“One Million Dead”: Just a Number

From Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Emperor, by Alex von Tunzelmann (Picador, 2008), pp. 273-275:

“ONE MILLION DEAD”: This is the most convenient number to have come out of the wildly varying estimates of how many people may have been killed following partition. Mountbatten preferred the lowest available estimate, which was two hundred thousand, and has been widely condemned for it; the denial of holocausts is always a sticky business, and yet more so when one may be implicated personally. Indian estimates have ranged as high as two million. Many historians have settled for a figure of somewhere between half a million and a million. The figure of one million dead has now been repeated so often that it is accepted as historical fact. “What is the basis for this acceptance?” asked the historian Gyanendra Pandey. “That it appears like something of a median?” Unfortunately so, for the truth is that no one knows how many people were killed, nor how many were raped, mutilated or traumatized. The numbers anyone chooses say more about their political inclination than about the facts. Fewer than four hundred thousand suggests an apologia for British rule; four hundred thousand to one million moderation; a million or more usually indicates that the person intends to blame the deaths on a specific party, the most usual culprits being one or more of Mountbatten, Patel, Jinnah or the Sikhs.

Beyond the dead, there were more numbers, too, plucked from the extrapolations and imaginations of regional officials, army, police and historians. Refugees on the move by the beginning of September: five hundred thousand, or perhaps one million. Women abducted and raped: 75,000, or perhaps 125,000. Total who would migrate from one dominion to the other between 1947 and 1948: ten million, or perhaps twelve million, or perhaps fifteen million. The Indian National Archives contain sheaves of charts scribbled by British and Indian officials, recording eighty-seven killed in Bengal here, forty-three injured in Madras there. “The figures make no pretence to accuracy,” admitted the Home Department. The Punjab government reported that its casualty estimates were “increasing daily as investigation uncovers further tragedies”; the North-West Frontier Province government referred to “stray murders,” which were not counted! Usually it was impossible to count the number of victims amid the “confused heap of rubble & corpses” that was left behind after riots. Sir Francis Mudie, governor of the West Punjab, remembered, “[I had to] ignore any report of a riot unless it alleged that there were at least a thousand dead. If there were, I asked for a further report, but I cannot remember any case in which I was able to do anything.”

In Stalin’s famous words, one death is a tragedy; one million deaths is a statistic. In this case, it is not even a particularly good statistic. The very incomprehensibility of what a million horrible and violent deaths might mean, and the impossibility of producing an appropriate response, is perhaps the reason that the events following partition have yielded such a great and moving body of fictional literature and such an inadequate and flimsy factual history. What does it matter to the readers of history. today whether there were two hundred thousand deaths, or a million, or two million? On that scale, is it possible to feel proportional revulsion, to be five times more upset at a million deaths than at two hundred thousand? Few can grasp the awfulness of how it might feel to have their fathers barricaded in their houses and burned alive, their mothers beaten and thrown off speeding trains, their daughters torn away, raped and branded, their sons held down in full view, screaming and pleading, while a mob armed with rough knives hacked off their hands and feet. All these things happened, and many more like them; not just once but perhaps a million times. It is not possible to feel sufficient emotion to appreciate this monstrous savagery and suffering. That is the true horror of the events in the Punjab in 1947: one of the vilest episodes in the whole of history, a devastating illustration of the worst excesses to which human beings can succumb. The death toll is just a number.


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Filed under Britain, India, migration, nationalism, Pakistan, religion

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