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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.
Nepal Himalaya, 2009

The Cold War at 8,848 meters

The summits of the tallest mountains in the world, all of which are located in the great Himalayan range from northeastern India to Pakistan, remained inviolate until the 1950s and early sixties, when all of them were climbed for the first time. In 1950, Annapurna in central Nepal became the first peak higher than 8,000 meters to be climbed (there are fourteen in all) when a French team reached the summit. Next, in 1953, a British expedition reached the top of the highest of them all, Mt. Everest or Chomolungma.1

It was by an accident of timing and geopolitics that these great mountains were first climbed in the fifties and sixties. Major European and American expeditions had made attempts on several of the 8,000-meter peaks in the twenties and thirties, but then the outbreak of World War II put these expeditions to a halt. When they resumed after the war, the Cold War had begun, and the subsequent mountaineering conquests took place in the context of this global struggle of ideologies.

In 1960, the Chinese government launched an expedition on the north side of Mt. Everest, which stands in Tibet. This was the first expedition on the Tibetan side since China had annexed the country in 1950. The government reported that three climbers reached the top of the mountain and left a plaster bust of Chairman Mao there as a memento of their visit. Mountaineers in the West generally doubted that the Chinese party had actually made it to the summit, as the only accounts released were party propaganda with a little mountaineering on the side. (The Chinese summiting is more widely accepted as veritable now.) Whether or not the Chinese climbers really reached the top, the expedition was a geopolitical coup, an assertion of China’s sovereignty over Tibet.

Three years later, a very different expedition attacked Everest from the southern side, through Nepal. This was the American Mount Everest Expedition 1963, or AMEE for short. Well-equipped, well-staffed (with 20 expedition members, 37 high-altitude Sherpas, and 909 porters), and well-funded by donations and government grants, the expedition was also highly-publicized. The expedition leader, Norman Dyhrenfurth, was a cinematographer by trade; he produced a movie about the climb and got Orson Welles to narrate it. One of the six members of the team to reach the summit was National Geographic Society photograph Barry Bishop. The expedition even had its own chronicler, mountaineer-author James Ramsey Ullman, who wrote a piece for Life magazine, the script of Dyhrenfurth’s movie, and a full book, Americans on Everest (which is a good read).

In his official account, Ullman repeatedly emphasized that AMEE’s climbing of Everest was not a nationalistic endeavor. For example, this passage:

The Chinese, on their climb of three years before, had declared that “we thought of Comrade Mao, took strength, and moved onward and upward”; but such sentiment would not do for AMEE. With due respect to our Chief Executive, and due allowance for the politics of the various team members, it is highly doubtful if anyone was climbing Everest for the President of the United States.2

Yet even if the men who actually climbed the mountain did not do so for national glory, the expedition had to present itself in a national context in order to get funding. The American public and government asked: Why climb Mt. Everest? It has already been climbed. To which AMEE replied: Because it has never been climbed by Americans before.

The rhetoric convinced individuals, mountaineering clubs, companies, and the US government to donate $400,000 to the expedition. The State Department funded expedition costs in Nepal with a grant of $82,000 in Indian rupees, which the US government had earned from the sale of American wheat and other agricultural commodities to India under the PL-480 Food for Peace program. The State Department also funded a goodwill tour of selected expedition Sherpas around the United States after the climb.

A great, friendly American expedition to Asia aligned well with then-President John F. Kennedy’s internationalist agenda, which also produced the Peace Corps and USAID. When Kennedy presented the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal to the expedition after the successful climb, he emphasized the international character of Himalayan mountaineering, citing other nations that had preceded the Americans to Everest. But he omitted the Chinese, as China was on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain and this was the Cold War after all.

Nawang Gombu presents a kata scarf to President Kennedy at the ceremony for the presentation of the National Geographic Society Hubbard Medal to members of the American Mount Everest Expedition. (Source: Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.)

Nawang Gombu presents a kata scarf to President Kennedy at the ceremony for the presentation of the National Geographic Society Hubbard Medal to members of the American Mount Everest Expedition. (Source: Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.)

  1. The two actual summiters were Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa from Darjeeling. []
  2. James Ramsey Ullman, Americans on Everest: The Official Account of the Ascent Led by Norman G. Dyhrenfurth (New York: J.B. Lippincott, 1964), 237-38. []

Ethnic radio in America

Bolly 92.3, the San Francisco Bay Area’s Bollywood radio station, is a new manifestation of an American phenomenon as old as radio itself: the ethnic radio station.

Radio exploded onto the American scene in the boom years of the 1920s. Radio was the defining consumer product of this consumeristic decade, and listening to the radio was an activity for the masses, not the upper class. Listening to the radio was also a social activity. In the early years of radio, the first family in the neighborhood to buy a receiver set could expect neighbors to come over to listen to the radio. (In much the same way, as I observed eight years ago, houses in the Garo Hills with television sets or DVD players would attract the neighbors to come watch.)

In the first half of the 1920s, radio was effectively unregulated, decentralized, and community-oriented. In Chicago, only 4% of stations were commercial broadcasters; the rest of the stations were operated by labor unions, church groups, and other noncommercial community organizations.1

Radio was also popular among ethnic communities. Before 1924, immigration from Europe was virtually unrestricted, and immigrants flocked to the northern industrial cities. They settled in ethnic communities, where they could shop, worship, and socialize in their native languages. Chicago had German, Polish, Italian, Lithuanian, and other ethnic enclaves. In the 1920s, these communities had their own radio stations, which promoted community cohesion by giving people something to listen to in their native languages.

Radio was regulated under the 1927 Radio Act, and at the same time the airwaves began to get more commercialized, with companies sponsoring branded programs. Ethnic radio stations started to disappear as NBC and CBS took over the airwaves. Before long, ethnic neighborhoods began to disappear too, as their inhabitants started to assimilate into the American mainstream.

But neither ethnic neighborhoods nor their radio stations disappeared entirely. The immigrants who began coming to the United States in large numbers after immigration law reform in 1965—such as the Indians of the Bay Area—set up their own radio stations. There is at least one Slavic-language radio station still broadcasting in Chicago, Polski FM. I was happy to run across it on a rental car radio in northern Indiana last month. Whether it is a survivor or a revival (I couldn’t say which it is, since its broadcast and website are naturally all in Polish), it perpetuates a century-old tradition of ethnic radio in Chicago.

  1. All details about radio in Chicago are from Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 135-140. []

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