Blood of forgotten thousands stains birth of new nations

As India celebrates the 50th anniversary of its independence from Britain, Julian Pettifer examines the horrors of partition, in which half a million died

When Edwin Lutyens drew up his plans for New Delhi, he made ample provision for great public spectacles to glorify the Raj - notably the Rajpath, the broad highway where tomorrow millions of Indians will gather to celebrate the end of British rule and the founding of the Republic.

This year, the annual Republic Day Parade has special significance as it also marks the 50th anniversary of independence. It has been cheerful and colourful; and because of the setting, certainly not lacking in several shades of irony.

At the eastern end of the Rajpath, looming over the festivities, is the massive shape of India Gate, a triumphal arch 40 metres high, bearing the inscription "To the Dead of the Indian Armies who fell and are honoured in France and Flanders, Mesopotamia, East Africa and Gallipoli". Beneath are the names of 85,000 soldiers who died for the British Empire in the First World War.

For anyone raised on Kipling's tales of the Raj, the names alone stir the blood: 3rd Skinners Horse, Rajput Light Infantry, 129th Baluchis, 13 Frontier Force Rifles; and the military ranks, subadars and sepoys and havildars; and above all, the names of the men - distinctively Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and British. The Indian army was a truly great military force. In the Second World War, with two and a half million men under arms, it was the largest volunteer army ever raised anywhere. Another measure of its greatness was the way in which all the Indian communities, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Christian, served and fought together in harmony.

Yet, less than two years after the Second World War victory parades, that harmony was shattered. As the independence movement gathered strength, it became clear that India's large Muslim minority would never agree to be ruled by the Hindu majority and demanded its own Muslim state, Pakistan.

When the multitude gathers at the Rajpath tomorrow, someone will perhaps look at the long lists of war dead and remember that the independence and the creation of the Republic they have come to celebrate was accompanied by far greater loss of life than that recorded on the India Gate.

For India and for the Indian army, partition was a devastating event. As the nation divided along communal and religious lines, so did the army.

To compound the agony, the final duty demanded of the army was to police the vast exchange of populations - Muslims to Pakistan and Hindus to India - that accompanied partition. It is thought that 10 million people fled their homes and embarked upon the greatest migration the world has ever seen. The army was unable to curb the intercommunal violence in which up to half a million died; and they have no memorial.

If anyone thinks that there is reason in this sad tale for independence celebrations in India to be a little muted, how much greater cause is there for Pakistan to put away the bunting. In Karachi, a solemn ceremony will be held at the mausoleum of Pakistan's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Jinnah died only a year after partition. If he had lived, it is possible that Pakistan might have had a happier infancy. The nation is about to go to the polls, the latest contortion in 50 years of political and social turmoil, a succession of military coups, assassinations and the dismissal of three civilian governments in the past eight years. No one seems to think that the upcoming election will solve anything. The Prime Minister in the caretaker government, Malik Meraj Khalid, has questioned whether there is any reason whatever to celebrate the nation's Golden Jubilee.

"Looking back at what we have done in the past fifty years," he said, "do we have the right to celebrate?" Among those who would give an emphatic "no" is Karachi's best known gadfly, Ardeshir Cowagee. Writing in the country's leading broadsheet newspaper, he concluded that 50 years after the birth of democracy there is nothing to shout about. "In what sort of democracy," he asks, "do known robbers, looters of public wealth, breachers of truth, misappropriators of widows and orphans funds, contest election to Parliament?"

That of course is a rhetorical question; but the fact that it is so bravely posed would suggest, that at a dismal time, there is at least one thing worth celebrating: a resoundingly free press.

Julian Pettifer reports for Asiafile at 11.30am today on BBC Radio 4.

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