In the summer of 1947, the British Raj relinquished its hold over the Indian subcontinent. In its wake, two new nations were created: India and Pakistan. The hastily-drawn border between the countries slashed through communities and bisected entire provinces, triggering one of the largest forced migrations in human history. In the first episode of a multi-part series, we examine the twilight years of the British in India, as well as the forceful personalities who helped loosen its colonial grip. From Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru to the elegant Earl of Mountbatten, we’ll begin assembling the cast that that will be forced to grapple with the looming crisis.
In the summer of 1947, the British Raj relinquished its hold over the Indian subcontinent. In its wake, two new nations were created: India and Pakistan. The hastily-drawn border between the countries slashed through communities and bisected entire provinces, triggering one of the largest forced migrations in human history. In the first episode of a multi-part series, we examine the twilight years of the British in India, as well as the forceful personalities who helped loosen its colonial grip. From Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru to the elegant Earl of Mountbatten, we’ll begin assembling the cast that that will be forced to grapple with the looming crisis.
Akbar, M.J. Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan.
Tharoor, Shashi. Nehru: The Invention of India.
Tharoor, Shashi. Inglorious Empire: What The British Did To India.
Khan, Yasmin. The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan.
Guha, Ramachandra. Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World.
Sarila, Narendra Singh. The Shadow of the Great Game.
Charles Rivers Editors. The Punjab.
Charles Rivers Editors. British India.
Puri, Kavita. Partition Voices: Untold British Stories.
Malhotra, Aanchal. Remnants of Partition: 21 Objects From A Continent Divided.
Von Tunzelmann, Alex. Indian Summer.
Zakaria, Anam. The Footprints of Partition.
Ahmed Akbar. Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity.
Urvashi, Butalia. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India.
White-Spunner, Barney. Partition.
Lawrence, James. Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India.
Hamdani, Yasser Latif. Jinnah: A Life
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Hello and welcome to Conflicted.
The history podcast where we talk about the struggles that shaped us, the tough questions that they pose, and why we should care about any of it.
Conflicted is a member of the Evergreen Podcast Network; and as always, I’m your host, Zach Cornwell.
I suppose it’s very on-brand to say that I have extremely mixed emotions about the topic we are about to explore today. On the one hand, I’m incredibly excited. And on the other hand, I’m absolutely terrified.
On my laptop, I have this folder, and in that folder is a very long list of potential topics for Conflicted. And today’s topic has been languishing on that list for almost the entire time I’ve been doing this show. Which at this point, is coming up on three years.
So, for three years I’ve been avoiding this thing.
Which begs the question - why have I been avoiding it? Obviously, we do not shy away from difficult topics on this show, but in terms of complexity, depth, and sheer scope – this one is almost unparalleled. It’s also very emotionally charged. This topic means something to people, it’s still raw, it still hurts – and yet paradoxically, almost no one in the Western hemisphere knows much about it at all.
In today’s episode, we’re going to be talking about something called the Partition of India.
“Partition”, of course, means “division” or “separation”.
For almost 200 years, the British Empire held dominion over the Indian subcontinent. What began as a series handshake deals with a few curious maharajas, snowballed into a complete and total subjugation of 400 million people. From the peaks of the Himalayas, to the river deltas of Bengal, the Union Jack fluttered proudly – a symbol of His Majesty’s absolute control over one of the oldest cradles of civilization.
India was, as one writer put it, “the jewel in the crown” of the British Empire, their chief source of wealth and a vital well military manpower. At the dawn of the 20th century, 4 out of every 5 British subjects was Indian.
But then, in 1947, they left.
Browbeaten and bankrupted by the horrific war against the Nazis, the British came to the uncomfortable conclusion that they could no longer afford their metaphorical crown, much less the jewel glittering at the center of it. As historian Alex Tunzelmman put it:
“The treasury was all but empty, and the debts of empire lay in the middle of it like an open drain.”
It was time to leave India for good.
But it wasn’t just empty pockets that compelled the Brits to abdicate their prized possession. For decades, voices of freedom had been rising in India. A generation of homegrown lawyers and activists, led by a skinny little firebrand named Mohandas Gandhi, (maybe you’ve heard of him), convinced the common people of India that they didn’t need the British anymore. In fact, maybe they never needed them at all.
It was time, finally, for a united India to stand up and take its place on the world stage as one nation, one people, with one voice.
But history, as we all know, is rarely as simple or clean as that.
India is a very, very diverse place. With hundreds of dialects, dozens of religions, and countless competing ideologies. There were some Indians who began to wonder whether all those different kinds of people could – or should – live side-by-side. Maybe this rosy, Candyland idea of “unity”, of “one India”, maybe that just one more poison pill from the departing British. Just another legacy of colonialism, incompatible with the demographic realities of India.
When the British left, how would religious minorities – the Muslims, the Sikhs - be treated by the new governing Hindu majority? What if India was simply swapping one oppressive regime for another? And so, for reasons we will go into in great depth later, the voices of freedom were eclipsed by voices of fear.
In August 1947, the subcontinent was partitioned – or split – into two new countries: Muslim-majority Pakistan. And Hindu-majority India.
The immediate result of that division was a near-indescribable cataclysm of displacement, ethnic cleansing, and bottomless human misery. The boundary line that separated India from Pakistan ripped apart communities, bisected entire cities, and unraveled the social fabric of whole provinces. Millions of people suddenly found themselves living on the “wrong” side of the border, surrounded by hostile and suspicious neighbors. As historian Hajari Nisid writes:
Nearly seventy years later, Partition has become a byword for horror. Instead of joining hands at their twinned births, India and Pakistan would be engulfed by some of the worst sectarian massacres the modern world has ever seen. Non-Muslims on one side of the new border in the Punjab and Muslims on the other descended with sword and spear and torch on the minorities who lived among them.
The human cost was jaw-dropping. As Nisid continues later in the chapter:
At least 14 million refugees were uprooted in what remains the biggest forced migration in history.”
Anywhere from 500,000 to 2 million people died. It was, as historian Yasmin Khan puts it, “war by any other name”.
But the story of Partition is not just a one-dimensional parade of suffering, doom & gloom. There is beauty buried in the heart of it all; powerful acts of human kindness hiding just beneath the surface, serving as a rebuttal to the cynical notion that cruelty is just mankind’s factory setting. And only by looking at that full spectrum, can we assemble a comprehensive understanding of what actually happened in the summer of 1947 - and why. As one elderly survivor of Partition violence put it:
“If times of old must be discussed, they must be discussed in their entirety.”
Over the course of this new multi-part series on the Partition of India, we will meet a huge and fascinating cast of historical figures. From the halls of power to decrepit slums, we’ll examine this conflict through the eyes of the people who saw it, experienced it, and shaped it.
We’ll meet princes and pimps, viceroys and gang leaders, idealist and opportunists, bleeding-heart activists and bloodthirsty killers. Ordinary people with extraordinary stories. And with a little luck, all these different viewpoints and perspectives will help us cobble together a deeper appreciation for a century-shaping event - one that you would be hard-pressed to find so much as a paragraph about in a textbook on this side of the Atlantic.
But even though it happened 75 years ago, in a very distant corner of the world, this is a story that can hit uncomfortably close to home.
