60 years on historians have been reassessing the extraordinary events of the sub-continent 1947-48. Sadly, in the new accounts the tragedy of partition overshadows the achievement of independence. I have played some part in the review process of this new literature.
Interpretation has moved increasingly away from the machinations of the colonial state and Indian politicians over the transfer of power, a study of elite politics, towards a focus on the escalating violence of the communal politics from below, rightly deemed India’s holocaust, and a horrifying anticipation of the ethnic violence that has stained recent world history.
Narendra Singh Sarila’s The Shadow of the Great Game is a belated example of the former approach, shedding new light on the way the Attlee administration did everything possible to place the blame for the communal bloodbath on Indian politicians, but is equally critical of Jinnah, seen as driven by mere ambition for personal glory and Congress, deemed inept in its handling of power politics. (See my review, Journal of the Royal Historical Society, Vol 18 Part 2 April 2008 pp 235-8).
Yasmin Khan’s The Great Partition: the Making of India and Pakistan is a compelling example of the new history from below, drawing us into the personal experience of the holocaust (my review to appear in the July issue of History) and Ravinder Kaur’s Since 1947: Partition Narratives among Punjabi Migrants of Delhi undertakes a fascinating analysis of the migration of Hindu and Sikhs from West Punjab to Delhi, cleverly deconstructing the master narrative of the Punjabi elites and giving the neglected story of the low caste and untouchable overdue recognition (to appear in the next issue of the JRAS). Gandhi is seen as marginalised by this appalling story of realpolitik and mass hysteria but nothing can detract from the extraordinary impact of his fast unto death in Calcutta in containing the violence in the East though, of course, it was the fanaticism of those days that led to his death.
I was also delighted to review Margaret Chatterjee’s latest book, and it now seems not her last – Gandhi’s Diagnostic Approach Rethought: Exploring a Perspective on His Life and Work for The Gandhi Way. And in the light of the recent disaster of the cyclone in Burma I am all the more pleased to have reviewed a truly moving play by Richard Shannon, The Lady of Burma. I really wonder if the generals have yet grasped that Aung San Suu Kyi is the only figure, Burma’s equivalent to Nelson Mandela, who can deliver the country from its current nightmare.
I am also pleased to report that the small but adventurous Yoda press are to publish an Indian edition of A Spiritual Bloomsbury, under a revised title of Gay Writers in Search of the Divine.