The 1947 partition of India was graphically described by the Mahatma Gandhi as a ‘vivisection’ – an image that is repeated like a refrain across much of the Indian sub-continent today. The creation of the predominantly Muslim state of Pakistan – which would later itself split in two, following the Bangladesh Liberation War – was accompanied by mass movements of people, killings and sectarian violence. More than 60 years later, the scars still show.
‘Pakistan and India are born of the same body,’ comments the former Indian Foreign Minister and author, Jaswant Singh. ‘But it was not a natural birth; it was a caesarean section.’
Mr Singh was in London recently to promote his latest book, Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence, which has caused a storm of controversy in India culminating in the expulsion of its author from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). (Mr Singh still sits in the Indian parliament, these days as an independent MP – in his eighth term of office – for Darjeeling in the Himalayas.) The book has even been banned in the state of Gujarat by the local BJP administration, ostensibly because of its defamatory references to India’s first minister for Home Affairs, Vallabhbhai Patel, who was a native of the region.
Jaswant Singh firmly rejects this accusation and declares defiantly, ‘The day we start banning books, we are banning thinking!’
He has found allies in parts of the Indian media, notably from political analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who wrote in The Indian Express: ‘Jaswant Singh’s book is a serious academic exercise, one long overdue. A serious political party should have space for that. In expelling Jaswant Singh the BJP has confirmed the fears of its worst critics: that the party is nothing but a party founded on endless resentment that makes it inherently insecure and anti-intellectual.’
Patrician in manner, the 71-year-old author and politician expresses sadness rather than anger over his expulsion from the BJP. But he is far more passionate about what he sees as attempts by his fellow countrymen to demonise his book’s central character, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Jinnah may be revered in Pakistan as the father of that nation, but in fact for many years prior to partition he was a keen advocate of Muslim-Hindu cooperation.
‘The more I searched, the more I realised that the demonisation of Jinnah in India was unjust,’ he says. ‘I cannot lend to Jinnah characteristics that he did not have.’ Jinnah was certainly a complex character, almost as thin as Gandhi but in contrast usually impeccably dressed in the smartest Western suits. He mixed easily with the British and the Anglo-Indians, yet he was the progenitor of the future Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
‘The seeds of my book lay in my search for the roots of partition,’ Jaswant Singh explains. ‘I was very young when partition happened and my family lived in Rajasthan, where there was no great movement from one side to the other. We were just part of British India.’
Mr Singh’s researches took five years, resulting in a work that is not so much a biography as a history of the Indian sub-continent, examining the origins of its religious and cultural diversity as well as the role of the British during the Raj. He is not alone in apportioning at least some of the blame for the chaos of 1947 to Britain’s precipitate departure.
‘The British were in a great hurry to leave,’ he says. ‘The Viceroy, Lord Wavell, was a soldier, unused to the ways of politicians, and he was advising London. Britain was a tired country post-World War II; the empire was crumbling and there were problems in Palestine. Britain wanted to be out, and out quickly.’
In other words, Mr Singh is not merely looking for an easy scapegoat. ‘My book is trying to understand why the partition of India is the most traumatic event of the twentieth century for the entire land. Of course Jinnah shares the blame, but it is not him alone who ought to be held responsible, either.’
He confesses that his book – which is discursive and often rhetorical in style – is saturated with emotions. ‘It has to be, for how do you separate what Gandhi termed “vivisection” from pain and feelings and emotions? Historiographers will doubtless frown upon such an approach, I know, but then I do not write a cold, linear narrative of events alone.’
Indeed, much of the tone of the book is philosophical, asking as many questions as it answers. As Jaswant Singh writes in the Introduction, ‘Did not this Partition of India, vivisecting the land and its people question the very identity of India itself? If, as Jinnah asserted, “Muslims of India were a separate nation” then axiomatically what was/is India? Jinnah asserted in his later years that “India is not one nation.” If it is not “one nation”, then what are we, even as a residue? Are we but a conglomerate of communities? Or a collection of “many nations”, as Jinnah had rather casually put it while describing India as a residue of communities?’
Mr Singh even debates the nature of history in his work. ‘All accounts are subjective,’ he declares. ‘Any account or interpretation of that searing period which [divided] an ancient cultural identity – India – can hardly be shoehorned into any a priori determinations, theories or even claims of objectivity, neither in narrative nor in analysis or interpretation. Why was this ancient entity broken? Why?’
The author rejects the claim that his book is revisionist history, but he does admit to a personal agenda in choosing its subject: ‘I give high priority to working for Hindu-Muslim amity. If I am able to contribute to that, then I will feel very satisfied.’