Friday, December 01, 2006

Freedom at Midnight: A Book Review

Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, Freedom at Midnight (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975), 541 pages plus bibliography and index.


What a mess. For centuries the British had controlled the Indian subcontinent. Then, at the end of World War II, with their economy ravaged by war, the British decide they can no longer afford their empire and is ready to grant India its independence. Louis Mountbatten, the former commander of the Allied troops in South Asia during the war, is called to be the last British Viceroy. His job is to give India back to the Indians, a task more difficult than it sounds. Freedom at Midnight tells the story of Mountbatten’s work in India as well as weaving in stories from the history of the subcontinent to explain the challenges facing Britain as she pulled out of India. Parts of the book are horrific (religious wars always are). Other parts are hopeful, especially the unfailing work of Gandhi in striving for a peaceful, nonviolent solution. Reading this book at this time in history, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps there are some parallels between British India and our occupation of Iraq. History does have ways of repeating itself.

I didn’t set out to read this book for insights into Iraq. A couple months ago I’d asked a friend of mine who directs missions in India to recommend one book on the country. I was getting ready to have a colleague from India working with me for six week and I wanted to prepare myself. Unfortunately, I didn’t get this book until after J. arrived. But I read most of it during his stay and learned enough to ask questions and as a result, learned more about his homeland. Although the book is about a political process, the authors give background information necessary to understand how modern India came about. They cover the development of the Hindu religion, the Mongols bringing in Islam, and the rise of a small but important sect, the Sikhs. They provide backgrounds to many of the key players in the British opposition and the early development of a modern India, especially Gandhi, Patel, Nehru and Jinnah (the father of Pakistan). And they provide interesting insights into the culture, such as Mountbatten’s blunder in setting the date for independence (he didn’t check the stars) or how others caught up in the upheaval depended on things such a palm reading and astrology.

Mountbatten came to India early in 1947. The subcontinent was already experiencing its trouble as Gandhi’s Congress Party (who wanted a united subcontinent) was pitted against the Moslem League (who called for a separate Muslim nation of Pakistan, meaning “land of the pure”). The Moslem League was willing to go to great ends to achieve their objective. In 1946, they called for a day of “Direct Action,” to show that if necessary, they’d resort to action to achieve their own nation. In Calcutta, Muslims pouring out of Mosques, hearing the call for action, went on a rampage in Hindu slums, burning business and killing those in their path. Soon, Hindu neighborhoods banded together and retaliated, burning business and killing bystanders in Muslim neighborhoods. Although Calcutta had had a reputation of being a dangerous place, it had never experienced this kind of carnage. Over six thousand people died in what became known as the Great Calcutta Killings.

At first Mountbatten wanted to keep the subcontinent intact, but it became clear to him that partition was the only solution. He tried to get all parties to agree with him and he contracted with Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer, to draw the boundaries for the new countries. This creates difficulty as there were large Moslem majorities in both northwestern and northeast India as well as a concentrated pocket of Sikhs in the northwest. Doing the best he could, Radcliffe created what became known as Pakistan, a nation with two parts, separated by India (in the early 70s, East Pakistan became Bangladesh). The two nations received their independence in the midst of celebration on August 15, 1947, but the boundaries weren’t identified until after independence. The celebrations were short lived, especially along the western border, as millions of Hindus and Sikhs moved east into India as Moslems began to move west into Pakistan. All along the route, great atrocities were carried out as both sides attacked one another and sought revenge (Moslems pitted against Hindus and Sikhs). So great was the carnage that buzzards over ate and could no longer fly while dogs and wild animals feasted only on the choices parts of the dead bodies.

As bad as the atrocities were, it was a miracle it didn’t spread throughout the subcontinent. Thanks to the work of Gandhi, who was able to unite both Hindus and Moslems, Calcutta and Delhi and other places in India were spared the disaster that occurred in the west. Another interesting development is that the new Indian leaders recalled Mountbatten, admitting they could no longer control the country, pointing out that when they should have been learning to govern, they were in English prisons. For a period after English rule ended, an Englishman remained in control behind the scenes, directing Indian leaders.

It is obvious that the authors have great respect for both Gandhi and Mountbatten. The book ends with Gandhi’s assassination, (carried out by Hindu fanatics who felt he was too generous toward Moslems). Following Gandhi’s death, the worse of the atrocities ended even though tensions between India and Pakistan continue to this day.

I recommend this book if you are interested in how modern India developed. You’ll learn why Kashmir is still a confused state and why the tension continues along the Pakistan border. The book also provides insight into the work of Gandhi, especially the last year of his life and details in the conspiracy against him.

25 comments:

  1. I know next to nothing about India, except I have read selections from Hindu holy books and some novels set there. Good for you for trying to get some background before your guy comes.

    Thanks for the visit. No, we didn't have to wrap all the presents, but we did re-do some of them, probably about 35-40, and put fresh ribbons on most. Someof the ones in the ladies parlour are fabric covered boxes done by upholsterers. They are beautiful, and I should have taken some close-ups of them.

