Category Archives: Pakistan

Prelude to Partition in Calcutta

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 3380-3420:

The war was ending. The two main political parties, the Muslim League and the Congress, were arguing over the future constitution. Both sides knew the British would soon leave India. But in what state? Would there be one India or two, a Hindustan and a Pakistan? What would be the fate of Calcutta, which was India’s largest city and the capital of Bengal, its largest Muslim-majority province? Everything was up for grabs.

Initially, the League’s demand for Pakistan – a separate nation state for India’s Muslims – seemed more like a bargaining tool at the negotiating table. But when the discussions between Congress and the Muslim League fell through in the monsoon of 1946, the League’s leader, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, declared 16 August 1946 to be Direct Action Day.

In Bengal, the Muslim League had formed a provincial government. Its leader Husain Suhrawardy declared Direct Action Day a holiday and called a bandh. The league organised a major rally at the Maidan. On 16 August thousands of Muslim men walked to Esplanade from all over the city and its industrial suburbs. Some of the first clashes of the morning happened in Maniktala as Muslim labourers were crossing the Beleghata Canal heading to the Maidan. In front of Maniktala Market, League supporters fought with Hindu shop owners who refused to close their shops. By afternoon those areas had become war zones. Guns had been plentiful during wartime. A bottle of whisky could get you a revolver from a GI. The strongmen on both sides were ready with arms. About three-quarters of the city’s residents were Hindu and one-quarter were Muslim, not very different from what it is today. But back then, the layout of the city was completely different. There were Muslim pockets in Hindu areas, Hindu pockets in Muslim areas, patchworked across the city.

On Direct Action Day, Calcutta was going to be liberated para by para. After the Muslim League’s rally, mayhem broke loose. Bands of men went lane by lane, house by house, burning, looting and killing. Smoke them out, burn them down, take over land. Drive the other side out. The strategy was area control. In Maniktala, Hindus drove out Muslims. In Park Circus, Muslims were driving out Hindus. In Kidderpur, Pakistan was being made, in Bowbazar, Hindustan. Barricades went up between neighbourhoods, like international borders that could not be crossed. On Chitpur Road, the buses stopped near the Nakhoda Masjid and detoured for several blocks before continuing onward. That stretch of Calcutta’s oldest street had become Pakistan.

In the first two days, the League had used its goons and guns to take the battle to Hindu paras. Worse, Suhrawardy used his power to hold the police back. Then the goondas of the Congress and the other Hindu parties had organised their war in Muslim paras. Even the full force of the state could not control the violence for several more days. The killings went on for a week. Hundreds of thousands were forced into refugee camps. Five to ten thousand people were killed; the actual figures will never be known. In the muggy August heat dead bodies began rotting on pavements as they had during the famine. There were so many bodies everywhere that the sanitation authorities could not figure out how to dispose of them. On the streets there were bodies being eaten by vultures. Bodies were thrown into the Ganga. Bodies were burned round the clock at Nimtala. Bodies were buried in mass graves at the cemetery in Bagmari. Bodies were chopped up into pieces and stuffed into drains. The water pressure of the city plummeted until, as the historian Janam Mukherjee wrote, Calcutta could finally ‘digest its dead’.

Partition was born on the cannibal streets of Calcutta. After this, there could be no more coexistence. There would have to be two nation states: India and Pakistan.

From August 1946 onwards the killings continued sporadically for months, first in Noakhali, then in Bihar, here and there across the land. It was a time when homemade bombs were going off in the Bengal countryside, when rumours of stabbings abounded. In their village, my uncles remembered Muslim schoolfriends suddenly brandishing knives and talking casually of murder. At that time, Dadu felt that it would be better to take the family with him to Calcutta. Not permanently – after all, his mother and brothers were still in the village, with families of their own – just until the ‘Hindustan-Pakistan’ troubles died down.

On 15 August 1947, the British partitioned their empire and left. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, delivered the radio address on that day in his clipped English accent:

‘Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.’

