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 New Delhi, where killings were still taking place, hiding them in the bathroom of our carriage on the train to Bombay, where things were calmer. I sailed home to school.

In the years that followed, I returned often to the subcontinent, but always to examine some current problem. “What’s gone wrong with us now?” my friends used to ask plaintively. Going back to New Delhi for the fiftieth anniversary of independence this summer, however, it was the scenes of 1947 that were uppermost in my mind. How did Indians look back on the bloodshot moment of Partition which marked the end of British rule?


Answers were hard to find; there has not been a German-style soul-searching in the subcontinent. According to the Delhi University historian Gyanendra Pandey, “Indian intellectuals have tended to celebrate the story of the Independence struggle rather than dwell on the agonies of Partition.” Pandey lists evident reasons why the Hindu- Muslim violence has had little attention. Bitter conflict between Hindus and Muslims persists in parts of India today; and those who pursue the history of such strife run the real danger of reopening old wounds. In addition, there is no consensus among Indians about the nature of Partition. “We have no means of representing such tragic loss, nor of pinning down—or rather, owning—responsibility for it. Consequently, our nationalist historiography, journalism, and filmmaking have tended to generate something like a collective amnesia.”6

For the political scientist Ashis Nandy at Delhi’s Center for the Study of Developing Societies, “the silence was one way known to the South Asians to start life anew and contain bitterness. It was a means of restoring community life, interpersonal trust and the known moral universe.” Many wanted to wipe away the memories, “both what had been done to them or what was done or sanctioned by them.” Still, Nandy wrote, it is gradually “becoming obvious that the summer of 1947 brought out the worst in us, so much so that even our imagination of evil failed.” Writing of the “psychopathic and sadistic dimensions of the carnage,” he concluded that independence meant “genocide, necrophilia, ethnic cleansing, massive uprooting and collapse of a moral universe.”7


The implication of such an account is that the responsibility for the slaughter has to be borne by “ordinary” Indians and Pakistanis who turned against each other; the manner of the bloodletting allows of no other conclusion. But what about the Partition that sparked it? The “communal” tensions between Hindus and Muslims in the subcontinent date back centuries to the successive waves of Muslim conquerors who swept down through the Khyber Pass and forced their Hindu subjects to convert. In the twentieth century, some Muslims feared religious, cultural, and economic subordination to the Hindu majority, perhaps even revenge for their earlier victories. Their leaders embraced the theory that the subcontinent comprised “two nations,” each of which deserved its own homeland; the idea of a unified subcontinent was imposed by the British.

At the same time Indians have long blamed British divide-and-rule policies for exacerbating and entrenching communal barriers. The Raj was certainly Machiavellian from time to time, not to mention blundering and harsh, but closer to the mark was probably the well-known Indian judgment: “We divided and they ruled.” In one of the articles for the fiftieth anniversary, Nitesh Sengupta blamed the British for not conceding home rule after World War I when the future founder of Pakistan, M.A. Jinnah, was still a loyal member of the Indian National Congress.8

Sengupta, however, blamed the Congress for the political missteps that occurred thereafter. For instance, in June 1946 Nehru told a press conference that the central government of an independent India (which would be dominated by his Congress Party) would reserve its rights to intervene in the component states of the union on issues of planning and economic development. (India was ultimately to be divided into twenty-five states and centrally administered territories.) Since the Congress had earlier accepted a three-tier constitutional arrangement designed to allow Muslims to exercise all powers in their regions except for defense, foreign affairs, and communications, Jinnah regarded Nehru’s assertion as treachery. According to Sengupta, only the final nail in the coffin of a united independent India was driven by the British, when Mountbatten arrived as Britain’s last viceroy and decided to accelerate Britain’s departure by ten months. It is over this issue that British historians have been arguing.