At its most basic level, Partition is a story about communities drifting apart. About political polarization and the weaponization of identity. It’s about how people who have lived side by side all their lives, can be taught how to hate each other. It’s about what happens when we become convinced to our core that we have nothing in common with “those” people. That the differences between us are so wide and unbridgeable, that we’re better off living apart. Or worse yet, hurting the other group, so that they don’t hurt us first.
These are the issues at the core of the Partition story. And I can’t promise that we’ll reach satisfying answers to any of them. But maybe we can at least uncover a few kernels of insight that we can carry with us into our daily lives.
In this first episode, we’re going to meet some of key players, and get the lay of the land. We’ll enter our story at the twilight of the British Raj, just as India was on the cusp of achieving true independence.
Now - I’ve learned my lesson from past multi-part series, and I won’t say outright exactly how many episodes this series will be. Because the truth is I don’t honestly know. I have a roadmap, but like always, the story will go where it wants to go. But that said, I’m very excited to share it with you.
So without further ado, let’s get started.
Welcome to The Partition of India – Part 1: End of Empire
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It’s August 1947.
We’re on the platform of a train station, in the ancient city of Lahore.
The picturesque temples and mosques scattered throughout the metropolis are hundreds of years old. The city itself is even older. But the nation Lahore resides in – Pakistan – has only existed for about 15 days.
For weeks, passenger trains have been pouring into the station. Bringing hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees from across the newly-drawn border with India. There were no empty seats on these trains; and some times there were no seats at all.
Every square inch of every carriage was bursting with people, squeezed so close and so tight it was hard to know where one body ended and another began. Skin against skin, someone’s else’s breath in your nostrils, all under a suffocating blanket of 116-degree summer heat. The men, women and kids who couldn’t find a spot inside, simply hung onto the sides or sat on the roof.
But no passenger complained about the lack of amenities or legroom. The only thing that mattered was that they were heading towards Pakistan, and away from India.
But this afternoon, at this platform, the train from India was running late. Which was hardly surprising; in the chaos and confusion of Partition, public transportation operated when and where it could. But today’s train is particularly behind schedule. And when it finally screeches into the station, the people waiting on the platform see why.
The first thing they notice is the complete and utter…silence.
Anyone who’s been on a crowded train can tell you that they are very, very noisy. When you cram 3,000 people into 15 train carriages, the talking, chatter, and shouting becomes deafening. But this train is strangely, eerily quiet.
And when rolls to a stop, no one gets out. Not a single passenger disembarks.
The people waiting on the platform open the carriage doors and step inside to investigate. And inside, they find what one historian called “a funeral pyre on wheels”.
The floor is sticky with blood. The air is thick with flies. And everywhere, sprawled in heaps and bent at odd angles, are the passengers. Every single person on the train is dead. The only soul left alive is the train driver. His life was spared; after all, someone needed to drive this macabre cargo to its destination.
On the side of the train, a single phrase is scrawled in fresh paint: “A gift from India”
In the coming weeks, more ghost trains would arrive in Pakistan, but still more would be sent back in the opposite direction. But instead of dead Muslims, the carriages would be filled with dead Hindus and Sikhs. Tit for tat. Blood for blood. Upon arriving in Delhi or Amritsar, the people on those platforms would read the words: “A gift from Pakistan”.
It was a horrific state of affairs. The subcontinent was transfixed by an orgy of genocide - what one historian called “a fever of hate”. But five months earlier, in the spring of 1947, no one could have imagined that things would go so wrong/bad, so fast.
At that time, 4,000 miles away in the United Kingdom, Edwina Mountbatten’s biggest concern was what kind of dress she was going to wear for her husband’s big party.
It was the evening of March 18th, 1947 - and the most violent thing happening in the reception hall of the Royal Automobile Club in London was the popping of champagne corks. It was the party of the year. A well-to-do whirlwind of glitz and glamor. One quick look around the room would’ve revealed a dazzling who’s who of big egos and tiny waists. Everybody was there. The Prime Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury, even members of the royal family. Seven hundred people, all dressed to the nines to bid farewell to one very important couple.
At the center of the room, glittering in the limelight, were the man and woman of the hour – Louis and Edwina Mountbatten.
Now, if you’re at all familiar with British Royal history, you’ve probably heard the name “Mountbatten” before. But if you haven’t, that’s okay. The Mountbattens have an important part to play in our story, and we will come to know them very well over the course of this series.
These days of course, the Royals are mostly just fodder for tabloid gossip, but in the mid-twentieth century they were still power players on the geopolitical stage. And no one relished his place on that stage, more than Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas, 1st Earl of Mountbatten, and Viscount of Burma.
Although all his friends just called him “Dickie”.
Dickie Mountbatten was royalty; a great-grandson of Queen Victoria herself. He looked the part, too. Tall, handsome, and debonair in a classically English sort of way, Dickie looked as if he’d been created in a test tube to represent the British Monarchy. As historian Alex von Tunzelmann writes:
“Springing from a long line of royal sticklers, fussers and pedants, Mountbatten had been bred for pageantry.”
With his chiseled cheeks and falcon features, few people seemed capable of outshining the elegant Earl of Mountbatten. No one, except the woman on his arm, the Countess of Mountbatten. As Tunzelmman writes: “Mountbatten’s greatest asset, besides his own charm, was his wife.”
Her name, as previously mentioned, was Edwina. And in 1947, she was 46 years old.
Like Dickie, Edwina came from old money; a pampered rich girl with blood as blue as Mughal sapphires and table manners to match. The Countess of Mountbatten was the heiress to a large banking fortune and a $3 million trust fund, and as such, she fit right in at royal parties and state dinners. Even at 46, she was a knockout, with short brown hair, an hourglass figure, and gentle, disarming smile.
It is, of course, tempting to dismiss Edwina as yet another self-obsessed aristocrat. The Royal family, after all, has never been short on those. But Edwina differed from the average debutante.
Dickie had always been a hopeless romantic, and he spent his youth pining for a fairy-tale bride that he could smother with affection. What he got instead, was Edwina – a complicated, introspective and fiercely independent woman who was not content to be a submissive piece of royal arm candy. There was a hunger to her, a gnawing sense of longing for new experiences. She wanted to see things, do things, travel, eat, fall in love, fall out of love, make mistakes and put some genuine mileage on her soul.
As one friend said at the time: “For Edwina, there was always something missing. She didn't know what it was or where it was but she was determined to find it."
Dickie and Edwina had met back in 1920. Two twenty-something kids with cash to burn and expectations to meet. They fell hard and fast for each other. By 1922, they wedding bells were ringing in London. They had it all. They were rich, powerful, and beautiful. But beneath the picture-perfect facade, there was a much more complicated marital situation.
Edwina, Dickie soon discovered, had appetites. Appetites that lay outside the marriage bed. She liked to flirt, she liked to kiss, and she liked to hook up – mostly with men that were not her husband. In short, monogamy was not her style. At first, Dickie tried to ignore it. Every time he heard a rumor, or read a headline in a tabloid rag, he dismissed it. But before long, it became painfully clear, that his wife was having, as one historian put it, “a long and ostentatious series of affairs”.
One night it all came to a head. The two got into a knock-down-drag-out that ended with Edwina crying her eyes out in the bathtub, telling her husband that she “wanted to be free”.