At the moment that Nehru celebrated India’s half-measure freedom, Gandhi, his mentor, wasn’t making sweeping Hegelian pronouncements. He was keeping vigil in a house abandoned by a Muslim family in Beleghata in Calcutta, meeting with Hindu and Muslim leaders and pleading with them to hold back their goons. It was a year after Direct Action Day. Pakistan had come into being; Bengal’s Muslim League government was being disbanded. The Hindu thugs began the attack, dreaming of a redux of the previous year’s mass killing, only this time initiated by them and not the League. The violence had resumed in Calcutta.


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Persian Nader Shah vs. Moghul Empire

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2997-3027:

Crowned shah, with his western frontiers secure and in undisputed control of the central lands of Persia, Nader set off eastward to conquer Kandahar. The exactions to pay for this new campaign caused great suffering and in many parts of the country brought the economy almost to a standstill. Nader took Kandahar after a long siege, but he did not stop there. Using the excuse that the Moghul authorities had given refuge to Afghan fugitives, Nader crossed the old frontier between the Persian and Moghul empires, took Kabul, and marched on toward Delhi. North of Delhi, at Karnal, the Persian army encountered the army of the Moghul emperor, Mohammad Shah. The Persians were much inferior in number to the Moghul forces, yet thanks to the better training and firepower of his soldiers, and rivalry and disunity among the Moghul commanders, Nader defeated them. He was helped by the fact that the Moghul commanders were mounted on elephants, which besides proving vulnerable to firearms were liable to run wild—to the dismay of their distinguished riders and anyone who happened to be in their path.

From the battlefield of Karnal, Nader went on to Delhi, where he arrived in March 1739. Shortly after his arrival there, rioting broke out and some Persian soldiers were killed. So far from home, and with the wealth of the Moghul Empire at stake, Nader could not afford to lose control. He ordered a ruthless massacre in which an estimated thirty thousand people died, mostly innocent civilians. Prior to this point, Nader had generally (at least away from the battlefield) achieved his ends without excessive bloodshed. But after Delhi, he may have decided that his previous scruples had become redundant.

With a characteristic blend of threat and diplomacy, Nader stripped the Moghul emperor of a vast treasure of jewels, gold, and silver, and accepted the gift of all the Moghul territories west of the Indus River. The treasure was worth as much as perhaps 700 million rupees. To put this sum in some kind of context, it has been calculated that the total cost to the French government of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), including subsidies paid to the Austrian government as well as all the costs of the fighting on land and sea, was about 1.8 billion livres tournois (the standard unit of account in prerevolutionary France). This was equivalent to about £90 million sterling at the time—close to the rough estimate of £87.5 million sterling for the value of Nader’s haul from Delhi. Some of the jewels he took away—the largest, most impressive ones, like the Kuh-e Nur, the Darya-ye Nur, and the Taj-e Mah—had a complex and often bloody history of their own in the following decades.

Nader did not attempt to annex the Moghul Empire outright. His purpose in conquering Delhi had been to secure the cash necessary to continue his wars of conquest in the west, for which the wealth of Persia alone had, by the time of his coronation, begun to prove inadequate.

Nader’s campaigns are a reminder of the centrality of Persia to events in the region, in ways that have parallels today. A list of some of Nader’s sieges—Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, Mosul, Kandahar, Herat, Kabul—has a familiar ring to it after the events of the first years of the twenty-first century. It is worth recalling that Persians were not strangers in any of the lands in which Nader campaigned. Although he and his Safavid predecessors were of Turkic origin and spoke a Turkic language at court, the cultural influence of Persian was such that the language of the court and administration in Delhi and across northern India was Persian, and diplomatic correspondence from the Ottoman court in Istanbul was normally in Persian, too. Persian hegemony from Delhi to Istanbul would, in some ways, have seemed natural to many of the inhabitants of the region, echoing as it did the Persian character of earlier empires and the pervasive influence of Persian literary, religious, and artistic culture.

