John Keay, Midnight’s Descendants: A History of South Asia Since Partition (New York: Basic Books, 2014).
With the end of World War II, the colonial powers passed into the pages of history books. They left behind borders that divided tribes, religions and cultures, and cobbled together countries that were destined for conflict. The conflagrations in the Middle East and Africa today stem largely from the consequences of these arbitrary edicts made almost a century ago. John Keay’s elegantly written book, Midnight’s Descendants: A History of South Asia since Partition, tells the story of perhaps the most consequential of those decisions: the 1947 partition of the Indian Subcontinent, and how the victims have since coped with the aftermath.
Keay describes how Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a British judge who had never visited South Asia, was given sole responsibility for drawing the borders for the subcontinent after the British withdrawal. Having received instructions to finish the job ahead of schedule, he hastily consulted some maps and drew the line as best he could without ever visiting the terrain or meeting any of the inhabitants. Radcliffe accepted these shortcomings and wrote: “Nobody in India will love me for my award.”
For John Keay, the partition of India was the central defining event of the post-WWII era. He anchors his book around this terrible period, devoting almost a third of the book to its origins and consequences. Comparing it to a nuclear explosion whose lethal fallout reverberates for generations, he writes that: “Every war, near war, and insurgency in the subcontinent since the end of British rule owes something to the legacy of partition.”
Tragic as the consequences of partition were, it seems to me Keay overstates his case. In 1947, although there were riots all over the subcontinent, the mass migrations and atrocities were borne primarily by the three divided states: Kashmir, Bengal, and Punjab. Arguing that the “post-independence era” should more aptly bear the label “post-partition era,” Keay states that almost everyone regretted partition and still does. In my view, one would be hard pressed to find Indians today who would prefer to have Pakistan or Bangladesh as part of their country and vice versa.
A central feature of post-partition history that Keay emphasizes is the contrasting political evolution of the two largest countries, India and Pakistan. In 1947, India, because of her size and diversity, was not expected to hold together, let alone remain a democracy. Indeed, as historian Ramachandra Guha so vividly depicts in his magnificent book, “India after Gandhi,” from which Keay heavily quotes, the central achievement of that first generation of Indian leaders was to forge a united country with a flourishing democracy. Pakistan, by contrast, has never been able to transcend its feudal roots, and its government remains in the hands of rich landowners and the military.
The irony is that the high-minded leaders of India’s independence movement who led the new country would actually find its current state disturbing. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, would certainly be embarrassed to see the Congress Party, one of the great political institutions to emerge from India's independence movement, reduced to a vehicle for maintaining his own family in power. India is not alone in this regard. In fact, one theme that emerges from Keay’s book is how embedded dynastic politics have become throughout the subcontinent. Decades of control by the same key families have retained the top jobs in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and the familiar names of Bhutto, Bandaranaike, and Rahman appear in Midnights Descendants with regularity.
The danger of trying to compress 70 years of the history of some 1.5 billion people from six different countries into 337 pages is that it risks reading like a mad dash through time. Keay in fact does a masterful job of succinctly weaving together the stories of the six countries, covering such issues like Kashmir and the 1971 Pakistani civil war, which led to the birth of Bangladesh, without compromising any of the details. I did find it surprising though that he chose to exclude Afghanistan from the frame. It has a long border with Pakistan, much of which remains in dispute. The tribal links across the border are deep, and the geopolitical fate of the two countries has been interlocked for almost a generation.
Covering this subject of independence and partition, Keay relies heavily on British sources and views the history of events through a British lens. But he knows the subcontinent well and brings his own insight into the culture and the people. For example, he astutely links the enormous success of the two great Indian epics adapted for Indian TV, The Ramayana and The Mahabharata, to the rise of Hindu fundamentalism.
Right-wing Hindu parties that previously operated on the fringes of politics have now become mainstream. The newly elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, rose from within their ranks before becoming Chief Minister of Gujarat where he ran a state that went out of its way to court the private sector.
In the recent Indian election, he delivered a crushing defeat to the ruling Congress Party, a force that has dominated the political landscape since 1947. Modi, a relative newcomer with no connections to the political elite, is now India’s fifteenth prime minister. The son of a tea-stall owner, he rose from modest means and seems determined to close the chapter on the old guard, one of the subjects of Keays’ book.
Despite a muddy record of human rights, Modi made the unprecedented move to invite leaders from all countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation to his inauguration. In an equally historic response, many came, including Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa over the objections of Modi’s strongest political ally in the south, Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalitha, who boycotted the inauguration to show her displeasure. Perhaps most surprising of all who showed was Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a first in the history of the two nuclear armed nations since their founding. Gifts were also exchanged with promises to engage in meaningful dialogue.
Since assuming office, Modi continues his pro-business agenda and has lost no time in taking his government to task in addressing governance and graft head on. The world is watching closely, especially the leaders of South Asia, to see if a major realignment of power structures emerges under his new leadership. The alternative is less promising: good intentions dissolve into South Asia’s ether.
For the new generation of South Asians, partition and the struggle for Independence is something they study about in history books. With sixty percent of the population under 40, the driving force will be jobs and the opportunity to compete on the global stage.
Ultimately, the book’s tone and Keay’s outlook for the region seems unduly pessimistic. For example, he writes, “the story of post colonial South Asia is seldom inspirational. Among those I call Midnights Descendants, the body count of those who have succumbed to wars, civil strife, natural disasters, and unalleviated poverty has yet to be exceeded by the number of those so enriched as to qualify as middle class.”
Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have had decent growth rates and have a good record of raising living standards. Per capita income in India has increased threefold since 1990, lifting some 300 million people out of poverty and moving some 50 million into the middle class. Though Pakistan is often described as a failing state, it had decent growth rates until 1980. It has handicapped itself since by investing in weapons at the cost of education and industry, but this trend could be reversed under better leadership. While the subcontinent often disappoints its biggest champions, it also has a way of surprising its worst skeptics.
Meena Ahamed is a freelance journalist who writes
about U.S. foreign policy and South Asia.
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