That would’ve been the death knell for most marriages. But as Dickie sat stewing in the other room, alone and humiliated, he realized…he didn’t want to leave his wife. He loved his wife. The only question was – did she love him back? Really love him. His question was answered a few hours later, when Edwina slipped into his room and begged for reconciliation. It was a decisive moment in their relationship.
Dickie realized that what he wanted, more than anything, was for Edwina to be happy. He loved her, and he didn’t want to lose her. If that meant sharing her with other people, then he was willing to live with that. So – in a scandalous and unconventional twist, the Earl and Countess of Mountbatten entered into an open relationship. Edwina could have her flings. Dickie could have girlfriends. And at the end of the day, they’d fall asleep in each other’s arms. At least metaphorically.
It was an arrangement they would continue for decades to come – with decisive results in the faraway future, for the faraway country of India.
However, the trials and tribulations of the Mountbattens were just getting started. Before long, Europe was at war for the second time in a generation. Bombs were falling on London, swastikas were flying over Paris, and ships were sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic. It looked, for a brief, scary moment, like the British Empire might not survive the storm.
But in the pitch-black days of World War 2, something changed in Edwina. Something switched. She threw herself into the dangerous, difficult tasks of wartime operations. Overnight, she became a one-woman machine, inspecting bomb shelters and working day-and-night to improve the conditions in them. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she was not afraid to pull off the tea gloves and get her hands dirty. She comforted bullet-torn soldiers in France, gave rousing speeches in America, and toured POW camps from Bangkok to Singapore. Proximity to danger never seemed to bother Edwina. One American general couldn’t help but comment: “She is so smart she scares me”.
Finally, after years of restlessness, she had found her calling. Something to care about. Something to occupy her time besides disposable affairs and empty pageantry. When the war ended, Edwina emerged from the ordeal an accomplished and devoted humanitarian.
Little did she know, destiny was about to place her and her husband at the center of a yet another hurricane.
In the spring of 1947, Dickie Mountbatten was entrusted with possibly the most important diplomatic responsibility in the history of the British Empire. The Earl had never been short on fancy titles, but now they were adding a new one to his list. Viceroy of India. In the long history of the British Raj, there had been 19 Viceroys of India. Dickie Mountbatten was going to be the 20th- and the last.
The responsibilities of his post were simple. He somehow had to organize, plan and negotiate Britain’s withdrawal from their most important colonial asset. The voices of freedom had made their case and won the day. After all these years, India was going to be free. And it was up to the Mountbattens to make it happen.
For observers at the time, it was a head-scratcher of a staffing choice. Dickie Mountbatten was not the obvious pick to pull this thing off. He wasn’t particularly bright, or talented – and his war record was chequered at best. His peers at the Navy jokingly called him “the Master of Disaster.” But he was a hard worker, charismatic, and completely loyal to the Crown. He could be trusted to get this thing done – one way or another.
As they sipped cocktails and entertained guests at their farewell reception on the night of March 18th, 1947 – Dickie and Edwina had no conception of the tempest they were about to plunge into. As Alex von Tunzelmann writes:
“The next fifteen months were to be the most dangerous, the most triumphant, the most terrifying, the most passionate and the most controversial of the Mountbattens’ lives.”
Giving India back to the Indians in a way that preserved British dignity and satisfied all the parties involved was going to be an awesome, near-insurmountable task. Historian Ahmed Akbar underscores the enormity of the mission:
India’s princely states (over 500 in number), 3,000 castes divided into 400 million people (including 250 million Hindus, 90 million Muslims and 6 million Sikhs) speaking twenty-three languages were somehow to be given independence peacefully and, if possible, kept within one country.”
Dickie was understandably nervous. As he climbed aboard the airplane that would take he and Edwina to India, Mountbatten turned to an aide and said:
“I don’t want to go. They don’t want me out there. We’ll probably come home with bullets in our backs.”
The last Viceroy of India was right about one thing. Before all was said and done, many, many people were going to die.
But before we continue the story of Edwina and Dickie Mountbatten, the last Viceroy and Vicereine of India, we need to wind back the clock. We need to understand how the British came to rule over all of India in the first place. And more importantly, why, after such a long, lucrative tenure, they were being forced to leave.
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About 70 years before the Mountbattens boarded a plane bound for Delhi.
We’re in a small town on the western coast of India, in the province of Gujarat.
It was a town like any other. It had a market, it had farms, it had places of worship - mosques and temples and churches. And like any town filled with rough men who spent most of their day toiling under the sun, it had a brothel.
And today, the world’s oldest profession has a very young customer. Into this small-town brothel, steps a skinny little Indian teenager. This kid is sweating bullets. He’s fidgety, nervous, he’s excited. Pretty much exactly how you’d expect a teenage virgin to behave in a whorehouse.
If his parents knew he was here, he would get the beating of a lifetime. And this was not the first time the boy had engaged in acts of teenage defiance. When puberty hit, he started taking all kinds of risks and pushing all kinds of boundaries.
The boy’s family was vegetarian, so he ate meat. His parents didn’t approve of smoking, so he smoked. His family was financially secure, so he stole gold from under their noses. And today’s hormone-fueled field trip to the local brothel was the latest in an escalating pattern of rebellion.
But as he’s standing in the entryway of the whorehouse, with his skinny legs, big ears, and peach-fuzz lip, looking at these full-grown women inside….the boy chickens out. He can’t do it. Stealing gold and eating meat was one thing…but this was a line he could not bring himself to cross. And so, the boy runs home to his parents, and never tells them about his close brush with dishonor.
To the prostitutes in the brothel, he was just some scared, nameless kid. But history would come to know his name very well. The kid’s name, was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
It is of course impossible to tell the story of Partition, without talking about Gandhi - the Mahatma, “the great soul” as his legions of followers came to call him. He’s as much a part of this narrative as the landscape of India itself. Because the truth is, there is no independent India, partitioned or otherwise, without Mohandas Gandhi.
In terms of sheer name recognition, Gandhi is up there with Napoleon, Julius Caesar, Mohammed, or Jesus. Everyone and their Mom knows about the little man in the loincloth who mobilized India’s masses and led his people to freedom.
But the reality is much more complicated. In many ways, Mohandas Gandhi was a bundle of contradictions. Strong, yet frail. Moral, yet rigid. Playful, yet puritanical. Inspirational, yet controversial. Now, this series will not devolve into a glorified biography of Gandhi – that’s not what we’re here to do - but like the Mountbattens, he is a critical member of our cast - pardon the pun.
Because, ironically, at the climax of his life’s work, at the cusp of achieving the thing he had worked for his entire life - the great advocate for non-violent resistance would be a witness to some of the most unspeakable killing sprees his country had ever seen.
But back in 1880, he was just a sexually frustrated teenager with a rebellious streak and a chip on his shoulder. From an early age, the young Gandhi was always pushing back on the status quo, and it was at that time that he became acutely aware of the most entrenched status quo of them all – the British Raj or “British Rule”.
When Gandhi was growing up, the British had running the show in India for generations, well beyond the horizon of living memory. And they had crept in on cat’s feet. As Gandhi would later observe: “The English have not taken India, we have given it to them.”
Almost 300 years earlier, in 1615, no one in India could’ve imagined that the handful of oddly-dressed white guys swaggering into their palaces would eventually come to dominate the entire subcontinent. The English after all, hailed from what one historian called “a grubby, unsophisticated, cold, dismal little kingdom.”
