April 05, 2020
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A Liberal's Lament

A 'good Muslim' re-examines the dilemmas posed by Partition

A Liberal's Lament
The Price Of Partition
By Rafiq Zakaria
Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan Rs 200, Pages: 209
NO one could have failed to notice that during the year-long celebrations of the golden jubilee of this country's "tryst with destiny" there has been as much writing on the agony of Partition as on the ecstacy of Independence. Nor is this a surprise, given the haunting memories of the horrific butchery on both sides of the subcontinental divide, accompanied by the largest mass migration in peacetime in history.

To this genre of publication, Rafiq Zakaria, a long-time minister in successive Congress governments of Maharashtra and at one time deputy leader of the Congress in Parliament, has made a notable contribution. His book, The Price of Partition, is remarkable not because it makes any startling new disclosures but for several other reasons. The most important of these is that he has written from the perspective of Partition's worst sufferers—the Muslims in the Hindu-majority provinces of British India, most of whom had fought hard for the creation of Pakistan even when they had absolutely no intention of going there. Indeed, one of the great ironies of the Subcontinent's history over the last half-a-century is that while refugees from Pakistan have done very well for themselves (the word "sharnarthi" has disappeared from the Indian political lexicon), the migrants to Pakistan, still called Mohajirs, are at the receiving end of an extremely vicious fratricidal war.

In an earlier book, The Widening Divide, Zakaria has dilated on the heart-rending plight of the Indian Muslims which, it can perhaps be argued, is worse rather than better than on August 15, 1947. The country's largest minority, compared with other sections of society, remains more deeply mired in poverty, ignorance, illiteracy, disease and social backwardness. Thanks to the lack of worthwhile leadership, it also continues to be in the clutches of obscurantist and opportunistic mullahs. Sadly, the Muslims have failed to get their fair share in economic development, government jobs or even seats in legislatures. Moreover, the rise of Hindutva, in the context of the rapid spread of Islamic fundamentalism in the neighbourhood, has its inexorable logic.

All this has by no means been stated in any great detail in the book but to a discerning reader it is obvious that this has been at the back of the author's mind while chronicling the march of events that led to the June 3 Partition plan and its acceptance by the Congress, Zakaria's own party, much to his sorrow and even anger.

Zakaria has covered ground which has been heavily trodden before. But a distinctive feature of his book—an easy and enjoyable read—is that he has chosen to tell the painful story as the eyeview of one man, himself, who was deeply involved in the struggle for freedom and equally passionately devoted to Hindu-Muslim unity that would, by definition, have ensured the subcontinent's unity, too. But that was not to be, and this precisely is Zakaria's lament.

A third merit of The Price of Partition needs mentioning. It is born of the fact that Zak-aria is a rather unusual politician inasmuch as he combines with this deservedly despised vocation a penchant for scholarship. The book under review is his 13th. As a politician he has his weaknesses such as fle-xible loyalties. But in pursuit of scholarship his standards have always been exacting.

What I find particularly touching is Zaka-ria's account of the tormenting dilemmas caused by rival pressures on him even as a very young but politically hyperactive student at Ismail College in Bombay. Friends constantly badgered him that as a "good Muslim", he must follow Jinnah. He found many of Jinnah's complaints and demands "plausible", even "legitimate". But he could not stomach the Quaid-e-Azam's separatist programme. However, while criticising Jin-nah, Zakaria is critical also of the Congress, especially of Nehru for treating the Muslim League as a pariah. More interestingly, he deeply regrets that Maulana Azad chose to "withdraw into his shell" and failed to provide to the Muslim masses the kind of glorious leadership that Abdul Ghaffar Khan did in the North West Frontier.

Zakaria evidently buys the theory—first hinted at by Azad in India Wins Freedom and later elaborated by Ayesha Jalal in Sole Spokesman—that even in the gory circumstances of 1946-47, Partition was avoidable. This is not the place to enter into a debate on this issue but the comfortable belief cannot be sustained against compelling evidence to the contrary. The idea that Jinnah did not really want Pakistan but would have settled for less is rebutted by Jinnah's own writings. It was known that on April 3, 1947, he told Harold Macmillan that he would "have a few acres of... desert, provided it was his own".

In Zakaria's own book, his tutor, C.H. Philips, shows a better understanding of the forces behind the subcontinent's vivisection. Zakaria's belief that Jinnah's "capacity for mischief" could be controlled if the Congress could hold back until the British handed over to the interim government is misplaced. The British would have handed power to the provinces and declared the princes free. Instead of Partition, there might have been Balkanisation.

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