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.)

The element of tragedy here is arguably implicit in the whole imperial project. Ever since Rome conquered and partitioned Gaul, the best-known colonial precept has been divide et impera—"divide and rule." Yet after the initial subjugation the name of the task soon becomes the more soothing "civilizing mission," and a high value is placed on lofty, balanced, unifying administration. Later comes the point at which the colonized outgrow the rule of the remote and chilly exploiters, and then it will often be found convenient for the governor or the district commissioner to play upon the tribal or confessional differences among his subjects. From proclaiming that withdrawal, let alone partition, is the very last thing they will do, the colonial authorities move to ensure that these are the very last things they do do. The contradiction is perfectly captured in the memoir of the marvelously named Sir Penderel Moon, one of the last British administrators in India, who mordantly titled his book Divide and Quit.

The events he records occurred beyond half a century ago. But in the more immediate past it was Lords Carrington and Owen—both senior graduates of the British Foreign Office—who advanced the ethnic cantonization of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was Lord Carrington who (just before Nelson Mandela was released from prison) proposed that South Africa be split into a white Afrikaner reservation, a Zulu area, and a free-for-all among various other peoples. It was Sir Anthony Eden who helpfully suggested in 1954 that the United States might consider a division of Vietnam into "North" and "South" at the close of the French colonial fiasco. Cold War partitions or geopolitical partitions, such as those imposed in Germany, Vietnam, and Korea, are to be distinguished from those arising from the preconditions of empire. But there is a degree of overlap even here (especially in the case of Vietnam and also, later, of Cyprus). As a general rule it can be stated that all partitions except that of Germany have led to war or another partition or both. Or that they threaten to do so.

Pakistan had been an independent state for only a quarter century when its restive Bengali "east wing" broke away to become Bangladesh. And in the process of that separation a Muslim army put a Muslim people to the sword—rather discrediting and degrading the original concept of a "faith-based" nationality. Cyprus was attacked by Greece and invaded by Turkey within fourteen years of its quasi-partitioned independence, and a huge and costly international effort is now under way to redraw the resulting frontiers so that they bear some relation to local ethnic proportions. Every day brings tidings of a fresh effort to revise the 1947-1948 cease-fire lines in Palestine (sometimes known as the 1967 borders), which were originally the result of a clumsy partition of the initial British Mandate. In Northern Ireland the number of Catholic citizens now approaches the number of Protestant ones, so that the terms "minority" and "majority" will soon take on new meaning. When that time arrives, we can be sure that demands will be renewed for a redivision of the Six Counties, roughly east and west of the Bann River. As for Kashmir, where local politics have been almost petrified since the arbitrary 1947 decision to become India's only Muslim-majority state, it is openly suggested that the outcome will be a three-way split into the part of Kashmir already occupied by Pakistan, the non-Muslim regions dominated by India, and the central valley where most Kashmiris actually dwell. In all the above cases there has been continuous strife, often spreading to neighboring countries, of the sort that partition was supposedly designed to prevent or solve. Harry Coomer (Hari Kumar), the Anglo-Indian protagonist of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, sees it all coming when he writes to an English friend in 1940,

I think that there's no doubt that in the last twenty years—whether intentionally or not—the English have succeeded in dividing and ruling, and the kind of conversation I hear ... makes me realise the extent to which the English now seem to depend upon the divisions in Indian political opinion perpetuating their own rule at least until after the war, if not for some time beyond it. They are saying openly that it is "no good leaving the bloody country because there's no Indian party representative to hand it over to." They prefer Muslims to Hindus (because of the closer affinity that exists between God and Allah than exists between God and the Brahma), are constitutionally predisposed to Indian princes, emotionally affected by the thought of untouchables, and mad keen about the peasants who look upon any Raj as God ...

