Review of "Midnight's Furies"

Nisid Hajari, Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition. Houghton Mifflin, 2015.

The year 1947 marked a shift in international order in the aftermath of the second world war. At the forefront of this change was the emergence of two dominions, India and Pakistan, previously British India. While Pakistan was born out of the ideals of religious nationalism, India was dedicated to the fundamentals of secularism. Subsequently, the subcontinent experienced the largest forced migration, displacing almost six million refugees to new borders and a new identity. How did the common goal of self-governance transform into a rift between communities? How would the partition of the subcontinent affect the future of Indo-Pak relations? In Midnight Furies, Nisid Hajari attempts to answer these questions through his dramatic, often anecdotalist, and tragically entertaining style of writing.

Traditionally, one would be skeptical of reading a book on partition that is nearly seventy years removed from the actual event. However, while there is a shortsighted time frame, and a large emphasis on individual leaders affecting the relationship between the two new countries, the book specifically focuses on two important themes. First, in addition to a basic history lesson, Hajari puts the reader in the metaphoric driver's seat by punctuating his objective analysis with the personal experiences of individuals through anecdotes. Secondly, Hajari is able to humanize the revered leaders of the time. The details of their communication, the absurdities of their egos, and the depiction of their personal lives reveals their human flaws and tendencies, which is often overlooked when describing leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru. It was the experience of individuals that gave Partition the propensity to leave a legacy for the future of India and Pakistan. Hajari intends to make it more than “just a memory” of something that happened seventy years ago.

He begins the book with an incident involving Sikhs that planned to destroy a train with Muslim passengers. Hajari immediately draws the reader in by describing the “grim” expressions on the perpetrators faces as they checked their revolvers. He then goes into more depth, detailing personal belongings such as “ribbon-tied files; photo albums, toys, china, and prayer rugs” of the Muslim passengers that soon would succumb to the “firm press” (Prologue xiv) of the detonator. It is a gripping scene that holds the attention of the audience.

The first chapter details the pogrom between Hindus, Muslims and the minority Sikhs in the August 1946 “Great Calcutta Killing” that ensued after a local Bengali leader’s antagonizing and rallying speech aimed to divide the communities. The leader had capitalized on the “to kill or be killed” rhetoric to rattle the Muslim minority. Hajari accentuates the individual experience of this incident through the eyes of a Hindu shopkeeper, Nanda Lal.

“Nanda Lal watched, frozen in place, as thugs piled out and ransacked a nearby furniture store owned by a Hindu like himself.  They tossed mattresses and chairs into the street and set them on fire. Then a hail of stones came pelting up the road toward him. Lal turned and fled.” (14)

Hajari’s anecdotal style must be commended for its engagement with the audience. Through his storytelling, the author is able to fit in objective analysis of Jinnah and Nehru’s unenthusiastic communications, their public relations campaigns, and their respective goals to lead as the “ambassador of unity.” His anecdotes display the disturbing reality that resulted from Jinnah and Nehru’s failure to coalesce politically; ordinary citizens were quickly transformed into committed flag-bearers of a grass-root project promoting religious communal violence between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.

Another unique aspect of this book is its very real depiction of the leaders of the time. In India, Jawaharlal Nehru is revered, lovingly called Chacha (Uncle) Nehru, and is often remembered with his signature Gulaab on his chest. In Pakistan, Jinnah is honored as the Quaid-e-Azam (Great Leader). However, Hajari is critical when describing these national heroes. In their role in creating the divide between India and Pakistan, Hajari alludes to their “inexperience, and ineptness, vanity, intellectual arrogance, unspoken prejudice, and plain, petty dislike of another.” (xviii)  Hajari is especially critical of Nehru’s political aims and his half-heartedness in including Jinnah’s political aims within his own. Hajari is unique in showing that Nehru and Jinnah both had bad qualities that their nations often don’t acknowledge – India and Pakistan tend to use these bad qualities to leverage their own versions of history.

However, Hajari while downplaying the Olympian-like leaders of the time exposes a key weakness in the premise of his point that Nehru and Jinnah are to blame for the rift between Hindus and Muslims, or India and Pakistan. His argument is weak in an already far-reaching theory. While countries’ policies can be influenced by the doctrine of an individual member of the elite, it is hard to magnify that influence. Nehru’s goals of forming secular India or Jinnah’s mission to have “a future in which they [Muslims] had control over their own destiny” cannot solely determine the future of India and Pakistan’s future policies. While providing advice for the future he alludes to the legacy of the two countries and its future leaders as the “heirs” of Nehru and Jinnah. No one can deny that these leaders were pivotal in the birth of their respective countries, However, there are other factors to consider as well. During partition there was an unequal division of the military between India and Pakistan. This led Pakistan to  build its military that ingrained a sense of paranoia towards a hostile takeover from India, and that itself is a significant point of conflict that is a legacy of the the partition. The borders created by Sir Radcliffe reconstructed strategic points, trade ports and water resources that not only affected the economies of the country, but also fabricated new communities near the Eastern and Western borders of India.

