Lahore Refugee Camp,
Wednesday, 3 September 1947

The end of the Raj would doubtless be accompanied by the pomp and pageantry by which the British Empire had always set great store. Fireworks, marching bands, military parades in full regalia. Vast jostling crowds lining Delhi’s Kingsway from Government House to Memorial Arch. No elephants caparisoned in brocade and gold, but solemn oaths administered and new flags raised. All in all it would amount to the biggest story since the signing of the armistice two years before, and far more showy. With that in mind the BBC was sending a film crew to cover the festivities and wanted their man Louis MacNeice to accompany them with an eye to writing a series of radio plays.

But apart from what he’d read of Kipling and Tagore at school, Louis MacNeice knew next to nothing about India. He vaguely remembered a debate about India at the Oxford Union from his student days twenty-some years before, but that was about it. What does India have to do with me? he had asked himself, alarmed at the prospect of travelling all that way. There were other reasons for his reluctance. He didn’t really like Indians, for one. And the whole business of swamis really set his teeth on edge.

His one Indian friend, a fine-featured writer who favoured colourful shirts, had tried to convince him it was the English who concocted this notion of a spiritual India. The great Rabindranath Tagore, an otherwise fine poet, got his mystical cues from them, the man said.

Even so, Louis thought, what was the point of looking at India through Western eyes? He was a poet from Northern Ireland. Who was he to mediate India and England’s everlasting quarrel? Destroyed our country and our culture, the Indians said. Developed your country and brought you education, the apologists replied. Divided and ruled, the Indians said. Brought law and order, the English replied. Tyranny. Trusteeship. Our foe. Your friend. On and on it went.

Lastly, what did he know of India’s struggle for freedom?

Seven years before, during that first awful winter of the war, Louis had given the idea of freedom some thought. Snowbound and broken-hearted in Ithaca, New York, he’d been torn between sitting the war out in disgust and returning to England to join up.

Was this war, as some said, really being fought for freedom? It certainly hadn’t been about freedom for the Republicans in Spain in 1937. And England hadn’t come to the defence of the sovereignty of Austrians or the Czechs in 1938. So it had been hard for him to believe that the war was suddenly about the attack on Poland in 1939.

For his Cornell University students, India alone justified America’s sitting it out. They’d been suckered into enabling the British Empire to see another day during the last war, they said. It wouldn’t happen again. Louis found them surprisingly well informed. Though he’d never given India much thought, he had known immediately they were right. The war would not be fought on behalf of freedom for India.

And what did freedom even mean? Freedom for the woman who’d broken his heart meant getting out of a bad marriage without becoming trapped in another one. Was freedom for India like getting out of a bad marriage?

Was independence incompatible with love? Or was freedom simply another word for power, including the power of the powerful to decide what a war was being fought for and who would fight it. And yet wasn’t he himself part of this elite; hadn’t he aspired to a spot at the top? And then there was his suspicion that his worth came at the cost of the less fortunate and his habit of assuming their freedom spelled his own defeat.

In the end Louis concluded that Chamberlain’s England was the lesser of two evils. He would return to London and join the Navy. “If one’s going to be defiled,” he had written a friend, “one may as well keep one’s mind out of it.”

But he had failed his medical. He’d spent the war writing radio plays for the BBC.

Finally, Louis tried to justify his reluctance to travel to India by telling himself that the world he already knew was confusing enough. Why take on another? Just thinking about India, about freedom, was exhausting. He was tired of thinking.

Yet a small voice in his head hadn’t let him alone. The earth isn’t the moon, the voice said. There is no dark side. One can easily travel to see how the other half lives.

Perhaps, he thought, real freedom wasn’t a matter of getting out of things but of getting into them. Perhaps if he stuck a little bit of himself into India, India would stick him back. So he had started reading. He read translations of the Gita and the Vedas. He read Babur on the history of Hindustan and Hume on the Upanishads. He read about the 1905 partition of Bengal, about mass civil disobedience and mass arrests, about viceroys and Government of India acts. He jotted down lines from Tagore, Iqbal and Kabir in his notebook as well as quotes from Gandhi, Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

He began to think that if Indians had a chance to live freely and independently, perhaps something of value might be learned from them. And maybe a look into their lives would throw some light on his own.

In this way, Louis talked himself into going to India. Then he packed a dinner jacket and rumpled summer suit and caught a flight.

