Freedom At Midnight

The Book of the Week is “Freedom At Midnight” by Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre, published in 1975.

In August 1946, Muslims filled the streets in Calcutta, agitating for an independent nation of their own, presumably to be named Pakistan. Six thousand people died in that one episode of unrest. Many, many more would, in the next two and a half turbulent years.

Some journalists would feature the following information more prominently than the above: “Golf was introduced in Calcutta in 1829… No golf bag was considered more elegant on those courses than one made of an elephant’s penis, provided of course, that its owner had shot the beast himself.”

Anyway, as is well known, India has had a long history of violence among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Through the decades, various place-names have triggered traumatic memories of copious arson, bombs, bloodshed and atrocities in regions including but far from limited to: Amritsar, the Punjab, Lahore, Peshawar, Kashmir, and New Delhi.

The British have had a long history of encouraging jealousies and hostilities among the different religious and ethnic groups in India so as to prevent them from forming a united nation.

The authors of this book provided horribly confusing totals of the different populations. They wrote that in 1947, India had three hundred million Hindus and one hundred million Muslims, and “… the contested state of four hundred million human beings…” In two other places, they wrote that the Punjab had two million Sikhs, and “The six million Sikhs to whom… they represented only two percent of India’s population…”

In another section,”He [Mohammed Ali Jinnah] had to tell India’s ninety million Muslims of the ‘momentous decision’ to create an Islamic state…” Still elsewhere, all of India allegedly held 275 million Hindus, fifty million Muslims, seven million Christians, six million Sikhs, one hundred thousand Parsis and 24,000 Jews.

Regardless, from the 1920’s through the 1940’s, a man named Gandhi acquired sufficient psychological power over his followers– fervent believers in their respective religions– to momentarily stop killing each other and work toward the common goal of convincing the British government that it was time to give up its colony of India.

Gandhi was able to work his magic because his incredible self-control showed him to be no hypocrite (according to his crack public relations team). He took the action of a true activist— risking his life in fasting (and seriously endangering his health) practicing what he preached (according to his crack public relations team).

Nevertheless, even Gandhi could not come up with a less acrimonious plan– to allow India to evolve as a nation via dividing the peoples who couldn’t live together– than partition. Arguably, he merely postponed the deaths, rather than saved the lives of the different tribes hellbent on eliminating their enemies. India’s caste system’s abusive hierarchy meant that, other than willful violence, the causes of hundreds of thousands of deaths included starvation, disease and severe weather.

However, giving Muslims their own state would mean allocating land in India to Pakistan (with a partition), that would need to be vacated by millions of Sikhs and Hindus, while land in the new India would need to be vacated by Muslims. Those who found themselves in hostile territory– out of fear, were compelled to migrate to where they would number among the majority in their communities.

The division of India into two sovereign states was like the vivisection of Siamese twins– vital organs would be mutilated in the process. Rice, jute, cotton, wheat, barley, corn and sugar cane were grown in one prospective country, but the means of growing, processing or transporting them for export, in the form of irrigation, railroads and highways was contained in the other prospective country.

Louis Mountbatten was the British government official appointed to oversee the process of converting India from a colony of Great Britain to two independent nations. He had a thankless, impossible job.

For, in addition to the complex religious, economic and political considerations involved, there were royal families ruled by maharajahs (of all different religions) to contend with; 565 administrations of them, to be exact. They lived high on the hog, and weren’t keen to relinquish their precious stones, elephants, private railway cars, Rolls Royces, etc. Some even had their own armies– yet another wrench in the works.

Mountbatten thought the least painful plan was to keep India and Pakistan as holdings of the United Kingdom. He decided that midnight of August 15, 1947 was to be the witching hour– when the partition would take effect. Astrologers, who were all the rage in India then, were quite shaken by that decision because by their calculations, that day was bad luck and another day should have been chosen.

On another topic, the new India and Pakistan had to have separate armies. The current Indian army was comprised of the cream of the crop of Sandhurst graduates, whose costs were low, pay was high, and who engaged in leisure pursuits of the wealthy– polo, cricket, pigsticking, shooting, hockey, hunting with hounds, and fishing. However, if a soldier who chose the Indian Army, happened to live in the future Pakistan, he was forced to either join the Pakistani army, or abandon his property and move away from his family.

The way Pakistan’s geographical borders were established was accomplished via an unbiased redistricting process, of sorts. Mountbatten appointed an attorney who knew nothing about India’s ethnic and religious groups, whose job was to pore over scads of population data and maps of the region, and indiscriminately divide it up.

Unjust division of families and real estate was bound to happen, but it was inadvertent. Curiously, “All of Punjab’s jails wound up in Pakistan. So too did its unique insane asylum.”

Read the book to learn how the major leaders warded off anarchy during the independence processes; how Gandhi quelled hostilities at least temporarily in Calcutta on Pakistan’s birthday; what transpired in connection with the Hindu (!) terrorist group who had it in for Gandhi (who was Hindu); and the details of the transposition of the “wretched refugees” (hint– 800,000 refugees in the Punjab [alone(!)] constituted “… a caravan almost mind-numbing in dimension… as though all of Boston, every man, woman and child [that’s not including animals– bullocks, buffaloes, camels, horses, ponies, sheep, etc.] in the city in 1947, had been forced by some prodigious tragedy to flee on foot to New York.”).