South of the River – Love will tear us apart

As we mark seventy years since the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan, I learn that this story is news to many people.

I grew up on stories of Indian independence and the horrors of partition, but then my parents worked in India after independence.

My mother was, amongst other things, a socialist, a feminist and usually a pacifist. My father held various positions in the church and as a result she found herself having to attend dinners at Downing Street and a garden party at the palace, which she didn’t enjoy. When our kids were born we asked her to fill out one of those books which asks you about your life.

When it came to the question have you met anyone famous she wrote “Yes, but more importantly I knew Leonard Schiff who worked with Nehru on Indian Independence.”

I got more of a handle on partition when I was a teenager in the 1970s. I read John Masters’ Bowhani Junction and then Mountbatten was assassinated by the IRA in 1979. My mother’s reaction shocked me somewhat. She had no sympathy for the last Viceroy of India, she said that he had it coming to him having overseen Partition and the loss of a million lives.

Christmas 1982 saw our family’s traditional trip to the pictures, this time to see Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. This is where I first came across Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League and a close ally of Gandhi’s Congress. For years they fought together for an independent, secular India.

But then Jinnah and the Muslim League took a different tack and argued for a separate state for the minority Muslims. This led eventually to the creation of Pakistan and what is now Bangladesh.

I don’t know the detailed history of this split, but it seems to me that it must have been influenced by other events in the world. In particular the Holocaust in Europe and the rise of the Zionist call for a Jewish state. The theory is that if a race, religion, or caste has its own state it will be safe, but history does not back up this idea.

The state of Israel, created a year after partition in 1948 has fought at least four wars (depending on how you define a war), faced Intifadas and rocket attack. Pakistan has fought four wars with India and countless skirmishes along the ‘Line of Control’ in disputed Kashmir. Closer to home the Unionist statelet of Northern Ireland succumbed to the ‘Troubles’.

I don’t blame Jinnah for the million deaths. I blame Mountbatten and the British. We drew a line, the Radcliffe Line, through the Punjab and Bengal and said this side will be Pakistan (majority Muslim) and that side will be India (majority Hindu). The detailed map was published on 17 August 1947, three days after the creation of Pakistan.

There was a pitiful security operation to protect the millions of refugees on the move despite a year of communal violence. The million deaths were entirely predictable, but Britain didn’t care, it was leaving the sub continent.

I don’t blame Jinnah for the deaths, but I do think he was wrong to back partition. The truth is that separation strengthens divisions. Contact brings us together so the we can see, in the words of Jo Cox, that “we have more in common, than that which divides us.”

And that applies equally in Beeston, Lahore or Jerusalem.

I’ll be on back with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.


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