How a few days in 1947 turned India and Pakistan into sworn enemies.
Excerpted from Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition by Nisid Hajari, out now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Throughout August 1947, as Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs engaged in one of the most terrible slaughters of the 20th century in next-door Punjab province, lights continued to blaze from New Delhi’s ivory-white Imperial Hotel. On weekends, diners packed the tables in the Grill Room overlooking the lawns, while Indian socialites dripping with gold and jewels filled the dance floor well past midnight. To many of the city’s well-to-do, the bloodshed that had erupted upon the birth of modern India and Pakistan still felt unreal. The Indian women in particular seemed to be “on heat,” one British journalist noted hungrily. “The aphrodisiac was independence.”
No band played on Saturday, Sept. 6, however. A curfew had emptied the dining room. Anyone standing on the hotel’s veranda would have been bathed in a different light—a rose-colored glow that filled the horizon to the north. The Muslim neighborhoods of Old Delhi were on fire.
When they imagine the terrible riots that accompanied the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent, most people are picturing the bloodshed in the Punjab. On Aug. 15, the new border had split the province in two, leaving millions of Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs in what was now Pakistan, and at least as many Punjabi Muslims in India.
Gangs of killers roamed the border districts, slaughtering minorities or driving them across the frontier. Huge, miles-long caravans of refugees took to the dusty roads in terror. They left grim reminders of their passage—trees stripped of bark, which they peeled off in great chunks to use as fuel; dead and dying bullocks, cattle, and sheep; and thousands upon thousands of corpses lying alongside the road or buried shallowly. Vultures feasted so extravagantly that they could no longer fly.