The second issue of the book is its very short time frame.  By using the word “legacy” in the title itself, Hajari extends the reader an invitation to understand the effects that are handed down to the future of the subcontinent.  While the author is able to extract the effects of partition, he ceases to prove whether this legacy is still alive. The timeline chosen to explain the legacy is short and unclear. Partition had much larger, long standing effects on the two countries in terms of the unequal separation of military and resources, and the border disputes that still riddle the relationship between India and Pakistan in the 21st Century.

The book also dedicates a significant time to the 1937 elections, the 1940 Resolution that formalized the sovereignty and autonomy of Pakistan as a separate nation, the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1942, and the Sikh Jathas or “death squads” that arose in fear of their communities in Punjab being split in between West Pakistan and northwestern state of Punjab in India.

It is important to give Nisid Hajari credit in exfoliating the partition, an event far-removed from 21st century youth, who only have their grandparents’ experiences and stories as a first hand account. Midnight Furies is an excellent read to understand the intricacies of negotiations between the elites in the transformative period of the subcontinent’s history. Hajari also must be commended for highlighting rather than underplaying the highly traumatic and devastating experience that was the partition of 1947.


Kashmir Through Their Eyes

Basharat Peer, Curfewed Night: One Kashmiri Journalist’s Frontline Account of Life, Love, and War in His Homeland (New York: Scribner, 2010).
Rahul Pandita, Our Moon Has Blood Clots: The Exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits (New Delhi: Random House India, 2013)
Haider. Directed by Vishal Bhardwaj, performed by Shahid Kapoor, Tabu, Shraddha Kapoor, and Kay Kay Menon, UTV Motion Pictures, VB Pictures, 2014. Film

Typically when Kashmir is discussed among scholars, it receives one of two treatments: as a potential flashpoint between India and Pakistan, or as an area that has been affected by jihadist terrorism. Yet the perspectives of the state’s residents are consistently overlooked by observers. On the too few occasions when Kashmir’s human rights issues are discussed, it is again through one of two lenses. Right wing Hindus emphasize the plight of the Kashmiri Pundits (also Hindus) to the extent that crimes committed against the Kashmiri Muslims are considered justified. On the other hand, the Pakistani government and Islamists attempt to use the Kashmir issue as an ideological rallying cry to attack the Indian government, despite the Pakistani military and proxies committing similar atrocities against Kashmiris, Balochi, and the Pashtuns themselves. It seems that on both sides of the Line of Control, the effects of the conflict on local Kashmiris have been overlooked.

Two books published by Kashmiris living in the Indian state help to bring the experiences of Kashmiris to external audiences. Rahul Pandita’s Our Moon has Blood Clots discusses the author’s traumatic upbringing during the cleansing of Hindu Pandits from the Kashmir Valley. Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night takes on the experience of a Kashmiri Muslim living through the Indian occupation and counterinsurgency operations. Peer’s account also led to his appointment as the writer for the Vishal Bhardwaj film, Haider. Haider was intended to be the final film in Bhardwaj’s trilogy of Shakespearean adaptations for Indian audiences, after Maqbool and Omkara. Despite the film’s critical acclaim, it is also Bhardwaj’s most controversial. It was greeted by calls for a boycott by right wing Indians due to its portrayal of the Indian army. Nonetheless, the release of Haider along with the publication of Peer’s and Pandita’s books represent an important step in bringing the experiences of growing up in Kashmir to a broader audience.

Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night serves both as a personal narrative of Peer's life and a journalistic account of various Kashmiris’ experiences growing up under occupation and conflict. Peer was only 13 years old when he witnessed Indian paramilitary forces fire on peaceful protesters, an event known as the Gawakadal Massacre. Influenced by this experience, Peer debated going to Pakistan and training to become a militant as the Azadi (freedom) movement picked up steam. Although he could be characterized as sympathetic to some of the demands of the separatist movement, his family has also been targeted by separatist militants who viewed his father's work in the civil service with suspicion.