This is the fictional equivalent of Anita Inder Singh's diagnosis, in The Origins of the Partition of India 1936-1947:

The Labour government's directive to the Cabinet Mission in March 1946 stressed that power would only be transferred to Indians if they agreed to a settlement which would safeguard British military and economic interests in India. But in February 1947, the Labour government announced that it would wind up the Raj by June 1948, even if no agreement had emerged. Less than four months later, Lord Mountbatten announced that the British would transfer power on 15 August 1947, suggesting that much happened before this interval which persuaded the British to bring forward the date for terminating the empire by almost one year. Also, the British have often claimed that they had to partition because the Indian parties failed to agree. But until the early 1940s the differences between them had been a pretext for the British to reject the Congress demand for independence ...

Sigmund Freud once wrote an essay concerning "the narcissism of the minor differences." He pointed out that the most vicious and irreconcilable quarrels often arise between peoples who are to most outward appearances nearly identical. In Sri Lanka the distinction between Tamils and Sinhalese is barely noticeable to the visitor. But the Sinhalese can tell the difference, and the indigenous Tamils know as well the difference between themselves and the Tamils later imported from South India by the British to pick the tea. It is precisely the intimacy and inwardness of the partition impulse that makes it so tempting to demagogues and opportunists. The 1921 partition of Ireland was not just a division of the island but a division of the northeastern province of Ulster. Historically this province contained nine counties. But only four—Antrim, Armagh, Derry, and Down—had anything like a stable Protestant majority. Three others—Monaghan, Cavan, and Donegal—were overwhelmingly Catholic. The line of pro-British partition attempted to annex the maximum amount of territory with the minimum number of Catholic and nationalist voters. Two largely Catholic counties, Fermanagh and Tyrone, petitioned to be excluded from the "Unionist" project. But a mere four counties were thought to be incompatible with a separate state; so the partition of Ireland, into twenty-six counties versus six, was also the fracturing of Ulster.

In a similar manner, the partition of India involved the subdivision of the ancient territories of Punjab and Bengal. The peoples here spoke the same language, shared the same ancestry, and had long inhabited the same territory. But they were abruptly forced to choose between one side of a frontier and the other, on the basis of religion alone. And then, with this durable scar of division fully established between them, they could fall to quarreling further about religion among themselves. The infinite and punishing consequences of this can be seen to the present day, through the secession of Bangladesh, the Sunni-Shia fratricide in Pakistan, the intra-Pashtun rivalry, and the sinister and dangerous recent attempt to define India (which still has more Muslims on its soil than Pakistan does) as a Hindu state. To say nothing of Kashmir. This "solution," with its enormous military wastage and potentially catastrophic nuclear potential, must count as one of the great moral and political failures in recent human history. One of Paul Scott's most admirable minor characters is Lady Ethel Manners, the widow of a former British governor, who exclaims about the "midnight" of 1947,

The creation of Pakistan is our crowning failure. I can't bear it ... Our only justification for two hundred years of power was unification. But we've divided one composite nation into two and everyone at home goes round saying what a swell the new Viceroy is for getting it sorted out so quickly.

The year 1947 was obviously an unpropitious one for laying down your "confessional state" or "post-colonial partition" vintage. The Arabs of Palestine, who gave place to a half-promised British-sponsored state for Jews at the same time, are now subdivided into Israeli Arabs, West Bankers, Gazans, Jerusalemites, Jordanians, and the wider Palestinian-refugee diaspora. If at any moment a settlement looks possible between any one of these factions and the Israelis, the claims of another, more afflicted faction promptly arise to neutralize or negate the process. Anton Shammas and David Grossman have both written lucidly, from Arab-Israeli and Jewish-Israeli perspectives respectively, about this balkanization of a society that was fissile enough to begin with. And perhaps that splintering is why Osama bin Laden's fantasy of a restored caliphate—an undivided Muslim empire, organic and hierarchic and centralized—now exerts its appeal (as did the Nasserite and later the Baath Party dream of a single Arab nation in which the old borders would be subsumed by one glorious whole).

