1947: The partition of India
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The partition scheme
Radcliffe and unclear boundaries
When India got freedom but didn’t know what its boundaries were
TIMES NEWS NETWORK 22 Aug. 21
On the midnight of August 15, 1947, we knew that India had kept its tryst with destiny, we knew that the subcontinent had been divided, that we were now two countries, India and Pakistan, but what we didn’t know was where India ended and Pakistan began. The boundary lines were still unknown.
That had been Viceroy Lord Mountbatten’s idea. He didn’t want the celebrations to be marred by recriminations on both sides. As if that was possible.
The British had long lost the opportunity for a peaceful and orderly handover of power. With the failure of the 1942 Cripps’ mission and then the three-member 1946 Cabinet delegation (with Sir Stafford Cripps playing the key role again), partition was inevitable. But how do you divide a subcontinent? Drawing the line was never going to be easy.
The man chosen for the task was Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a man who hadn’t travelled further east than the Gibraltar. But it fell on this 48-year-old Inner Temple barrister to do this impossible task — and that, too, in just five weeks.
While Radcliffe may have known little or nothing of India, he was, after all, the ultimate establishment man, which is probably why he was picked for the job. He had studied at Haileybury (Clement Attlee, the British Prime Minister then, also went to the same school) and then Oxford. After that he had a brilliant career as a barrister. During the war, he had been director-general in the ministry of information, responsible for censorship and propaganda. It was Radcliffe who had run a campaign against Nehru’s sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit when she visited the United States. Radcliffe had also harassed P.G. Wodehouse ‘when he made ill-judged broadcasts while in German captivity’, wrote Patrick French.
So, the Establishment Man reached India and began work as a ‘neutral umpire’ in New Delhi on July 8. He would live separately, guarded by a massive Punjabi armed with two pistols. He would take his own decisions; no one would be around to influence him. But it wasn’t such a secluded existence for Radcliffe, after all. He dined with British military commander Claude Auchinleck (maybe the Auk needed consoling; his wife had run away with his friend), Lord Mountbatten, Punjab Governor Sir Evan Jenkins and many other members of the British high society.
It’s hard to believe that Radcliffe did not discuss the boundary issue with the others who all knew much more about India than he did. But more than anything else, Radcliffe had a cheat sheet. In February 1946, the ever-underrated Archibald Wavell, the viceroy Attlee unceremoniously sacked while sending in Mountbatten, had drawn up a contingency plan. Wavell knew what was coming. And he understood the need for a wellthought-out boundary line. Helping him were Reforms Commissioner V.P. Menon and Sir Benegal Rau.
So, what did Radcliffe have to go with? Maybe some advice from veterans, Wavell’s map, and outdated census data. And with this he had to divide a subcontinent in 36 days. Its people, villages, rivers, canals, roads. And to compound matters, the weather was frightfully hot, and Radcliffe came down with a bout of dysentery.
Seventy-four years later, it might be easy to say, ‘Poor fellow, he was only a lawyer with a brief; what more could he possibly have done?’ But in 1947, everything hinged on this lawyer and his brief. Would he award Gurdaspur to India or Pakistan? Would he really award a part of Ferozepur to Pakistan, so that it had better control over its water supply?
In fact, he almost gave away a part of Ferozepur to Pakistan. In the first week of August, during a lunch with his commissioners at a club in Simla, he said he would give Pakistan a part of Ferozepur because India was getting Gurdaspur. But that was not to be. When word got out, there was frenzied behind-the-scenes activity that made the ‘neutral umpire’ change his mind — and the boundary line — within days.
He handed over all the Awards to Mountbatten on August 13, but Mountbatten ruled that the Awards would not be made public till August 16. So, on August 15 a free India still did not know its exact boundaries.
When at 5pm, on August 16, Liaqat Ali Khan, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and Baldev Singh gathered in the Council Chamber of Government House, three hours after the Awards had been sent to them, no one looked happy. It would be months before things settled down. For the moment, freedom had arrived, and with it the horrors of Partition.
For Radcliffe, it was time to go home. He boarded a flight out on August 17. He never came back. Later, when a reporter asked him if he would ever like to visit India, he said: ‘God forbid. Not even if they asked me. I suspect they would shoot me out of hand — both sides.’
A view from Pakistan
On the margins of history
Certain elements and features in our history books appear to blur the vision of their readers
When I wrote three pieces (Dawn Magazine — 9, 16, and 23rd March, 2003) on three articles of O.H.K. Spate (‘Geographical Aspects of Pakistan Scheme’, Geographical Journal, September, 1943; ‘The Partition of the Punjab and Bengal’, Geographical Journal, December 1947; and ‘The Partition of India and the Prospects of Pakistan’, Geographical Review, January, 1948), comments were made by a respected senior geographer (Dawn Magazine, March, 30, 2003) that “Spate was invited by the Qadiani community to suggest a boundary between the proposed provinces of West Punjab and East Punjab that would make it possible to include Qadian, the holy city of Qadianis, in Pakistan. It is a known fact that the community enjoyed special favours of the British. That made it possible for Spate to become associated, of course, unofficially, with Radcliffe’s team ... As for his articles ... some of us ... have had the occasion to peruse them”.
