A Modest Proposal For The Post-Brexit Partition Of England

Word has it that London’s discordant vote in the Brexit referendum–roughly, it voted to ‘Remain’ while the rest of England voted ‘Leave’–has provoked some head-scratching among many pondering its future place in the United Kingdom:

There are a number of ways London might distance itself from Brexit, “short of building a moat around the city,” Parag Khanna argued in Foreign Policy magazine. “There is a wide spectrum of federalist arrangements available to the city, on a continuum ranging from unity to devolution to autonomy to outright independence.”

As can be seen, the Partition of England is not off the table, thus raising the prospect of an Island of European London in the middle of the English Ocean. Fortunately, the English are experienced in Partitions, which require the drawing up of new boundaries and the transfers of large populations; that accumulated wisdom, gleaned with considerable difficulty during the glory years of Empire, should come in very handy.

Moreover, it is not necessary for all of London to secede from England. Only those sections that actually voted to ‘Remain’ need actually ‘Remain’ in Europe while ‘Leaving’ England. This fine-grained selection and culling can be accomplished quite easily by sitting down with the voting results overlaid on a street map and neatly marking out–perhaps with a pencil or an ink marker–those neighborhoods that stay while others go. Modern voting data is usually quite fine-grained, right down to street and block level; this granularity could be exploited to make New London’s map quite specific: here, this street would stay in England; there, that street (along with that park next to it) would move to New Londonia. (I presume the two cricket grounds in London would stay in England, while Wembley would move to Europe.)

It is entirely possible that the resulting movements of populations will be accompanied by some hostility and unpleasantness; some of the ‘migrations’ that would result from the redrawing of maps described above would possibly split family and friends. No matter, such discordances and divides and sunderings are but the inevitable price to be paid when the people express their fervent desire to make their political destinies on their own, free of the burden of nation or continent.

The Partition of England promises to be a historic event. The inevitable anguish and dislocations it would engender would soon be forgotten, their memories only resurrected in Booker Prize-winning novels and television shows and other orgies of nostalgia; perhaps the odd Londoner would make a trip back to the Old Country, to look at lands and peoples left behind; perhaps too, some English folks might travel to New Londonia marveling at the sights and sounds of the city that Once Used to Be English. The New York Times would have to come up with a new stock phrase or two–‘the European-majority New Londonia remains locked in intractable conflict with English-majority New England’ perhaps–as the years and the Thames roll by, and a new generation of children will grow up with their New Londonia identities.

The world has grown to accept many Partitions; it will welcome this one into its bosom too.

Punjab, Palestine, Israel: Refugee Resonances

The way I first heard the story of the Jews from my mother it was about refugees, endlessly wandering from expulsion to expulsion, who had finally found a home. The first history of the creation of Israel I read introduced me to the Palestinians; they were refugees too. And I had learned, long before, that I was a Punjabi, from a land which had been divided during the Great Partition of India in 1947, that my ethnic demographic included many who had become refugees during that bloody and violent movement of peoples, that I lived in a city–New Delhi–whose population had grown to accommodate many who had moved there from the former West Punjab, now part of the newly created nation of Pakistan. My father’s family had moved from their older home too, not quite in the dramatic way that refugees moved during the Partition, fleeing murderous mobs: my grandfather had found employment in Central India and moved, calmly and sedately, in 1930; his brothers followed. They were all safely across the border well before 1947. My mother’s family was from the East Punjab; they did not have to move, but they lived through bloody riots in the city of Amritsar on the eastern side. But my father’s family still lost lands–agricultural and residential–in our old home; and so as I grew up, moved around India, and then later, migrated to the US, I could still say with some fidelity to the facts, “My family is from the part of the Punjab now in Pakistan; we were displaced.’ It granted my otherwise rather humdrum biography a little frisson. (There was one refugee story I was told about a pair of my father’s cousins, a boy and a girl, a sister and a brother, who had traveled back by train together but alone during the Partition. The train was stopped by mobs before it could cross the border; the girl, just older than a toddler, hid below the seats, while dead bodies piled up around her. She was pulled out, covered with blood and barely breathing, at the next station. Her brother was beaten and left for dead; so many bones were broken in his body that he never regained the full use of his limbs and had to walk with a cane for the rest of his life.)