At the time, compared to the wealth and majesty of Mughal India, England was a third-world dumping ground. As Alex von Tunzelmman writes:
“IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WERE TWO NATIONS. ONE WAS A vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swath of the earth. The other was an undeveloped, semifeudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses. The first nation was India. The second was England.”
But the English had not left their sad little island and sailed 5,000 miles to the richest empire in the eastern hemisphere to simply admire its cultural achievements. They were there for one reason, and one reason alone - Money. [cha-ching]
The first Englishmen to splash ashore to India were not official representatives of the British Crown. They weren’t soldiers. They were businessmen. Traders. Corporate stooges and middle managers, looking for their next big acquisition.
And when they clapped eyes on the 1.2 million square mile cash cow that was the Indian subcontinent, dollar signs bulged in their eyes. There were many European trade entities skulking around the subcontinent at the time, but one corporation quickly eclipsed them all – the Notorious E.I.T – The East India Trading Company.
As they sunk their hooks into India one trading post at a time, the reach and power of the Company grew and grew and grew. With fat stacks and tasty profits they financed a merciless private army, one that they had no hesitation about using. The East India Company was, as Alex von Tunzelmann puts it: “a private empire of money, unburdened by conscience.”
Now that’s not to say that India was some untouched paradise of peace and tranquility. The wheels of power were always turning, grinding down old dynasties and lifting up new ones. As historian Lawrence James puts it: “India is a land of vanished supremacies”. Like almost every other square inch of the globe in the 18thcentury, it was a land of constant political change. Mughal princes cut each other’s throats amidst Persian invasions and Rajput uprisings. There was no national identity – no one called themselves “an Indian”.
But it was precisely that instability that allowed the British to make short work of the existing power structures and establish their own hegemony over the subcontinent. It didn’t happen overnight though. The British measured their designs in decades, not years. The real genius of the East India Company was patience. As historian MJ Akbar describes:
“The British built their Indian empire in small, careful steps, choosing one adversary at a time, and using exceptional diplomatic skills to sabotage an enemy alliance to the extent they could. They were brilliant at provoking dissent through the effective expedience of promising power to the rebel.
Divide and conquer, reward and rule – it was a brilliant system. One could argue it was the pen that conquered India, not the sword. That’s what Gandhi was talking about when he said Indians had given their home to the British willingly. Sell out your neighbor for a cut of the profits today, and watch yourself get sold out tomorrow. On and on and on.
As one historian put it, “conquest gathered its own momentum”, and in only 100 years, the British had fashioned themselves into the undisputed masters of India. It made the Company, and by extension the British Empire, fabulously wealthy. As a French ambassador remarked at the time “There are few kings in Europe richer than the Directors of the East India Company.”
One representative of the Company gloated: “Our ships are laden with Harvest of every climate”. It was about this time that the English language added a new word to its lexicon. The Hindustani term for plundered wealth: “Loot”.
Yes, in the history of corporations, there have been few as successful as the British East India Company. But on a long enough timeline, even the most powerful corporations eventually find themselves at the crossroads of a scandal. One that threatens to bring the whole enterprise down. Enron, Lehman Brothers, Theranos – the East India Company was no different.
The East India Company experienced its own big corporate scandal in 1857. When millions of Indians, tired of having a British boot on their windpipe, took up arms and rebelled. There was horrible violence, atrocities on both sides. Ultimately, the uprising failed. And the wages of that failure were 800,000 dead Indians and a big change in leadership. With the Government of India Act in 1858, the East India Company was liquidated; Going forward, India would be under direct control of the British Government.
And so began the mythically glamorous era of colonialism we call the British Raj.
To the lords and ladies of England, like Dickie and Edwina Mountbatten, it was a golden age. Patios, parasols and elephant rides. But for the average Indian it was a period of abject poverty, vicious bigotry, and endless exploitation. As India grew poorer, Britain grew richer. The British Empire was a “succubus” according to one historian. It was patronage at its most parasitic. Shashi Tharoor expounds:
By the end of the nineteenth century, India was Britain’s biggest source of revenue, the world’s biggest purchaser of British exports and the source of highly paid employment for British civil servants and soldiers all at India’s own expense. Indians literally paid for their own oppression.
It was a level of oppression that was abundantly clear to 45-year-old Mohandas Gandhi.
The year was 1915, and Mohan was not a horny kid anymore. Nor was the bent-backed, loin-cloth wearing saint of later years. He was just Mr. Gandhi – a short, wiry man with a white turban and a jet-black mustache. The rebellious teenager was long gone, but the defiant spirit had only intensified. And after twenty years in exile, Gandhi was returning home.
Mohan Gandhi was at the spear tip of an up-and-coming vanguard of Indian activists and lawyers, educated in British schools and trained to be loyal servants of the Empire. And yet, painfully aware of their own secondary status within it. As Von Tunzellman writes:
By the late nineteenth century, the cream of Indian society began to enjoy its British connections. Fashionable Indians went to Oxford or Cambridge for their education, and London for their tailoring; they read voraciously the classics of English literature and often spoke English as their first language. New generations were growing up with notions of equality, democracy, citizenship, blind justice and fair play, only to discover that none of these rights actually applied to them.”
Gandhi’s first eye-opening brush with bigotry happened on a train in South Africa back in 1893. He was in his mid-twenties, a well-spoken lawyer educated in the British system, lounging comfortably in a first-class compartment. To his shock and dismay, the young Gandhi was dragged from his seat by a policeman and thrown off the train.
The reason for the poor treatment? Well, wasn’t it obvious? This Gandhi, or whatever his name was, was just another dark-skinned “n-word”, as the British commonly called their Indian inferiors. And no matter how many degrees he held, no matter how well-pressed his suits were, he did not belong in first-class with the other good white folks.
Gandhi later put his hurt and disgust into words: “They treat us as beasts.”
Mohandas Gandhi spent the next twenty years in South Africa, fighting for the rights of the Indian diaspora; and it was there, in that place so far from home, that a revolutionary new political method began to take shape.
When Gandhi was a child, memories of the disastrous 1857 uprising against the British East India Company were still fresh in people’s minds. Terrible recollections of prisoners blown apart by cannons or forced to lick blood off the floor. Violence had not helped the Indians achieve their political goals. All it did was infuriate their colonial masters more, and trigger vicious crackdowns.
Gandhi came to believe that the only successful way to fight back against British injustice was to do so, without taking shedding blood, without taking lives. The British Raj, powerful as it may be, was buoyed by a tiny group of British administrators. What if 400 million Indians simply refused to participate in their own oppression? When the trains stopped, when the shops closed, when the mines were empty, when the money dried up – the British would be forced to listen.
They can beat us, said Gandhi. They can kick us, they can shoot us, they can throw us in jail. They bulldoze our homes, seize our property, and ruin our lives. But if we refuse to cooperate, if we refuse to retaliate, if we bear the slings and arrows of their hatred with inexhaustible love and patience, their spirit will eventually crack. And we will win.
The idea, as one writer put it, was to: “return good for evil until the evildoer tires of evil.”