Further, he said, “... senior geographers of the country are not only familiar with the name but have also benefited from his writings, especially his book, a compendium, entitled India and Pakistan: A General and Regional Geography, 1954, reprinted 1964. The book is now considered a classic.”
I did not want to write anything further on Spate and his work, till I had read his memoirs, recounting his subcontinental experiences, On the Margins of History — From the Punjab to Fiji, published in 1991. Recently, I could lay my hands on this book. Before its contents are taken up, a few words about the points mentioned in the letter referred to in the beginning may bring into focus certain elements and features, which might have been missed by or looked blurred to certain readers of Spate’s articles.
In his second article, “The Partition of the Punjab and Bengal” (Geographical Journal, December 1947), Spate wrote: “I was employed as a technical adviser by a ... group, the Ahmaddiya community of Qadian in Gurdaspur district... I found myself in effect as an unofficial adviser to the Muslim League and considered myself perhaps on inadequate ground, as an expert witness.” He, further, added, “ ... The Muslim case seemed to be entirely legitimate ... I suggested in a paper in the journal (Geographical Aspects of the Pakistan Scheme) in 1943, that from a technical point of view the true division of the Punjab lies to the east of the actual Muslim claim ...
“The Muslim case was in my opinion more reasonable and was much better presented technically, owing largely to the skill and enthusiasm of some members of the Department of Geography University of the Punjab, who presented a beautiful and very comprehensive series of maps, excellently produced and covering all aspects of the problem ...” (Any surviving member of 1947 faculty/class of the department?)
And, our senior geographers must not have forgotten some meaningful observations made in the third article, “The Partition of India and the Prospects of Pakistan” (Geographical Review, January 1948) — “ ... There are already signs (in the centralization of services in Western Pakistan) that Eastern Pakistan is regarded as a poor relation, as indeed it is ... the prospect may well prove to be a military state ... social bankruptcy of the most devastating kind — the kind in which the army takes its pay where it can find, in fact, takes over the state.”
The senior geographer, in the letter, referred to Spate’s book, “a compendium, entitled India and Pakistan. A General and Regional Geography 1954, reprinted 1964”. Actually, by 1967, the book had gone into three editions. The 1967 edition, prepared with the collaboration of Prof A.T.A. Learmonth was completely revised to take into account “the great changes of the last decade and ever-increasing volume of literature in a wide variety of fields”. The first Indian edition came out in 1984.
Surprisingly, in the latter, there was no mention of an earlier but very relevant book, The Changing Map of Asia by Spate and East, published in 1950. In the chapter on “India and Pakistan”, Spate made a somewhat prescient statement, “ ... But it would not be very surprising if Eastern Pakistan, by way of adhoc regional agreements to meet local interests (so obviously bound up with those of the surrounding areas) were gradually to slip into a special position such that there would eventually be abrupt confrontation with the issue of de-facto Pakistan ... At that point the evolution could hardly be consummated without a major crisis in the subcontinent.”
Now, to come back to Spate’s memoirs. We observe the process of partition through an eye of an academician — a political geographer. The angle is different. To start with, Spate received a letter on June 30 from an unknown, one Mirza Ali, Imam of the London Ahmaddiya Mosque: “Could I help them to make sure that their sacred city, Qadian, stayed on the right side, when the Punjab was partitioned.” Spate observed: “Obviously, this was Dudley Stamp’s doing ... This partition experience is the nearest I have ever been to Big History: blessing on Dudley.” (Remember Dr L. Dudley Stamp of London School of Economics? He also wrote very good textbooks on geography for schools in the subcontinent. By the way, who writes textbooks for schools, these days?)
Spate writes: “I knew nothing of the Ahmaddiya beyond the name, and had never heard of Qadian, but I had one qualification: I had written what I believe to have been the first article on Pakistan by a professional geographer, sent from Bombay in 1943, on my monthly ration of nineteen airgraphs ... with maps on four airletters ... The Boundary Commission had already started preliminary work, and more than once in the next few days I thought the whole thing had fallen through ...
“... Lahore Resolution called for Muslim majority areas in the northwest and east of India to become ‘Independent states, in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign’ — very much the formulation of the Confederate States of America, though once independence had come precious little was heard of autonomy, let alone sovereignty, even for isolated East Bengal. The clause about the units is ambiguous, but would seem to indicate at least two states, not just one.”
For the background to Pakistan, Spate refers to the work of Rahmat Ali, who had “sprinkled the map of India with green flecks of Islamia Irredenta”, and called Bengal ‘Bangistan’, “but it was not one of the units whose initials made up his acronym Pakistan, so in the minds of its progenitors Bangladesh was not part of Pakistan; but in the event it was dragged at the chariot wheels of the Punjab, which made the running.”
After the war, it was clear to Spate that there was no realistic prospect of an undivided India. “Congres had alienated the Muslims,” Spate writes, “by bad tactical blunders, and in Mohammad Ali Jinnah the latter had now a leader of immense adroitness and most steely resolution. Arguing with him was like trying to breach a granite wall with a pea-shooter ... Jinnah’s slogan ‘Two Nations’ was inspiring ... and despite disclaimers the entire cast of Gandhian nationalism was Hindu-oriented.”
