Thursday, March 23, 2006

Tryst With Destiny

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)

Amit links to yet another Peggy Noonan masterpiece -- having written for Ronald Reagan, her fluency with words and ideas puts pretenders like Arundhati Roy to shame.

Ms. Noonan has been reading "Freedom at Midnight" -- from which she draws the lesson that political leadership, by construction, isolates even the most well-meaning of leaders from the people they seek to lead. Consequently, they are blinded by an urgent sense of personal and historical mission -- ground realities of the little people figure little in these cosmic calculations.

This is why, she concludes, India bled upon partition -- for its leaders (except Gandhi) had no idea of what was about to follow. They were rushing towards their respective trysts with destiny with little regard for the grass they were trampling upon.

If, conversely, Mountbatten wasn't in such a hurry to achieve Indian independence, Jinnah might have fallen to TB, the partition might never have happened, and Gandhi -- the singularly towering Indian over two millennia -- might have died peacefully of old age, instead of gunshot wounds.

There are parallels here for Iraq. Ms. Noonan is passive-aggressively attacking the (elitist) neoconservative zeal for democratizing Iraq -- and the greater Middle East. Perhaps, she seems to be suggesting, slowing down is a better notion.

We don't disagree with a lot of what she has to say. While we are firm believers in neoconservatism and the (Leninist!) idea of "vanguard elites" leading ideological revolutions, we readily concede the structural risk of elitist isolation from the masses -- causing bad decision-making.

On India's partition though, we disagree. It wasn't an old man's hidden disease or a dashing Viceroy's bullheadedness, or a democratic idealist's personal ambition that savagely tore India apart -- India split because it could no longer sustain its internal social contradictions that had simmered for hundreds of years ever since Mahmoud swooped down from the mountains near Ghazni.

Similar contradictions are now playing out their tandava the world-over.

Regardless of Jinnah, Mountbatten, or Nehru, India was therefore likely destined for a tryst with communal bloodletting.

Perhaps they could have slowed down this horror -- but it's hard for us to imagine a powerful change of power as we faced in India not leading to this kind of unfortunate rite of passage. What do our readers think?

The good news is that, at least in India, this sacrifice became the foundation for our political modernity and, increasingly, our economic prosperity. Also, in secularism -- no matter how flawed our version is -- we began shaping, for the first time, a socio-political construct for seriously reconciling our internal contradictions.

Pakistan, on the other hand, has little to show for the horrors it summoned into being. This is why it is likely to suffer the fate of the erstwhile USSR.


Vishal Agarwal said...

Hinduism Treated Unequally in California Textbooks” by Rajiv Malhotra, in
‘Little India’, issue dt. March 2003 at

“Hindu Group Files Lawsuit to Stop Sixth Grade Textbook” in the Religion News,
dt. 03/20/06 at

“Hindu Foundation Sues California Board of Education” dt. 03/20/06 in The Deccan
Herald at

“A New Chapter in Hinduism” dt. 03/20/06 in LA Times at,1,2119384.story?coll=la-headlines-pe-california&ctrack=1&cset=true

“Hindu Groups Sue California Board of Education” dt. 03/19/06 in at

“What do California Textbooks teach about Hinduism? State Textbooks Contribute
to Ignorance about Hinduism” by Vamsee Juluri in ‘San Francisco Chronicle’ dt.
03/06/06 on

Arvind Kumar - “Teaching Bias” in ‘India
Currents’, dt. 03/01/06 at

libertarian said...

PR: brilliant piece by Peggy Noonan. Agree with your assertion that we were headed for our "rite of passage" with or without the creation of Pakistan. If we had managed to stave Jinnah off, and Pakistan did not come to be, we might have had the "civil war" Jinnah threatened. I cannot imagine that being within an order of magnitude of the horror of partition though. The very worst we have had after 1947 is Delhi in 1984 and Ahmedabad in 2002 - shameful, but not quite the continental catastrophe that the partition was.

Thank God for secularism. In hindsight it was necessary for survival - not just a nice-to-have. Tolerance at the individual level is not sufficient to prevent chaos - Pakistan likely has the same number of "tolerant" people as India does but is likely to splinter because it has no system to garner the "facts on the ground".