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Madrasahs vs. Secular Schools

From: Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World, by Vali Nasr (Free Press, 2009), Kindle Loc. 3297-41:

Madrasah is a catchall term. A madrasah can mean something as simple as a Koranic academy where young children learn a few religious basics and practice reading from Islam’s holy book. Or it can mean a primary or secondary school meant to compete with national education; or a seminary established to train proper clerics in classical Islamic religious knowledge. Madrasahs, in other words, vary widely in what they teach, how they teach it, and what view of Islam and its place in the world they impart on their students.

Madrasahs are generally conservative and some are troublingly fanatical—some do indeed harbor and train jihadis and terrorists. These are a minority, however, and the problem is less extensive than is usually thought. To begin with, there are not as many madrasahs as common wisdom holds, and they train relatively few students. A Harvard University and World Bank study of Islamic education in Pakistan found that in 2002, fewer than 1 percent of all students in Pakistan were attending madrasahs. That number has risen but only to 1.9 percent in 2008. The report also found that over the decade leading up to 9/11, madrasah enrollment had risen by 16 percent, which was slower than the increase in overall school enrollment. Madrasahs were not gaining, but instead were losing part of an already small market share. Even in Indonesia, where Islamic education is on the rise, only 13 percent of the country’s 44 million students attend some form of Islamic education. The poor do flock to madrasahs, but more so in rural areas than in cities, and studies of students’ economic backgrounds reveal too much diversity to see Islamic education as the domain of the poor.

Terrorism experts Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey argue that the link between madrasahs and terrorism is weak. The anthropologist Robert Hefner estimates that of some 46,000 pesantrans (as madrasahs are called in Indonesia), no more than forty or so qualify as extremist. Perhaps a larger problem is that in many countries, the so-called secular schools teach a great deal of religion, often interpreted in illiberal ways, and sometimes push hair-raising intolerance. State textbooks in Algeria, Pakistan, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia all stand as cases in point. In Algeria, the battle against Islamic extremism now centers on changing school curricula that have long been under the control of conservative religious leaders. Sometimes, as in Jordan, the problem is that state authorities have tossed fundamentalists the education ministry as a sop. Better to give them that than have them clamoring for the foreign-affairs or finance portfolios, the thinking seems to have run. It is a worrisome reminder of the lack of seriousness with which these governments consider education.

In Pakistan, it was General Musharraf—an avowed secularist and admirer of Kemalism—who changed the law so that a madrasah certificate counts as well as a university degree in qualifying someone to run for parliament. Other rulers seem to feel that a religious formation for young people is preferable to the Marxism or Western decadence that might otherwise vie for youthful attention. Pakistan’s national identity is strongly Islamic, and Saudi Arabia sees Wahhabism as its national creed. Neither country can truly envision education as a secular enterprise. In this, they may not be so different from secular-nationalist regimes that seek to infuse young minds with an almost religious sense of national identity and cohesiveness. Madrasah-bashing will not clean up education; that requires pressing the governments not just the clerics.

Since 9/11, many madrasahs have in fact done better than governments when it comes to reform. The overwhelming bulk of madrasahs in Indonesia and Bangladesh have submitted to government oversight and implemented required curricular reforms. In general, madrasah reform progresses slowly, but in the meantime, Islamic education of a hopeful nature has been thriving outside of the madrasahs.

In one Pakistani poll, 70 percent of those surveyed favored reforming madrasahs to root out extremism and boost educational quality but also rejected secular education. That is not a surprise if you consider that secular education in that country has pretty much collapsed. Too many schools lack textbooks, desks, and blackboards, and too many teachers are underpaid and unqualified. There is very little in way of proper education in sciences and math. All around the Islamic world today, in fact, secular education draws little praise. The demand is for high-quality, useful Islamic education but not extremism; for teaching religious values but not political activism; and vitally, for providing children with the knowledge needed to make it in the competition of the modern, globalized economy.

