Partition – 70 years on


Partition: the story of Indian independence and the creation of             Pakistan in 1947 by Barney White-Spunner

In the comprehensive index of Barney White-Spunner’s Partition there is no entry under Ireland. This is surprising because in the text there are many occasions when Ireland is important. For example, White-Spunner mentions that the representative of the Calcutta branch of Congress ‘visited Ireland and learned about leading revolutions against Britain from Michael Collins and the IRA’.

Subhas Chandra Bose.  Image:

Strange wording since he arrived in Ireland in 1936 fourteen years after Collins’s death. The visitor was Subhas Chandra Bose who, like his fellow party member Mohandas Gandhi, had been educated in England, at Cambridge. Bose was in opposition to the non-violent ‘Mahatma’ and believed in an armed struggle against the British. Some historians interpret Bose’s beliefs and efforts as those of an ‘Indian Michael Collins’.

The internecine struggle in Congress took place before the Second World War and, as White-Spunner shows, was only a small part of the complexity of the situation in which both India and Ireland found themselves in terms of their relationship with Britain. Indian politicians and thinkers kept a close eye on events in Ireland considering that there were parallels in the two countries’ roads toward independence.

What is revealed in Partition is that the British botch of the process in India was infinitely more incompetent, more negligent and more numbskulled than it was in Ireland. And it was an independence botch that left millions dead or maimed. The resultant partition of India and Pakistan caused political, religious and violent outcomes which are explosive even today.

At the beginning of the book White-Spunner provides a useful potted history of the relationship between Britain and India in the eighteenth, nineteenth and first third of the twentieth centuries. Most striking perhaps is the fact that with so few settlers the empire retained the colony for nearly 200 years.

In compiling his account the author has to juggle all the different linguistic areas, provinces, administrative districts, princely states, political systems, religions, taxes, plagues, famines and uprisings. His skill in doing so reflects, symbolically, the way in which the Viceroys and the Indian Civil Service administered the multitudinous complexities of the subcontinent for generations.

Nehru during the Quit India campaign in 1942.


In 1937 Congress emerged as the strongest party and, states White-Spunner, men like Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, ‘intelligent students of how the Raj had managed to exercise total control across India with only the slenderest of resources’, learnt that they must keep all the key branches of government centrally in Delhi. This was one of the seeds of partition since if everything was so centralised a binary split into two nations would seem better than devolution or federation.

Subhas Chandra Bose.  Image: source unknown.

In 1938 the colourful character of Bose returns to the narrative arriving to take his place as president of Congress perched high on a 51 bull chariot. By 1941 he was in Berlin flirting with Nazism and organising Indian prisoners into an adjunct of the Waffen-SS. Bose then travelled, in a German submarine, to Japan and involved himself in developing the Indian National Army. The remnants of the INA were troublesome in the post-war run up to independence causing ructions during a series of courts-martial trials. Many regarded the INA as national and nationalist heroes rather than traitors. Bose, however, had died in an air crash in 1945 leaving India still under the yoke of imperialism.

Nehru, Gandhi and Patel in 1946. Image: The Hindu Archives.

After the war Congress was, according to White-Spunner, ‘the universal voice of the Hindu majority’. But within the party there were divisions and oppositions. Gandhi did not think that religion was problematic: instead he believed that all Indians should live together, as they had proved they could under the British, in an undivided post-colonial India. Patel was keen to proceed at speed and was likely to accept partition if necessary. Nehru, a socialist, was also impatient to govern – seeing India in a secular light but containing within his faction, to his left virulently anti-British refusniks and to his right, extremely intolerant, Muslim-hating Hindus.

The Muslim League was led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. He broke from Congress in 1920 when he disputed Gandhi’s preferred method of civil disobedience. Jinnah preferred an approach of high-level negotiation with British rulers. In 1927 he had attempted to build bridges between Congress and the League but his proposals were rejected. Again in 1937 he approached Congress with power-sharing ideas, but again he was rebuffed. White-Spunner suggests that these occurrences were two of the ‘tragic missed opportunities that would ultimately lead to 1947’.

Louis, Lord Mountbatten takes the salute from the Governor-General’s bodyguard as he takes on the Vice-Regency.  Image: Getty.

