I have been reading “Freedom at Midnight,” the popular classic of 30 years ago that recounted the coming of democracy to India. The authors, journalists Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, capture the end of the Raj with sweep and drama, and manage to make even the dividing of India and Pakistan—I mean the literal drawing of the lines between the two countries, by a British civil servant—riveting. But the sobering lesson of this history, the big thing you bring away, is this: They didn’t know.
Mountbatten and Nehru and Jinnah were brilliant men who’d not only experienced a great deal; they’d done a great deal, and yet they did not know that the Subcontinent—which each in his own way, and sometimes it was an odd way, loved—would explode in violence, that bloodlust would rule as soon as the Union Jack was lowered.
* * *
On Aug. 15, 1947, independence day, in the Punjab, in the city of Amritsar, as local authorities performed the jolly rituals of the transfer of power, a group of local Sikhs went on a rampage in a Muslim neighborhood, killing its male inhabitants. That night, Amritsar’s railroad station became a refugee camp for thousands of Hindus who’d fled what was now Pakistan’s part of the Punjab. As trains arrived, huge crowds scanned the cars for relatives and friends, for children left behind in the flight. Suddenly a train came in but there seemed no one aboard, which was odd. The stationmaster, Chani Singh, waved the train to a halt. The teeming crowd on the platform froze into “an eerie silence.”
From the book:
- Singh stared down the line of eight carriages. All the windows of the compartments were wide open but there was not a single human being standing at any of them. . . . [He] strode to the first carriage, snatched open the door and stepped inside. In one horrible instant he understood why no one was getting off the Ten Down Express in Amritsar that night. It was a trainful of corpses. The floor of the compartment before him was a tangled jumble of human bodies, throats cut, skulls smashed, bowels eviscerated. Arms, legs, trunks of bodies were strewn along the corridors of compartments.
He heard a strangled sound and called out, “You are in Amritsar. We are Hindus and Sikhs here. The police are present. Do not be afraid.”
“At his words a few of the dead began to stir. The stark horror of the scenes that followed would be for ever a nightmare engraved upon the station master’s mind.” A woman shrieked as she held her husband’s severed head. Children began to weep as they held the bodies of their slaughtered mothers.
“In every compartment in every carriage the sight was the same.” On the last car he saw, written in whitewash, “the assassins’ calling card. ‘This train is our Independence gift to Nehru and Patel,’ it read.”
* * *
The savagery spread, and turned the Subcontinent into a charnel house. In the end hundreds of thousands were dead.
And yet Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India; Jawaharlal Nehru, one of India’s founding fathers, and its first prime minister; and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, head of the Muslim League and first governor-general of Pakistan, and many other leaders in the movement for independence—most of them—were shocked and horrified by the scale and bloodiness of the fighting.
How could this be?
One can infer a great deal from the book. Everyone in a position of authority seems to have been blinded, in part, by the Mission.
The tough, preternaturally self-confident Mountbatten had been sent by London to oversee independence, and he was bloody well going to do it. He was Mountbatten of Burma after all, and he’d first toured India with his cousin David, the future Edward VIII. Imperialism was over, Mountbatten was given his charge: get Britain out with grace and dignity, part as friends, preserve the special ties between London and Delhi. For Mountbatten, speed was everything. He thought the sectarian violence that had begun to crop up as independence neared would be quelled by the transfer of power and partition.
For Nehru, the mission was to secure a free and democratic India. Only then would he realize his personal destiny, to become its first prime minister and impose upon its masses the Fabian socialism that had so impressed him when, as a young Indian outsider at Cambridge, he was dazzled by London’s salons. (Those salons damaged him more than any British prison ever did.)
Jinnah sought to create the world’s biggest Muslim nation, with him as head. On the day of independence, Pakistan was littered not by little flags but by pictures of one man: him. He ate bacon with his eggs, liked whiskey at night, and seems never to have had a personal religious impulse he could not squelch. But he too had a destiny, and if the Subcontinent had to be rent for him to achieve it, then so be it.
So they were all driven by their mission. And by personal ambition, which tends to narrow one’s focus, or rather train one’s focus on oneself, and away from more important things.
And there was something else.
The leaders of the day did not know that terrible violence was coming because of what I think is a classic and structural problem of leadership: It distances. Each of these men was to varying degrees detached from facts on the ground. They were by virtue of their position and accomplishments an elite. They no longer knew what was beating within the hearts of those who lived quite literally on the ground. Nehru, Mountbatten, Jinnah—they well knew that Muslims feared living under the rule of the Hindus, that Hindus feared living under Muslims, that Sikhs feared both. But the leaders did not know the fear that was felt was so deep, so constitutional, so passionate. They did not know it would find its expression in a savagery so wild and widespread.
Each of these leaders had been removed by his own history from facts on the ground. “Elitism” doesn’t always speak of where you went to school or what caste, as it were, you came from. You can wind up one of the elites simply by rising. Simply by being separated for a certain amount of time from those you seek to lead.
People who know most intimately, and through most recent experience, what is happening on the ground, and in the hearts of men, are usually not in the inner councils. They have not fought their way or earned their way in yet. Sometimes they’re called in and listened to, at least for a moment, but in the end they tend to be ignored. They’re nobodies, after all.
This is a problem with government and governing bodies—with the White House, Downing Street, with State Department specialists, and the Council on Foreign Relations, and West Point, too. It is not so much a matter of fault as it is structural. The minute you rise to govern you become another step removed from the lives of those you govern. Which means you become removed from reality.
* * *
This is what I’ve been thinking about as I’ve considered the obvious fact that those in positions of authority in Washington were taken aback by and not prepared for the strength and durability of the insurgency in Iraq. Obviously India in 1947 is not Iraq in 2006. But there is a lesson both have in common. The resistance in Iraq did not in fact collapse like Saddam’s army, and some people could have told Washington that. (Some apparently did.) But those who knew best were on the ground, and not elites. They were young army colonels, or old village elders. They had not earned their way in. No one listened. Or they listened for a moment and didn’t hear.
Elites become detached, and governments are composed of elites. In a way we all know this, but we know it so well we forget it. The tribute politicians pay to pollsters shows they are aware they operate at a remove. At least pollsters can claim to have spoken to people on the ground, at least by phone, last Wednesday. They have numbers, on a page.
In international actions great nations should, in general, go slow, think dark, assume the worst. If it can go wrong it likely will. Prepare, take steps; forewarned is forearmed. Listen to the “unimportant”; heed the outside voice. Know you don’t know.
If you are a leader, recognize what drives you. Know your motives. Mountbatten could have resisted partition, or slowed it, or lessened its impact. He was a decisive and dynamic man, a great one I think, but if he’d been capable of introspection, of self-analysis, of self-skepticism, he might have recognized and resisted his too-driven sense of Mission, and the personal vanity that was always, with him, a spur.
If Mountbatten had slowed down, the tuberculosis that was killing the sole but unstoppable mover for partition, Jinnah (it was a secret; only Jinnah knew Jinnah was dying) would have taken him out of the picture, and altered the landscape. Within a year of independence, he was dead. But Mountbatten didn’t know, and barreled on.
The only one who knew what was coming was Gandhi, mystic, genius and eccentric, who drove the other great men crazy by insisting on living among and ministering to the poor, the nonelite. He knew their hearts. He had given his life for a free and independent India but opposed partition and feared the immediate chaos it would bring. He spent the eve of Independence mourning. Six months later he was dead.