Rather than focusing on major political figures, Peer instead focuses on the everyday people affected by the conflict. The people tortured in the infamous PAPA-2 torture camp, the wives of the disappeared men (the ‘half widows’), and the families of militant fighters all have a voice in Peer’s book. As Peer primarily focuses on the people who have had to suffer through the same circumstances as he did, the tragedy of the Kashmiri Pandits receives only a brief treatment.

Rahul Pandita helps fill this gap with his work, Our Moon Has Blood Clots. While Peer's book could be characterized as a journalistic account of the conflict, Pandita's publication should be seen as a memoir. His chronicle focuses primarily on his experience growing up in the Kashmir Valley and the removal of the Pandit population. Pandita details the 1947 war through the eyes of his uncle (father of his beloved cousin Ravi, who was killed by militants). The narrative Pandita paints is emotional and heartbreaking. Despite the importance of the Pandits’ removal, rarely before have commentators discussed the issue at length, instead treating it as a footnote in the insurgency’s history. Even in India, as Pandita points out, the experience of the Pandits has been overlooked, including by those typically associated with human rights advocacy.

One prominent theme in Pandita’s book (as well as his articles on the subject) is the complicity of the Kashmir Valley Muslim population in cleansing of the Pandits. While Kashmiri Muslims did not advocate for collective punishment, Pandita points out that relatively few Muslims came to the aid of their Pandit neighbors. Instead, some even took advantage of the chaos to their own benefit (e.g. taking Pandit property and closing down Pandit businesses.) In Pandita’s view, for there to be true reconciliation between the Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims, the Muslims must acknowledge and apologize for their role in the exodus. Whether one agrees with Pandita’s assertion that all Kashmiri Muslims were complicit, it is true that there remains a sizeable section of the Valley population that views the exodus as a conspiracy engineered by the Indian government. All of this works into Pandita’s narrative that the insurgency in Kashmir was an Islamist uprising. This puts it at odds with Peer’s work.

While Pandita seems to view the militancy in Kashmir as purely Islamic, Peer paints a picture of a nationalist struggle. Pandita uses anecdotes about Kashmiri Muslims supporting Pakistan during cricket matches while the Pandits supported India as proof of the growing influence of radical Islamism amongst the Muslims in the valley. Peer points out, however, that it would be more accurate to say that the supposed support for Pakistan was simply the 'not India' option. Peer does mention the plight of the Pandits, but he does not talk at length about the prevalence of conspiracy theories implicating the Indian government rather than local Muslims, or discuss the issue of reconciliation. Again it should be emphasized that while Pandita’s book is a personal memoir of his experience during the cleansing of the Pandits, Peer’s remains a journalistic account, inevitably leading to some difference in tone and narrative. Despite these inconsistencies, both books provide a valuable bottom-up view of the Kashmir conflict.

Haider, written by Basharat Peer, applies many of the stories detailed in Curfewed Night to the tale of Hamlet. Upon release, Haider attracted controversy. It has been accused of being many things, including: anti-army, anti-national, and anti-Hindu. A hashtag, #BoycottHaider, started trending on Twitter in the days surrounding the release. On some right wing Hindu websites, soldiers disparaged the film, arguing that civilians shouldn't criticize military conduct. Despite this, Haider went on to become a box office success. Another hashtag in defense of the film (#HaiderTrueCinema) removed the previous hashtag from the trending list. An Indian military officer who served in Kashmir also wrote an article defending the film.

Arguably, Haider is the first successful mainstream Bollywood film to look at the Kashmir conflict from the perspective of a Kashmiri Muslim. Many Bollywood films that are set in Kashmir either shed a positive light on the Indian military (Jab Tak Hai Jaan) or fail to really dig into the realities of the conflict and the lives of those who have to live through it (Mission Kashmir). Others, like Sikander, are usually unsuccessful in achieving mainstream success. Haider represents an important step for Indian cinema in depicting sensitive subjects. As Zakir Hussein at the Indian Council on World Affairs has said, the strengthening of democratic traditions in India will see the release of more films on difficult issues such as these.

Many critics have argued that Haider not only ignores the plight of the Pandits, but also serves as propaganda for jihadist and anti-Indian writers. However, while the conditions brought about by military occupation set in motion the story of Haider, examining the Pandit issue would have been a distraction from the plot. Nor would it be fair to expect one movie to examine the entire conflict. Haider presents one side of the issue, a side that is usually downplayed in Indian discussions of the Kashmir question. If anything, Haider opens up the door for other films that could illustrate the different perspectives.

Movies like Haider and the books by Peer and Pandita represent an important step for audiences, both domestically and internationally, in focusing on the human side of the Kashmir conflict. While some of the perspectives and stories make for uncomfortable reading, they also help analysts to understand the forces and motivations driving the conflict.