Five independent nations emerged from the 1947 partition of British India, but they have yet to escape its dismal influence, writes prolific British journalist Keay (India: A History, 2008, etc.) in this vivid, thoughtful and not terribly optimistic history.
India is secular, democratic and regarded as an economic success—the only one of the five to be considered so. Pakistan and Bangladesh are determinedly Islamic, susceptible to military rule and stubbornly impoverished, and Nepal and Sri Lanka remain traumatized by recent civil wars. Historians still wonder at how everyone got it so wrong. Planning for Indian independence, British negotiators proposed a single realm with elaborate democratic safeguards. Muslim leaders, as British-educated, elite and nonreligious as their Hindu counterparts, viewed an autonomous Pakistan as a political ploy rather than a practicality. Only in the final months did increasing disorder, political missteps and British haste to leave make partition inevitable. Despite several pre-independence atrocities, everyone was flabbergasted at the mass slaughter that followed. Almost immediately, India’s occupation of Hindu-ruled but Muslim-majority Kashmir enraged Pakistan, a rage that still obsesses that nation, leading to several wars, innumerable skirmishes, standoffs, terrorist attacks and weak Pakistani governments that defer to the army. To the south, Sri Lanka, independent since 1948, remained peaceful for a few decades but is only now emerging from more than 30 years of murderous ethnic warfare. Keay’s only ray of hope shines on the region’s largest nation. India’s clunky, corrupt democracy enjoys an expanding economy and middle class despite ongoing massive poverty, bloody ethnic, language and religious quarrels, and guerrilla insurgencies. “Over the last half century the shadows of Partition’s brutal dislocation have grown ever longer,” writes the author. “They slant across the whole course of events in post-independence South Asia.”
An insightful, entirely engrossing account of a dysfunctional region that may or may not pull itself together.