Freedom at Midnight by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins

(First published 1975; expanded edition 1997)

The saga of Subcontinent’s independence from Britain and the creation of the states of India and Pakistan told through a collection of interrelated stories about major events and important personalities that influenced the history of the independence episode.

This is a case of interesting history writing that doesn’t present events in the dry, matter-of-fact chronological order (although the semblance of chronology have to be and is maintained in the narrative) as we find in usual history books. This particular quality of the book makes it a very engrossing and thrilling read.

All qualities of the book counted, however, this book almost comes off as portraying the successful and functioning British Raj which sadly had to go due to extenuating circumstances. It also happens to be quite a biased account in so far as it deals with major figures involved in the freedom struggle.

The consensus among historians of British Raj and Partition put much blame on the short-sightedness of the last British Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, and fake urgency he created (for his personal reasons) to  “get over with it” by dividing the country. This urgency to finish the job as quickly as possible led to decisions that ripped apart the social fabric of the country, echoes of which can still be heard in contemporary Indo-Pak political discourse.

This book in the most part is written by using Mountbatten’s archives and his direct interviews. Not unsurprisingly, he comes across as some sort of helpless and powerless spectator of consummate madness, rioting, killing, rape, pillaging and plundering that swept India at the time of Partition and continued into many months after independence. Mountbatten is almost absolved of failing to make right decisions even though he himself later admitted to historian Stanley Wolpert, confessing, “I fucked it up”.

Gandhi gets good coverage as he deserves. He was the only major politician to see through the horrors of Partition and the bloodshed it would unleash. No one listened to his warnings, neither Jinnah nor Nehru-Patel duo and they like everybody else were flabbergasted when large scale killings began as Partition and Independence were formally announced.

For the first time, by using the then recently declassified British archive this book also reveals that Nehru as a close friend of Mountbatten’s from the time they had spent together in Burma influenced the latter’s appointment to the Viceroy’s office in the hope that he would be able to influence him to Congress’ ends. Later, Nehru took favours from Mountbatten in the demarcation of borders and distribution of state assets. On both counts Pakistan got an unfair deal.

Most importantly, Nehru enrolled Mountbatten on a program to give in to Jinnah’s demand of dividing India which the previous British viceroys tried to avoid. Nehru egged on by Sardar Patel believed that Jinnah’s seemingly unviable state with no geographical contiguity and no resources will fall back into Congress’ arms in a year or two. It didn’t happen, though. This thinking of Congress, rather than trying to talk to Jinnah and reach on a settlement, is attested by Indian ex-foreign minister Jaswant Singh in his new book when he claimed that Nehru and Patel were as much responsible for the partitioning of India as Jinnah and as a consequence got stripped of his party post.

For what it’s worth I will give 3 out of 5. Find it on AMAZON.

Perspectives on Mughal India: Rulers, Historians, `Ulama and Sufis by Sajida Sultana Alvi

(First published 2012)

This is a collection of scholarly essays on issues dealing with Mughal India. Section I deals with Mughal historiography and a discussion of some primary sources of Mughal history, quite a few of those are untapped and can potentially challenge our view of Mughal Indian society as constructed by tainted British colonial scholarship.

Section II deals with movements of reform in Mughal India especially of Tajdid (Islamic Religious Renewal) and various Sufi movements that spearheaded Tajdid movements in Mughal society with particular emphasis on the Naqshbandiyyah Sufi order.

Section III is quite fascinating in that it sheds light on Shi’ism in Mughal India. It discusses the effect of intra-Muslim conflicts (with reference to Shi’ism) on the role of religion in larger Mughal Indian politics. The rise of an Iranian Shi’i, Muhammad Baqir Najm-i-Thani, at the court of Emperor Jahangir and his (Emperor’s) policies towards larger Shia community are comprehensively discussed probably for the first time.

I will add more later and give a detailed review.