In the preface to his 1904 play John Bull's Other Island, George Bernard Shaw made highly vivid use of the metaphor of fracture or amputation.

A healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man of his bones. But if you break a nation's nationality it will think of nothing else but getting it set again. It will listen to no reformer, to no philosopher, to no preacher, until the demand of the Nationalist is granted. It will attend to no business, however vital, except the business of unification and liberation.

This, mark you, was seventeen years before the issue of Irish "liberation" was forcibly counterposed to that of "unification." "Unionist," in British terminology, means someone who favors the "union" of the Six Counties of Northern Ireland with the United Kingdom—in other words, someone who favors the disunion of Ireland. Among Greeks the word "unionist" is rendered as "enotist" —someone who supports enosis, or union, between Greece and John Bull's other European colony, Cyprus. (This is why the Ulster Unionists in Parliament today are among the staunchest supporters of the ultra-nationalist Rauf Denktash's breakaway Turkish colony on the island.) And Shaw might have done well to add that preachers can indeed get attention for their views, while the national question is being debated, as long as they take decided and fervent nationalist positions. Even he would have been startled, if he visited any of these territories today, to find how right he was—and how people discuss their injuries as if they had been inflicted yesterday.

It is the admixture of religion with the national question that has made the problem of partition so toxic. Whether consciously or not, British colonial authorities usually preferred to define and categorize their subjects according to confession. The whole concept of British dominion in Ireland was based on a Protestant ascendancy. In the Subcontinent the empire tended to classify people as Muslim or non-Muslim, partly because the Muslims had been the last conquerors of the region and also because—as Paul Scott cleverly noticed—it found Islam to be at least recognizable in Christian-missionary terms (as opposed to the heathenish polytheism of the Hindus). In Palestine and Cyprus, both of which it took over from the Ottomans, London wrote similar categories into law. As a partially intended consequence, any secular or nonsectarian politician was at a peculiar disadvantage. Many historians tend to forget that the stoutest supporters of Irish independence, at least after the rebellion of 1798, were Protestants or agnostics, from Edward Fitzgerald and Wolfe Tone to Charles Stewart Parnell and James Connolly. The leadership of the Indian Congress Party was avowedly nonconfessional, and a prominent part in the struggle for independence was played by Marxist forces that repudiated any definition of nationality by religion. Likewise in Cyprus: the largest political party on the island was Communist, with integrated trade unions and municipalities, and most Turkish Cypriots were secular in temper. The availability of a religious "wedge," added to the innate or latent appeal of chauvinism and tribalism, was always a godsend to the masters of divide and rule. Among other things, it allowed the authorities to pose as overworked mediators between irreconcilable passions.

Indeed, part of the trouble with partition is that it relies for its implementation on local partitionists. It may also rely on an unspoken symbiosis between them—a covert handshake between apparent enemies. The grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, was in many ways unrepresentative of the Palestinian peasantry of the 1930s and 1940s (and it does not do to forget that perhaps 20 percent of Palestinians are Christian). But his clerical authority made him a useful (if somewhat distasteful) "notable" from the viewpoint of the colonial power, and his virulent sectarianism was invaluable to the harder-line Zionists, who needed only to reprint his speeches. Many Indian Muslims refused their support to Mohammed Ali Jinnah, but once Britain became bent on partition, it automatically conferred authority on his Muslim League as being the "realistic" expression of the community. British policy also helped the emergence of Rauf Denktash, whose violence was principally directed at those Turkish Cypriots who did not want an apartheid solution. More recently, in Bosnia, the West (encouraged by Lords Carrington and Owen) made the fatal error of assuming that the hardest-line demagogues were the most authentic representatives of their communities. Thus men who could never win a truly democratic election—and have not won one since—were given the immense prestige of being invited as recognized delegates to the negotiating table. Interviewing the Serbian Orthodox fanatics who had proclaimed an artificial "Republica Srpska" on stolen and cleansed Bosnian soil, John Burns of The New York Times was surprised to find them citing the example of Denktash's separate state in Cyprus as a precedent. (The usual colloquial curse word for "Muslim," in Serb circles, is "Turk." But there is such a thing as brotherhood under the skin, and even xenophobes can practice their own perverse form of internationalism.) Most of these men are now either in prison or on the run, but they lasted long enough to see Bosnia-Herzegovina subjected to an almost terminal experience of partition and subpartition, splitting like an amoeba among Serb, Croat, and (in the Bihac enclave) Muslim bandits. Now, under the paternal wing of Lord Ashdown, the governorship of Bosnia is based on centripetal rather than centrifugal principles. But his stewardship as commissioner originates with the European Union.

