Magazine article The Spectator

Midnight's Children

Magazine article The Spectator

Midnight's Children

Article excerpt

Yet another rash of programmes has erupted marking the anniversary of yet another of Britain's disastrous foreign policy decisions. At midnight on 14 August it will be 60 years since Nehru, as the prime minister of newly independent India, pronounced those fateful words, 'A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.' The trouble in the subcontinent was that there was no single 'nation', no united community, no historical tradition of a unified country. Independence brought with it Partition, declared on the following day, as the only way to reach agreement between Nehru's largely Hindu Congress Party and Jinnah's Muslim League. Its architect, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, was an English barrister who was flown in specially from London to do the job and given only four weeks to draw up the lines that would create Hindu India and Muslim east and west Pakistan.

Changes were being made to where the dividing line fell until just moments before Nehru delivered his speech.

In Crossing the Border (Radio Four, Monday) Hardeep Singh Kohli, the strangely attired kilt-and-turban-wearing Sikh who grew up in Glasgow, returned to Ferozepur in the Punjab, home to his family until 1947, when his grandfather and father fled to safety in Britain. He revealed that until just a week before Nehru's speech they had thought it would be safe to stay. It was originally agreed that Ferozepur would be part of Pakistan; the city, close to Lahore, the capital of the Punjab, was largely Muslim but had always tolerated its vibrant and historic Sikh community. But then at the last minute the line was moved and the city was transferred to India. Ironically, Hardeep's family knew they would have to leave, as the Muslim community fought for its survival (there are now very few Muslims in the city).

Some of the worst inter-racial violence took place in the Punjab, trains arriving at the fairytale turreted station of Lahore full of the dead bodies of Muslims who had never made it to safety in Pakistan.

Hardeep reminded us of the randomness of the decisions by which the communities were divided in a far more graphic way than would have been possible from a straightforward account of the history. There's an urgency, too, about this telling, as those who survived the violence, who witnessed its ferocity, are now themselves approaching death. 'Man had become a devil at that time, ' Hardeep was told by one elderly man; no more words were necessary.

Another remembered how he had seen early on the morning after the declaration of Partition a group of Muslims rushing for the border, just three kilometres away. …

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