Essentially, the case against Mountbatten, apart from justifiable jibes about his relentless self-glorification—“I was governing by personality,” he later told Nehru’s authorized biographer—is that he was pro-Indian and anti-Pakistan, pro-Nehru and anti-Jinnah. He put pressure on the supposedly neutral Boundary Commissioner, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, to make critical adjustments in favor of India when drawing the frontier through the Punjab. A Cambridge don of Pakistani origin has asserted that “if Jinnah is the first Pakistani, Mountbatten is the first Paki-basher.” Mountbatten and his wife certainly hit it off instantly with Nehru, while the viceroy later made it clear that he had found Jinnah impossible to deal with.9

Cyril Radcliffe had no expert knowledge of India. He was given a task of Solomonic proportions to be completed in an irresponsibly short period of time. He was not insulated from lobbying as claimed but was in contact with Mountbatten and his staff. But since Radcliffe destroyed all his papers on returning to England we cannot know if his earlier ideas on the Punjab boundary were modified by common sense or by the Congress Party via Mountbatten. Auden’s caustic poem on his performance remains one of the most telling commentaries written on the Partition.

“Time,” they had briefed him in London, “is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation…”
Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.
The next day he sailed for England, where he quickly forgot
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.

The second set of charges against Mountbatten is that by deciding in June 1947 to advance the date of independence from June 1948 to August 1947, he left no time for further negotiation and therefore made Partition inevitable. This also ensured that the exchange of populations would be hurried, chaotic, and bloody. He delayed announcing the location of Radcliffe’s boundaries until after independence, at which point the responsibility for law and order devolved on India and Pakistan. He did so, it is alleged, because he sensed a PR disaster in the making for himself and Britain. So, disastrously, there was no British-led unified Indian Army to oversee the transfer of populations. It was issues like these that led Kuldip Nayar, a leading columnist and former High Commissioner in London, to suggest holding a joint Indo-Pakistani seminar to mark the fiftieth anniversary entitled “The Trial of Mountbatten.”


How he would have emerged from a fair trial remains unknowable. Mountbatten was an energetic and charismatic viceroy, if often guilty of gross errors of judgment. His colleague Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer once commented: “You’re so crooked, Dickie, if you swallowed a nail you’d shit a corkscrew.” Yet many knowledgeable British officials with no cause to admire him felt that in the light of the deteriorating communal situation in the spring of 1947, Britain had no alternative but to hand over power as soon as possible; further delay would have spread the massacres beyond the Punjab to all of India. Moreover, although Mountbatten claimed credit for advancing the timetable, the decision was actually taken in the India Office in London.10

Whatever the verdict of history, Mountbatten undoubtedly charmed the Indian public. On the occasion of the Mountbattens’ departure for England in June 1948, Nehru remarked how struck he had been at the reception given them in old Delhi earlier in the day:

[Used] as I am to these vast demonstrations here, I was much affected, and I wondered how it was that an Englishman and Englishwoman could become so popular during this brief period of time…. Obviously this was not connected so much with what had happened, but rather with the good faith, the friendship and the love of India that these two possessed….

Obviously, too, that friendship helped Nehru decide to keep India within the Commonwealth even when it became a republic, thus ensuring that most British ex-colonies followed suit and giving post-imperial Britain the illusion of retaining its global stature. Three decades later, long after Mountbatten’s friends and contemporaries of the independence era had died, when the IRA blew up his fishing boat, killing him and members of his family, the Indian parliament and state assemblies stopped their proceedings, shops closed, and a week’s state mourning was declared.


As India showed, the end of empire is never easy. The older imperial powers were crippled economically by World War II and lost their aura of unchallengeable authority. In the early postwar years, the British were fortunate to be led by a Labour Party committed to decolonization. Some nations learned the hard way that “nerve without muscle,” as the historian Lawrence James put it, could not save an empire.11 In the fifty years that followed the end of the Raj, virtually the entire British empire in Asia, Africa, and the Americas was dismantled, sometimes peacefully, sometimes with bitterness and bloodshed.12 During the same period, the other European empires—French, Dutch, Portuguese, Belgian, Spanish—also largely disappeared, and the US left the Philippines.13 Even the Soviet and tsarist empires collapsed. It was the greatest liberation of subject peoples in history.

