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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.

Good action and bad stereotypes on the Northwest Frontier

I recently watched the 1959 British movie North West Frontier, which was released in the United States under the title Flame over India. The movie is about a team of colonialists (including one American, played by Lauren Bacall) who, along with a couple of trusted Indians, spirit a rajkumar (prince) out of harm’s way when a native state is overwhelmed by rebels in early twentieth-century India. Most of the action takes place in and around a train, powered by a shunting locomotive, which is used to bring the prince to safety. I must say that I enjoyed the film for the most part. With one very notable exception, the movie holds up well after all of these years. The plot is interesting and the pacing is particularly good. There are also some impressive location shots.

My favorite part of the movie is the first ten minutes, during which the rebels attack and kill the raja, while the rajkumar and his caretakers narrowly escape. Hundreds of refugees swarm into the British fortress before the doors are forced shut, leaving hundreds more stranded outside. The scene is dramatically shot, with a huge cast of extras. Except for opening narration, the first ten minutes have no dialogue. The action carries the story forward.

Even though the story is set somewhere in the North-West Frontier Province, now part of Pakistan, the opening scene was shot around Jaipur, in the Indian state of Rajasthan. It is very identifiable for those familiar with the area. The raja’s palace is Jal Mahal, an iconic lake palace visible from the road to the old capital of Amber. In the 1950s, the lake was low and Jal Mahal stood on dry ground, allowing the stuntmen rebels’ horses to gallop right up to it. Since then, the dam has been refurbished and the palace once again appears to float in the lake.

The British fortress is none other than Amber Fort, one of India’s most famous castles. It was built over the course of a little more than a century, starting in about 1600. In 2013, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site.

Also in Amber, there are views Jagat Shiromanji Temple (built 1599-1608), Charan Mandir, and a lake behind Jaigarh fort.

The heroes’ approach to the British fort gets a little distracting for those familiar with Amber, because they take a route that doesn’t make sense. They head north through a valley on the back side of the fort, then cross the ridgeline south of the fort, and yet somehow manage to arrive at the front gate on the east side.

Most of the train scenes were actually shot in Spain, although the Spanish landscape is enough like Rajasthan to be believable. The train spends plenty of time passing through a valley that made me think of taking Amtrak through the California Central Valley, with the high Sierra in the background.

The one respect in which the film is really dated is its religious stereotyping. The rajkumar, Prince Kishan, is Hindu; the rebels who storm his kingdom and slaughter his father are Muslims. The rebels intercept the train at various points in the story, sometimes galloping up on horseback like Comanches in a western movie. There is also a Muslim character on the train, who turns out to be the story’s chief antagonist, apart from the faceless rebels. Mr. Van Leyden is a journalist who insinuates himself into the train’s crew. After he refuses whiskey, another character asks him if he is Muslim, and he admits that he is. He claims that he is of mixed Indonesian-Dutch heritage – hence his name. The story leaves it unclear whether this is actually the case, because later Van Leyden claims to be half-Indian and fighting for the freedom of his nation, an all-Muslim nation. In his makeup for the role, Herbert Lom, the Czech-born actor who plays Van Leyden, looks credibly half-Indonesian. He does not look half-Indian.

From his position in the train’s crew, Mr. Van Leyden tries to assassinate Prince Kishan. He fails and is defeated in the film’s climax. If Mr. Van Leyden really is half-Indian, the stereotyping of Indian Muslims all as rebels is bad enough. But if he is half-Indonesian, then this is most problematic because it suggests that all Muslims are like him and have a similarly violent nationalist or pan-nationalist agenda.

Mr. Van Leyden is the one postcolonial voice in the cast. When the British leader of the expedition, the daring Captain Scott (Kenneth More), dismisses the rebels as children, a standard colonial trope, Van Leyden retorts that they are grown men – uneducated, yes, but men nonetheless. Van Leyden represents the educated, privileged elite of colonized nations, who were proud of their nation but had also absorbed colonial critiques of it. The character has several good lines in the movie, but unfortunately his ideas are all discredited by his revelation as the villain.