It was, as historian Louis Fischer explains, “a weapon peculiarly his own. It was unprecedented and has remained unimitated, indeed it was so unique he could not find a name for it until he finally hit upon “Satyagraha”: satya means truth, the equivalent of love, and both are attributes of the soul; agraha is firmness or force. “Satyagraha” is therefore translated Soul Force. Satyagraha, Gandhi wrote, “is the vindication of truth not by infliction of suffering on the opponent but on one’s self.” The opponent must be “weaned from error by patience and sympathy.”
On one occasion, Gandhi read a poem by Percy Shelley that clearly articulated the strategy: “With folded arms and steady eyes, And little fear, and less surprise, Look upon them as they slay, Till their rage has died away.
Of course to many, Gandhi’s methods seemed naïve, passive, and un-strategic. Might makes right, after all. At the end of the day, freedom is won with bayonets, not bouquets. How can you even beat an opponent who breaks the rules as easily as he breaks your bones? Gandhi’s response to the critique was to say, well, then we invent new rules:
A Satyagrahi, bids good-by to fear. He is therefore never afraid to trust the opponent. Even if the opponent plays him false twenty times, the Satyagrahi is ready to trust him the twenty-first time, for an implicit trust in human nature is the very essence of his creed.” -
The sceptics called it cowardice, passivity. But it was anything but. As Fischer writes:
Nonviolence, Gandhi said, requires much more courage than violence. No coward would sit still on the ground as galloping police horses advanced upon him or lie in the path of an automobile or stand without moving as baton-swinging policemen laid about them. This was active resistance of the brave.
Historian MJ Akbar concurs:
Satyagraha was the ideology of the victim, its moral centre of gravity firmly rooted in justice, its principal target the adversary’s conscience. It was martial in spirit. All the characteristics required of a war hero – discipline, fearlessness and the readiness to sacrifice one’s life – were prerequisites in Gandhian peaceful resistance.
Unshakeable, unbreakable, uncorruptible moral example. That is how we will win, he said. And the crazy part was…it actually worked. Gandhi’s secret sauce was a willingness to not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. He and his followers took bruises and beatings, abuse and failure, spent years of their lives in jail cells. With time and patience, his methods yielded results – first in South Africa, and later in India. The monolithic edifice of British colonialism was being chipped at and eroded, bit by bit.
And like all lightning-rod activists, his success attracted as much hatred as admiration. English critics conferred on Gandhi an array of odious titles: “The prince of liars”, “Miserable swine.” And “the ungratefulest of men”, to name a few. One of Gandhi’s fiercest critics later in life was to be none other than Winston Churchill who said: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion” And as for Gandhi himself? “He ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant.”
But Gandhi earned more reverence than revilement. And even as a young man, an image was being cultivated around him. Of the saintly sage, calm and tranquil, sitting on a reservoir of infinite wisdom. But the truth was more complicated. Beneath that simplistic image, as one historian put it, “storms continued to rage within him.”
Gandhi had a complex and fascinating psychology. At the innermost core of his personality was a pathological obsession with deprivation. He was an intensely religious man, a devout Hindu, and he saw sin lurking around every corner. He believed that by withholding pleasure in almost every form, he could achieve a kind of moral and mental transcendence.
To obtain this purity, Gandhi scratched almost every earthly delight off his metaphorical menu. He gave up sex and became celibate. He swore off alcohol, meat, eggs, dairy, even salt. He spoke against modern medicine and surgery, calling them “black magic” and believing that disease was the rightful consequence of poor choices. Of course that didn’t stop him from accepting a surgeon’s knife to remedy a bout of appendicitis later in life. But overall, in creed and conscience, he stuck to his principles. If it made you feel good, Gandhi thought it was corrosive to his soul. Pain and hardship was the path to purity. As Alex von Tunzelmann writes:
In adult life, he began to consider any form of physical pleasure (food, comfort and intoxication, as well as sex) to be degrading, and any form of physical torment (fasting, scrubbing latrines, wearing prickly homespun cloth, being beaten up by the police) to be righteous.”
To his political adversaries, Gandhi’s unorthodox lifestyle made him all the more threatening. As an Oxford Professor named Gilbert Murray wrote:
“Be careful in dealing with a man who cares nothing for sensual pleasures, nothing for comfort or praise or promotion, but is simply determined to do what he believes to be right. He is a dangerous and uncomfortable enemy because his body which you can always conquer gives you so little purchase over his soul.”
He expected the people around him to conform to a similar life of austerity, which caused huge rifts between he and members of his family. He and his eldest son clashed constantly over their differing world views. As Tunzelmann put it: “It is not easy being a saint, and it is perhaps even less so to live with one.”
Gandhi may have never been father of the year, but he was the father of an extremely potent and successful political strategy that he brought back home to India from South Africa in 1915. And from there, his non-violent struggle against the British Raj only intensified.
But the British, like all colonial overlords, were not going to leave without a fight.
---- MUSIC BREAK -----
It’s April 13th, 1919.
Thirty years before Partition.
We’re in northwestern India, in the Sikh holy city of Amritsar.
It’s about 5’oclock in the afternoon, and a massive crowd is beginning to form in a large public garden, called the Jallianwala Bagh (jollyavala bahg). Twenty thousand people – men, women, children, families – all gathering to celebrate a traditional spring festival.
If you were to leave the garden and stroll a few blocks to the west, you would’ve stumbled upon the world-famous Golden Temple, a splendid Sikh house of worship, floating atop a man-made pool. It was a tranquil, sacred place, but in the public square just 600 meters away, the mood is anything but calm.
While many of the 20,000 people gathering in the square were just there to celebrate the local festival, a significant portion of the crowd were political activists, coming out in force to make their voices heard. To express their anger at the latest slap in the face from the British Raj.
For weeks, the city had been roiling with discontent.
The British government had recently passed a punitive series of laws, called the Rowlett Acts. The Acts had obliterated what limited and meager protections the average Indian had in the colonial justice system. From Amritsar to Bombay to Calcutta, Indians learned that they were no longer guaranteed a right to trial by jury. Worse still, the Acts allowed internment without trial, meaning you could tossed in a jail cell without a shred of evidence or due process.
It was infuriating, but not surprising. Just another fresh insult from the British administration.
The public outcry was swift and furious. Mohandas Gandhi called for a campaign of non-violent resistance to the Acts. Through righteous love and patient non-cooperation, he said, they would show the British the error of their ways. But very few people possessed the equanimity or self-control of the Mahatma.
Riots erupted in the streets of Amritsar and Delhi. And as riots do, they quickly turned violent. Five Englishmen were killed. Banks were looted. A schoolteacher was knocked off her bike and beaten.
The British response came in the form of a mailed fist. On April 11th, 1100 troops and two-armored cars, outfitted with machine guns, rumbled through the streets of the holy city, hell-bent on restoring order. The reception to their arrival was not warm – from the alleyways and alcoves, the soldiers could hear shouts of: “The British Raj is at an end”.
The next day, martial law was imposed. A curfew was set. And the city was locked down.
And yet, on April 13th, twenty thousand people gathered in the public garden in defiance of the restrictions. As massive as it was, the crowd was completely peaceful. There were no riots, no torches or pitchforks, no angry shouts. As historian MJ Akbar describes: “There was not a hint of protest, let alone violence.” Gandhi would’ve been proud.
