India: The Imprint of Empire


In 1947, on the eve of Indian independence, my parents arranged for me to fly from Britain for what promised to be our last family holiday in the subcontinent. As a British member of the Indian Civil Service, my father expected to leave with the departing Raj.1 My mother and I drove up from New Delhi to the Vale of Kashmir. We visited my brother’s grave in Srinagar, where he had died in infancy a decade earlier, one of an estimated two million graves the British left behind. Then we trekked the final 2,000 feet on tiny ponies up to Gulmarg, where my father joined us after attending the Indian independence ceremonies in New Delhi on August 15. It was an idyllic holiday, Raj-style: golf on two of the most beautiful courses in the world, where the ball soared encouragingly far in the thin mountain air; picnics among the firs and pines; bridge in the club; the latest Agatha Christie mystery in the evening before turning in.

But on the plains of the Punjab, where I had grown up, one of the greatest human tragedies of the twentieth century was taking place. The proudest province of British India, which had just been partitioned between the successor states, India and Pakistan, was collapsing into a state of nature. Sikhs and Hindus killed their Muslim neighbors; Muslims killed Sikhs and Hindus. Millions of Hindus and Sikhs fled eastward to India, Moslems westward to Pakistan.2 Hundreds of thousands didn’t make it.

Trainloads of refugees were ambushed and boarded before they reached the border, and their occupants slaughtered to a man, woman, and child.3 Only the engine driver would be left alive so that he could deliver his grisly cargo across the border.4

Rumors began to reach Gulmarg that former comrades-in-arms of the British Indian Army, now divided into the armed forces of the new nations, were about to fall upon each other in the disputed province of Kashmir. Situated on the Indo-Pakistani border, Kashmir was supposed to have its future decided by the maharaja. Since over 75 percent of Kashmiris were Muslims but the maharaja was a Hindu, both countries hoped for his adherence. He procrastinated, then opted for India. No Pakistani leader since has been willing or able to live with the small portion of Kashmir which his country retained after the fighting of 1947-1948. And so, fifty years and three wars later on, a costly arms race continues, nuclear weapons are developed, missiles are deployed, border clashes take place as I write.5

I left Gulmarg on an American plane sent to Srinagar to evacuate embassy staff. Flying low over the Punjab, we saw villages burning below. In New Delhi, our house was deserted; the Muslim servants had fled to refugee camps in the capital. Working as a volunteer, I saw the pitiful condition of the wounded in one of the camps. When my parents returned we located our servants and smuggled them out of…

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