In Pakistan, Islamic high schools cost far less than secular private schools while producing graduates who do better than average on college-entrance exams and standardized tests. Muslim parents can see the value for money here, especially in a country with numerous young people and a tight job market. In Bangladesh, almost a third of university professors are graduates of Alia madrasahs, a network of government-mandated seminaries that combine traditional Islamic education with English and modern subjects. Between 1985 and 2003, the number of Alia madrasahs in Bangladesh grew by 55 percent. If the goal is upward mobility, Islamic education is the rational choice for many parents in many countries.

In too many countries around the Muslim world, political parties have turned campuses into battlegrounds and gutted higher education in the process.

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Mawdudi and “Theodemocracy”

From: Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World, by Vali Nasr (Free Press, 2009), Kindle Loc. 2645-76:

The fundamentalist founders argued that the decline of Islam began not, as popular wisdom held, with the decline of the Ottoman Empire, but much earlier, in 661 C.E., when the Umayyad dynasty rose to power and turned the caliphate into a monarchy. Muawiyah who founded the Umayyad caliphate was not a companion of the Prophet or respected for his religious standing. He was a general who strong-armed his way to the top to rule an empire that he then passed on to his son. From that time on, went the argument, clerics had betrayed the faith by submitting to the will of religiously unqualified rulers who in turn sustained them through patronage. They had allowed for religion to be separated from politics, which fundamentalists thought ran counter to the religion’s intent. “The chief characteristic of Islam,” wrote Pakistan’s Mawdudi, “is that it makes no distinction between spiritual and secular life.”

Mawdudi was particularly effective in articulating this vision of history and politics. He taught that Islamic history after the seventh century was therefore “un-Islamic”—a shocking assertion, rejecting as it did centuries of impressive achievements of Islamic society in the sciences and arts, culture, and the building of powerful empires. Those achievements did not impress him, and he found fault with the manner in which, throughout history, as Islam spread to new regions of the world, it had found expression through local cultures. Such compromises he thought had altered the true meaning of Islam. He also dismissed the moral efforts and spiritual accomplishments of the countless Muslims who had lived by and handed down their faith’s teachings across all those centuries.

Mawdudi did not preach violence; on the contrary he argued that the goal of an Islamic state would be achieved by a steadfast process of proselytizing. To Mawdudi fundamentalism was all about a practice of educating; he would write and give speeches, argue and persuade, and his followers would do the same. The process would be slow and tedious, but by this means, more and more believers would be converted, until everyone was in the fold. The Islamic state would then follow naturally. He told his followers in 1941, “we desire no demonstrations or agitations, no flag waving, slogans, or the like … [for us] such display of uncontrolled emotions will prove deadly. … You do not need to capture your audience through impassioned speeches. … but you must kindle the light of Islam in your hearts, and change those around you.” There was more than a pinch of elitism here. Mawdudi wished first to convert the educated—professionals, bureaucrats, and intellectuals; the same class upon which Ataturk and Reza Shah had pinned their hopes. If the best and brightest converted to Mawdudi’s cause, then an Islamic state could not help but follow, he argued, as the educated elite would be running the state.

His teaching was also not expressly antidemocratic. The Islamic state was not conceived of as a true democracy, but through tautological reasoning, Mawdudi and his followers did claim that their Islamic state would be democratic. If democracy is a cherished quality in a state, then the Islamic state must by definition have it too, so Mawdudi described his imaginary republic as a “theodemocracy” or a “democratic caliphate.” The state’s duty was not however to enact the will of its citizens but to make sure that its citizens followed religious dictates in their daily lives. Mawdudi assumed that this in itself would win the state popular support. After all, he argued, in a gemlike example of the closed-circuit rhetoric at which fundamentalists excel, if a state truly reflects God’s will and its citizens are good Muslims, then how could they possibly want otherwise or disagree with their rulers? If you offered sovereignty to the people, they would give it right back, assuming they had been properly educated in what is expected of them. Fundamentalism is therefore not, in its own mind, antidemocratic; it merely thinks democracy is irrelevant.