Looking out on this gathering, from about 150 yards away, is Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, commander of the 1100-strong pacification force. General Dyer was an old dyed-in-the-wool colonialist. A clean-cut military man with a bushy mustache and a neatly-combed side part. He believed in order, obedience, and had zero tolerance for agitators like the ones gathered here in the public garden. Ingrates all, who needed to be reminded of their place in the world.
And so, with all the calm of ordering a cup of coffee, Dyer commanded fifty men to take up firing positions along the edge of the square. There was no warning, or call to disperse, or so much as a word exchanged with the crowd.
In Dyer’s mind, these twenty thousand animals were in direct violation of an order from His Majesty’s Government; and like animals, they only understood one thing. Dyer told his soldiers to aim their rifles, and enforce the law. Historian Shashi Tharoor describes what happened next:
“Dyer’s soldiers were lined up calmly, almost routinely; they were neither threatened nor attacked by the crowd; it was just another day’s work, but one unlike any other. They loaded and fired their rifles coldly, clinically, without haste or passion or sweat or anger, emptying their magazines into the shrieking, wailing, then stampeding crowd with trained precision. As people sought to flee the horror toward the single exit, they were trapped in a murderous fusillade.
Sixteen hundred bullets were fired that day into the unarmed throng, and when the job was finished, just ten minutes later, 379 people lay dead and 1,137 lay injured, many grotesquely maimed for life. A total of 1,516 casualties from 1,600 bullets: only 84 had failed to find their mark, a measure of how simple, and how brutal, Dyer’s task was. The Amritsar Massacre was no act of insane frenzy but a conscious, deliberate imposition of colonial will. Dyer was an efficient killer rather than a crazed maniac; his was merely the evil of the unimaginative, the brutality of the military bureaucrat.”
The body count, which included old people, children, and pregnant women, barely scratched Dyer’s conscience. As he explained himself later: “I thought I would be doing a jolly lot of good,”
As it turned out, the Amritsar Massacre, as it came to be known, caused a jolly lot of outrage. India exploded in anger. The atrocity was a miscalculation from which the Raj would never recover. As historian Barney White-Spunner writes:
“Of all the many terrible events of Empire, it ranks as one of the worst. Even Churchill, usually so determined in his defense of authority, said, “it was an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular, sinister isolation.”
And he goes on later in the book:
“It is the Amritsar massacre that did the most to destroy trust and the reputation of the Raj”
For people all over the subcontinent, the calculated murder of hundreds of innocent civilians served as a blood-boiling wake-up call. In the political history of India, there is before Amritsar, and after Amritsar. As Shashi Tharoor writes:
“The massacre made Indians out of millions of people who had not thought consciously of their political identity before that grim Sunday.”
One of those Indians, awakened and radicalized by the callous killings in the Punjab, was a young man named Jawaharlal Nehru. That’s J-A-W-A-H-A-R-L-A-L; Jawaharlal; Nehru N-E-H-R-U. Although from this point on, we will just call him “Nehru”.
[Java hur lal}
Over the past 45 minutes or so, we have been slowly expanding our cast. First, we met the Mountbattens, with their glitz, glamour, and unconventional open marriage. Then we met Gandhi, the revolutionary paragon of non-violence and self-deprivation. And now, finally, we will round out our playbill with the third and arguably most important character: Jawaharlal Nehru.
At the time of the Amritsar Massacre, Nehru was thirty years old. He was undeniably handsome, clean shaven, with unusually pale skin and “high, aristocratic cheekbones and eyes that were deep pools”, according to historian Hajari Nisid. He was good-looking, but he wasn’t Brad Pitt. If you passed him on the street, you probably wouldn’t have given him a second thought. But Jawaharlal Nehru would turn out to be more important to the future of India than perhaps even Gandhi himself.
For my money, Nehru is one of the most interesting people in the story of Partition. As I was reading about him, and reading about him, and reading about him, I found myself coming back to his life over and over. Of all the characters in this story, Nehru is probably the most relatable.
In a landscape of figures that border on caricature, he stands apart as deeply human and accessible in a way the others are not. The Mountbattens, with their obscene wealth, feel slightly distant and aloof at first glance. Gandhi, with his rigid morality and otherworldly discipline, feels alien. But Nehru is probably the closest we have to a true-blue audience surrogate.
So who is he? Why is he important? Well, spoiler alert, but Jawaharlal Nehru would go on to become the first Prime Minister of a free and independent India. He would lead his young country through a traumatic and bloody birthing process. He is considered one of the great [unsung] politicians of the 20th century.
But in 1919, when the blood of 300-odd corpses was still oozing into the soil in Amritsar, Nehru was an angry young man. A firebrand with a hunger to change things, to make a difference, to crack some eggs and break some laws. But he had not always felt that way; Nehru was born into one of those rare Indian families that actually benefited from the British Raj. Like the heiress and future Vicereine Edwina Mountbatten, far away in London, Nehru was a rich kid, spoiled by, in his own words: “a soft life and pleasant experiences.”
His Dad was a wealthy, successful lawyer, and in a land dominated by ubiquitous poverty, young Nehru lived in a bubble of privilege. As Shashi Tharoor writes:
Jawaharlal grew up surrounded by every imaginable creature comfort. Not only did he have electricity and running water in the house (both unheard-of luxuries for most of his compatriots), but the family home was equipped with such unusual perquisites as a private swimming pool and a tennis court, and his father ordered the latest toys for him from England, including the newly invented tricycle and bicycle.
He was an only child, and his parents treated him accordingly. He was the apple of their eye. After all, his name, Jawaharlal, meant “precious jewel”. Like any kid with a fussy and embarrassing first name, Nehru hated it. He was nothing if not self-aware and self-deprecating. He told a friend later in life:
“For heaven’s sake don’t call your son Jawaharlal. Jawahar [jewel] by itself might pass, but the addition of ‘lal’ [precious] makes it odious.”
Like a lot of rich kids, when it came time to decide what to do with his life, he followed in his father’s footsteps. If the barrister’s wig was good enough for his Dad, it was good enough for him; and so, young Nehru hopped on a ship and went to the beating heart of the British Empire to get his education. Seven years later, he returned to India with a crisp law degree and a keen sense of justice. And when he finally stepped into a courtroom, Nehru realized…he hated it.
After 5,000 miles traveled, countless hours wasted, and a small fortune spent he had entered into a profession that he had little to no interest in. He was just another upper-crust Daddy’s boy. In his own words: “a bit of a prig with little to commend.”
Nehru’s real passion, he found, was politics. Like many Indians, he resented the British Raj and their succubus hold over India. As Louis Fischer describes:
The British were masters in somebody else’s house. Their very presence was a humiliation. Imperialism is government of other people by other people for other people. It is a perpetual insult, for it assumes that the outsider has the right to rule the insiders who cannot rule themselves. […] Subjection breeds a desire for liberation. Hence imperialism digs its own grave—and there can be no good colonizers.
Young Nehru became a staunch supporter of the Indian independence movement. He became a card-carrying member of the nationalist Congress party, and before long he was attending meetings, waving flags, and having angry late-night political discussions at kitchen tables.
