A History of Cut-and-Run

A western power finds itself in a ‘situation’. Their forces and administrators are running a country which is increasingly rebellious, and the rule, unpopular. The rulers' first response was to resort to the ancient rule of the Roman empire – divide and rule – and set the communities against one another. It did work for some time, too. But then it stopped working! Rather, there is now the added hassle of keeping peace within communities to have things going. Costs of occupation now outweighs the benefits. Everyday, the poor, dangerous country looks less and less appetising to its civilised administrators.

Besides, there is a resource crunch too. The ruling country has been involved in too many wars - not many fine young men of the 'expendable' variety are available to man the front lines. It is becoming difficult to use the natives, and the local army is increasingly against the occupation.

The public opinion at home is also turning nasty. First, the belligerent leader kept talking about staying the course. However, the public wants a withdrawal. Election, mostly on home agenda, brings in a new government with a mandate to get out.

The new government decides to end the occupation, sets a time-line [which the erstwhile leader calls a ‘guillotine’] and sends an weak and vacillating governor to get all communities on table, form a government of national unity [or compromise] and hand over the power to them.

However, divisions, years old and carefully nurtured, now run deep and it is not easy to mend it. The rulers can not set it right, anymore. No single solution is acceptable to everyone. The governor, a well-connected man with ambitions, wants to finish the job and get back home soon. He has important domestic agendas to pursue [One of them is arranging the marriage of his nephew], and wants to complete the handover of power before time.

So, caution out of the window – Cut and Run! Just appear to be doing the right thing! Stoke up the ambitions of the local leaders, play to their impatience, and sell the solution – PARTITION! The ruling power has no interests in the territory, so forget the niceties and the thoroughness the job demands, just ask a barrister to prepare a plan by looking at some demographic data. No need to do fieldwork, no need to visit the places, to need to plan contingencies if things go wrong – just get a plan out! The local leaders will buy it, because they are impatient – to end occupation, and also to get their own taste of power. So, be it.

This is a wonderfully laid plot. Did you think I was talking about Iraq? Or, about Afghanistan, in some way?

You are not far off the mark, because this looks like an increasingly plausible scenario. However, you did not pick up the hints that I left all over, the ‘guillotine’ comment, the governor’s story [let us now use the term - Viceroy] and the nephew.

Yes, we are talking about the partition of India. This is the thesis presented in Stanley Wolpert’s latest book on the subject – Shameful Flight - where he tells this story logically and credibly.

Of course, it does look logical. Cut-and-Run is a logical behaviour in the imperial world view, where lesser countries get ‘civilised’ by benevolence of the imperial masters, and values like freedom and democracy taught to them, and ungratefully, rebel - hence should be left to themselves after the 'job is done'.

And, note – all of this must be spun correctly, and the rulers should never believe what they preach. So, we had the great tragedy of the 20th century – partition of India – where millions of people died and many more lost their homes, everything! Similarly, we are also witnessing now first great tragedy of the 21st, in Iraq, where the figure is simply unknown. [I shall not even mention Palestine, which also has a similar story to tell.]

It is not pleasant to read Professor Wolpert, but then, the partition was not a pleasant affair. I am an optimist however, and do believe that we will get over it in my lifetime. A national reconciliation - we will all see our stupidity, and roll back the partition. [Yes, I do believe that it can be and will be rolled back, someday.]

This book reminds us of the selfish power-plays that created the half-century long instability and poverty in South Asia. Wherever you stand on this subject, it will be worth reading this book.


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