Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of Partition, the division of Britain’s largest imperial dominion into India and Pakistan (which, for the following 24 years, included East Pakistan, what is now Bangladesh).
I couldn’t bear to watch any of the accompanying documentaries. I read several eye-witness accounts of the intercommunal violence some years ago, and don’t like to think about, let alone write about, what happened.
Nirad Chaudhuri was one of the most expressive writers of his generation, but he could find no language for what he had witnessed:
“I have weighed nearly all the words and phrases which the murderous ferocity of man, as distinct from his warlike ferocity, has contributed to the vocabulary of European peoples: massacre, pogrom, lynching, fusillade, noyade, St. Bartholomew, Sicilian Vespers, Bloodbath of Stockholm, Bulgarian atrocities, Armenian massacres, Belsen, genocide, etc., etc., but find them all inadequate.”
Chaudhuri was talking about what he saw in Delhi, where the bloodshed was relatively contained. What happened along the new borderline was unimaginable.
Men, women and children were tortured, mutilated, raped, burned alive, blinded with acid or chilli powder, boiled in cauldrons, hacked to pieces. Bands of goondas slaughtered patients in their hospital beds, children in their classrooms, worshippers in their mosques, temples and gurdwaras.
Some of the grisliest massacres took place on the trains that carried refugees across the border. The engines would pull in at their destinations with gore dripping from every door, and not a single passenger still breathing. Sometimes, a message would have been chalked on the side of one of the carriages: “A present from India” or “A present from Pakistan”.
I don’t want to dwell on the horror. Nor do I want to write a column about whose fault it was. That dim, image-obsessed popinjay Lord Mountbatten must carry the blame for timing things the way he did. Andrew Roberts’s critique in Eminent Churchillians, written nearly 30 years ago, still stands.
But it was not Mountbatten who carried out the abominations, which surprised him as much as they did everyone else. Even those who had called for a phased withdrawal were caught off guard by the sudden frenzy among people who spoke the same languages, dressed the same way, and lived in the same villages.
No, my focus is a different one, namely the largely unremarked and unacknowledged fact that, when coming to this country, the descendants of the victims and of the perpetrators managed to leave their quarrels at the door.
Many British Asians have roots in the provinces that were worst affected by the violence: Bengal, Gujarat, Kashmir and, above all, Punjab. Some left their homes precisely because they had been touched by the atrocities. Yet, arriving here, they were able to put it behind them.
This strikes me as a rather beautiful achievement, and one that tends to be taken for granted. India and Pakistan found it hard to get over what had happened. Those two kindred states have fought three-and-a-half wars since, and the 75-year-old border remains one of the most militarised on Earth.
But in Britain, Sikh, Muslim and Hindu populations have settled, often in the same cities, with little tension.
That’s not to say that everyone joined in a chorus of “I’d like to teach the world to sing”. There were scuffles in the 1990s between Sikh and Muslim youths in Slough and Birmingham, sparked by rumours of grooming. I suppose you could argue that these stories recalled the sexual violence that accompanied Partition. Then again, maybe it was just boys fighting over girls. Either way, it petered out almost as quickly as it had started.
Might there be simmering tensions that are not acknowledged in public? Possibly. I have put the question, over the years, to various Hindu, Muslim and Sikh friends (obviously you need to get know someone before raising this subject). Almost always, the response is the same: a look of polite bewilderment, and a remark along the lines of “Why the hell would anyone want to bring all that up again?”
Perhaps this simply reflects the nature of migration. Perhaps, arriving in an unfamiliar country and meeting a measure of prejudice, the new settlers were pushed together by their shared experiences. Perhaps their congruities of language and folkways suddenly came to matter more.
But the single biggest factor is surely that the preponderant ethic in Britain after 1947 was individualism. Our moral code, like our criminal justice system, was based around the idea that we are all personally responsible. We don’t get a special pass because we belong to some special sect or class, and nor can we be held liable for the misdeeds of some ancestor.
