‘Job of history is to remind us things can go wrong’

‘Job of history is to remind us things can go wrong’

By BHUMIKA POPLI | | 12 August, 2017
Barney White-Spunner.
Author and former British Army officer Barney White-Spunner speaks to Bhumika Popli about his new book on Partition and the events in 1947 that led to the historic division of the subcontinent.

In your introduction to this book, you mentioned that you have written the narrative from a soldier’s perspective. Could you elaborate on that?

A. I was commanding the British and Allied forces in Iraq in 2008 and by that stage it was quite clear that British policy in Iraq was in a muddle, that we had stayed in Iraq for quite long. Also, there was a very strong Indian Army legacy in Iraq, which, when it was a part of the Britsh empire, was run from Delhi and not London. So I have had a lifelong interest in India, having spent six months here as a student in between school and university in northern India. When I found more about the history of 1947, I found that maybe some of the things were not that clear, and that people in India were looking for answers. To questions like: How did the tragedy of Punjab actually happen? How could it particularly happen when you had this enormous army which did very little? How can a large number of people be killed in Punjab when you had this military force available? The other thing which is very interesting to me is that the Indian army rehearsed in 1946, they did an exercise, a training of sorts, precisely against this sort of violence. And then came 1947, but nothing precisely worked. Let’s not forget that in 1947, the Indian army took 25% of the Indian national budget. Also, what happened in 1947 is enormously important and I don’t think the people particularly in the United Kingdom understand it enough. It is critically important that this generation understands it. Things like what led to the various geopolitical divisions that followed, such as the creation of Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is essential to know that these things can happen. The India and the UK of today could not imagine those events due to the comfortable life we have. But it is history’s job to remind people that things can go wrong and when things go wrong the thin crust of society crumbles quite quickly.

Q. Could you talk about the research that went into this book?

A. There is a huge amount of material available here on this subject. The material is not about a certain country like India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, but it tends to be of international nature. The key series of books is the book of transfer of power, which is basically all the official documents put together. There is also the Indian Council of Historical Research, whose work is fantastic. They have produced multiple volumes, combining official documents with newspaper cuttings. There are also good interviews in there. I have used an enormous resource of interviews collected by various universities. These are the perspectives of people who might be in their 20s or 30s. What was interesting to me was to listen to the interviews of people who were in responsible positions during that time. The other thing which I did, which I don’t think anybody else has done, is going to the military records for further research. I also went to the Partition Museum in Amritsar, which also has materials on personal recollections of people.

“Quite lot of Jinnah’s papers are not available. It was very difficult to understand what Jinnah was thinking, as opposed to Nehru’s thoughts, as there is no dearth of material available on Nehru. So much is written about him and his papers are also available. Only a few of Jinnah’s papers are accessible. I would love to know what Jinnah was thinking in April, May, and June of 1947. We know what Gandhi, Nehru and Mountbatten thought, but not Jinnah.”

Q. Was there any specific document which was the most difficult to obtain during your research?

A. Yes, quite lot of Jinnah’s papers are not available. It was very difficult to understand what Jinnah was thinking, as opposed to Nehru’s thoughts, as there is no dearth of material available on Nehru. So much is written about him and his papers are also available. Only a few of Jinnah’s papers are accessible. I would love to know what Jinnah was thinking in April, May, and June of 1947. We know what Gandhi, Nehru and Mountbatten thought, but not Jinnah. It would be fascinating to see the minutes of the meeting which Jinnah attended during this period, but I am afraid that we will not see much on him for some time, which is a pity. He kept much of his stuff to himself.

Q. Could you also tell us about your most fascinating discovery while researching this book?

A. I think the first is discovering what really happened in the Bengal famine. It is not known that up to three million died in the famine, and I am afraid that it was also avoidable. There was actually not that much shortage of food. There was a chaotic distribution of the pricing system. This was quite shocking to find out. There was a huge effort here to feed the British army. The second thing which I find really strange pertains to why less military personnel than required were sent to Punjab. The answer to this is that the force was stationed in Calcutta due to the ghastly riots there in August 1946, The Great Calcutta Killings and Noakhali Genocide. But then Calcutta was pretty stable, except for one exception in August 1947—there was one day of rioting. Army maintained peace in Kolkata and several other part s of the country, so why couldn’t maintain peace in Punjab?

The other thing which is quite interesting was that the person who didn’t want Partition was Jinnah. But he became the man who got what he didn’t want.  It comes out very clearly that Nehru and the Congress’ Working Committee thought that the only way they will get all the governing power was by only accepting some kind of Partition. Plebiscite was not paid attention to, and Congress was opposed to getting this done.

Q. How have you translated your own military experiences into your writing?

A. It is the understanding what the realities are for the military. It is about actually understanding what the army was thinking, what decisions they could have taken, what options they had. I spent a lot of time going through the military archives. All of my understanding of the military helped in the writing of this book.

Q. Is there any character that stands out in your book?

A. Yes, there are several. There is Govind Ballabh Pant, who went on to become the first Chief Minister of U.P. And other important people. There are a lot of individual heroes in the book.

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