Mawdudi doesn’t sound all that different from a million other revolutionaries—religious or secular—who have no use for democracy until everyone is properly (re)educated and therefore can be expected to vote the approved way.

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Begam Samrū: A Most Unusual Ruler

My historian brother has been doing a lot of research on Mercenaries and Military Manpower in world history. He’s started a blog on the topic, but has been too busy with other projects (and too fond of footnotes) to post much yet. When I stumble across new sources that might interest him (like my previous two blogposts), I let him know. Here’s one I came across in an unlikely source, the venerable Archives of Asian Art, which has finally made its debut in JSTOR. Of course, he had already heard of the central figure, but the Wikipedia entry for her is so long-winded, poorly written, and poorly documented that I thought I would post her biography as presented by UC Berkeley art historian Alka Hingorani, in her article entitled “Artful Agency: Imagining and Imaging Begam Samrū” in Archives of Asian Art LIII(2002-2003):54-70.

Begam Samrū was born Farzānā, in 1750/51 C.E., to an impoverished Arab nobleman who died when she was still very young. Events and circumstances led her and her mother to Delhi, battle-weary in the mid-eighteenth century. They arrived about 1760 C.E., and from all accounts her early years in Delhi were spent at a courtesan’s home, where she reputedly grew into an exceptionally beautiful and talented woman. The second half of the eighteenth century in Delhi has been referred to as “gardi ka waqt,” or the “time of troubles.” Nādir Shāh of Persia and Ahmad Shah Abdālī of Afghanistan had mauled the Mughal Empire and the Maratha Confederacy, and by the 1760s Delhi was licking its wounds. A substantial indigenous resurgence seemed unlikely. The Jats were baiting the Marathas, and the British were trying to keep both in check. Several smaller powers were beginning to elbow for space as the larger ones lost control of the north Indian region. Increasingly, the Mughals, Marathas, and British were finding it necessary to share power with chiefdoms. In this widening field the smaller contestants whose military means were inadequate to their ambitions often had to resort to foreign military adventurers.

General Walter Reinhardt, Austrian mercenary and free lance, was one such adventurer. Having variously served the British, the French, and the Jats, he was desperately seeking employment in the Mughal court, since his last service to the French had left the British hot in his pursuit. With four battalions and a few cannons at his disposal, he was offering his services to the nearest employer of ample purse and sufficient political clout to afford protection against the British: a fairly typical scenario for the time. While in Delhi he apparently took a fancy to Farzānā, who became his concubine, or begam, as she chose to style herself. Their association appears to have been intense, both personally and politically, and lasted until his death in 1778. By this time “Le Sombre,” the sobriquet conferred upon the saturnine Reinhardt by earlier associates, had become Indianized to “Samrū.” Upon his death Samrū ki begam, “the wife of Samrū,” took his sobriquet as her name and began to be called Begam Samrū. This slippage of identity, made possible by her intimate association with Reinhardt, was facilitated by their obvious close military and political partnership. At the court of the Mughal emperor, Shāh Ālam, she had taken active part—directly and indirectly—in the maneuvering for power, in order to benefit her “husband.” They had shared years in camp as he led his forces against the Marathas and other powers, and she was his ally—a brave soldier and a crafty strategist—as much as his mate. Begam Samrū also enjoyed enormous favor at Shāh Ālam’s court for another critical reason: on several occasions in the 1780s she had acted to save his life, often at some risk to her own. On one occasion she secured his release from Ghulām Qādir, the Rohilla chief, who had gained control of the palace and had imprisoned and tortured the old emperor. Another rescue took place when the blind and enfeebled emperor, who had joined the battlefield himself to bring a rebellious vassal to heel, was almost defeated due to indiscipline amongst his own forces. General laxity and indiscipline in the imperial army had endangered the emperor’s life more than once, and Begam Samrū had repeatedly brought her troops and artillery to his rescue. Considering these heroic benefactions, even though Walter Reinhardt had left a grown son—Zafaryāb Khan—by another Muslim woman, Begam Samrū’s position as heir to his authority was never in serious jeopardy.