It was only on his arrival at the reception centre in Pakistan that Louis MacNeice understood just how little he really knew, not just about India, but about anything. He had never expected this. This was the kind of thing one read about in newspapers. If this was freedom, then perhaps it was possible to have too much of it.

The reception centre was west of the Indian border, just outside Lahore in the freshly divided Punjab province. Two weeks after the Independence Day celebrations had ended, Muslim families were still coming through the centre’s gates, joining the thirty thousand already there. Fearful of what would happen if they stayed in India, these families had run the blood-soaked gauntlet on the road to the border, a biblical-size exodus that stretched to the horizon.

For seven years Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, had held out for a dream of a Muslim homeland, a new nation he called Pakistan. That dream had ended for many in the nightmare that greeted Louis now.

The first woman he saw had a fixed expression on her face. Someone told him she was looking for her son and by then Louis knew she wouldn’t find him. The second woman was holding her child the way a little girl might hold a doll cut open with a penknife. Twenty miles away, in Sheikhupura, the victims were largely Sikhs. Before they could make their escape in the other direction, across the border to India, about fifteen hundred of them had been set upon by Muslims. A good number had been shot, stabbed, speared, clubbed or set on fire. They lay in a field hospital with eighty beds and one doctor with no medical equipment. Their faces, too, wore a look of puzzled abstraction.

He found the third woman outside the compound walls. She was lying on her back in a gutter with her legs splayed out. Her skirt was covered with blood the colour of rust, and an iridescent spiral of flies moved over the spear wound in her side. The scene struck him as something for which the word tragic was both too precious and miserably insufficient.

But what other word was there?

The BBC cameraman, used to Louis MacNeice’s air of icy indifference, was astonished to see him suddenly come to life, loading a family of Sikhs into a lorry and barking at the Punjab Boundary Force to get them out of there.

From Lahore Louis went to Peshawar in the North-West Frontier Province to meet the eagle-eyed “Frontier Gandhi”, Khan Abdul Ghaffer Khan. Imprisoned during the war for his support of Mahatma Gandhi’s “Quit India” uprising, Khan had lost control over the frontier tribal areas to Jinnah’s Muslim League. Khan told Louis that if Jinnah didn’t accede to his demands for an independent Pashtun state, “We will do what we have to do.”

As if Pakistan, a nation barely two weeks old, needed a civil war now, too.

Khan was undeniably a personality, Louis noted, and on the frontier personalities appeared to matter. And weapons. A dozen bearded tribal chiefs from Waziristan had travelled down from the hills to seek Khan’s permission to march on India.

The situation was akin to another era’s warring Scots, Louis supposed, or the blood feuds between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. Still, every historical parallel he grasped at felt inadequate. The dead were now said to be in the hundreds of thousands and the bloodshed wasn’t near over. An ox of a man with a black moustache and a chest criss-crossed with bandoliers had stood plumb in front of him and, in compelling and incantatory Pashto, made a cutting gesture across the neck to indicate his plans for the Sikhs and, again with the cutting gesture, the Hindus, and one last cutting gesture, anyone who tried to stop him.

On his arrival in Delhi a month earlier, Louis had been astonished to find the BBC van cheered wherever it went. Even the viceroy of India was hailed: Pandit Mountbattenji ki Jai! A few months before, he was told, it had been a different story, but on the eve of independence he’d seen little evidence of the acrimony he’d been led to expect. It was hard not to conclude that Indians had been united only in their hatred of the English and once the English had left they could at last turn on each other. Nancy might have said that India had been freed from one bad marriage only to get trapped in another.

The London papers were already gloating; the carnage on both sides of the Punjab border was proof Indians were unfit for self-government. But who were we to feel superior? he asked himself. One had only to reflect on the genocides of Europe to be chastened. Was everyone really so certain that the British bore no responsibility for this? Travelling to Srinagar, the capital of the princely state of Kashmir, Louis had a long conversation with the former editor of the Calcutta Statesman.

The editor, a liberal soul with a Colonel Blimp face, promised that if the violence didn’t abate, blame would fall on the British. Britain’s sole justification for two centuries of rule, he said, was that through lofty, selfless and balanced administration Britain had unified India. That had been their mantra. Gandhi’s contribution was far greater, the editor said. Gandhi had made India a nation and given it a spine.

Excerpted with permission from The Last Englishmen: Love, War And The End Of Empire, Deborah Baker, Penguin Viking.