-forest had grown up around it. Although it would be too extreme a measure to actually tear down the Mutiny Memorial, the British casualties on the side of the conflict have no meaning for modern Indians, so why bother making the monument accessible?

The Mutiny Memorial, North Ridge, Delhi.

The Mutiny Memorial, North Ridge, Delhi.

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