The straight capitalist and socialist rationality of the EU—where "Union" means what it says and where frontiers are bad for business as well as a reproach to the old left-internationalist ideal—is in bizarre contrast to the lived experience of partition. The time-zone difference between India and Pakistan, for example, is half an hour. That's a nicely irrational and arbitrary slice out of daily life. In Cyprus, the difference between the clocks in the Greek and Turkish sectors is an hour—but it's the only in-country north-south time change that I am aware of, and it operates on two sides of the same capital city. In my "time," I have traversed the border post at the old Ledra Palace hotel in the center of Nicosia, where a whole stretch of the city is frozen at the precise moment of "cease-fire" in 1974, when everything went into suspended animation. I have been frisked at the Allenby Bridge and at the Gaza crossing between Israel and the "Palestinian authority." I have looked at the Korean DMZ from both sides, been ordered from a car by British soldiers on the Donegal border of Northern Ireland, been pushed around at Checkpoint Charlie on the old Berlin Wall, and been held up for bribes by soldiers at the Atari crossing on Kipling's old "Grand Trunk Road" between Lahore and Amritsar—the only stage at which the Indo-Pakistan frontier can be legally negotiated on land. In no case was it possible to lose a sense of the surreal, as if the border was actually carved into the air rather than the roadway. Rushdie succeeds in weaving magical realism out of this in Midnight's Children: "Mr Kemal, who wanted nothing to do with Partition, was fond of saying, 'Here's proof of the folly of the scheme! Those [Muslim] Leaguers plan to abscond with a whole thirty minutes! Time Without Partitions,' Mr Kemal cried, 'That's the ticket!'"

There is a good deal of easy analysis on offer these days, to the effect that Islam was the big loser from colonialism, and is entitled to a measure of self-pity in consequence. The evidence doesn't quite bear this out. In India the British were openly partial to the Muslim side, and helped to midwife the first modern state consecrated to Islam. In Cyprus they favored the Turks. In the Middle East the Muslim Hashemite and Saudi dynasties—rivals for the guardianship of the holy places—benefited as much as anyone from the imperial carve-up. Had there been a British partition of Eritrea after 1945, as was proposed, the Muslims would have been the beneficiaries of it. No, the Muslim claim is better stated as resentment over the loss of the Islamic empire: an entirely distinct grievance. There were Muslim losers in Palestine and elsewhere, mostly among the powerless and landless, but the big losers were those of all creeds and of none who believed in modernity and had transcended tribalism.

The largely secular Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo were, however, the main victims of the cave-in to partition in the former Yugoslavia, and are now the chief beneficiaries of that policy's reversal. They were also among the first to test the improvised but increasingly systematic world order, in which rescue operations are undertaken from the developed world, assisted by a nexus of nongovernmental organizations, and then mutate into semi-permanent administrations. "Empire" is the word employed by some hubristic American intellectuals for this new dominion. A series of uncovenanted mandates, for failed states or former abattoir regimes, is more likely to be the real picture. And the relevant boundaries still descend from Sir Percy, Sir Henry, and Sir Cyril, who, as Auden phrased it, "quickly forgot the case, as a good lawyer must." However we confront this inheritance of responsibility (should it be called the global man's burden?), the British past is replete with lessons on how not to discharge it.