But like all young radicals, Nehru was a man in search of a mentor. And he found one in Mohandas Gandhi. This little man with big ears who shunned sex and defied empires. Nehru had lived a life of comfort and wealth, and he was deeply moved and inspired by this man who gave up everything for the idea of a free India. He was starstruck:
“And then Gandhi came. He was like a powerful current of fresh air that made us stretch ourselves and take deep breaths; like a beam of light that pierced the darkness and removed the scales from our eyes; like a whirlwind that upset many things, but most of all the working of people’s minds. He did not descend from the top; he seemed to emerge from the millions of India, speaking their language and incessantly drawing attention to them and their appalling condition.”
Nehru’s political awakening was heralded by a two-pronged arrow. Gandhi inspired him. The Amritsar massacre disgusted him. Love mixed with hate.
In the aftermath of the killings, the Congress party sent young Nehru to inspect the site, to conduct interviews and collect evidence. He went to the garden, to the spot where 379 people had been murdered, and traced his hand over the bullet marks in the walls. He counted them one by one, 67 in total. The bodies were gone, but the stench of atrocity was thick in the air.
And Nehru found himself feeling so, so angry. His sister said that his blood was “like superheated steam.” In that moment, Nehru would’ve been willing to grab a rifle and wage a war of bloody independence against the Raj. Many Indians felt like that. But it was Gandhi who cooled passions and cleared heads. Murderers like Reginald Dyer were the exception, not the rule. The British were not evil, they were inheritors of the whip just as the Indian were inheritors of the chains. Hearts and minds had to be changed, not blown to pulp with guns. The Raj had to be conquered with love and patience, not bullets and blades.
As they worked together more intimately, and became closer and closer over the course of their lives, Nehru and Gandhi would have many arguments about the “how” of Indian independence. Nehru had a temper, and he would get angry with his calm, serene teacher. As Fischer describes:
in the course of a heated discussion, Nehru impatiently broke out, ‘I want revolution, this is reformism,’ to which Gandhiji rejoined, ‘I have made revolutions while others have talked about them. When your exuberance has subsided and your lungs are exhausted, you will come to me, if you are really serious about making a revolution.’”
Gandhi and Nehru would grow to be, as Von Tunzelmann puts it, “the closest of friends”, but Nehru was never a clone or a mini-me of Gandhi. Aside from their mutual aspiration towards a free India, they disagreed on almost everything.
The Mahatma’s guiding principle was non-violence. He was incapable of squishing a bug. But Nehru had a fiery temper. If he saw something he believed was wrong, he would not hesitate to clench his soft lawyer’s hands into a fist and dive headfirst into a brawl. It was something he would struggle with all his life.
Then there was the matter of religion. On paper, Gandhi was a Hindu, but at prayer, he did not discriminate. He found truth and beauty in all religions; Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism. To Gandhi, they were all just different flavors of the same universal truth. In the space of a single breath, he could quote Jesus, the Quran, and Hindu scripture. “No man can live without religion,” he said. And he practiced what he preached; as one historian commented, Gandhi was “a better Christian than most Christians.”
Young Nehru, however, did not share his mentor’s belief in God. To Nehru, religion was “the enemy of clear thought” and a “terrible burden”. Unthinking deference to an invisible father-figure in the clouds filled Nehru “with horror”. He believed that religion had no place in politics – none - that it clouded people’s minds, stoked hatred, and gave rise to irrational passions. Only when India left religion behind could it “breathe freely”.
Gandhi, of course, felt the opposite: “Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.” To Gandhi, religion formed a vital moral framework, and no one needed that structure more than politicians, so vulnerable to cowardice and self-interest.
Nehru found Gandhi’s obsession with religion “most irritating”.
The two men even disagreed on sex. Nehru rolled his eyes at Gandhi’s self-imposed celibacy, as Von Tunzelmann describes:
Nehru wrote that Gandhi’s sex ban “can only lead to frustration, inhibition, neurosis, and all manner of physical and nervous ills.” As for Gandhi’s decree that birth control was a particular sin, for it allowed a person “to indulge his animal passions and escape the consequences of his acts,” Nehru considered it to be outrageous. “Personally, I find this attitude unnatural and shocking, and if he is right, then I am a criminal on the verge of imbecility and nervous prostration.”
But at the end of the day, even though they clashed over such fundamental issues, Nehru and Gandhi were like hand and glove, even father and son. As Nehru once wrote to Gandhi: “Am I not your child in politics, though perhaps a truant and errant child?” The two men admired each other deeply. As Nehru wrote with introspective honesty:
People who do not know Gandhiji personally and have only read his writings are apt to think that he is a priestly type, extremely puritanical, long-faced, Calvinistic, and a kill-joy. He is the very opposite … His smile is delightful, his laughter infectious, and he radiates lightheartedness. There is something childlike about him which is full of charm.”
And so, in the blackest days the British Raj, a political partnership began to flower between Gandhi and Nehru. The saint and the atheist. The philosopher and the brawler. The celibate and the lothario. Their friendship was a testament to the idea that people who deeply disagree can nevertheless work together to accomplish incredible things. That we are richer for our disagreements, not poorer. As Gandhi said of Nehru: “It will require much more than differences of opinion to estrange us.”
Meanwhile, the estrangement between the British Raj and its subjects, was steadily progressing. The Amritsar Massacre had irrevocably destroyed any trust that existed between the Indian people and their British overlords. And over the next three decades, the relationship between the rulers and the ruled would continue to erode.
Cracks began to show, not only in the power of the Raj itself, but in the British conviction to keep it. In 1921, The New York Times had jokingly written that the British would sooner leave Great Britain than leave India. But by 1930, the British were beginning to lose their appetite for empire.
Things were changing. There was an indefinable electricity in the air. Like the smell of rain before a storm. The names “Gandhi” and “Nehru” were familiar to people as far away as America and central Europe. Independence, what the nationalists called “swaraj” or “self-rule” seemed very, very close.
But Gandhi realized that at the end of the day, no matter how worn down the British became, they would never bow to the table-pounding antics and strongly-worded essays of a few ex-lawyers. Only a mass movement would shake them out of their obstinacy. He needed ignite a desire for independence in the common people. Freedom, he came to believe would be won in the countryside, not the country club.
And so, Gandhi and Nehru took their message all across the country – to the poorest slums and the most isolated areas. 700,000 villages, all waiting to be woken up. For Jawaharlal Nehru, who had spent so much of his life surrounded by luxury and privilege, it was an eye-opening experience. As he remembered:
Looking at them and their misery and overflowing gratitude, I was filled with shame and sorrow - shame at my own easy-going and comfortable life and our petty politics of the city which ignored this vast multitude of semi-naked sons and daughters of India, sorrow at the degradation and overwhelming poverty.”
Riding in third-class train cars, living frugally, and crisscrossing the country, Nehru felt a sense of purpose and clarity that he had never felt in a courtroom, classroom, or drawing room. He felt alive. He felt like he was doing something real with his life. Campaigning against the Raj was his true calling.
Naturally, the British did everything they could to silence Gandhi, Nehru and their acolytes, short of actually martyring them. They were arrested, beaten, and thrown in prison multiple times, only to be released, then arrested all over again for some fresh offense. Cumulatively, Jawaharlal Nehru would spend 10 years of his life in British jails. Gandhi would spend seven.
