Niall Ferguson, the controversial Oxford University historian, has given an interview to Arthur J. Pais of India Abroad, the weekly magazine published out of New York by rediff.com coinciding with the American release of his latest tome, The War of the World: 20th Century Conflict and the Descent of the West. In it, Ferguson rakes up the evergreen story of Partition.
Arthur J. Pais: A central argument of the book is the role played by the dissolution of empires in the last century and the savage violence it led to. Would you say had the dissolution of the British Empire been delayed there would have been no violence—or perhaps less violence—during India’s Partition?
Niall Ferguson: Here we should speak with great care because feelings run very high. The argument I try to make is that when empires decline and fall, violence tends to peak. The Partition of India illustrates this point perfectly. When the British left, violence in India reached its highest point.
“It was a catastrophe, but not a completely unusual one, historically. It’s the kind of thing that I suggest in the book happened a lot in the 20th century.
“In many ways, the British flattered themselves that their rule in India was to keep the peace, particularly between Hindus and Muslims. I’m not sure that was entirely an illusion or there was some element of truth truth in that…
“If the British had been able to slow down the transition to independence, it is conceivable that violence could have been reduced, if not avoided, but I think that Lord Mountbatten (the British viceroy then) was in a tremendous hurry. I think the haste with which Partition was agreed, the haste with which it was decided to establish Pakistan, seems to me to be one of the great crimes—if crime is the word—perpetrated by the British at the moment of decolonisation.
“I think many seasoned civil servants knew better than Mountbatten the dangers of communal violence. But Mountbatten was in a hurry and so were the politicians in London (because ‘by the end of World War II Britain was in a sense bankrupt’). I think the Partition of India is a very good example of a general phenomenon of things going horribly wong when something is executed in a hurry.”