No Muslim characters are portrayed positively in the movie. That this movie isn’t just a colonial fantasy becomes clear in one scene. At the beginning of the movie, the last regular train makes it out of the besieged city; later, the special train carrying Prince Kishan comes across the first train stopped at a station. Its passengers have been killed to a man. Lauren Bacall’s character walks through the three train cars, full of corpses with flies buzzing about them, as vultures flock overhead. The scene is dramatic, and part of what makes it so chilling is how real it is. The film was made only twelve years after Partition, when exactly this happened. In the movie, Muslims kill a trainload of Hindus. In real life, adherents of both religions killed members of the other religion in huge numbers. In the movie, Hindus are portrayed as totally nonviolent – or in the case of the soldiers on the train, acting only in self-defense. As history would show, Hindus could be just as violent as Muslims.

It is this bad portrayal of Muslims that has kept North-West Frontier from becoming a classic, and rightly so, because in America and India (and definitely other parts of the world), the last thing we need is more negative portrayals of Muslims. It’s a shame too, because the film is good otherwise.

The copyright of North-West Frontier has lapsed in the United States, and it is available on YouTube, albeit in a version that for some reason doesn’t have an opening title.

The Birth of Bangladesh

When Pakistan gained independence from the British Empire in 1947, it consisted of two dissimilar and discontiguous Muslim-majority territories, separated by a thousand miles of Hindu-dominated India. West Pakistan, made up of Sindh, Baluchistan, western Punjab, the Northwest Frontier Provinces, and part of the disputed region of Kashmir, dominated Pakistani politics. East Pakistan was much smaller but had a larger population than the West; it consisted of the Muslim-majority districts of Bengal, as well as the Assamese district of Sylhet. The two “wings” of Pakistan were united as one country solely on the basis of religion. By all other considerations—linguistic, ethnic, cultural—East and West Pakistan were separate nations.

The West Pakistanis maintained control of their country by curtailing popular sovereignty; the government in Rawalpindi refused to hold popular elections for twenty-three years. In 1970, the first fully democratic elections in Pakistan favored the East Pakistani Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Pakistani president Yahya Khan rejected the election results, jailed Mujib, and took full control of the government.

Mujib’s imprisonment set off a revolt in East Pakistan. Yahya Khan sent West Pakistani troops to the eastern wing to crush the revolt. These troops and the local police forces carried out a systematic extermination of any suspected rebels. Over the course of 1971, hundreds of thousands or possibly even millions of Bengalis died in this genocide. To escape the killings, millions of refugees poured into the Indian states of West Bengal and Assam.

The Indian government, led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, hoped to detach East Pakistan as an independent state, Bangladesh (Land of Bengal), thereby weakening Pakistan. In border regions, the Indian government secretly trained and equipped a Bengali insurgent army, the Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army). India waited for Pakistan to make its first military move, which it did on December 3, 1971, launching preemptive attacks on Indian airfields. Using this as a pretense for intervening in East Pakistan, the Indian Army moved into Bengal. Ignoring United Nations ceasefire arbitration, the Indians overwhelmed the West Pakistani troops. On December 16, Lieutenant-General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi surrendered the West Pakistan army forces in Dacca1 to the Indian Army. When the Indian forces under Lieutenant-General Jagjit Singh Aurora entered Dacca on that same day, the local Bengali population cheered and offered flowers and embraces to the soldiers.

The most important outcome of the 1971 conflicts was birth of Bangladesh, which as a nation celebrates forty years of independence this month. In the past forty years, Bangladesh has made strides toward modernization and development, but the country still struggles to overcome poverty, disease, high infant mortality, and other problems common to the postcolonial world. The Indo-Pakistani War also had strategic implications for South Asia. Just nine years after its humiliating defeat by the Chinese, India’s decisive victory over Pakistan established India as the major military power of the region.

The effects of the Indo-Pakistani War were felt as far away as the United States. Throughout the conflict, the President Richard Nixon staunchly supported the United States’ strategic ally, Pakistan. At the same time, the American public grew steadily more alarmed by the genocide in East Pakistan and the refugee problem in India. This was a demonstration of the increasingly visible divergence between public will and government action in American politics. Watergate and Nixon’s resignation were yet to come, but by the end of 1971, the era of the “perception gap” in American politics had already begun.

  1. Then the capital of East Pakistan; now Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. []

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