The Amritsar Massacre had been a turning point. The next one came 12 years later. And it didn’t involve bullets or blood or homicidal Brigadier Generals. It involved the most mundane thing in the world. The simplest of commodities:
Salt is of course a naturally occurring resource. You can go down to the beach, get a bucket of salt water, boil it, and boom, you have salt for your kitchen for like a month. But under the Raj, Indians had to buy their salt directly from the British – and only from the British. As Alex von Tunzelmann writes:
IN INDIA, THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT HAD LONG ENFORCED A monopoly on salt. It was illegal to go to the beach and collect it, and more illegal still to sell it. When salt was sold legitimately, a tax went directly to the British government, providing a total of 3 percent of its revenue from India.
To most people, it was just another small injustice. A tiny tile in the vast mosaic of British repression in India. But to Gandhi, it was a symbol. A simple, perfect metaphor for the immoral exploitation of the Raj. Gandhi was as much a showman as a saint, and he resolved to create an act of political theatre that would embarrass the British government on the world stage.
Gandhi announced that he would march 241 miles, on foot, to the coast. And once there, he would defy the British by walking to the shore and collecting a small amount of untaxed, contraband salt directly from Mother Nature herself.
And so, in March of 1930, Gandhi walked out of his home and headed for the ocean. As he got closer and closer to the coast, hundreds of people left their homes to join him, then thousands, then tens of thousands. A vast column of humanity – rich and poor, young and old, a true cross-section of the subcontinent had joined him. It was, as Louis Fischer describes: “a moving congregation.” India was waking up. The international community was absolutely transfixed.
24 days later, the 61-year-old Mahatma arrived at the beach. He walked down to the shore, and plucked a few salt crystals out of the muddy sand. That simple act sent shockwaves around the world. As Fischer continues:
Had Gandhi gone by train or automobile to make salt, the effect would have been considerable. But to walk two hundred and forty-one miles in twenty-four days and rivet the attention of all India, to trek across the countryside saying, “Watch, I will give a signal to the nation,” and then to pick up a palmful of salt in publicized defiance of a mighty government, that required imagination, dignity, and the sense of showmanship of a great artist. It appealed to illiterate peasants and it fascinated sophisticated critics.”
It was a powerful political act. Gandhi had, according to one historian, “restored India’s confidence. The magic wand of his personality became the national ramrod.”
More than 70 years after the 1857 Mutiny. 300 years after the East India Company had begun dismantling India’s civilization and carving it up into exploitable chunks, Indians had their dignity back. A sense of self-respect and courage that they had forgotten they even possessed. Gandhi had given it to them. Nehru had helped spread it. And now, the long fever was breaking.
As historian MJ Akbar writes: “Between 1757 and 1857 the British lost an occasional battle, but never a war, against the most powerful princes of India. They would eventually be defeated, in 1947, but by a concept that they could never fully comprehend: non-violence.”
A couple months after Gandhi’s salt march, the Mahatma was in jail. So was Nehru. But the power of their message still reverberated through the subcontinent like the tolling of a bell - one that could not be unrung. In Bombay, an American journalist named Webb Miller watched a crowd of 2,500 protesters, all clad in white, march in defiance of the Salt Tax.
British-led police descended upon them with steel-tipped batons. As Miller remembered the scene:
“Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows. From where I stood I heard the sickening whack of the clubs on unprotected skulls. The waiting crowd of marchers groaned and sucked in their breath in sympathetic pain at every blow. Those struck down fell sprawling, unconscious or writhing with fractured skulls or broken shoulders. . . . “Although everyone knew that within a few minutes he would be beaten down, perhaps killed, I could detect no sign of wavering or fear. They marched steadily, with heads up, without the encouragement of music or cheering or any possibility that they might escape injury or death. The police rushed out and methodically and mechanically beat down the second column. There was no fight, no struggle, the marchers simply walked forward until struck down.”
This was Gandhi’s dream come to fruition. Peaceful, non-cooperation. Satyagraha – “Truth/Soul force”. It would be 17 more years before India was officially free. But the die was cast. As Louis Fischer writes:
India was now free. Legally, technically, nothing had changed. India was still a British colony. But there was a difference.
India, wrote one poet, “could now afford to look down on Europe where before she looked up.”
Nehru himself remembered:
‘It was a psychological change, almost as if some expert in psychoanalytical methods had probed deep into the patient’s past, found out the origins of his complexes, exposed them to his view, and thus rid him of that burden.’
And Fischer continues:
The Salt March and its aftermath did two things: it gave the Indians the conviction that they could lift the foreign yoke from their shoulders; it made the British aware that they were subjugating India. It was inevitable, after 1930, that India would someday refuse to be ruled, and, more important, that England would someday refuse to rule. When the Indians allowed themselves to be beaten with batons and rifle butts and did not cringe they showed that England was powerless and India invincible. The rest was merely a matter of time.
In his hot, dimly-lit jail cell, Jawaharlal Nehru knew that a Rubicon had been crossed. It had been 11 years since he’d touched the bullet holes in the wall at Amritsar, and now he could feel the metaphorical holes spreading rapidly through the power of the Raj. Independence - freedom - was so, so close. As he wrote from his cell:
It is clear that India, big as it is, is not big enough to contain both the Indian people and the British Government. One of the two has to go and there can be little doubt as to which. … [W]e are in deadly earnest, we have burnt our boats … and there is no going back for us.”
--- OUTRO -----
Well guys, that is all we have time for today.
As I mentioned at the top, this is the first in a multi-part series, and we have a long, long way to go before we reach the end of our story. In Lord of the Rings parlance we have barely left the Shire at this point.
This episode, fundamentally, was about establishing why the British were in control of India in the first place, as well as understanding what they did to the subcontinent, in a broad sense.
We also introduced some key members of our cast. We met the last Viceroy of India, Dickie Mountbatten, along with his free-spirited wife Edwina, on the eve of their mission to India. It will be some time before they pop back into our story, but when they do it will be hugely impactful, and I wanted to make you aware of their importance right from the jump.
We spent time with Mohandas Gandhi, outlining his hugely influential philosophy of non-violence, as well as the contradictions and doubts raging within him. In particular, I wanted to establish the triumph and power of his peaceful movement, because later in the story, the Mahatma will live to see his dreams of a harmonious India turn to ashes. And in the twilight of his life, he will undergo a traumatic ordeal in a vain attempt to stitch his people back together.
And lastly, we met Gandhi’s fiery protégé, the young radical Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru has yet to really hit his stride in the story, but in the coming episodes, he will become more and more important. He will also cross paths with other characters in some very unexpected – and scandalous– ways.
Next time, we’re going to be switching gears a bit.
We ended today’s episode on a very triumphant note, but beneath that sense of optimism and hope, old tensions were bubbling beneath the surface. Bitter, ancient fault lines within India’s communities that would metastasize into genocide and ethnic cleansing.
As we get closer and closer to the coming horror of Partition, it’s important that we understand the religious and cultural dynamics that will fuel the violence. Next episode, we’ll explore the relationship between the two main religions in India: Islam and Hinduism. ‘
We’ll also introduce a brand-new character, who will round out our main cast. A flawed and fascinating politician named Muhammed Ali Jinnah, who almost singlehandedly and somewhat accidentally, brought the country of Pakistan into existence.
Once we understand the relationship between Hindus and Muslims in India, we can begin to comprehend how and why and what they did to each other during the historic splintering of the subcontinent.
That’s it for today, but as always, thanks for spending your very valuable time with me.
This has been Conflicted. Thanks for listening.