The process culminated on June 30 this year with the return to China of Hong Kong, the last great jewel in the tattered imperial regalia of Europe. No imperial divestiture had been longer in the making, but probably not since the loss of the American colonies had the British elite been so publicly and venomously divided about a retreat from empire as it took place. And though Britain had certainly never left a colony in as good economic shape as Hong Kong, there was continual wrangling between the outgoing and incoming sovereigns, which readers of The New York Review have had a chance to consider in detail. 14 For the student of the end of empire, the question is: Why did Hong Kong 1997 arouse so much sound and fury while India 1947 did not?

In 1947, although disasters were foreseen, there was little time for reflection—even the high priest of the imperial mission, Churchill, finally accepted that there was no alternative to granting independence to the Indian subcontinent. But in 1997, there persisted to the very end, and at the highest levels, the uneasy feeling that Britain was not behaving honorably. Prime Minister Thatcher later said she hated signing the Joint Declaration of 1984 that sentenced Hong Kong citizens to live under a Communist dictatorship. But in 1989, in the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre, she rejected a proposal made by Governor Sir David Wilson to grant full British passports to the three and a half million people in the colony who ranked as British Dependent Territories Citizens. The specter, however unlikely, of a flood of refugees from Hong Kong was politically intolerable.

After John Major replaced Mrs. Thatcher, Foreign Office experts persuaded him to go to Beijing to sign an agreement on Hong Kong’s new airport. He was embarrassed to become the first Western leader to shake hands with Premier Li Peng, widely despised in the West for his role in Tiananmen. Somewhat unjustly, Major decided to make Wilson, not Sir Percy Cradock, his principal adviser on China policy, the scapegoat for the position he’d been put in. By this time, the new foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, had become convinced that the endgame in Hong Kong demanded the presence of a political heavyweight rather than a Foreign Office mandarin. Out went Sir David in dignified silence and in came the ex-cabinet minister Chris Patten, chastened by his personal electoral defeat, but ebullient about his new job.

Patten, like Mountbatten, had two enormous advantages over his predecessor, a direct line to the prime minister—who attributed his continuance in office after the 1992 general election to Patten’s chairmanship of the campaign—and to the foreign secretary, both former cabinet colleagues, and carte blanche to do what he thought best. By adhering to the letter of the 1984 Joint Declaration and the Chinese Basic Law implementing it, if not to their spirit, Patten set out to further democratize the Hong Kong electoral system. The British ambassador in Beijing, Sir Robin McLaren, warned that the Chinese government would react badly, and it did. The Beijing authorities expected to be handed a cozy, controllable colonial system with which their officials would be quite comfortable. Instead, they would inherit a Legislative Council which they could rightly anticipate would include significant numbers of capable opponents, such as the barrister Martin Lee.

Before long, Patten was denounced by Beijing propagandists as a “clown,” a “dirty trickster,” a “tango dancer,” a “strutting prostitute,” a “serpent,” an “assassin,” and the “criminal of all time.” Far more dangerous for Patten was the assault of those whom he called the “Sinologists,” the Foreign Office officials who had helped shape the policy of cooperation with China that had produced the Joint Declaration. Clearly it was galling for them to be depicted in the press as pusillanimous appeasers who kowtowed to the Chinese. Cradock denigrated Patten for “incompetence” and self-aggrandizement.15 But what probably guided the Sinologists most strongly was their conviction that, precisely because the Chinese were “thugs,” as Cradock was wont to describe them, the only option was to coax them into the least punitive arrangements for Hong Kong. “Confrontation” would be counterproductive.

Again, there can be no final judgment. But the Sinologists surely underestimated the character of Hong Kong as revealed by the demonstrations of more than a million people there after the Tiananmen crackdown. Hong Kong could no longer be dismissed as an apolitical city, interested only in acquiring wealth. Its citizens were profoundly concerned about the politics of their forthcoming sovereign and deeply worried that the rule of law which had become integral to their political identity might disappear after July 1, 1997. No governor could have guaranteed their future. The Chinese have duly swept aside Patten’s reforms and the legislative body which they produced. But Patten provided Hong Kongers with a sense of what they needed to fight for if they were to breathe reality into Deng Xiaoping’s concept of “one country, two systems.” One of his leading Hong Kong opponents even conceded that he transformed the political culture by introducing open debate and government accountability.