Her ascendancy was aided by Zafaryāb Khan s own reputation as a man of weak intellect. He was so little regard ed that his father s troops did not recognize him even as a nominal chief, pledging their allegiance to Begam Samrū instead. The Begam came into her own at this point. She swore continued allegiance to the Mughal emperor, who conferred upon her in return the principality of Sardhanā, slightly northeast of Delhi. This was a jāgīr (“principality”) of small villages, which yielded substantial revenue. It was, from all accounts, very tightly controlled by the Begam, whose presence enhanced its political importance. William Francklin (1763–1839) paid handsome tribute to the Begam’s administrative acumen in his writings in the 1790s, when she had held her jāgīr for about fifteen years:

An unremitting attention to the cultivation of the lands, a mild and upright administration, and care for the welfare of the inhabitants, has enabled this small tract to yield a revenue of ten lakhs of rupees per annum (up from six)…. A fort near the town contains a good arsenal and foundry for cannon. Five battalions of disciplined sepoys, commanded by Europeans of different countries…and about 40 pieces of cannon of various calibres, constitute the force kept up by the Begam Samrū. With these and about 200 Europeans, principally employed in the service of artillery, she is enabled to maintain a respectable position among the neighbouring powers.

As John Lall also asserts, “It was a remarkable achievement for a single woman, more than ten years after Najāf Khān’s (her protector’s) death when Shāh Ālam was being blown like a weathercock with every change in the precarious balance of factional power. To be useful to him, she had to be capable not just of maintaining herself in power but also of intervening effectively in the affairs of the time.” In her long career she overcame many adversities, including a near-revolt among her troops brought about by her second, secret marriage to a Frenchman, an insurrection provoked by her stepson, imprisonment from which she was rescued by an old lover, and the vicissitudes of endlessly shifting political alliances with their attendant suspicion and deceits. Along the way she converted to Roman Catholicism, joined hands with the Marathas, then with the French, and finally in 1805 forged an alliance with the British, a little after it became clear that the Sikhs under Ranjīt Singh would not prevail against English might. Her reliance on the Sikhs for longer than politically warranted was one of her few miscalculations, but even from that she recovered quickly enough. Fortuitous and timely changes in power hierarchies often worked to her advantage, but largely it was her personal charisma, military prowess, administrative and political acumen, her generosity and her loyalty no less than her reputed ruthlessness, her guile and cunning, that allowed Begam Samrū to rule more or less absolutely and “brilliantly” (a word that all her biographers have used) over her small principality.Yet her life was altogether more interesting, I think, than even the events of history that made it possible. She died in 1836, at the age of eighty-five. She left behind no personal chronicles: neither auto biography nor personal correspondence to augment and correct a history told by others. But a few paintings remain, as windows into a life lived fully by any account.

They certainly don’t make them like that anymore, male or female.

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“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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British India’s Problem of 565 Princely States

From Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Emperor, by Alex von Tunzelmann (Picador, 2008), pp. 221-225:

Each of the 565 princely states in India had a separate agreement with the government, ensuring the paramountcy of the British Crown over its affairs. It had taken centuries to bring the states under paramountcy, and many still operated through arcane systems of government and society. It was the boast of the empire’s supporters that the reassuring eminence of the Indian civil service, staffed almost entirely with public-school-educated British men, kept things on track. Some thought this the pinnacle of British achievement, allowing the states their freedom of cultural diversity while tempering the worst excesses of absolute rule. The idea was to leave rulers as independent as possible; in case of trouble, for the British to offer the ruler in question “private counsel”; and, should that not fix the trouble, to intervene. In the event of gross totalitarianism or outright rebellion, the British raj would remove the individual prince who had proved to be a bad egg, install a more responsible scion of his family and leave the dynasty intact.

