the independence and partition of india -- 3/16/16

Today's selection -- from Indian Summer by Alex von Tunzelmann. The moment of India's 1947 independence from Britain and the accompanying partition of India sparked a civil war between Hindus and Muslims in which hundreds of thousands and perhaps even millions perished. In this partition, India was divided into two nations -- the Union of India and the Dominion of Pakistan (which is now the two countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh). As part of this division, millions of Muslims were relocated from the new India to Pakistan and millions of Hindus were relocated from the new Pakistan to India, a massive operation scarred by destruction and death. It was the largest mass migration in human history:

"On a warm summer night in 1947, the largest empire the world has ever seen did something no empire had done before. It gave up. The British Empire did not decline, it simply fell; and it fell proudly and majestically onto its own sword. It was not forced out by revolution, nor defeated by a greater rival in battle. Its leaders did not tire or weaken. Its culture was strong and vibrant. Recently it had been victorious in the century's definitive war.

"When midnight struck in Delhi on the night of 14 August 1947, a new, free Indian nation was born. In London, the time was 8:30 p.m. The world's capital could enjoy another hour or two of a warm sum­mer evening before the sun literally and finally set on the British Em­pire.

"The Constituent Assembly of India was convened at that moment in New Delhi. ... Two thousand princes and politicians from across the one and a quarter million square miles that remained of India sat together on parliamentary benches.

Jawaharlal Nehru's Tryst with Destiny speech,
15 August 1947

"In the chamber the dignitaries fell silent as the foremost among them, Jawaharlal Nehru, stepped up to make one of the most famous speeches in history. At fifty-seven years old, Nehru had grown into his role as India's leading statesman. His last prison term had fin­ished exactly twenty-six months before. ... 'At the stroke of the midnight hour, while the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.' The clock struck, and, in that instant, he became the new country's first prime minister.

"Nehru [was later] invited into [the British outgoing Viceroy Lord] Mountbatten's study, fol­lowed by an unruly gaggle of reporters. ... [Mountbatten] then poured out glasses of port for those present. 'To India,' he proclaimed, holding his glass aloft. Nehru replied, 'To King George VI.' Few missed the significance of the moment. Some years before, Nehru had refused to attend a banquet in Ceylon on the grounds that toasts would be proposed to the king and the government.

"But while in Delhi the gentlemen toasted nations and kings, their new world was turning into a battlefield. As viceroy, Lord Mountbat­ten had wielded unprecedented power over the fates of two nations and 400 million people. He had transferred power in a way that, within the next couple of days, would trigger a state of civil war in both nations, followed by a war between the two of them. Millions of people would be displaced; millions would be wounded; hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions more, would die. During the next few days, riots would spread across the divided states of the Punjab and Bengal, and a holocaust would begin."


Alex von Tunzelmann


Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire


Picador, Henry Holt and Company


Copyright 2007 by Alex von Tunzelmann


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