Meanwhile, on the British side, Viceroy Archibald Wavell, had been sacked and minor royal, Louis Lord Mountbatten, briefed by Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee, was preparing to take the reins. Sworn in on 24th March 1947 Mountbatten was the twentieth and last governor-general and viceroy. Mountbatten realised that India was on the edge of chaos but also that Congress, not himself, was in the driving seat so that his own role would be to facilitate speedy action.

The Indian Army were, according to White-Spunner, ‘the only effective instrument of power in the government’s hands’. But their commander-in-chief Auchinleck, devastated by the likelihood of dividing his command into two forces – one for what was to be Hindustan and the other for Pakistan – seemed no longer able to focus on what needed to be done. Plans should have been drawn up and further troops obtained to police the partition process. Instead the senior staff concentrated on the remaining Europeans and their protection. This inaction had disastrous results for Indians.

The Indian Army in 1948. Image: kindlemag.

Jinnah who had demanded separation mainly as leverage to achieve a federal India now found himself accepting the imminent existence of Pakistan. Congress, whilst insisting that the new state would not be called Hindustan, agreed reluctantly to ‘a partition of India… as it was a peaceful settlement involving the least compulsion of any group or area’.

Jinnah, first Governor-General of the Muslim Dominion of Pakistan takes the salute in Karachi 1947. Image: Getty.

Things were moving fast now and by May there was a date for transfer of power: 14th/15th August 1947. Mountbatten would attend celebrations in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan on 14th before travelling across to Delhi for India’s festivities on 15th.

The stage was set for the gory finale. In the preface White-Spunner warns the reader that the story he tells is full of violence and horror. In the subcontinent human life became, for a period, of little value. Neighbours raped, maimed and killed each other. Some killed themselves to avoid forced conversion to another religion. Trainloads of refugees were butchered as six million Muslims attempted to move to Pakistan whilst six million non-Muslims moved in the opposite direction.

Gandhi with Muslim refugees in 1947. Image: Getty.

White-Spunner, an experienced and senior commander himself, mulls over the British colonisation of the Indian states and the preparations for independence. He thinks, as did many of his colleagues, that the British Army experience in Iraq after the 2003 invasion can be analysed against the framework of Indian independence. He identifies a poisonous pattern of British governments interfering in other countries for money or status and then finding it difficult to leave.

The book deals clearly with the political process but White-Spunner also interweaves eyewitness accounts given by ordinary Indians from all walks of life. The personal stories add poignancy to what is already an entirely compassionate rendition of history. He dedicates Partition to ‘all those who lost their lives in India and Pakistan in 1947’. It would be interesting if White-Spunner were to write a similar account of the British in Ireland along with the manner of their leaving.

Works cited

White-Spunner, B. Partition: the story of Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan in 1947. London: Simon & Shuster. 2017.

A version of this review was first published on pages 34 and 35 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 24th February 2018.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.


‘The Golden Legend’ by Nadeem Aslam

How is it possible that I have never heard of this wonderful writer?  I came to this novel, unenthusiastically, having just completed Sebastian Barry’s superb Days Without EndUnknown.jpeg.  I have long been a fan of Barry’s work and have read almost everything that he has written.  On the back cover of Barry’s 2005 novel A Long Long Way Frank McGuinness says that Barry ‘writes like an angel’ and I agree with that. McGuinness adds that Barry is ‘on the side of the angels that fell’.

But I have now discovered that Aslam is Barry’s equal: he too ‘writes like an angel’ and ‘is on the side of the angels that fell’. Unknown-1.jpegI will be putting his four previous novels on my birthday list.  If you look at the video below of the choir at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge you will see, between one minute 14 seconds and two minutes 12 seconds, a sort of representation of the regiments of ‘angels’ who fell in the First World War, and are currently falling all over the world, in its various theatres of war, as well as in so-called peaceful democracies.

The Golden Legend, deals directly with angels. Or, at least, the angel Gabriel.  Gabriel ‘from heaven came’ and visited Mary, mother of the Christian God, to impregnate her; he visited the Prophet Mohammed to dictate words of the Koran. An equivalence, the liberal thinkers among us – leave Trump out of this – might think.  But, now, to The Golden Legend.

Mohammed receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel.  Miniature illustration on vellum from the book Jame’ all Tawarikh by Rashid al-Din, Published in Tabriz, Persia, 1307 A.D.  Now in the collection of the Edinburgh University Library, Scotland.