Spate writes about his immediate problem, partitioning in the Punjab: “The separation of the overwhelmingly Muslim provinces carried with it the corollary of the separation, from them of overwhelmingly non-Muslim areas in the Punjab and Bengal ... The Punjab as a whole was 55.6 per cent Muslim ... Basically, however, everything west of the Beas and Sutlej Rivers was Muslim, though only narrowly (51 per cent) in Gurdaspur in the north, while in Amritsar, south of Gurdaspur two subdivisions or tehsils had non-Muslim majorities, thus forming a non-Muslim salient across the Beas.”
He adds: “In my opinion, the legitimate areas of dispute was the Bist Doab between Beas and Sutlej and the riverain strip south of this doab, mixed but with mainly Muslim pluralities ... it was necessary to take into account ‘other factors’ such as transport linkages and, as far as possible, the integrity of the great canal systems.” And Spate makes a scathing remark: “In nothing was the ineptitude of the Boundary Commissions shown as in the casual treatment of these factors.”
About the intransigence of the Sikhs, Spate writes: “Above all, the position was complicated by the very awkward distribution of the Sikhs ... There were 5,100,100 of them in the province ... but had an absolute majority in only one District Ludhiana. They were over 10 per cent in eight districts west of Beas-Sutlej, but in six of these Muslims were over 60 per cent ... The Sikhs were assisted in their stance by British ignorance. One of the ‘other factors’ was an assurance that the Holy Places would be respected; ... the under-secretary who made the pledge was thinking of Amritsar and a handful of other places, and was not aware that the Sikhs claimed some 700 of them ... And so, a group of 5,700,000 people in All-India were placed in a position of parity with some 275,000,000 Hindus and 100,000,000 Muslims; very queer political arithmetic.”
Spate finds Lahore, with 750,000 people, “incomparably the greatest centre of Islamic culture of India ... plus bookshops which would put an English city of the same size to shame ...” He derides the attempt “to show that Lahore city was only marginally Muslim ... The Muslim percentage by 1941 census was over 66 ... it was easy to show that Muslims were the most stable and demographically progressive element ... I think that the fact that Congres simply shied away from my age-sex pyramids was significant; they either couldn’t understand them at all, or understood only too well.”
Spate narrates an interesting revealing incident that took place in Lahore. He writes: “At an immense Muslim dinner one of the commission judges asked me if I had ever been in Lahore before. I replied that I had never been on this side of the subcontinent; it seemed more tactful than saying ‘India’. He remarked with deep feeling, ‘Ah, this is the real India.’ He seemed unconscious of any irony.”
Spate is quite critical of the inefficient way the commission worked. He writes: “The mechanics of the partition process seemed to me ... to be ineptly conceived and executed ... Sir Cyril was to be the final arbiter in both the Punjab and Bengal, a task probably too great for one person even if his expertise had lain in boundary-making rather than constitutional law. He ... sat nobly and ... aloof in Delhi or Shimla. He had presumably been selected because he had had little contact with Indian affairs, and so would be impartial; they forgot that they would have to give him advisers ... of whom the same could not necessarily be said. The other side of the coin of impartiality is ignorance of the local facts, an inescapable if perhaps not quite an inseparable dilemma.”
In the first week of August, the Punjab Commission moved to Shimla, which, as Spate writes, “seethed with rumours; it seemed pretty clear that Radcliffe was thinking of the Beas-Sutlej line, but the two tehsils west of Beas, Amritsar and Tarn Taran, and Gurdaspur District, were the real crux from the Muslim point of view ... most of my time was spent in thinking of precedents for extra-territoriality, enclaves, condominia, free zones, corridors and what have you, all to secure Amritsar and Gurdaspur District to Pakistan while ensuring Sikh access to their Golden Temple in Amritsar city.” Spate laments, “Labour in vain.”
In Shimla, according to Spate, “The atmosphere was that of a spy thriller, full of agreeably mysterious eavesdroppings, awkward unpremeditated confrontations, and highly suspicious would-be secret meetings ... But one incident was very unpleasant and not at all comic. I had a little time off and as light relief was reading military history in a corner of the deserted United Services Library when a key British official on Radcliffe’s staff came in with three Sikhs, all very jovial as they handed him a plain envelope; they did not notice me. Of course it may have been merely an invitation to tea, but even for that was dubiously discreet, and in the circumstances the strange venue reeked of dirty work. I wished that I hadn’t seen this; a question has remained in my mind ever since.”
Spate is critical not only of the “terms of reference” but also of the Congres-Sikh claim in the Punjab. As he writes: “Things were not really helped by the terms of reference, which spoke of delimiting areas of contiguous communal majorities and of completely undefined ‘other factors’ ... The Congres-Sikh claim was rather extreme ... included the bulk of the Rechna Doab ... This boundary would have made West Pakistan indefensible ... This amazing claim was supported by an amazing map, defended ... with ... no blushes at all ... The map ... purporting to represent areas of ‘contiguous non-Muslim majority’; no statement of the units used was given: a giant gerrymander ... when asked for the basis of the map, a Congres lawyer cheerfully replied ‘Anything from a district to a village’... Two tehsils were shown as divided equally between the parties in terms of area; ... the Muslim majorities in their halves were over 215,000 and 86,906, the non-Muslim in theirs under 7,000 and exactly 1,100 ...”