Unlike Mountbatten, Patten did not have the benefit of a moving and affectionate farewell from the new sovereign power. But Patten, too, seems to have become widely popular. Even in his final months, when he was effectively a lame duck, the leading opinion sampling organization found that 60 percent of the population still supported Patten, a third of them would have liked Hong Kong to remain British or become independent, while 90 percent, the highest percentage ever, admitted to being content with their lives under British rule. The pollsters added that “as the sun sets on British administration in Hong Kong, many aspects of life under [British] rule seem suffused with a ‘golden haze.”‘16

The haze will dissipate. Nobody can long cherish the memory of being a colonial subject.17 And after the parting comes the reckoning. History will be rewritten in Hong Kong as it was in India, and likely more harshly.18 China’s foreign minister, Qian Qichen, has stated that Hong Kong history texts have to be revised. Though education is supposedly not a matter for the central government under the Basic Law, the new chief executive, C.H. Tung, has confirmed that there would be a need to rewrite the sections on the colonial past.


The celebration in Beijing of the reversion of Hong Kong was long planned and efficiently organized. Soon after their fifteenth party congress this month, the Chinese authorities, if they have not started already, will surely begin planning the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of the People’s Republic on October 1, 1999. It is crucial for China’s Communist leaders that the party-state they created—and major events in the life of the state like the reversion of Hong Kong—should seem all-important to its citizens. India’s politicians, on the other hand, are neither appointed nor given legitimacy by the state; they emerge from their party and their community. Faced with the fiftieth anniversary of independence, the coalition government in New Delhi was so preoccupied with ensuring its own survival that its leaders could hardly focus on a date when they might no longer be in power.

The coalition is still shaky. After the 1996 election, when the Congress government fell, the right-wing Hindu, chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), despite having become the largest party, could not get parliamentary backing for its government. A coalition of thirteen small, mainly regional parties opposed to the BJP came to power, and was maintained in office by the Congress’s decision to give it general support. However, the first coalition premier, H.D. Deve Gowda, was toppled in April this year by the Congress party leader, Sitaram Kesri. And while the coalition government has stayed in office under a new leader, Inder Gujral, Delhi political observers believe that Kesri will withdraw support and force an election in about a year when he anticipates Congress will stand higher in the public opinion polls. But neither they nor their democratic system were threatened by a low-key approach to the golden jubilee.

In both Hong Kong and Delhi the official ceremonies I attended were hard going. The open-air British farewell in Hong Kong took place in an unceasing downpour. Many were sad, all seemed miserable. In New Delhi, at the “stroke of the midnight hour” on August 14, Nehru’s speech about India awakening to “life and freedom” to keep its “tryst with destiny” was replayed in the Central Hall of Parliament, and President Narayanan, the first untouchable to become head of state, inveighed against corruption, which he said was “corroding the vitals of our politics and our society.”19

Everyone understood what he meant. In a jubilee poll, corruption was rated as the greatest national evil, far above unemployment or inflation. Corruption permeates Indian life: politicians buy votes from citizens (though an unusually determined election commissioner cracked down on this practice in the 1996 election). Companies buy favors and licenses to do business from politicians and bureaucrats (though the hope is that freeing the economy from state control will lessen such bribery). Citizens pay “facilitation fees” to the police and petty officials to get access to services. “Even the wretched homeless in some cities have to pay for the right to sleep on the sidewalks,” according to Shashi Tharoor in India: From Midnight to the Millennium.20

The courtesy displayed to Mountbatten fifty years earlier was recaptured by the presence on the dais of Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker of the House of Commons.21 Outside, we milled around searching desperately for our drivers among hundreds of identical white Indian-made Ambassador cars, still modeled on the 1956 Morris Oxford, hoping for a few hours’ sleep before our next tryst with an early morning speech by the prime minister. This took place at the mid-seventeenth-century Mogul Red Fort in Old Delhi, one of the great architectural masterpieces commissioned by the Emperor Shah Jahan when he moved his capital from Agra and built the city of Old Delhi.

