Ghosts of the partition

51BYFMMA1ELThe carving of India and the subcontinent into tense, clashing nations is, literally, the greatest tragedy of the 20th century that hardly anyone in America knows about. It was a nightmare so hellish that some of its images and stories are simply not mentioned. The denial is that deep.

Consider the top of this news report by Rama Lakshmi of the Washington Post, focusing on the latest effort to break the silence and learn the painful lessons of 1947:

NEW DELHI – Every year in March, Bir Bahadur Singh goes to the local Sikh shrine and narrates the grim events of the long night six decades ago when 26 women in his family offered their necks to the sword for the sake of honor.

At the time, sectarian riots were raging over the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, and the men of Singh’s family decided it was better to kill the women than have them fall into the hands of Muslim mobs.

“None of the women protested, nobody wept,” Singh, 78, recalled as he stroked his long, flowing white beard, his voice slipping into a whisper. “All I could hear was the sound of prayer and the swing of the sword going down on their necks. My story can fill a book.”

There are, of course, several clear references to religion in those paragraphs.

Yet the role that religion played in the partition is so huge and so obvious that it is almost impossible to describe in words. It’s just there, like a mountain or an ocean.

It is not a simple thing. Muslims slaughtered Hindus. Muslims helped Hindus. Hindus slaughtered Muslims. Hindus helped Muslims. And the amazing thing is that the British — looking forward to some idealistic age in which religion just wouldn’t matter all that much — tried to act as if religion already didn’t matter all that much.

How many people died?

According to conservative estimates, about half a million Hindus and Muslims were slaughtered and 14 million displaced, and about 70,000 women were abducted and raped, leaving both countries with deep psychological and political scars. Riots convulsed the newly independent nations for months as centuries-old communities split apart.

Government documents unearthed by researchers provide chilling details of what happened during partition, as well as alphabetical lists of the names of women who were abducted. Historians and witnesses have said that trains crossing the new border were filled with corpses from either side.

If anything, this report underplays the religious elements of the conflict. That’s amazing, yet I have to admit that I have no idea how a journalist could cover this topic in an ordinary A1 news feature.

It’s just too big. It’s just too painful. And, at times, it seems that not much has changed.

Thus, the ghosts remain — past and present.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Let me recommend the excellent book by Ramachandra Guha entitled: “India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy”. The book gives Westerners a good starting point in understanding partition, and the horrors and social struggles that emanated from it.

  • Petersen

    Since this blog specializes in journalistic themes. I feel compelled to comment. Your lede has me a bit disturbed. To say the political division of India and the subcontinent into separate nations is, “literally,” the greatest tragedy of the 20th century is simply too much. In the first place, it is not verifiable. How do we measure tragedies? That which preceded the the division of India was the Holocaust. So also Palestine was arbitrarily divided as was Africa and even parts of Europe about the same time. The 20th century has too many tragedies, too much bloodshed, too many mistakes like unto India to single one out at as the single greatest of them all. Next, this is very poor use of the adverb “literally.” Better, in terms of Journalistic integrity, I think would be “The carving of India and the subcontinent into tense, clashing nations is one of the the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, yet hardly anyone in America knows about it.”

    That being said, let me add that I love your blog and follow it closely.

    Yours in Christ,

    Rev. David Petersen
    Redeemer Lutheran Church
    Ft. Wayne, IN

  • tmatt

    Pastor David:

    Here is what I wrote:

    “The carving of India and the subcontinent into tense, clashing nations is, literally, the greatest tragedy of the 20th century that hardly anyone in America knows about.”

    That last phrase is crucial. You seemed to have missed it.

  • Jerry

    I strongly remember a scene from the movie Ghandi where someone was telling Ghandi that he was in hell since his child had been killed. The 20th century was filled with events such as this that I think can be described, perhaps literally, as “hell on Earth”. God grant that the 21st know no such terrible events.

  • astorian

    Strangely, there are still many historians in India and Pakistan who doubt whether Jinnah really wanted a separate Islamic state (Pakistan) at all. They suggest that Jinnah was merely playing hardball, hoping to get the best possible deal for his fellow Muslims in a futre, united India.

    IF that’s true (some think it’s a mere myth), then the horror is magnified, because it may have been utterly unnecessary as well as evil.

  • Ben


    Thanks for highlighting this important story. But you’ve inserted your own, anachronistic point of view when you say the British were “looking forward to some idealistic age in which religion just wouldn’t matter that much.”

    During the Raj, the British exploited religious differences to consolidate their power. Partition was more the inability of the Indian elite to overcome those inflamed differences under the tight withdrawal time-line set by the British, who were bankrupt after the world wars and under pressure to get out. I’m sure if any British civil servants had any notion of a post-religious era they would have been quickly disabused of that the moment they sat down with Jinnah and Nehru in the same room. The final decision to partition was not some sort of post-religious pipe dream — it was in fact the ultimate repudiation of the idea that multiple religions could be represented by a single, secular state.

  • Petersen

    Dear Matt.

    You’re right. I missed it. I’m sorry for that.

    Nonetheless, it is still not certain that it the greatest unknown tragedy of the 20th century. I dare say that most Americans are unaware of how the Middle East was carved up, or Africa was carved up, or the Balkans were carved up, or how those carvings brought tragedy and hardships upon the inhabitants. Many Americans think the modern nation state Israel has been there that way forever. So the critique still stands. There is not way to measure this. You cannot confirm that your pet tragedy of the moment, or your particular ethnic interest, or your most personally devastating tragedy is the greatest of the unknown tragedies. It can’t be measured. That makes your lede a poor sentence if it is to be view as journalism.

    So also the use of “literally” doesn’t make sense. Are you trying to say that you have a literal chart of the greatest unknown tragedies of the 20th century with literal figures or greatness attached to them and the division of India is literally at the very top? No. I suspect you are just trying to say this was a really bad tragedy, in a century filled with tragedy, and part of the tragedy is that is so poorly known in America.

    I am sorry if I am coming off snippy. I love this blog. But I think if fair that you meet the standards of critique that you level at the rest of the press. You wrote a poor lede. I don’t write ledes. But I’ve written thousands of bad sentences, bad intros, etc. We all do.

    Yours in Christ,

    Rev. David Petersen
    Redeemer Lutheran Church
    Ft. Wayne, IN

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “Strangely, there are still many historians in India and Pakistan who doubt whether Jinnah really wanted a separate Islamic state (Pakistan) at all.”

    “It is a dream that Hindus and Muslims can evolve a common nationality, and this misconception of one Indian nation has gone far beyond the limits, and is the cause of most of our troubles, and will lead India to destruction, if we fail to revise our actions in time. The Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs, and literature. They neither intermarry, nor interdine together, and indeed they belong to two different civilizations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions. Their aspects on and of life are different” – M.A. Jinnah, Muslim League presidential address, 1940

  • Pingback: DYSPEPSIA GENERATION » Blog Archive » Ghosts of the partition

  • astorian


    Yes, Jinnah said numerous inflammatory things that would suggest he was dead set against a united India. And yet, serious historians are not unamimously convinced that he meant what he said.

    Jinnah was an utterly secular Muslim, after all. He ate pork, drank British liquor with gusto, and rarely set foot in a mosque. He MAY have wanted a Muslim state for a variety of reasons, but religious conviction certainly wasn’t driving him.

    Maybe he meant everything he said. But it’s also possible he was playing the traditional game of the Asian marketplace: making grand, sweeping assertions that an object is not for sale, when both sides know it IS for sale if the price is right.