This is an utterly counterintuitive notion – counterintuitive in the literal sense that it runs up against instincts and intuitions locked deep in our genome. Human beings evolved in kin-groups. For a million years, the preponderant ethic that governed our relations was “my tribe good, your tribe bad”.
That ethic continued to rule us as we discovered farming, built cities and invented writing. Law-codes, from Hammurabi’s onwards, took caste for granted. Early civilisations were governed by status and tradition rather than by voluntary exchange.
The revolution – and it was truly a revolution, one of the most benign and far-reaching our species has known – was what the Victorian jurist and historian Sir Henry Maine called the move “from status to contract”. Maine, who had spent several years in Punjab, saw how unique it to move beyond collectivism and allow private citizens to reach free-standing arrangements with one another, rather than having their lives circumscribed by rank.
Other philosophers have marvelled at the same phenomenon. The brilliant Harvard anthropologist Joseph Henrich attributes it to the Western Church’s obsessive prohibition of cousin-marriage, which more or less forced people to find spouses from outside their villages, and so broke the clan system that existed, in various forms, everywhere else on the planet.
Whatever the explanation, it’s an extraordinary phenomenon. Britain, rather than India or Pakistan, is the global outlier.
If we are repelled by the notion of vendetta (that is, of taking revenge on your enemy’s relatives rather than on your enemy) it is only because we have been taught to think that way. The concept of inherited liability, of bloodguilt, went without saying in almost every civilisation. It defines much of the Old Testament and pops up from time to time in the Gospels.
This is what is so dangerous about identity politics. Not that it is absurd, but that it is hideously seductive. Treating people differently because of their colour, blaming someone because a distant progenitor owned a slave-worked plantation, demanding reparations from one category of people to another based on physiognomy – all these things appeal to our inner caveman, but all are incompatible with an open society.
It is true that there are different aggregate voting patterns among Brits of South Asian heritage. In very broad terms, Muslims are likelier to vote Labour. This has to do partly with economic differences that go back to the original migrations, partly with Labour’s line on Kashmir, and partly with Islamo-gauchism, that bizarre yoking together of revolutionary politics and religious extremism in the name of anti-colonialism.
Oddly enough, this third phenomenon is rare in the Muslim world (outside Iran). In most Muslim-majority countries – including Pakistan and Bangladesh – the more religious parties tend to be keener on tax cuts, private enterprise and competition. And with reason. As I have argued before on ConHome, there is a rich free-market tradition in Islam that can get forgotten in all the noise about oppression and privilege.
While every voter will be influenced, sometimes unconsciously, by the hidden ley-lines of region, religion and culture, we have so far avoided a situation where people feel that they need to vote on essentially tribal grounds for “their” party.
But for how much longer? At the recent Batley and Spen by-election, Labour distributed a leaflet in Muslim-majority areas showing Boris Johnson shaking hands at some G20 summit with the Indian leader, Narendra Modi, and urging locals to vote for a candidate “on your side”. At the 2019 election, I spent a day canvassing a largely Hindu part of North London, and was struck by how many people told me that they were voting against Corbyn because he had extremist friends.
Once parties feel they can rely on bloc votes for ethnic or religious reasons, they become complacent, and often corrupt (see Northern Ireland). The people in those blocs become less likely to think issues through from first principles. Worse, they can be stirred up against other blocs (again, see Northern Ireland).
In the rest of the country, we have largely avoided tribalism. When it does raise its head (there were spasms of sectarian voting in Liverpool and Glasgow) it is generally disparaged. Which is why newcomers often found it easy to forget their feuds here. Greek and Turkish Cypriots, Serbs and Croats, Turks and Kurds – all managed to rub along without forming two opposed blocs in whatever boroughs they had settled in.
Yet all this depends on elevating the individual above the collective. It depends on rejecting the concept, so central to critical theory, of a pyramid of oppression. It depends on teaching the notion (which does not come easily) that we all answer for ourselves. Untune that string and, hark, what discord follows.