So I found, at some level, the story of Israel and Palestine lay particularly close by; I did not need to move too far in the space of my affective responses to find one that lined up for Israel and Palestine. I was primed to read the story; one part of it–of seeking home–is universal, but other parts are only available to those who have traveled and lost, who can speak of another place other than ‘this one’ as being ‘home.’ Later, I exiled myself voluntarily to another land, losing one home and beginning the hunt to find another. I became another kind of refugee–seeking refuge in an ‘outside’ into which I had cast myself. Stories of refugees were always more meaningful to me than those of other kinds. But not all came to me in the same way.

When I first encountered the story of the Palestinians in the history of the creation of Israel, I skipped past it. I did not want to face up to the grim reality of their refugee camps, of the story that lay behind the black and white photographs of a grimy-faced boy and girl, clad in rags, visible through the barbed wire of the new homes created after 1948. Somehow, I felt overburdened by their tragedy; could it really be possible that the creation of a homeland for a people I knew as refugees would have turned another people into refugees? Israel and the Jews made a powerful claim on my attention and sympathy, drowning out the call of the Palestinian displaced; it left no space for them. The history of the Jews, the Holocaust, the stories of their suffering–they seemed to demand all the empathy I could muster.

But the Palestinians would not go away; they were refugees after all. I heard their stories–at some only dimly perceived level–in my descriptions of myself, in my invocation of a village, and its waters and food and peoples and summers, endlessly and glowingly talked about by my grandfather and my grand-uncles, in the way I would and could claim ethnic solidarity with Punjabi Pakistanis, who now, thanks to a geopolitical tactic, bore a different nationality than me; they all reminded me there was, in my family and life, the touch of the displaced. I had left home too to move to this land of people from elsewhere, who could all, in the right circumstances, dream nostalgically and wistfully of places other than this one. If the Palestinians could not find sympathy in me, living here, in this land, soaked with the tales of the dispossessed and their searches for a place of rest of repose, then where else would they find it?


Satadru Sen on Eagles Over Bangladesh

Satadru Sen has written a very thoughtful and engaged review of Eagles over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War. His generally positive review also strikes some critical notes in it, and I’d like to respond to those. These critical points are all largely concerned with how well the book succeeds as (generally) military history and as (particularly) a history of the 1971 Liberation War for Bangladesh, and about how the narrowness of our focus in the book detracts from that task.

A couple of preliminary remarks. My co-author, PVS Jagan Mohan, and I self-consciously restricted ourselves to documenting the air operations in our book. We chose this narrow perspective for two reasons: a) to make our task manageable and b) to not obscure the treatment of the air operations. The definitive history of the Bangladesh Liberation War and especially the conflicts that preceded it might yet have to be written, but attempts have been made and we did not intend to try doing so ourselves. There has been no history attempted though of exclusively the air component of the war. (Incidentally, our book is only the first volume of an intended two-volume project; the second will cover air operations in the Western Sector; this should give you some indication of the magnitude of the task at hand.) We took our contribution to be toward filling the gap in the aviation history literature and not necessarily to contribute to the very interesting debates that surround the genesis of the Bangladesh war, its conduct, and so on.

Now, in general, air war histories and naval warfare histories are more specialized in their focus than the conventional war history. Books on the Battle of Britain, for instance, detail the air operations–the dogfights, the bombing etc–in far more detail than anything else; what they primarily focus on, which we do as well, is the operational context: the aircraft used, the decisions that led to the planning of air campaigns as they proceeded, the technical infrastructure, some detail on combat tactics and so on. We do not expect these kinds of histories to provide the kind of political histories or context that Sen finds missing. In large part, this is because, prior to the First Gulf War and the 1999 NATO Kosovo campaign air power, despite what its most enthusiastic proponents might say, has not been the primary weapon of choice in accomplishing tactical or strategic objectives; it has supported boots on the ground. Given this, it is only natural that histories of air campaigns are largely operational histories, with some strategic and planning detail provided to make sense of operations.

Now, on to Sen’s more specific critiques.

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