The Partition of India in 1947 was accompanied by almost unimaginable atrocities. There were reports of pregnant women having their babies cut from their bellies, children being tortured to death, and other abominations that I can barely bring myself to think about, let alone commit to the page. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, died, and tens of millions were displaced.
But here is an extraordinary thing. In British towns, the children of perpetrators and victims live alongside one another amicably, ready to forget the whole foul business. This rather beautiful fact has always struck me as underappreciated. Britain’s largest ethnic minorities come disproportionately from the worst afflicted regions — Kashmir, Bengal, Gujarat, and, above all, Punjab. Some of them came precisely because their families had been turned into refugees. Yet they did not bring their quarrels with them.
Next year marks the 75th anniversary of the division of British India into Hindu-majority and Muslim-majority states — the latter comprising West Pakistan and East Pakistan, which later broke away to become Bangladesh. Perhaps because the events are now remote enough to be considered dispassionately, numerous books and documentaries are coming out in anticipation of the anniversary. Many of them, as is fashionable, blame Britain. And, on this occasion, they have a point. Their chief criticism, that the British pulled out too early instead of managing the separation, is valid, even if comes oddly from people who had demanded an even earlier exit. Much blame attaches to India’s last governor, a popinjay princeling called Lord Mountbatten, whose obsession with public relations was matched by his stunning incompetence. But though he is rightly blamed for cutting and running, it was not he who carried out the pogroms.
I have occasionally asked Muslim and Sikh friends whether there is any lingering tension in their communities. Almost always, they look at me with polite bewilderment and say something along the lines of, “Why would anyone want to drag all that up again?”
Sure, there are occasional frictions. There were fights between Sikh and Muslim gangs in Birmingham and Slough in the 1990s, rooted in accusations of the grooming of girls. One could argue, I suppose, that these accusations dimly recalled the mass sexual violence of 1947 or that it was just boys fighting over girls. Either way, it fizzled out.
The same communities also forgot their quarrels when they migrated to the United States and other Anglosphere countries. (The Commonwealth is as much an Indian as a British endeavor, but that is another story.) That might strike you as unremarkable, but the legacy of the Partition caused three wars between India and Pakistan and a fourth undeclared conflict. Seventy-five years on, the two governments remain estranged.
The ability of Anglosphere nations to assimilate previously antagonistic populations is an unremarked miracle. Greek and Turkish Cypriots live in the same streets without obvious tensions. Iranians and Iraqis, Serbs and Croats, Turks and Kurds — all rub along well enough, happy to adopt their new countries’ identities.
It should go without saying that it is in no one’s interests to blow on the embers of old wars. Yet politicians, and often white politicians, sometimes can’t resist the temptation to stir sectarian tensions for partisan gain.
There is a far-left agitator in Britain called George Galloway, whose shtick is to stand in constituencies with big Muslim populations and make outrageous speeches about Israel and Palestine. Last month, nervous about being outflanked by him in a critical by-election, the Labour Party decided to play his game, issuing a leaflet with a photograph of Prime Minister Boris Johnson shaking hands with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, headlined: “Don’t risk a Tory MP who is not on your side.”
It doesn’t take much imagination to see where this stuff leads. Encouraging people to pursue ancestral feuds in their adopted countries is a sure route to disintegration. And yet mainstream parties, blind to anything beyond the immediate electoral advantage, keep doing it — even creating new quarrels where none previously existed.
Immigrants might bring genuine religious and linguistic differences with them, differences that overlap with ancient antagonisms. But the peculiar insanity of the modern West is to stimulate new resentments among long-settled populations. When we encourage people to self-identify on the basis of skin color, we make everyone part of the quarrel, because we all have skin. The same is true when we encourage people to self-identify on the basis of which gametes they happen to carry.
Anglosphere countries are abandoning precisely the formula that made them attractive to immigrants in the first place, namely the insistence that we are all individuals and are not defined by caste or creed or color. What the hell are we thinking?