The Sikh case seemed to confuse ownership of land with sovereignty over territory. Their claim would have left fewer than 500,000 Sikhs in Pakistan, against 8,000,000 Muslims left in Indian Punjab. They solemnly argued that they were ‘rooted in the soil’, while the far greater number of Muslims formed a mere ‘floating population’ of barbers, blacksmiths, carpenters, rural labourers and assorted artisans; therefore the whole area should go to the lords of the soil. “Their ... lawyer asked what blacksmiths and carpenters had to do with the rural economy ... it was ... countered by Zafrullah Khan with the dry remark that it was the blacksmiths and carpenters who made Persian irrigation wheels go round.”
Spate realizes that “ ... The Muslim case stuck on the whole to population; they claimed the Bist Doab and a riverain strip on the left bank of the Sutlej. The only anomaly was a salient in the south, oddly bounded by straight lines, this turned out to be the estates of a prominent Muslim Leaguer,” (Please see the map). He found the claim of “the Muslim pretty moderate — in fact a good deal less than my notional division in the 1943 article ... The easy compromise, split down the middle, was ... not even rough justice; it was unfair to the Muslims ... some of the details, from the stand point of expediency as well as justice, were simply absurd.”
In Shimla, “The tension was very difficult to bear, especially when we learnt that Sir Cyril had been in Delhi for five days ... there was a strong rumour that all of Gurdaspur District ... with a Muslim majority, was to go to India. This rumour was five days old, and in the subcontinent a rumour which lasts five days without being eclipsed by fresh rumours ranks as truth; which it was ... I think people were reconciled to losing the salient in Amritsar District, but Gurdaspur was another matter; and indeed far from following the Beas-Sutlej line, the award boundary was a Ravi-Sutlej line, and did not touch the Beas at all ... almost all of Gurdaspur went to India ... but there seemed no consistency. The criteria wobbled from communal to economic to strategic, and if there were any consistency it was that Pakistan lost out in each individual case ... Pakistani suspicions were hardened ... this accounted for the unfair Gurdaspur decision, since the district lay athwart the routes from Amritsar and the Bist Doab into Kashmir.”
Spate ends the section relating to his subcontinental memories in the following words: “For a last comment I will go to the seventeenth century Swedish statement Oxenstierna, the Chancellor of Gustavus Adolphus and the brain behind his sword. When his son was setting out on the Grand Tour of the Courts and Cabinets of Europe, he farewelled him thus: ‘Dost thou not know, my son, with what little wisdom the world is governed.’”
Finally, Radcliffe or no Radcliffe, Mountbatten or no Mountbatten, Ahmaddiya community or no Ahmaddiya community, Spate or no Spate, almost whole of Gurdaspur would have gone to India. The Transfer of Power (Volume VI) records that in the last week of January 1946, London asked for Wavell’s recommendations regarding “definition of genuinely Muslim areas” if the Labour government were to give a decision on such an important issue. Within a few days, Wavell, among other suggestions, recommended that in the Punjab, the only Muslim majority district that would not go into Pakistan was Gurdaspur, “which must go with Amritsar for geographical reasons.” Wavell had the last laugh.
Could Partition have been avoided?
Swaminathan S Aiyar’s view
In local elections starting 1909, the British Raj created separate electorates for Muslims — only Muslims could vote in these reserved seats, ensuring them a minimum representation. This was different from today’s reserved seats for Dalits and tribals: all parties field Dalits and tribals in these seats. In the old Muslim electorates, Muslims voted almost entirely for the Muslim League, ignoring supposedly secular Congress.
Congress castigated separate electorates as destructive of a national ethos. Actually, this was realpolitik. In a first-past-the-post electoral system, Muslims with one third of the population would win far less than one third of the seats. Separate electorates reduced Congress dominance.
Lala Lajpat Rai, fearless ‘Lion of the Punjab’, viewed power-sharing with Muslims through separate electorates as impossible, and proposed Partition. Hindus would control the bulk of the subcontinent, while Muslims would get (a) the Pathan majority NWFP: (b) the western half of a communally divided Punjab; (c) Sind; and (d) the eastern half of a communally divided Bengal. This proposal was made in 1924 before the word Pakistan had been invented. Yet it conformed exactly to Partition in 1947.
Despite secular claims, the Congress was overwhelmingly Hindu. Muslims constituted less than 1% of its membership in 1914, 2% in 1915 and 3% in 1916. Motilal Nehru baldly called Congress a Hindu body. This changed with Gandhi’s takeover of Congress leadership. He allied with Muslims, backing their Khilafat movement. But that alliance ruptured when he called off his non-cooperation agitation in 1922 after supposedly non-violent agitators burned a police station at Chauri Chaura. He never consulted Muslims in this decision, and so lost their trust. In 1927 Jinnah, originally a Congressman, organised an all-India meeting of Muslim outfits that produced the ‘Delhi Proposals’. Instead of a separate Muslim electorate, these proposals reserved one-third of Cabinet seats for Muslims; reserved seats for Muslims in Punjab and Bengal in proportion to their population; and proposed new provinces in Sind, Baluchistan and NWFP. Initially the Congress accepted these proposals. But Madan Mohan Malaviya’s Hindu Mahasabha objected strongly, and the Congress caved. A golden opportunity was lost.
