I’m not much of a history buff, but sometimes the things I learn about history go off in my head like a bolt of lightening. Today I was reading a review in The New Yorker about a book dealing with the partition of the British Indian Empire in 1947 that created the separate countries of Pakistan and India.

While reading some background material in the article, I just learned that in 1877 Queen Victoria of England became the Empress of India at a time when a famine in the south killed five million people. That’s FIVE MIILLION! Yet it seems the Queen’s viceroy was adamantly opposed to any famine relief, calling it a “misguided policy”.

In general, British policy toward India had been based on the economic theory of the “invisible hand that supposedly regulated markets” resulting in conditions that strongly favored the British overlords but did little to help the starving masses in India.

The reason the lightening bolt went off is that I had just read a New Yorker piece about Herbert Spencer and even blogged something about how he influenced American industrialists. His 1851 book Social Statics, as well as subsequent writings, helped fortify the laissez-faire “trust in the market” policies that were all the rage in British as well as American industry. And now I see how his theories bolstered if not informed the viceroy’s actions – or should I say inactions – in India. Damn there’s a lot to learn from history.

Speaking of learning from history, I’d imagine that a book on partitioning – especially considering how painful and rancorous the aftermath was – might be worth looking at when thinking about the future of Iraq. And it’s also worth thinking about the way it affected relations between India and Pakistan as well as relations with the West to this very day.

According to Pankaj Mishra, the article’s author:

“Meeting Mountbatten a few months after partition, Churchill assailed him for helping Britain’s “enemies,” “Hindustan,” against “Britain’s friends,” the Muslims. Little did Churchill know that his expedient boosting of political Islam would eventually unleash a global jihad engulfing even distant New York and London. The rival nationalisms and politicized religions the British Empire brought into being now clash in an enlarged geopolitical arena; and the human costs of imperial overreaching seem unlikely to attain a final tally for many more decades.”

Maybe there are lessons to be learned at that.


To read the whole fascinating article:

Exit Wounds: The legacy of Indian partition