Find the book on AMAZON

The Leopard and the Fox: A Pakistani Tragedy by Tariq Ali

(First published 2006)

This short drama set in Pakistan chronicles the last years (1977-1979) of the government of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, his overthrow in a military coup, and finally his execution at the hands of the military junta led by General Zia-ul-Haq through the connivance of a tainted judicial process.

BBC commissioned Tariq Ali to write the screenplay for the documentary they had planned on the said military coup leading up the execution of Z.A. Bhutto. They suddenly abandoned the project when everything was ready and the documentary was about to go on air. The BBC, as the screenwriter soon found out, was pressured by the British government to either censor the documentary, or failing that, abandon it altogether. The part where the author alleges that the United States gave the green light to General Zia-ul-haq to hang Bhutto became the bone of contention.

The US and UK were at good terms with the military junta in power because it was helping them fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The intimate relations between the US-UK and Pakistani military junta could be at risk if the documentary had been aired with the “objectionable” content as it might have angered the general. The final say rested with Tariq Ali when BBC, bowing to the government pressure, offered a censored, watered-down version to him. Tariq Ali refused to budge and therefore the documentary was shelved for good. The official reason given by the BBC, however, was that the content of the documentary were potentially libelous. It was, of course, a red herring.

The play starts with the depiction of a politically charged atmosphere in the country in the aftermath of the national elections in which Bhutto is reelected for the second term in office. There is ample evidence of widespread ballot rigging. The opposition demands nothing less than fresh elections. As Bhutto government and the opposition enter into intense talks to hammer out a solution amid continued street unrest, the military led by General Zia-ul-haq, fearful of loosing its power and finances, is plotting a coup in order to get rid of Bhutto for good.

The military top brass views Bhutto with extreme suspicion and contempt. The national and foreign policies of Bhutto government are increasingly angering the United States, The army, by virtue of Cold War alliances with the United States, depends heavily on US aid for its proper functioning. Wary of Bhutto’s policies, the US threatens to withdraw its aid and/or put embargos on Pakistan if Bhutto does not change his socialist policies. Even though Pakistan is US ally in the Cold War, Bhutto during his time in office attempts to cultivate cordial relations with China as well as warm up to the Soviet Russia. This also doesn’t sit well with the US officials. Furthermore, his public proclamations to develop a nuclear bomb at any cost further jeopardises the relationship between Pakistani establishment (led by military) and the United States. This, then, becomes the raison d’être of the coup. The military wants to take advantage of the country’s current unrest and oust the prime minister.

The scene is set. The drama unfolds. A couple of top generals, however a minority, do not support the idea of a coup. They are threatened with serious consequences or silenced with incentives, thereby eliminating all opposition to the coup within the military save one general who tries to warn the prime minister in subtle terms. Bhutto, being carefree and whimsical as he was, dismisses that general’s concerns with a wave of hand, naively believing that the chief has no guts to pull such a stunt. It is the same chief who Bhutto promoted to that position over five senior generals, thinking he’d be the right guy for him. However, that was not to be. The coup happens, Bhutto is put under house arrest and a sinister plot is hatched with the connivance of the Supreme Court. Bhutto is found, in a complete travesty of judicial norms, guilty of political murder during his prime ministership and therefore sentenced to death by hanging.

This play is written with much better care than the other one about the BCCI that I reviewed earlier. It depicts the historical events craftily, the characters are strong especially of Bhutto, the dialogue delivery is poignant, and the sequence of scenes with two parallel storylines keeps the reader interested throughout the play. I enjoyed it a lot.

My rating 4/5. Find it on AMAZON

The Balkans: From the End of Byzantium to the Present Day by Mark Mazower

(First published 2000)

The “Eastern Question” in Western parlance refers to the Balkans or, broadly speaking, Southeastern Europe. For long Western intellectuals have tried to create a context for the history of the mostly Christian Orthodox former colonies of the Ottoman empire and their relative place in Europe as a whole. The book under review also attempts to do just that but with a different perspective.