An alternative Motilal Nehru report in 1928 proposed reserved seats for Muslims in proportion to population in joint electorates, but no reserved seats in the Central government or religion-based reservations in Punjab and Bengal, which would have meant Muslim majorities.
Jinnah then proposed a decentralised, federal India with uniform autonomy for all provinces, separate electorates, and one-third Muslim representation in both provincial and central Cabinets. These differences with Congress deepened thereafter on both sides. Historian K K Aziz says that only 15 of 33 proposals for Partition between 1931 and 1940 came from Muslims — many Hindus wanted it too.
The Government of India Act, 1935 created elected provincial governments. The Congress swept the provincial elections in 1937. After this, says historian Perry Anderson, Nehru saw the political battle as one between Congress and the British, with the Muslim League and princes as mere fringe actors. Yet Congress membership was 97% Hindu. It could not even find Muslim candidates for 90% of reserved Muslim constituencies, which the Muslim League swept.
In the post-war 1945-46 elections, the Muslim League won 446 of 495 provincial Muslim seats, and every central seat. The Congress swept open seats. The results were, alas, solidly communal.
An interim Cabinet was formed with Nehru as Prime Minister and Liaquat Ali Khan as Finance Minister. Liaquat’s budget imposed hefty taxes on industrialists. Most Congressmen called this anti-Hindu since the vast majority of industrialists were Hindu. Yet this was unwarranted communalism: the taxes hit Parsis and Christians too, including the mighty Tatas.
As Finance Minister, Liaquat could and did constantly thwart proposals of Congress ministers entailing government expenditure. This infuriated many Congress leaders, who said co-habitation with the Muslim League was impossible. Hence Partition, which Congress deemed unthinkable till 1945, was quickly accepted by the Congress when Mountbatten proposed this in 1947 in return for handing over power within a few months.
Had Congress been willing to share power under Jinnah’s earlier proposals, the horrors of Partition could have been avoided. But would deepening communalism have plunged an undivided India into civil war? Probably, and so I think Partition was the best solution. But it was not forced on India. It was ultimately Nehru’s choice no less than Jinnah’s.
Bilateral myth making over India's partition
By Khaled Ahmed
(VIEW FROM PAKISTAN)
(This is a review article on Narendra Singh Sarila's book The Untold Story of India's Partition: the Shadow of the Great Game).
(Courtesy: The Friday Times)
When Pakistanis talk of the 1947 partition, they present it as a conspiracy hatched by the British and the Hindus to force on the Muslims a division that would be unviable and lead to the new state 'relapsing' into India. When the Indians think of partition they present it as a conspiracy between the Muslim League and the British Raj to do the nationalists out of their right to rule united India, a sequel to the Raj's old strategy of divide and rule. If you are objective, you will find that both the theses are only partially tenable. It means that the fault lies in the partisanship through which they squeeze the facts of partition. The result they produce by this case-building turns out to be quite the opposite of what they desire.
New facts and their new understanding
First of all, the three actors in pre-partition India seem to pursue their varying interests, which is quite normal in human affairs. The nationalists, desiring a pluralist undivided India, could have won the day, but for the mistakes their leaders made. The separatists were understandably politically weak; but can they be faulted for not exploiting these mistakes? It is time both Indians and Pakistanis learned to cultivate political distance from the phenomenon of partition and not extend the pre-partition politics of division into today's environment. Once we have gotten rid of this dated mind-set, the politics of partition will appear as a fascinating and at times entertaining tripartite clash of interests. As more and more sources of information on the period are released for public scrutiny, the story of how it all happened becomes even more riveting.
Narendra Singh Sarila in his book The Untold Story of India's Partition: the Shadow of the Great Game (Harper Collins India; Distributed by Vanguard Books Lahore) has written a gripping narrative on the basis of the new material he was able to study. For anyone who is not steeped in the lore of Indo-Pak rivalry, the book offers enough new information to make a case for retelling the story of India's break-up. But if the book is read with bias, its effectiveness will be halved and one will be tempted to rebut the author with the help of his own material. If that happens it would be tragic. The new facts must help Indians and Pakistanis to understand each other better. This book can achieve that objective even though the author wears his Indian-nationalist bias on his sleeve.
British and the post-1947 Great Game
Lord Wavell viceroy of India from 1943 to 1947, being a military commander with a global perspective, thought that the Soviet Union would threaten the British empire, and that in India the All India Cngress would be more prone than the Muslim League to side with the Communists. Wavell was of course thinking of the Middle East and its oil wealth. Linked to this feeling was the strategic 'possibility' that a region within India could be separated to act as the forward defensive glacis against the advancing Soviet Union. By 1946, more and more British military leaders were thinking of the threat of 'Russia' and that the next imperial war would be fought in the region. In the background was Europe's and Britain's own socialism which these military men could not have looked at with any serenity.