In Hong Kong, one had to go deep into tourist back alleys to find handover kitsch, a few crude T-shirts; the most common logo visible on Hong Kong citizens’ chests was “DKNY.” As the rising emigration figures have shown, Hong Kong Chinese are uncertain about their future under Beijing and presumably were not sure whether they had much to celebrate.22 In New Delhi, at the last minute, the government urged citizens to rush out and buy Indian flags, lifting the normal legal ban on the flag being flown except officially. But Indians were gloomy about the recent downturn in the economy, the violence and fissiparous tendencies spawned by inter-caste and communal tensions, and the increasingly criminal character not merely of state assemblies but even of the national parliament, where one estimate is that 100 out of the 535 members of the lower house have criminal records, for crimes such as bribery, rape, and attempted murder.23 Indians have an overdeveloped capacity for devastating self-criticism and this came out in the many series of articles published during the anniversary, e.g., in The Times of India. A popular account of recent travels in small-town India by Pankaj Mishra made it seem as if the previous fifty years had succeeded only in transforming country and people for the worse, with the author wondering “if much of urban India wasn’t simply a horrible mistake.”24 The “real India,” Mishra writes, is

broken road, the wandering cows, the open gutter, the low ramshackle shops, the ground littered with garbage, the pressing crowd, the dust.

And the people are no better. The state of Bihar, the land of Buddha, is where

…medical colleges sell degrees and doctors pull out transfusion tubes from the veins of their patients when they go on strike, where private caste armies regularly massacre Harijans [untouchables] in droves, where murderers and rapists become legislators through large-scale “booth-capturing”….

Aged veterans of the struggle against the British expressed their disillusionment to journalists about what had been achieved since 1947 after all their sacrifices.


For a child of the Raj, it is tempting to believe that the special qualities of both ex-colonies must have something to do with their British legacies: the use of English, for Hong Kong as a bridge to international finance and trade, for India as a link within a polyglot state with eighteen official languages; the rule of law and a well-developed legal structure to protect the citizen and provide a workable market for businessmen; a highly trained and efficient civil service and a relatively uncorrupt police force; and a free press. In the case of India, politicians absorbed the British parliamentary model of democracy and began to practice it in a limited way under the Raj; in Hong Kong, the British stimulated the hunger for one which was introduced too late. Some South Asian historians acknowledge this,25 and perhaps Hong Kong historians—after understandably excoriating the Opium War and the subsequent British imperialist ventures that led to the formation of the colony—eventually will too.

But the impact of the two hundred- year engagement of Britain with the rich and complex society of India cannot be described by a complacent list of inherited institutions. Indeed, ever since India’s domestic troubles in the 1970s, when Mrs. Gandhi declared martial law, radical Indian historians have been seeking the roots of their discontent in the colonial era.26 They have had important insights; but their approach and some findings have justifiably been questioned. A widely acclaimed study, for example, depicts a pre-colonial period in which an ecological balance was maintained by a caste system largely without conflict. The arrival of the British, it is argued, disrupted this relatively successful traditional culture by emphasizing production for the market over subsistence, undermining cooperation within communities, and by encouraging the unrestrained use of resources, especially forests. This picture is disputed by Delhi University economist Bina Agarwal, partly on factual grounds, partly because it tends to glorify a traditional social system that was infused with unequal gender relations.27

Still, the pros and cons of the British legacy are less important for outsiders with an affection for India than the ongoing commitment to parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, though these are marred by glaring political problems and social failures. As an American observer put it, “galloping normlessness” characterizes Indian politics. The statistics on social conditions remain dismaying. Infant malnutrition is worse than in sub-Saharan Africa. The ineffectiveness of family planning means that a population that was 350 million in 1947 is now 950 million, will be about 1,580 million in another fifty years, and may not become stabilized for another hundred years. The percentage of people below the poverty line has declined from over 55 percent when the British left, but it is still well over a third of the much larger population. The neglect of primary health care, especially for women, is attested to by the infant mortality rate of 75 per 1,000, as compared with 31 in China, 41 in Egypt, and 53 in Indonesia, and with a world rate of 63. There is still desperate poverty and not just in Calcutta.28

A particularly sad failure is suggested by the fact that no more than 52 percent of the population is literate—as compared with a world rate of 76 percent—with an Indian female rate of only 36 percent. Though 80 percent of Indian children now start primary school, the failure to spread primary education is attested by the fact that only 40.8 percent of Indians are literate at age fifteen as compared with 90 percent of South Koreans, 72.6 percent of Chinese, and 57.3 percent of Ugandans.29 There were plausible grounds for the pessimism felt by many Indians as they looked back over five decades.