The main thrust of the argument of this book is two-fold: First, to show that the Ottoman ruled Balkans were thriving societies; culturally, socially and economically as opposed to miserable and backward ‘lost lands’ of Europe under the brutal and barbarian rule of the Turks, a view famous with Western intelligentsia well into the second half of the 20th century.

Second, the genesis of the political and social upheavals which have marked the Balkans since their independence from the Ottoman rule (the latest being the Serb-led genocide of Bosniaks and Croats in the ’90s) lay not in their cultural barbarity borrowed from their previous Ottoman masters, but rather it is rooted in the European ideology of language and race-based nationalism, whose ultimate aim is to create centralised, homogenous nation-states. Time has come to expand on both.

One marked difference between the peasant societies of the Balkans and their North European counterparts was that there was near-absence of feudal holdings in the former. The land belonged to the Sultan, people tilled it and shared the produce in the form of taxes with the imperial government. In North Europe, feudals held sway and literally owned their serfs like chattel. Through this the writer concludes that peasants in Ottoman Europe had far greater social and economic freedom than anywhere in the Europe (This however, changed a good deal in the latter part of Ottoman rule when things began to go awry for the Imperial state).

The dividing factor between the people was solely religion. Muslims, by virtue of the nature of the system, had it better. Christian and Jews were protected religions as per official view of Islam. This sanction allowed the Christians to retain not only their religion but also their languages, and consequently, their cultures. So neither the imperial religion nor the imperial language was forced down the throats of the masses. So much so that at one point Christians in the service of imperial court in Constantinople were so numerous that Greek, and Slavic languages were given preference over Turkish in official proceedings. In part due to geography, in part economy and in part the policies of the imperial state, the Balkans became diverse, racially, linguistically and religiously.

The weakening hold of Ottomans on their colonies in the Balkans coincided with increasingly assertive Tzarist Russia and Austro-Hungarian empires as well as rising powers of Britain and France. As Balkan countries started to gain independence, the first one being Greece, the new linguistic nationalists were posed with a problem. How to create homogenous nation-states with a single language (and later with a single language and a single ethnicity) in a landscape so diverse and mixed. In the end they ended up creating nation-states, spread over a period of many decades, which had large linguistic, ethnic and religious minorities (Albanians and Turks in Greece, Albanians in Serbia, Bulgarians in Romania, Greek, Turks, Jews in Macedonia, Greeks in Anatolia and in all major urban ex-Ottoman towns) and didn’t know what to do with them.

The writer argues that the ideology of language and/or race based nationalism which took root gradually in Northern Europe was suddenly thrust upon the whole population of the ex-Ottoman Europe. This led to large scale population exchanges (Greeks in Anatolia were sent to Greece and Turks and Albanians driven to their respective lands. Similar exchanges took place in other Balkan countries as well), massive uprooting of people, destruction of their economic lives, and finally a violent conflict with perpetuates itself to this day.

The newly independent countries adopted capitalist economics after the total dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. This failed as democratic institutions were weak and under the sway of larger powers who used them as their pawns in the larger struggle for their respective empires. Further, the Wall Street collapse of the ’30s put an end to all hopes the nascent democracies of the Balkans might have of delivering to the people. The WWII changed things when the Balkans save Greece came under the control of Communism. It led to massive industralisation and rapid urbanisation, ending the peasant nature of their economies and lifting the peasantry out of their perpetual hunger. The three decades after Stalin-Churchill pact were most productive period for the Balkans until Communist system began to loose out to globalised Capitalist economy led by the US.

The writer puts forth the observation that the fissures and fractures induced by nationalism since the independence of Greece in the 1830s, through mid-19th century and until the WWII, when maps and populations in the Balkans changed every few years, didn’t die away during the Communist period. They were harshly controlled as Communism saw itself beyond language, race and culture. But as soon as Communism gave way, the old questions surfaced again. The experiment of Yugoslavia is an example of that. The situation in Bosnia and Kosovo was another sorry chapter of the same phenomenon.

