Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India's Partition

by Nisid Hajari

Like the Rape of Nanking, the partition of India was a dramatic, bloody crisis that remains a key historical faultline today.

  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780547669212
  • ISBN-10: 0547669216
  • Pages: 352
  • Publication Date: 06/09/2015
  • Carton Quantity: 12

Also available in:

About the Book
About the Author
Excerpts
Reviews
  • About the Book
    Named one of the best books of 2015 by NPR, Amazon, Seattle Times, and Shelf Awareness 

     

    A  few bloody months in South Asia during the summer of 1947 explain the world that troubles us today. 

     

    Nobody expected the liberation of India and birth of Pakistan to be so bloody — it was supposed to be an answer to the dreams of Muslims and Hindus who had been ruled by the British for centuries. Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s protégé and the political leader of India, believed Indians were an inherently nonviolent, peaceful people. Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was a secular lawyer, not a firebrand.  But in August 1946, exactly a year before Independence, Calcutta erupted in street-gang fighting. A cycle of riots — targeting Hindus, then Muslims, then Sikhs — spiraled out of control. As the summer of 1947 approached, all three groups were heavily armed and on edge, and the British rushed to leave. Hell let loose. Trains carried Muslims west and Hindus east to their slaughter. Some of the most brutal and widespread ethnic cleansing in modern history erupted on both sides of the new border, searing a divide between India and Pakistan that remains a root cause of many evils. From jihadi terrorism to nuclear proliferation, the searing tale told in Midnight’s Furies explains all too many of the headlines we read today.

    Related Subjects

  • About the Author
  • Excerpts
    Prologue 

      

    A Train to Pakistan 

      

    Ahead, the Jeep’s headlights picked out a lonely stretch of railroad track. The driver slowed, then, when still about a third of a mile away, pulled over and waited. All around wan stalks of wheat, shriveled by drought and rust, trembled in the hint of breeze. Two turbaned figures emerged from the gloom, borne by an ungainly, knock-kneed camel. 

        At a signal the five broad-shouldered men in the jeep piled out. They carried a strange assortment of objects—a brand-new Eveready car battery, rolls of wire, a pair of metal hooks with cables attached, and three lumpy, unidentifiable packages. Moving quickly, they joined the now-dismounted riders and headed for the copse of trees that lined both sides of the permanent way. When they reached an irrigation canal that ran along the tracks, several of the men slid down its banks and hid. 

        Two others dashed forward. Each tucked one of the mysterious parcels against a rail, then carefully attached a wire to the soft gelignite inside and trailed the cable back to where the others crouched. A third man brought the pair of hooks over to a nearby telephone pole and used them to tap into the phone line. As he listened, waiting for word of the Karachi-bound train, his compatriots grimly checked their revolvers. 

        The men were Sikhs, recognizable by their long beards and the turbans enclosing their coils of uncut hair. They had the bearing and burly physique of soldiers—not surprising given that their tiny community had long sent disproportionate numbers of young men to fight in the Indian Army’s storied regiments. In the world war that had just ended two years earlier, Sikhs had made up more than 10 percent of the army even though they represented less than 2 percent of the population. 

        The eavesdropper motioned to his comrades: the train was coming. This was no regularly scheduled Lahore Express or Bombay Mail. Onboard every passenger was Muslim. The men, and some of the women, were clerks and officials who had been laboring in the British-run government of India in New Delhi. With them were their families and their ribbon-tied files; their photo albums, toys, china, and prayer rugs; the gold jewelry that represented much of their savings and the equally prized bottles of illicit whiskey many drank despite the strictures of their religion. On 9 August 1947 they were moving en masse to Karachi, 800 miles away, to take part in a great experiment. In six days the sweltering city on the shores of the Arabian Sea would become the capital of the world’s first modern Muslim nation and its fifth largest overall—Pakistan. 

        The country would be one of the strangest-looking on the postwar map of the world. One half would encompass the fierce northwestern marches of the Indian subcontinent, from the Khyber Pass down to the desert that fringed Karachi; the other half would include the swampy, typhoon-tossed Bengal Delta in the far northeast. In between would lie nearly a thousand miles of independent India, which would, like Pakistan, win its freedom from the British Empire at the stroke of midnight on 15 August. 