But India’s leaders should be credited for trying to deal with fundamental cleavages in Indian society. The Indian caste system has been around for millennia; the Muslim invasions started over a thousand years ago. But the social and communal problems begotten by that history were confronted at the outset of independence, initially through the agony of Partition, and then through rights and safeguards written into the constitution. It abolished untouchability and said that citizens could not be denied access to shops, restaurants, and other public places on grounds of caste and religion.30 It promised special treatment for the untouchable castes and tribes which it listed in a special “schedule.” In fulfilling these undertakings, the Indian government has reserved 22.5 percent of government jobs and 85 seats in the legislature for members of “scheduled” castes and tribes.

But it is worth emphasizing that attempts to help other backward castes (OBCs), people above the level of untouchability, have caused even more political upheavals than affirmative action for minorities in the US—including the collapse of governments. On August 7, 1990, the then prime minister, V.P. Singh, announced that his government would honor the ten-year-old recommendations of an official commission that 27 percent of all federal government jobs should be reserved for OBCs. In the words of Mr. Singh, all hell broke loose: government buses were burned, trains were attacked, public property was extensively damaged, and some upper-caste youths immolated themselves. His government fell.

Religious tensions have also risen since the bloody violence unleashed in 1992 when the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya was destroyed by Hindus who claimed it had been built on top of an ancient temple to the god Rama. The secularism of the founding fathers is under siege. 31

Still, acting under far greater pressures than ever constrained the officers of the Raj’s Indian Civil Service, Indian politicians and bureaucrats have managed to maintain national unity and a democratic polity. We should remember that in the 1950s, there was speculation that India might fall apart or survive only by totalitarian means,32 and that in the late 1960s, under Mrs. Gandhi, it was confidently predicted that India had held its last election. The problems remain, but India has held together and the democratic system has taken root among the voters, even if they have an understandable skepticism about what the politicians will actually deliver: 59 percent assert that their vote makes a difference and only 21 percent say the opposite; 69 percent reject the idea that governance would be better without parties and elections, even though 63 percent feel that representatives do not care about the people.33

From afar, India’s problems look insuperable. The benefit of returning there is to be reminded of the talent, resilience, and determination that abound for tackling them. With economic reform taking hold and the growth rate reaching a healthy 7 percent, India at fifty is making progress, still slowly, always painfully, but with gathering momentum. Hong Kong at year zero is of course enviably better off and always hustling. Its citizens have been promised their own “system” for fifty years. But will Hong Kong at fifty be the mature democracy India is today? Only if China is too.

September 25, 1997

This Issue

October 23, 1997

  1. 1

    According to Philip Woodruff, The Men Who Ruled India, I: The Founders; II: The Guardians (London: Jonathan Cape, 1953, 1954), in 1939 there were 1,384 officers in the ICS, of whom 759 were British expatriates (II, p. 363). After partition, my father went to Karachi to work for the new Pakistani government. 

  2. 2

    According to the 1941 census, the undivided Punjab consisted of 52.88 percent Moslems, 29.79 percent Hindus, and 14.62 percent Sikhs; Indu Banga, editor, Five Punjabi Centuries: Policy, Economy, Society, and Culture, c. 1500- 1990 (New Delhi: Manohar, 1997), p. 243. 

  3. 3

    Philip Ziegler, Mountbatten: The Official Biography (Collins, 1985), p. 437, and Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, Freedom at Midnight (Simon and Schuster, 1975), p. 342, quote estimates of the dead ranging from 200,000 to 500,000; J.S. Grewal, The Sikhs of the Punjab (Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 181, and Patrick French, Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division (HarperCollins, 1997), p. 349, agree on a million. The highest figure I have seen is “almost” or “over” 2,000,000 in Akbar S. Ahmed, Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity: The Search for Saladin (Routledge, 1997) pp. xi, 166. Estimates of the number of refugees who managed to survive the two-way border crossing in the Punjab and elsewhere range from 8,000,000 to as high as 17,000,000. 