Unfortunately, this appealing portrait of a smooth, tolerant and accountable system was a fiction. In reality, the British presence in India was relatively small and unable to keep watch over so many princes. The notion that the “British race” had a monopoly on freedom and democracy was unsupportable with regard to the lengthy traditions of public debate, heterogeneous government and freedom of conscience that had existed for centuries in the Indias of Asoka and Akbar. If anything, the presence of the British damaged these traditions and actually safeguarded the princes from any new incursion of democracy. The British army was always on hand to give succor to each imperiled tyrant and stamp out any attempts by the people to express their discontent. As one staunch imperialist boasted, the princes had been “mostly rescued from imminent destruction by British protection.” And so imperialists were able to perfect a classic piece of doublethink: railing against what they called “Oriental despotism” on one hand, while propping it up with the other.

Even the illiberal Lord Curzon had been appalled by the standard of princely behavior during his viceroyalty, half a century before. he had written to Queen Victoria: “For all these failures we are responsible. We have allowed the chiefs when young to fall into bad hands. We have condoned their extravagances, we have worked at their vices.” … “As Your Majesty knows,” he added, “the Maharaja Holkar is half mad and is addicted to horrible vices.” This last was a particularly pointed comment—Victoria liked Holkar, because he had once sent her a telegram on her birthday—though “half mad” underestimated his insanity by around 50 percent. He would stand at a high window overlooking his subjects and issue random edicts as they popped into his head, once ordering the abduction of every man wearing a black coat. Once, he harnessed the bankers of Indore to a state coach and whipped them soundly as he drove them around the city.

During his tour of India in 1921, the young Dickie Mountbatten had admired the princely states but was shocked by their inequality. In Udaipur, he wondered at the habit of feeding pigs when people were starving, an injustice that prompted him to note, “There are times when I do sympathize with the Bolsheviks.” Princely excesses were common in states where the vast majority of people were destitute. The Jam Sahib of Nawanagar had 157 cars and a wife with 1,700 saris. The Nawab of Junagadh spent twenty-one thousand pounds on a wedding for two of his dogs. The Maharaja of Patiala moved into London’s Savoy Hotel, occupying all thirty-five suites on the fifth floor, and ordered that three thousand fresh roses be brought to decorate his rooms every day. Visitors to the miserly Nizam of Hyderabad would have seen that he used what looked like a crumpled ball of old newspaper as a paperweight—little suspecting that wrapped in it was the 185-carat Jacob Diamond, twice the size of the Koh-i-Noor. The Gaekwar of Baroda’s second wife, Sita Devi, earned herself the nickname “India’s Wallis Simpson” when she plundered the state treasury to finance her jewelry habit. Sita Devi made away to Switzerland with untold riches, including the incomparable Baroda pearl carpet. This remarkable object measured six feet by seven and a half feet, and was made up of 1.4 million pearls, 2,520 rose-cut diamonds and hundreds of emeralds and rubies, embroidered onto deerskin and silk in delicate arabesques….

These are some of the grosser examples of princely behavior and should not be taken as a slander against every individual prince. Some among them were men and women of great intelligence, ability and compassion. A Gaekwar of Baroda introduced the first free, compulsory education in India in 1894. A Maharaja of Travancore introduced progressive land reforms in the early 1880s. One turn-of-the-century Maharaja of Cochin was greatly admired for his modernizing legal reforms—though he became so frustrated at the complacency of his British patrons that he abdicated in 1914. But the existence of a few commendable examples does not vindicate the system. The reason that the Indian princely states were uniquely badly ruled was the very fact of British protection. Aside from their consciences, the princes had no incentive to govern well. Foreign invaders would be dealt with, domestic challenges neutered and the ravening mob readily suppressed, all by the might of the British Indian army.

UPDATE: The blogger at Blood & Treasure comments that this sounds like “a sort of best case scenario for Afghanistan”!

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