I sincerely hope that Iraq holds together in this trying time.

reformist_muslim said...

I think that Jinnah is a prime example of being a strategically brilliant politician who was out of touch with the masses.

According to the highly persuasive revisionist history, 'Pakistan' was a bargaining chip which would guarantee muslim representation and provincial autonomy in a united, federal, India.

Unfortunately once unleashed it had an effect on the masses (at least in the muslim minority provinces) which made it difficult to settle for less.

Having said that it is unlikely that Pakistan would have been created if a federal India had not gotten in the way of Nehru's vision of socialist economic development.

libertarian said...

rm: have heard the theory of Pakistan as a bargaining chip developing a logic of its own. Don't follow your contention that Nehru's Fabian socialism would facilitate Pakistan. Shashi Tharoor argues convincingly that it was "Jinnah's will and British willingness - not Nehru's willfulness" that lead to its creation.

reformist_muslim said...

The argument is that Nehru's Fabian socialism theoretically required a strong central government in order to succeed.

Granting autonomy to the Muslim Majority provinces would have undermined the centre as well as creating a strong precedent for other provinces to seek greater freedom in running their affairs.

This argument is best developed in Ayesha Jalal's, The Sole Spokesman.If you have access to JSTOR, Asim Roy wrote a brilliant summary highlighting the strentghs of the revisionist perspective.

Citation is 24 Modern Asian Studies (1990) page 385

Would be interested in reading Shashi Tharoor's argument if its available online.

libertarian said...

rm: thanks for clarifying. Will track down the sources you mention. Suspect though, that with Vallabh Patel heading the Home Ministry from 1947-1950, strong unitary vs. federalist structure would have been a moot point. He "rode herd" with 500+ nawabs and maharajahs - quite a spectacular achievement given the men and materiel constraints - and the fact that India was still a British Dominion at that point. His handling of Hyderabad and Junagadh suggest that any demands for autonomy by "Muslim Majority" states would likely have died premature, unmourned deaths.

Tharoor's case is built in his book "Nehru: The Invention of India". Turns out the quote about Jinnah's will, British willingness and Nehru's willfulness was coined by M.J. Akbar in his biography of Nehru.

Jaffna said...

Reformist Muslim

I completely disagree with Ayesha Jalal (whom I happen to know) and you on this one.

The fight for Pakistan had little to do with the Muslim majority provinces of Sindh, the North West Frontier, Baluchistan and even pre-partition Punjab. It was led by educated Muslim minorities in the United Provinces, the Bombay Presidency and the Bengal Presidency. The Urdu speaking Muslim minorities in these areas felt threatened by the principle of one man-one vote and majority rule. The Muslims in the Muslim majority areas on the other hand had little to fear from the principle - since it entailed their dominance anyway.

Jinnah's initial constituency was the Muslim in Hindu majority provinces. The Muslim majority provinces jointed the secessionist bandwagon late.

Jaffna said...

Quick addition. The East Bengali Muslim supported Jinnah right throughout - until after partition when they realized too late!

Anonymous said...

Anyone who relies on Freedom of Midnight as a text is clearly an idiot. Freedom of Midnight has a lot of interesting tidbits on the mechanics of partition (and the impact on individual people and familities) that is often not well covered in history books.

But when it comes to the machinations of the high and mighty, the book relies almost entirely on the then alive Mountbatten's memories, almost all of which were inflated by his huge ego (since most other participants are dead). At one point, the book has Nehru and Patel coming to Mountbatten and asking him to take back India's reigns temporarily to control the violence. Can one imagine the proud Nehru or Patel doing that ?

As far as rushing into independence, that was not Mountbatten's doing. That was largely the insistence of Indian leaders, who wanted independence immediatedly. Of course, that great champion of freedom and lover of poison gas Churchill was then in the opposition, otherwise that might have happened (and the great man gloated over the violence that followed Indian partition as an example of why Indians could not govern themselves).

The fact that Peggy Noonan relies onthis as some form of primary text indicates yet again that she's completely lost it.


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