  4. 4

    For recent accounts of the “ethnic cleansing” of Partition, see S.M. Burke and Salim Al-Din Quraishi, The British Raj in India: An Historical Review (Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 609-625, and French, Liberty or Death, pp. 342-356. 

  5. 5

    Prem Shankar Jha, Kashmir, 1947: Rival Versions of History (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996). For a scalding critique of Britain’s handling of its treaty obligations to princely states like Kashmir, see Ian Copland, The Princes of India in the Endgame of Empire, 1917-1947 (Cambridge University Press, 1997). 

  6. 6

    Gyanendra Pandey, “In Defense of the Fragment: Writing about Hindu- Muslim Riots in India Today,” in Ranajit Guha, editor, A Subaltern Studies Reader, 1986-1995 (Univer-sity of Minnesota Press, forthcoming 1997). 

  7. 7

    Ashis Nandy, “Too Painful for Words,” Times of India, July 20, 1997. 

  8. 8

    Nitish Sengupta, “Partition need not have happened if…,” Times of India, August 6, 1997. Sengupta is the director general of the International Management Institute, New Delhi. 

  9. 9

    Nehru and the Mountbattens had similar leftish political outlooks, and there is the imponderable importance of the undeniably affectionate relationship between the Indian premier and Edwina Mountbatten. 

  10. 10

    The case for the defense is given principally by the official biographer, Philip Ziegler, in whom Mountbatten has been fortunate: Mountbatten, pp. 349-379, and especially pp. 438-441; Collins and Lapierre, Freedom at Midnight, gave Mountbatten the opportunity to state his own case; French, Liberty or Death, pp. 305, 443, note 45, takes a more objective view, but rejects the notion that a premature British departure was a primary cause of the massacres. Andrew Roberts, in a chapter titled “Lord Mountbatten and the perils of adrenalin” in his Eminent Churchillians (Simon and Schuster, 1994), pp. 55-136, attacks Mountbatten’s character vigorously and presents a caustic exposé of the egregious errors which he contends littered his entire career; the famous quote from Templer is on page 133. 

  11. 11

    See his The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (London: Abacus, 1995), p. 555. 

  12. 12

    For an interesting “worm’s-eye view” of this process, see Robin Neillands, A Fighting Retreat: The British Empire, 1947-1997 (London: Coronet, 1997). 

  13. 13

    See John Keay, Last Post: The End of Empire in the Far East (London: John Murray, 1997). Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” was written to encourage the American effort in the Philippines; Rudyard Kipling, Complete Verse: Definitive Edition (Anchor, 1989), pp. 321-323. 

  14. 14

    Among other articles, see, for example, Ian Buruma, “Holding Out in Hong Kong,” The New York Review, June 12, 1997, and Jonathan Mirsky, “Betrayal,” The New York Review, September 25, 1997. 

  15. 15

    For the controversy over Cradock’s views and activities, see Jonathan Dimbleby, The Last Governor: Chris Patten and the Handover of Hong Kong (Little, Brown, 1997), pp. 10, 161, 166-167, 414-415, 436-437, 444-445. 

  16. 16

    Dimbleby, The Last Governor, pp. 417, 435. The understandably schizophrenic feelings of Hong Kong citizens was underlined by this poll, because for the first time a clear majority—62 percent—said they would prefer Chinese sovereignty to any alternative. 

  17. 17

    Dimbleby (in The Last Governor, p. 430) quotes the valedictory comment of the publisher Jimmy Lai, whose papers are almost unique in Hong Kong in crusading for democracy: “It is a shame to have your country colonised, but I have never had this sense of shame, because I have been a free man living in this colony…. So long, the British. May God bless you.” 