        The Karachi-bound émigrés were in a celebratory mood. As they pulled out of Delhi, cheers of “Pakistan Zindabad!” (Long live Pakistan!) had drowned out the train’s whistle. Rather than laboring under a political order dominated by the Hindus who made up three-quarters of the subcontinent’s population, they would soon be masters of their own domain. Their new capital, Karachi, had been a sleepy backwater until the war; American GIs stationed there raced wonderingly past colorful camel caravans in their jeeps. Now a boomtown fervor had overtaken the city. The streets were a roaring tangle of cranes and scaffolding, and the dust from scores of building projects mixed with drifts of desert sand. If the city could hardly handle the influx of new residents—“the difficulty of putting several hundred quarts into a pint pot is extreme,” Britain’s first ambassador to the new Pakistan remarked—a good-humored camaraderie had so far smoothed over most tensions. Ministers perched on packing crates to work as they waited for their furniture to arrive. Their clerks used acacia thorns for lack of paper clips. 

        To the Sikhs leaning against the cool earth of the canal bank, this Pakistan seemed a curse. The new frontier would pass by less than 50 miles from this spot, running right down the center of the fertile Punjab — the subcontinent’s breadbasket and home to 5 million of India’s 6 million Sikhs. Nearly half of them would end up on the Muslim side of the line. 

        In theory, that should not have mattered. At birth India and Pakistan would have more in common with each other — politically, culturally, economically, and strategically — than with any other nation on the planet. Pakistan sat astride the only land invasion routes into India. Their economies were bound in a thousand ways. Pakistan’s eastern wing controlled three-quarters of the world’s supply of jute, then still in wide use as a fiber; almost all of the jute-processing mills lay on the Indian side of the border. During famine times parts of India had turned hungrily to the surplus grain produced in what was now Pakistan’s western wing. 

        The Indian Army, which was to be divided up between the two countries, had trained and fought as one for a century. Top officers—still largely British—refused to look on one another as potential enemies. Just a few nights earlier both Hindu and Muslim soldiers had linked arms and drunkenly belted out the verses of “Auld Lang Syne” at a farewell party in Delhi, swearing undying brotherhood to one another. Cold War strategists imagined Indian and Pakistani battalions standing shoulder to shoulder to defend the subcontinent against Soviet invasion. 

        Many of the politicians in Delhi and Karachi, too, had once fought together against the British; they had social and family ties going back decades. They did not intend to militarize the border between them with pillboxes and rolls of barbed wire. They laughed at the suggestion that Punjabi farmers might one day need visas to cross from one end of the province to the other. 

        Pakistan would be a secular, not an Islamic, state, its founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, promised: Hindus and Sikhs would be free to practice their faiths and would be treated equally under the law. India would be better off without two disgruntled corners of the subcontinent, its people were told, less charitably. “Division,” as India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, put it, “is better than a union of unwilling parts.” The fight to establish Pakistan had been bitter but astoundingly short—occupying less than ten of the nearly two hundred years of British suzerainty over India. Surely in another decade the wounds inflicted by the struggle would heal. 

        The Sikhs tensed as a long, low whistle from the train floated toward them. In the distance, they could see the engine’s headlamp rocking gently through the fields. Their eyes followed its progress until the train rounded a last bend and the spotlight blazed up before them like a miniature sun, bright and blinding. They rose, surging with adrenaline. Seconds later the Pakistan Special’s heavy black engine thudded over the spot where the gelignite charges lay, then its first bog...

  • Reviews
    An NPR Best Book of 2015 An Amazon Best Book of 2015: History A Seattle Times  Best Book of 2015 A Shelf Awareness Best Book of 2015 

     

    Finalist for the Tata Literature Live! First Book Award 

     

    “[A] fast-moving and highly readable account of the violence that accompanied that partition…In its finest moments, Midnight's Furies is the story of what happens when a composite society comes apart.” 

    The New York Times Book Review

     
    “[A]n engaging and incisive contribution to the vast literature on partition and its aftermath. Mr. Hajari writes with grace, precision and an unerring eye for detail. ‘Midnight’s Furies’ is the best of recent offerings.” 

    Wall Street Journal 

     

    "A pacey new narrative history of Partition which makes the complex and tragic story of the great divide into a pageturner: no mean feat." 

    Guardian,  Best Summer Reads 2015

     
    “A clear, accessible and compelling account of the events during partition… gifted storytelling. It is through his vivid description of small moments that Mr Hajari transforms an overwhelming event into an intimate experience...a gripping, skillfully crafted account of an awful period of South Asian history. It deserves a wide audience.” 