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  2. sage - thanks for the informative post - I too, lack basic knowledge about India. It's also interesting what you are saying about history repeating itself - I had lunch the other day with a man who did a couple of tours in Vietnam, and he pointed out the similarities between the current situation and what occurred in Vietnam - he had even pulled up some 1970 congressional testimony that mirrors what the current administration is saying - he supports the war in Iraq, but worries about the lack of foresight as they try to turn things over to the Iraqis

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  3. that sounds amazing... i would really love to read it. i think that's going on my christmas wish list :)

    and good for you for trying to get it before your guest arrived. great idea.

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  4. I've got to add this one to my list. We're studying world geography in our homeschool this year, and I could use the extra insight into that region of the world.

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  5. I think you are going to drive up the Amazon sales ranking on this book. Like others have said, it is now on my list of books to acquire. Great review!

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  6. Hi there. Here from Michele's. In a rush and couldn't really read your post - but wanted you to know I stopped by.....

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  7. I've always heard of Mountbatten through my love of anything remotely connected to Princess Diana but I only knew him as the guy who was close to Prince Charles and was killed by the IRA. Sounds like quite the interesting man.

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  8. Imperialism -- the results are consistent, yes.

    You're so smart to read this as a means of connecting to another human being! Aren't books great?!

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  9. Kenju, I have read a few good novels set in India, by Indians. The Death of Vishnu is one that I can think of. I didn't think the governor wrapped all those presents, but it's funny that you all had to re-wrap some.

    Diane, I've thought a lot of the same about the language to support this war--that it sounded familar--something I'd heard when I was at the age to begin to read the papers.

    Keda, what good book would you recommend to understand modern Turkey?

    Sherry, Good idea, there isn't a better reason to read than to gain insight to share with children.

    Kevin, they can thank me with a piece of the profits! (If I was smart I'd place a link to Amazon here, but I'm not that smart nor do I want to be a bookseller at this moment in my life.

    Chrissie, why were you playing the game then?

    Murf, I never knew he was so close to Charlie boy, maybe he was the one who taught that him about affairs

    Ing, I ain't so smart but I agree that books are great and like the way you sum everything about imperialism.

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  10. Probably so since they were blood related. I read that he is Charlie boy's paternal great-uncle.

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  11. Murf, one review I read (after I wrote this review) indicated that the authors drew too much information from Mountbatten--and made him look better than he should have looked. They also went on to note Mountbatten's numerous extra-maritial affairs (supposedly on both sides of the plate).

    While I agree that the authors may have made Mountbatten look good, it seems as if that review also had a axe to grind.

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  12. This sounds like a book my dad would like. He loves history. If there were room in the library I would get it for him for Christmas... as it is, I think I'll look for it in the public library instead.

    Here from Michele.

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  13. I'm more interested in China's history - and one of my most read books is Wild Swans, an excellent insight into 100yrs of Chinese history.

    cq
    Our mutual pal Michele told me to come over to the sage covered hills....

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  14. I think Mountbatten was in Vietnam - because the Brits were to disarm the Japanese in the South and the Chinese were in the north doing the same.
    I would like to read about Gandi one day when I have time. I remember being 8 mos pregnant in the 80's when the movie was out and having to sit through that long long movie while being so uncomfortable......wishing it would end. :)

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  15. Sounds like a great book; but time is so limited; even more so due to a special friend I now have. :)

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  16. srp, sounds like your dad needs another book case.

    CQ: I looked up "Wild Swans" and read some reviews, it sounds a lot like Pearl Buck's book on Korea "The Living Reed"

    Peri, I need to watch Gandhi again. I'm not sure about Mountbatten and Vietnam, but since the French wasn't in a position to accept Japan's surrender, it makes sense for the Brits to be doing it.

    Tim, congratulations on your friend, will you blog about this friend?

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  17. Thanks, sage. I imagine at some point she will show up probably unnamed just like the rest of my family on my blog. She already contributed a quote that I had posted some time ago on my blog. The quote was - "Life is eternal,
    and love is immortal,and death is only a horizon,a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight." She is working on a counseling degree from a local seminary.

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  18. indeed the book was an eye opener for me .Inspite of being an indian , i learnt a great deal from this GREAT BOOK.kudos to Mr Lapierre and Late Mr Collins for bringing to light the real story of india's independence.The book is so detailed and realistic as if the authors were present in flesh and blood at that time.The trials and the tribulations , the, the wrongs committed in the name of religion and also the insight into the personality of the leaders of the parition era are effectively portrayed.
    kudos to the authors.

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  19. I agree that the book is fantastic, and is full of information, but it's important to read it critically - not everything in the book is true.

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  20. the book is deceptive, and although it is very well written, it sucks up to Lord Mountbatten, and dosent really give an accurate picture of India.

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  21. this book is a nice one,and a must read for those who think Gandhi ji as the main accused of partition.

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  22. can some1 get me a link to link to download pdf file of freedom at midnight please?

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  23. Nice viewpoints, and cogently put. I too have reviewed this book, perhaps you would like to put in a visit. My view is slightly different, being an Indian. But no issues on one score: it is a must read book!

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  24. My review can be found on http://reflectionsvvk.blogspot.com

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