  18. 18

    For a comprehensive and subtle history reflecting, if not in thrall to, post-colonial analyses, see Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal, Modern South Asia:History, Culture, Political Economy (Delhi: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 1997). Auden’s poem is quoted in Chapter 16. 

  19. 19

    In a sad sign of diminishing British expertise on India, an editorial in The Times (“Light in dark places,” August 18, 1997, p. 19) referred to the prime minister rather than the president as the untouchable. 

  20. 20

    Arcade, 1997, pp. 254-269. 

  21. 21

    Nehru’s attentiveness to Mountbatten and Britain’s sensitivities at the time of independence was detailed by Ajit Bhattacharjea, “The British tilt,” Outlook, August 13, 1997. It hardly needs be said that correctness rather than sensitivity characterized the Hong Kong handover. 

  22. 22

    Emigration averaged about 20,000 in the 1980s until 1987, when it jumped to 30,000, perhaps because of the dismissal of the “liberal” party general secretary, Hu Yaobang, that January. After Tiananmen there was another jump, and through 1994 the annual figure was regularly 60,000 or over, except in 1993 when it was 53,000. See Ronald Skeldon, editor, Emigration from Hong Kong: Tendencies and Impacts (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1995), p. 57. 

  23. 23

    See Hiranmay Karlekar, “The growth of violence has been phenomenal,” Times of India, July 31, 1997; the estimate of criminal politicians is given in Tharoor, India, p. 266. 

  24. 24

    See Pankaj Mishra, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India (Penguin, 1995), pp. 12, 93, 253. For attempts to provide a more balanced view, see Pran Chopra, “The success side of India,” in The Hindu, August 5 and 6, 1997. See also Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, editors, Mirrorwork: 50 Years of Indian Writing, 1947-1997 (Henry Holt, 1997), a celebration of Indian writing in English; and Shashi Tharoor’s passionate but often agonized avowal of love for his motherland in India: From Midnight to the Millennium

  25. 25

    See, for example, Ahmed, Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity, pp. 116-117. The most ubiquitous legacy of the British empire is, however, the pipe band. 

  26. 26

    They call their general approach “subaltern studies.” See Guha, A Subaltern Studies Reader, especially the introduction. 

  27. 27

    The claims about caste and ecological balance, and the effects of the British, are to be found in Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha, This Fissured Land: An Ecological History of India (University of California Press, 1992), pp. 113-116. For critiques of subaltern studies, see C.A. Bayly in Empires and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780-1870 (Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 368, and Sumit Sarkar, Writing Social History (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 82-108. 

  28. 28

    See Amartya Sen, “How India has fared,” Frontline, August 22, 1997. It is worth pointing out, in view of the immense publicity that has attended Mother Teresa’s good works in Calcutta and her funeral there, that an extraordinary number and range of Indian private institutions try to substitute for government in providing welfare not only in Calcutta but in many other cities and villages. 

  29. 29

    Jagdish Bhagwati, India in Transition: Freeing the Economy (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 48. Resources that might have gone into primary education have been invested in higher education. Taking into account differences in population size, India sends six times as many people to universities as China; see Amartya Sen, “Wrongs and rights in development,” Prospect, October 1995, p. 30. 

  30. 30

    Contrast this with the American race problem. It is 400 years old. It was finessed at the founding of the United States. After fifty years, the problem had still not even been confronted. By its centenary, the US was emerging from a bloody Civil War and an abortive Reconstruction which failed to lay the problem to rest. Only around the time of the country’s two-hundredth anniversary was the US civil rights movement able to demand that the state bring about changes that should have been accomplished by the Civil War. 

  31. 31

    For a discussion of these deeply troubling issues, see Tharoor, India, pp. 50-78; for an attempt to provide a new analytical approach with which to understand post-independence ethnic violence, see Stanley Tambiah, Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia (University of California Press, 1996). 

  32. 32

    The most prominent discussion of these issues was in Selig S. Harrison, India: The Most Dangerous Decades (Princeton University Press, 1960). 

  33. 33

    “The maturing of a democracy,” India Today, August 31, 1996, p. 41. In a less detailed poll a year later, however, 53 percent voted against the “government’s policy based on caste”; India Today, August 18, 1997, p. 49.