The Liberals had come to power in Britain under Attlee when the generals started thinking on lines later adopted by the United States as state doctrine in the 1950s. They thought that Pakistan could be allowed to be created so that it could be used as a base from where to counter the growing Soviet threat to the Middle East. Did Attlee succumb to this argument? Probably not. He may have kept his own point of view under the bushel, but he and his party were not overly enthusiastic about dividing India. After all, at that point, America, as it stood on the threshold of Cold War, thought that dividing India would unleash the power of the Left in the rump India, which might then threaten the global balance. Atlee cannot be faulted too much for being tentative in his support of the nationalists in India and for not rejecting Wavell's thinking out of hand, because he was living in the aftermath of the Second World War and the promise of the coming Cold War it held for Britain.
Cngress blunders on the eve of Second World War
The thinking of the British militarymen was not wide of the mark either. After all, in the 1980s, America did rely on Pakistan to get the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Siding with the Soviet bloc, India stood isolated for the decade of the Afghan war, and finally when the Soviet Union collapsed, India found itself in the wrong camp and had to undo the Nehruvian model to correct itself by becoming an ally of the United States. The British generals were right about the left-leaning politics of the nationalists. On the other hand, their analysis of the Muslim Leaguers was purely strategic.
They did not necessarily find Muslim politics very palatable. Even a rightwing Briton could not have taken too kindly to the abuse of religious symbols in Indian politics. After all, Wavell, an enemy of India according to the book, did the ultimate wrong to the Muslim League by suggesting a partition of India that Pakistan has always seen as unfair.
Lord Linlithgow who preceded Wavell as viceroy of India became the most blatant opponent of Cngress because, on the eve of the Second World War, he had to posit Indian politics more or less as President Bush posited world politics to Pakistan after 9/11. Did the Cngress party act wisely in the face of this challenge? Author Sarila says it did not, and that is really the truth. Can the Muslim League be faulted for filling the political vacuum left by the Cngress and standing by the British against Hitler? In extremis, the British Raj was to do what suited its strategy of fighting the World War. That Indian politics was communally divided was a fact and there are some Indian writers who think that the Cngress leadership could have prevented this division from becoming separatist.
Muslim League's more pragmatic approach
It pays to be cold-blooded in view of past history and in line with the thinking of many good Indian writers today on global and regional politics. Cngress won the 1937 election under the 1935 scheme of representative provincial assemblies. Muslim League had been trounced. It is understandable that the Cngress was in a hurry to extract a pledge of independence from the British and thought that the time for pressure tactics was appropriate on the eve of the Second World War. The Muslim League was down in the dumps and understandably ready to do anything to revive itself. When the British entered the war against Germany in September 1939, the Cngress was ruling in eight out of 11 provinces. For reasons that are difficult to understand, the Cngress decided to resign from these governments - the pretext that Cngress was not consulted on entry into war remains flimsy - awarding a walkover to the Muslim League and forcing the viceroy to further refine his policy of supporting the Muslim League as a political makeweight.
Author Sarila is right when he says that this resignation had far-reaching effects. It not only brought the Muslim League to power through the backdoor, it made partition possible by loosening from the Cngress hold the Muslim-majority province of the NWFP. VP Menon thought it was a blunder; so did Jinnah who called it a 'Himalayan blunder' and declared the day of Cngress's resignation as the Day of Deliverance. It has taken a BJP interregnum in the recent past to allow Cngress to think straight in strategy, but the habit of reluctance to take the big decisions on time and give up nitpicking when nimble footwork is required, persists in Cngress.
Hindu mind and its inscrutability
However, if you look at the realistic way the Cngress government in 2005 has behaved towards the United States, Israel and Iran, you can only wish that Nehru had the wisdom before 1947 to act with more pragmatism and flexibility. Surprisingly, Gandhi had less of the Hindu nebulousness in his political thinking, although what he did to Linlithgow in the shape of an advice to surrender to Hitler was the unkindest cut of all, a piece of tantric mystery no Anglo-Saxon could stomach. (Hugh Tinker in his book on the viceroys tells us that Linlithgow was not the most brilliant man to serve in India.) If after that the viceroy decided to use the Muslim card, who can blame him? The inscrutable Hindu mind must have baffled him then, just as the Americans were periodically baffled by the mysteries of the Hindu mind even when a more clear-minded BJP was in power. (See Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott's account of his dealings with parable-quoting foreign minister Jaswant Singh, in Engaging India.)
Jinnah moved in deftly and began asking the British to promise that if they decided to quit India they would pledge support to the rights of the minorities. In 1940, he began saying that the Muslims were a nation apart; that meant that now the nation needed a separate territory to live in and Hindu Raj was not the place for them to be in. For a man whose party had lost electorally in 1937, this was a great comeback. And the British were in the middle of a war unto death with Germany. Linlithgow therefore decided to keep quiet over Jinnah's overt separatism. He didn't have to divide but he blinked at it and thought it was good for his rule during the War, although it may have contributed to tilting India into communal massacres in the days to come.
