War Stories

Remembering Partition

The parallels between India ‘47 and Iraq ‘07.

Muslim refugees trying to flee India and head to Pakistan in 1947

Next week marks the 60th anniversary of the partition of India. Two new books on the subject—Yasmin Khan’s The Great Partition and Alex von Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer—are reviewed in recent issues of the Economist and The New Yorker, respectively. And though neither review mentions today’s Iraq, (except, at most, in passing), the parallels are ominous and inescapable.

Anyone who believes that U.S. troops can simply and suddenly leave Iraq without risk of unleashing great horror—or who regards religious or ethnic partition as a solution instead of a desperate ploy—should look back at the summer of 1947, when the British Empire packed up and India fulfilled its “tryst with destiny” (as Jawaharlal Nehru described its awakening to independence), only to plunge into a monstrous spree of ethnic cleansing (12 million people uprooted, as many as 1 million murdered) that continues to take its toll today.

As India’s independence and Britain’s withdrawal seemed inevitable in the wake of World War II, the country’s long-suppressed internal fissures began to rumble like a reawakened volcano. Gandhi’s followers in the Congress Party campaigned as a secular movement. But Muslims saw it as a cover for Hindu domination, and Gandhi’s rival, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, though a secular Muslim, played the religion card to the hilt to attract fundamentalists’ favor.

The Muslims demanded an independent state. In their haste to get out, the British complied. They negotiated the establishment of Pakistan, drew the boundaries in a careless manner, and unavoidably created more problems than they solved.

On Aug. 15, when the British pulled out, millions of Hindus on Muslim land and Muslims on Hindu land—and lots of Sikhs on either—were brutalized, raped, or killed. Many packed their belongings and moved, but, unprotected, they were slaughtered along the way. The Indian Army, which had been created by Britain, also divided along religious lines, and, as the New Yorker review notes, “many of the communalized soldiers would join their coreligionists in killing sprees, giving the violence of partition its genocidal cast.”

Before long, India and Pakistan went to war over the contested territory of Kashmir. Two more wars followed in as many decades. Another war nearly broke out a mere five years ago. That same year, in the state of Gujarat, more than 2,000 Muslims were killed by Hindu nationalists.

The initial clashes were fomented by the British, chiefly Churchill, who boosted the Muslims in order to weaken the grip of Gandhi’s party. It was a classic case, the New Yorker review notes, of “the human costs of imperial overreach.” Yet “the disasters that followed,” it argues, might have been mitigated had the British not been in such a rush to pull out. The House of Commons voted for independence and partition on June 3; by Aug. 15, the British were gone; the troops still in their garrisons were expressly forbidden to protect Hindus, Muslims, or Sikhs dashing for cover, or new homes, amid the ensuing fray.

The parallels with contemporary Iraq are far from exact. The British Empire ruled India for nearly a century and, at the end, drew the boundaries that spawned decades of conflict; they should have felt an obligation to keep the place from collapsing before they departed. India was also a real country before the British colonized it, whereas Iraq was a colonial contrivance from the outset. (For the amazing story of how the British invented Iraq, and messed up the Middle East for all time to boot, see David Fromkin’s A Peace To End All Peace.)

Still, India ‘47 and Iraq ‘07 share enough combustible ingredients to make one pause before making tremulous movements.

It is foolish at this stage to speak of “victory,” which in any case bears little resemblance to the war aims—the definition of victory—that the Bush administration articulated when it made the case for invasion. However, the act of invasion does carry with it some responsibility—not the same responsibility that a century’s worth of colonial rule should have carried, but still some responsibility—to keep the place at least from plunging into a massive slaughtering field.

There are lately reports of progress, to varying degrees, in Gen. Petraeus’ military campaign in Iraq. Not being there, I can’t say whether they’re true. (Having heard similar reports several times before, I can’t help but be skeptical.) Either way, two points need to be made. First, political conflicts in Iraq seem deadlocked; and, as Petraeus has said many times, if political reconciliation can’t be budged, any military progress is for naught. Second, if there have been military successes, it’s time to use whatever leverage they might give us to push for a regional settlement to this crisis.

India was a large enough country—and, in 1947, its neighbors were sufficiently war-weary—that its civil wars and wars with Pakistan didn’t entice or engulf the surrounding area. That is not true of Iraq. Untempered sectarian warfare between and among Shiites, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds would tempt the parties’ allies to join in, for either their aggrandizement or their self-protection—the Saudis, Egyptians, and Jordanians helping the Sunnis; the Iranians helping the Shiites; the Turks taking the opportunity to put down, once and for all, the Kurds.

In his press conference today, President Bush made light of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s smiling handshake with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and he shook off as incredible reports that his friend Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai was saying nice things about Iran, too.

Believe it, and deal with it. No matter who was in charge of Iran right now, he would want to be cutting deals with Iraq and Afghanistan—and the Iraqis and Afghans could easily be enticed to reciprocate. The Iranians, after all, fought a gruesome eight-year war with Iraq; and they cooperated with our own CIA in putting down the Taliban. If Bush wants Iran to play a more “productive” role in both places, he should define what productive means and give the Iranians a reason to mull it over. The day has long passed when an American president can sternly say, “Back off,” and make some leader halfway around the world tremble in his shoes. We no longer have the power to make such threats stick, and Ahmadinejad, Karzai, and Maliki know this.

Von Tunzelmann remarks in her book on the Indian summer that the British leaders in 1947 “preferred the illusion of imperial might to the admission of imperial failure”—but, in the end, simply could not afford to perpetuate empire’s daydreams. The United States is facing a similar moment. Will it give up illusory domination for still-feasible leadership, or will it push ahead and eventually, inevitably, fold?