    The Economist

     
    "It has often been said that this is the golden age of nonfiction books. As if to prove the validity of that statement, Nisid Hajari has offered us Midnight's Furies, a compelling read, both dramatic and suspenseful . . . With the sensibilities of a novelist, Hajari artfully draws portraits of the various historical personalities involved, making the book thoroughly engaging." 

    Seattle Times 

     

    "Hajari explores the roots of this tension in a beautifully written, deeply intelligent book about that crucial moment when Britain once again drew bad borders with calamitous consequences." 

    Fareed Zakaria, CNN

     
    "[A] fast-paced new narrative history of partition and its aftermath . . . One of [the book's] virtues is its more balanced portrait of Jinnah." 

    William Dalrymple, The New Yorker 

     

    "Hajari’s book is a superb and highly readable account of not just the mayhem, but the political machinations that preceded Partition, including the three-way negotiations between Britain and the leaders of what were to become India and Pakistan." 

    The New York Review of Books

    "Hajari offers a ringside view of history with compelling psychological portrayals of those who made it . . . The politics of 1947-48 is so chillingly contemporary that it induces a sense of deja vu." 

    Times of India 

     

    "[Hajari] has a riveting story to tell and he tells it well . . . The strength of this book is in its narrative, its marshalling of facts, and its objectivity in presenting them . . . And Hajari's fine ear for dialogue seldom lets him down." 

    The Wire (India) 

     

    "[Hajari] frames the events surrounding Partition like a Greek tragedy, with epic, larger-than-life figures . . . [He] succeeds in vividly depicting the psychological scars that have dogged Pakistan and India." 

    Shelf Awareness 

     

    "A well-researched tale of the last years of colonial rule on the Subcontinent . . . We could well be in the midst of a deadly thriller; Hajari maintains a tension that would please a novelist." 

    Open 

     

    "Ideal . . . An authentic account of what led to partition and its riots . . . The research is impeccable." 

    Business Standard 

     

    "This harrowing tale of political miscalculation and misunderstanding is recommended for all readers of history, politics, and current affairs."  

    Library Journal

    "A fine unwinding of an epic event."  

    Booklist

    "Hajari skillfully picks through this perilous history...A carefully restrained and delineated account makes for chilling reading."  

    Kirkus 

     

    "Pakistan is perhaps the world's most dangerous country — a combustible mix of nuclear weapons, jihadis, bloody borders, and a dysfunctional state. You can only truly understand the country by going to its roots. Nisid Hajari does just that in this powerful, intelligent, and beautifully-written book. He finds in India's partition and its aftermath mistakes, compromises, and cowardice as well as all the ideology, venom, and violence that have now erupted onto the global stage. Hajari presents the history like a detective story and you will be swept along. Except in this case, none of us knows how it will end."  

    Fareed Zakaria, author of The Post-American World 

     

    "History is about grand cultural and geographical forces within which individual leaders must, nevertheless, take moral responsibility for better and worse outcomes. Nisid Hajari’s meticulous study of India’s birth captures this dichotomy brilliantly."  

    Robert D. Kaplan, author of Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power

    "India’s partition in 1947 was a traumatic event unparalleled in its human toll since World War II. Its legacy continues to haunt both India and Pakistan and threaten global security. Yet the train of events that culminated in the paroxysm of violence and partition have remained shrouded in mystery. Midnight’s Furies relies on fresh historical sources to go beyond the familiar debate about why Hindus and Muslims were at odds over the future of India, and shows how decisions by leaders reacting to unfolding events sealed the fate of united India and produced the cycle of violence that forever marked the peoples and governments of the region. Well-researched and eminently readable, this haunting account puts into the proper perspective both history and current events."  

    Vali Nasr, author of The Shia Revival and The Dispensable Nation

    "Nisid Hajari brings new research, deep involvement, and a keen intelligence to write a history that brings so many people to life and will have you sitting on the edge of your seat. Today, with Pakistan facing unprecedented extremist violence and a hardline right wing government in New Delhi that wants no dialogue with Islamabad, we could be on the brink of more furies being unleashed. A must read." 

    Ahmed Rashid, author of Pakistan on the Brink and Taliban 

     

    "The Partition of British-ruled India in 1947 was a momentous event in world history, which has impacted the war on terror as well as the politics and economy of Asia to a degree that is still not fully understood. Nisid Hajari’s book illuminates it with a rare political acuity, narrative verve and stylistic elegance. Unravelling canonized reputations and highlighting obscure ones, he shows how a large part of humanity came into its political inheritance, and the wounds this violent process left on the body-politic of India an...

×