Unrealistic theories of defiance
What use was Cngress's challenge to Linlithgow? Cngress could not set foot in Punjab where men were enlisting for war 200,000-a-month, and Cngress supporters from big business like the Birlas were producing over-time for the war effort and making profits hand over fist. Jinnah was more pragmatic. He played his cards right although he knew he could be sabotaged by people like Cripps in the British government. Raj politics was not black and white, it did not lend itself to principles, and that is the way it had to be played. Jinnah became the sole spokesman under the Conservative Party in London, and when the Labour Party came to power, its efforts to right the political balance in favour of the politically more powerful Cngress came up against the 'precedents' set by the earlier administration. Attlee had to send Mountbatten to wield the hatchet and partition the country according to the map drawn originally by Wavell. If Wavell was anti-Cngress, was his map favouring the Muslim League? No. What were theBritish trying to do?
After having made the Himalayan Blunder, Nehru thought the viceroy was 'slow of mind, solid as a rock with almost a rock's lack of awareness'. But Nehru himself is comparable to today's American-educated Indian intellectual advocating an anti-Americanism that can only hurt India's interests. The same kind of Westernised anti-Westernism and anti-Americanism haunts the Muslim intellectual who refuses to see that he can be despatched in short order by the Islamists standing behind him. Nehru's fabian-socialism was very British and half the time he was defying Britain it could be a kind of self-indulgence that one can today associate with the panache that America-educated intellectuals of South Asia display in their unrealistic theories of defiance. On the other hand, pragmatism born of the trading interests among the less heroic Gujarati community, for instance, could have kept India together. But that would have meant delay in independence.
Partition and the Indian leaders
By Khaled Ahmed
Jinnah is at times described as just the kind of Gujarati India needed, coaxing the British out of India constitutionally and not arousing religious sentiments to get the masses under one flag. He was snubbed into opposition by two leaders. Unfortunately he was put off by the fellow-Gujarati Gandhi because of the latter's use of religion in politics; he was put off by the more combative personality of Nehru. It was when he was being squeezed out of the Cngress that he jumped into the politics of thrust and parry that we see today played out in South Asia among our politicians.
The turning-point was the 1920 Nagpur Cngress Party session in which Gandhi sensed the 'northern warrior' audience's mind and suggested the dissolution of the 'British connection'. Jinnah opposed it for being unpragmatic and was hooted down in the presence of his young wife, Ruttie, but anyone from the trading Gujarati communities, like the Parsis, would have stood with Jinnah on the argument of not taking the Raj on frontally, no matter what the Nagpur audience had to say.
Jinnah did not resign from the Cngress after Nagpur. Perhaps he knew he must have looked outlandish in his non- swadeshi dress and his English, but his style too was different. After the Rowlatt Act brought about the Jallianwala massacre, Gandhi decided on a Satyagraha agitation; Jinnah simply resigned from the Imperial Legislative Council. He had already resigned from the Muslim League because he could not countenance the Khilafat Movement; Gandhi found it easy to use it as a 'discardable' political tool. Jinnah was to learn his tough lessons during these early years; later, as a spoiler, he showed how well he had learned them.
Narendra Singh Sarila in his book The Untold Story of India's Partition: the Shadow of the Great Game (Harper Collins India; Distributed by Vanguard Books Lahore) has taken another look at the politics of those years.
In 1942, with the Japanese threatening to invade India, it was Gandhi's turn to do something inscrutable: he tabled a resolution asking the British to 'quit forthwith' and told the Japanese that India had no quarrel with them. Almost all the Cngress High Command disagreed with it but passed it, only to change it over-night without convening another session when Nehru said he would quit Cngress instead if it went public.
Rajendsra Prasad and surprisingly Vallabhbhai Patel thought Gandhi was wrong but went along because they had some kind of mystical faith in 'Bapu'. Sarila writes: 'The above record allows us a peep into how those leading the fight for India's freedom were going about their business'. If the Muslim League, seeing the British in India thus beleaguered, decided on opportunism, what was wrong with it?
Viceroys pro-Pakistan and pro-India
The author doesn't like a 'mediocre' Wavell because he advanced Linlithgow's project of promoting Jinnah and the League when he took over in 1946. But the Pakistanis cannot be greatly pleased about the way he proposed to draw the borders between India and Pakistan, giving Muslim-majority Gurdaspur to India so that India should have access to Kashmir. Pakistanis hate Mountbatten for being close to Nehru as viceroy but there are many steps he took as governor general of India that Indians have reason to hate. Sarila says his reports to London as governor general of India remain unsealed, which means that the final verdict on him is still pending. The truth may not be to the liking of both India and Pakistan. As one reads the book, one is more and more convinced about the bilateral myth-making about Partition.
Wavell thought Nehru was sincere and courageous but 'unbalanced'; he thought Jinnah was unhappy, arbitrary, self-centred, lonely, "but straighter compared with Cngress and more sincere". (Sarila omits "compared with Cngress"). If you go back to his Viceroy's Journal you will find Wavell describing most Muslim and Hindu leaders as people of merit undermined by serious personality disorders. India and Pakistan need to go back and see what had happened to their leaders. They had certainly made mistakes and landed themselves in a mess, and no amount of historiographic theorising about divide-and-rule and other mutually insulting doctrines can hide the true pathology of the men who pretended to give us freedom in quick time, cutting corners and falling out with one another in the process.