For Pakistan born, Aslam, who was brought up and educated in the north of England, paper is the “strongest material in the world. Things under which a mountain will crumble, you can place on paper and it will hold: beauty at its most intense; love at its fiercest; the greatest grief; the greatest rage”.

Paper is literally at the centre of the novel, which opens in the home of Nargis and Massud, architects who live and work in a defunct paper factory now converted into their home/work space. Surrounding this edifice is the city of Zamana, an Urdu word meaning period, era or age, pulsating with the noises of modern and ancient Pakistan. One sound is that of the loudspeakers, in the multiplicity of mosques, which, as well as emitting the muezzin, are being violated by a mysterious broadcaster who, night-by-night reveals the scurrilous secrets of citizens. Vigilantes punish the accused, especially Christians, especially women.

The Tree of Immortality. Palace of Shaki Khans, Azerbaijan

The former factory, however, is set in an oasis of bright fertility: an orchard, largely developed for cheap housing, but leaving a demesne of trees; almond, rosewood, mango, silk-cotton and coral. From the beginning the novel seems surreal, juxtaposing calm with sudden violence, silence with cacophony, cleanliness with filth.

Nargis and Massud’s vast library contains two elaborate and ornate Wendy House-sized miniature mosques, both reproductions of cathedrals/mosques which served in different ages, as places of worship for both Christians and Muslims.  Nargis and Massed use them in the winter months as small studies; easily heated in the freezing space. In the summer they are winched up, towards the high ceiling, hanging, floorless, above the dwellers. Elsewhere in the house, huge, spread, swan wings are pinned to the pink wall alongside the wings of a golden eagle, a parakeet and other birds. The house is full of ‘intense’ beauty and provides a crucible from which the architects can create more beauty in an ideological attempt to fight, as Aslam himself does with his art, the evil of the outside world.

image: pallasweb

It is not magic-realism: it is Aslam’s portrait of a world in which all that exists is extreme. Social and religious hierarchies are fiercely maintained, with the Christians, including two other central characters, Helen and Lily, as the butt of prejudice; their blood thought to be black, not red. Nargis thinks “everything this land and others like it were going through was about power and influence. All of it. And these struggles of Pakistanis were not just about Pakistan, they were about the survival of the entire human race. They were about the whole planet”.

Life is precarious amid frequent acts of sectarian violence. Vicious assaults against vulnerable flesh come from the most unexpected sources and are perpetrated against gentle and educated characters as often as not. There is no sense that those who might be considered liberal, rational and moral are thought of as such by their neighbours.

Strangely, the most shocking knife slashes are directed at a book from the Islamic section of one of the city’s oldest libraries. This book is ‘That They Might Know Each Other, words inspired by a verse in the Koran. A meditation of how pilgrimage, wars, trades and curiosity had led to contact between cultures’. This book, written by Massud’s father, contains reproductions of iconic art.

The first page to be vandalised contains an image of the Prophet Mohammed receiving a revelation from the angel Gabriel. ‘He perforated the face with the steel tip, and then the blade continued upwards through the angel’s headdress, the various ribbons and gems. Continuing, it cut into the sky full of gold stars’. The congress between Christianity and Islam is severed in an act of ‘conscienceless temper’.

Later, and, seemingly whilst Nargis is lying, sleepless, in bed, the entire book is ‘razored’ into pieces.

Copyright: Giusto Manetti Battiloro

In an act of indefatigable hope and unremitting courage Nargis begins the task of sewing, her needle threaded with shining gold, the 987 pages back together. She is performing her own version of the Japanese process of Kintsugi. “The art of mending pottery with lacquer mixed with powdered gold. The logic was that damage and restoration were part of the story of an object, to be accepted rather than concealed. Some things were more beautiful and valuable for having been broken’.

In The Golden Legend, Aslam opposes the vituperative Pakistani laws of blasphemy with his call for the freedom of language, both written and spoken, especially when uttering words of love. He, like Nargis, is trying to accept and restore damage. He states that when he starts writing a novel, “I begin to think … beyond the despair, what is the moment of hope?”

Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan/


Works cited

Aslam, N. The Golden Legend. Faber & Faber. 2017.

Barry, S. A Long Long Way. Faber & Faber. 2005.

—.  Days Without End. 2016.

An earlier version of this review appeared in The Irish Examiner‘s Weekend Section page 37 on 8th April 2017.

See also is a short piece by Aslam which describes his working practices.