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Named one of the best books of 2015 by NPR, Amazon, Seattle Times, and Shelf Awareness
A few bloody months in South Asia during the summer of 1947 explain the world that troubles us today.
Nobody expected the liberation of India and birth of Pakistan to be so bloody — it was supposed to be an answer to the dreams of Muslims and Hindus who had been ruled by the British for centuries. Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s protégé and the political leader of India, believed Indians were an inherently nonviolent, peaceful people. Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was a secular lawyer, not a firebrand. But in August 1946, exactly a year before Independence, Calcutta erupted in street-gang fighting. A cycle of riots — targeting Hindus, then Muslims, then Sikhs — spiraled out of control. As the summer of 1947 approached, all three groups were heavily armed and on edge, and the British rushed to leave. Hell let loose. Trains carried Muslims west and Hindus east to their slaughter. Some of the most brutal and widespread ethnic cleansing in modern history erupted on both sides of the new border, searing a divide between India and Pakistan that remains a root cause of many evils. From jihadi terrorism to nuclear proliferation, the searing tale told in Midnight’s Furies explains all too many of the headlines we read today.
Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru these towering figures of South Asian independence are widely familiar today for the outsize impact they had on the shape of the modern world. But Hajari, Asia editor for Bloomberg View, turns away from them to deliver the story of the grassroots: faceless actors operating in secret as they overwhelm ideologies and official pronouncements, fomenting chaos to an extent no leader could have predicted. In a region as complex and densely populated as South Asia, events on the ground often leaderless and seemingly random can make short work of any policy or plan. Hajari highlights the insufficiency of governments to curb the passions of their populations, devoting a large portion of the book to the contested territory of Kashmir, just one of a multitude of flashpoints at the time of the 1947 partition, albeit the one that arguably inspired the most passion in the dueling leaders. "Given the paucity of unbiased accounts," he notes, "the question while endlessly debated over the last six decades is impossible to answer." The failure to come to any resolution on that issue has haunted the Indian subcontinent ever since, and Hajari laments that the cycle of recriminations has hardened into a permanent obstacle to peace.