Books March 2003

The Perils of Partition

Our author examines the political—and literary—legacy of Britain's policy of "divide and quit"

The public, or "political," poems of W. H. Auden, which stretch from his beautiful elegy for Spain and his imperishable reflections on September 1939 and conclude with a magnificent eight-line snarl about the Soviet assault on Czechoslovakia in 1968, are usually considered with only scant reference to his verses about the shameful end of empire in 1947. Edward Mendelson's otherwise meticulous and sensitive biography allots one sentence to Auden's "Partition."

Unbiased at least he was
  when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on this
  land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically
  at odds,
With their different diets and
  incompatible gods.
"Time," they had briefed him in
  London, "is short. It's too late
For mutual reconciliation or
  rational debate:
The only solution now lies in
  separation ..."

Dutifully pulling open my New York Times one day last December, I saw that most of page three was given over to an article on a possible solution to the Cyprus "problem." The physical division of this tiny Mediterranean island has become a migraine simultaneously for the European Union (which cannot well allow the abridgment of free movement of people and capital within the borders of a potential member state), for NATO (which would look distinctly foolish if it underwent a huge expansion only to see two of its early members, Greece and Turkey, go to war), for the United Nations (whose own blue-helmeted soldiery has "mediated" the Cyprus dispute since 1964), and for the United States (which is the senior partner and chief armorer of Greece and Turkey, and which would prefer them to concentrate on other, more pressing regional matters).

Flapping through the rest of the press that day, I found the usual references to the Israeli-Palestinian quarrel, to the state of near war between India and Pakistan (and the state of actual if proxy war that obtains between them in the province of Kashmir), and to the febrile conditions that underlie the truce between Loyalists and Republicans—or "Protestants" and "Catholics" —in Northern Ireland. Casting aside the papers and switching on my e-mail, I received further bulletins from specialist Web sites that monitor the precarious state of affairs along the border between Iraq and Kuwait, between the hostile factions in Sri Lanka, and even among the citizens of Hong Kong, who were anxiously debating a further attempt by Beijing to bring the former colony under closer control.

There wasn't much happening that day to call a reader's attention to the Falkland Islands, to the resentment between Guatemala and Belize, to the internal quarrels and collapses in Somalia and Eritrea, or to the parlous state of the kingdom of Jordan. However, there was some news concerning the defiance of the citizens of Gibraltar, who had embarrassed their patron or parent British government by in effect refusing the very idea of negotiations with Spain on the future of their tiny and enclaved territory. I have saved the word "British" for as long as I decently can.

In the modern world the "fault lines" and "flash points" of journalistic shorthand are astonishingly often the consequence of frontiers created ad hoc by British imperialism. In her own 1959 poem Marya Mannes wrote,

Borders are scratched across the
  hearts of men
By strangers with a calm, judicial
And when the borders bleed we
  watch with dread
The lines of ink across the map
  turn red.

Her somewhat trite sanguinary image is considerably modified when one remembers that most of the lines or gashes would not have been there if the map hadn't been colored red in the first place. No sooner had the wider world discovered the Pashtun question, after September 11, 2001, than it became both natural and urgent to inquire why the Pashtun people appeared to live half in Afghanistan and half in Pakistan. Sir Henry Mortimer Durand had decreed so in 1893 with an imperious gesture, and his arbitrary demarcation is still known as the Durand Line. Sir Mark Sykes (with his French counterpart, Georges Picot) in 1916 concocted an apportionment of the Middle East that would separate Lebanon from Syria and Palestine from Jordan. Sir Percy Cox in 1922 fatefully determined that a portion of what had hitherto been notionally Iraqi territory would henceforth be known as Kuwait. The English half spy and half archaeologist Gertrude Bell in her letters described walking through the desert sands after World War I, tracing the new boundary of Iraq and Saudi Arabia with her walking stick. The congested, hypertense crossing point of the River Jordan, between Jordan "proper" and the Israeli-held West Bank, is to this day known as the Allenby Bridge, after T. E. Lawrence's commander. And it fell to Sir Cyril Radcliffe to fix the frontiers of India and Pakistan—or, rather, to carve a Pakistani state out of what had formerly been known as India. Auden again:

"The Viceroy thinks, as you will
  see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his
  company the better,
So we've arranged to provide you
  with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two
  Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final
  decision must rest with you."

Probably the best-known literary account of this grand historic irony is Midnight's Children, the panoptic novel that introduced Salman Rushdie to a global audience. One should never employ the word "irony" cheaply. But the Subcontinent attained self-government, and also suffered a deep and lasting wound, at precisely the moment that separated August 14 and 15 of 1947. Rushdie's conceit—of a nation as a child simultaneously born, disputed, and sundered—has Solomonic roots. Parturition and partition become almost synonymous. Was partition the price of independence, or was independence the price of partition?

It is this question, I believe, that lends the issue its enduring and agonizing fascination. Many important nations achieved their liberation, if we agree to use the terminology of the post-Woodrow Wilson era (or their statehood, to put it more neutrally), on what one might call gunpoint conditions. Thus the Irish, who were the first since 1776 to break out of the British Empire, were told in 1921 that they could have an independent state or a united state but not both. A few years earlier Arthur Balfour had made a declaration concerning Palestine that in effect promised its territory to two competing nationalities. In 1960 the British government informed the people of Cyprus that they must accept a conditional postcolonial independence or face an outright division of their island between Greece and Turkey (not, it is worth emphasizing, between the indigenous Greek and Turkish Cypriots). They sullenly signed the treaty, handing over a chunk of Cyprus to permanent and sovereign British bases, which made it a potentially tripartite partition but also inscribed all the future intercommunal misery in one instrument: a treaty to which no party had acceded in good faith.

But it seemed to be enough, at the time, to cover an inglorious British retreat. And here another irony forces itself upon us. The whole ostensible plan behind empire was long-term, and centripetal. From the eighteenth to the twentieth century the British sent out lawyers, architects, designers, doctors, and civil servants, not merely to help collect the revenues of exploitation but to embark on nation-building. Yet at the moment of crux it was suddenly remembered that the proud and patient mother country had more-urgent business at home. To complete the Auden version:

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with
   police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep
  the assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task
  of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his
  disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost
  certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check
  them, no time to inspect.

The true term for this is "betrayal," as Auden so strongly suggests, because the only thinkable justification for the occupation of someone else's territory and the displacement of someone else's culture is the testable, honorable intention of applying an impartial justice, a disinterested administration, and an even hand as regards bandits and sectarians. In the absence of such ambitions, or the resolve to complete them, the British would have done better to stay on their fog-girt island and not make such high-toned claims for themselves. The peoples of India would have found their own way, without tutelage and on a different timetable. Yet Marx and Mill and Macaulay, in their different fashions, felt that the encounter between England and India was fertile and dynamic and revolutionary, and now we have an entire Anglo-Indian literature and cuisine and social fusion that seem to testify to the point. (Rushdie prefers the phrase "Indo-Anglian," to express the tremendous influence of the English language on Indian authorship, and who would want to argue? There may well be almost as many adult speakers of English in India as there are in the United Kingdom, and at the upper and even middle levels they seem to speak and write it rather better.)

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Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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