Ironically, the author says, just as it appears that the Balkans might have solved their language and ethnic-based nationalist issues, the rest of the world (read developed West) has moved on. The creation of what is today called “multicultural societies” is the exact opposite of what the Balkans have been fighting for all along, until a couple decades ago, and much more closer to how they had lived under the Ottoman rule, i.e, in multi-x societies – a label which fits a typical Ottoman town of, say 1730, to a tee.

History repeats itself?

Having all things considered, the book categorically rejects the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with the cultures of the Slavs which, having been ‘cut off’ from the ‘civlised European motherland’, have been tainted and brutalised during the 500 or so years of Muslim rule, a view which has been the mainstay of mainstream Western academia until recently.

There are so many other fascinating things which I must leave out and end this review or it will go on and on. My only criticism is that the author has tried to pack too much info in such a small volume – and my review reflects it. The book should have been the double of its meager size.

My book rating: 5/5. Find it on AMAZON.

Delhi by Khushwant Singh

(First published 1990)

It’s an usual novel; in part historical fiction and in part an invented story; in part a collection of independent short stories and in part a tale of a degenerate Delhiwala, but, taken in whole, it is an extremely rich depiction of the history and culture of Delhi.

It is, primarily, a story of the city of Delhi from the medieval till modern times. Two sets of narratives run simultaneously. First is the story of a journalist who returns to his native city after “having his fill of whoring in foreign lands”. Out of work, he sets out to explore his native city in the footsteps of an archeology historian. He accidently meets a hermaphrodite prostitute, a hijra, falls in love with her and moves her to his house. Through their dialogue, their outings and picnics, and their uninhibited sexual encounters, the geography and culture of Delhi comes alive.

The second set of stories is stand alone, independent pieces of narrative set in important periods of the history of Delhi. The stories are brilliantly told in the first person of figures such as Nadir Shah, Emir Taimur (Tamerlene), Aurangzeb Alamgir, Mir Taqi Mir and Bahadur Shah Zafar. They were prominent people, the attackers and the defenders, who tell their stories as they must have lived them.

There are more characters set in the times of Ghiyasuddin Balban and Khawaja Nizamuddin Auliya which take the reader back in time and make them a part of the setting. There is a semi autobiographical story of an entrepreneurial family which plays a major role in laying the foundations of a new city off the historical metropolis of Delhi, which was soon to be known as New Delhi, now the capital of India.

In the end, the novel narrates first person accounts of the upheaval of Partition and ends with the murder of thousands of Sikhs on the streets of Delhi in the wake of the assassination of Indra Gandhi. It’s an excellent read for anyone interested in the history of not only Delhi but of the whole Indian Subcontinent. My rating 5/5. Get it on AMAZON.

Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British Empire in India by Stanley Wolpert

(First published 2006)

This review is going to be shorter than usual. The central argument of the book is, as the name indicates, that British, when they decided to leave India, did not plan the transfer of power properly enough.

The consequences were catastrophic as, inter alia, there were unresolved border disputes between the newly independent states of India and Pakistan (the latter divided into East and West wings), princely states, including Kashmir, were left in constitutional limbo, and millions of people were uprooted from their ancestral homes in a tragedy which cost up to one million lives.

The British were desperately trying to chalk out a workable plan of Independence acceptable to both parties of the conflict (Muslims and Hindus) for at least a decade. Failing that, after World WarII, when British power waned considerably, they just decided to dump India and go home. The last post-WWII viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, brought forward the date of Independence by one year, against the time-frame set by the British Parliament in London. In later years Mountbatten reflected on his policies and conceded that he “fucked it up”.

From Sir Stafford Cripps’s mission after the Fall of Singapore in 1942 till the assassination of Gandhi in 1948 this books gives a detailed account of the events that led up to the Partition and Independence of the Indian Subcontinent. This is a detailed and rewarding work by an author who is arguably one of the most authoritative writers on the subject.

My rating 5/5. Find it on AMAZON