The communal bloodshed which formed the backdrop to this agony in history more often than not originated in this pathology.
From Wavell's Dairy
It should be interesting to quote Wavell here about the dramatis personae of partition.
Pethick-Lawrence: The S. of S., the old PL is a sentimental pacifist with a strain of rather pugnacious obstinacy if crossed, and I think a good deal of self-satisfaction and some vanity. He is more genuinely non-violent than Gandhi, with him it really is a creed, while I believe that for Gandhi non-violence is a political weapon far more than a creed. The approach of the S. of S. to these tough crafty Hindu politicians was often too abject. He was a very bad draftsman of a document, wordy and indefinite. Stafford Cripps: He was much the ablest of the party...but he is an ambitious man and was quite determined not to come away empty-handed this time; and this made him over-keen and not too scrupulous. My predecessor told me, apropos of the Cripps Mission of 1942, that C. was 'not quite straight under pressure, and he was right.
Even Rajagopalacharia would I am sure let them (the Mission) down if it suited his book or that of the Cngress; and was throughout a propagandist of the Cngress cause. Gandhi was true to form and was the real wrecker;...and he is as unscrupulous as he is persistent. He has brought to a fine art the technique of vagueness and of never making a statement which is not somehow so qualified or worded, that he cannot be pinned down to anything. His practice of mixing prayers with politics, or rather making prayers a medium of propaganda, is all a part of the make-up. He is an exceedingly shrewd, obstinate, domineering, double-tongued, single-minded politician; and there is little true saintliness in him.
Nehru: He is sincere, well-meaning and personally courageous, but lacks balance and political courage. Sardar Patel: He is more like a leader than any one of them, and might become the easiest to do business with. Not an attractive personality and uncompromising, but more of a man than most of the Indian politicians I have met.
Jinnah: He over-called his hand in the end, and was too uncompromising on the non-League Muslim issue; but he is straight compared with Cngress, and does not constantly shift his ground, as they do, though he too drives a hard bargain. Sarojini Naidu spoke of Jinnah as of Lucifer, a fallen angel, one who had once promised to be a great leader of Indian freedom, but who cast himself out of the Cngress heaven. Fazlul Haq:
The most notorious crook in Bengal. I cannot stomach him. Suhrawardi: Perhaps Jinnah trusts him as little as I do. I dislike him and distrust him intensely. I have always thought him a dishonest and self-seeking careerist with no principles.
Indian leaders: It is weary negotiating with these people; it takes weeks or months to make any progress on a point which ordinary reasonable men would settle in an hour or so. How they will ever make a constitution (under United India) at this rate I cannot imagine. These people make me tired and discouraged. I am not sleeping properly and am letting these wretched people worry me. Raja Ghazanfar Ali: The only one I had not met, looks rather an irresponsible sort of buccaneer.
Feroz Khan Noon: Feroz Khan Noon who delivered one of the outbursts without thinking which he sometimes gives tongue to. He has really very few political principles. He tries to trim between Jinnah and Khizr, and I think is trusted by neither. Ambedkar: He is sincere, honest, and courageous, but he is not an attractive personality.]
An 'unviable' India and Cabinet Mission
If Wavell thought of the British army withdrawing from what was to become India and locating it in what was to become Pakistan in order to defend the Middle East from Communism, he was disabused by the lack of support his favourite Jinnah enjoyed in the Muslim-majority provinces in Sindh, the NWFP and Punjab. On the other hand, the Cngress did not come to the help of a beleaguered Jinnah, the "sole spokesman" manqu‚.
Gandhi's 1944 talks with him came to naught because he could not easily embrace the proposals made to him. Sarila sees it, but one wonders if the Indian leaders read the signals emitted by the great post-Second World War economic mentor of the Western world, John Maynard Keynes, about the future of British Raj. The economic non-viability of the Raj in India was perhaps the most persuasive argument heard in London, not the internecine turmoil of Indian politics. India was no longer buying British goods, therefore India, instead of being a source of income, was a liability, pulling the British economy down. It was a piece of 'strategic overextension' rather than a bulwark against Britain's global foes.
In 1946, the Cabinet Mission arrived to propose a confederal 'interim' constitutional structure for a united India. Both the parties rejected the proposal although Muslims thought its chief Cripps was pro-India while both hated its Quaker member Pethick ("Pathetic") Lawrence because his passivity could be interpreted as leaning either way. Nehru and Patel rejected the proposal (for their separate reasons), which caused Jinnah to reject it too after first accepting it. Attlee had thought that the Cngress would welcome the Cabinet Mission and see it as the British liberals' big concession to it, but that was not to be. In fact Attlee was right in thinking even as a liberal that it was too late for the Cngress to keep India intact.
Meanwhile the 1946 elections showed the Muslim League coming back handsomely to claim Muslim support all across India. Who is to blame for this, if not the leaders of India fighting for freedom but disagreeing over how it should come.
The British militarymen all thought that since Hindus and Muslims will never agree, a division would come in handy in the coming days of the Cold War with Pakistan serving as a military base. They were off the mark over Russia's advance to 'warm waters'; it was only at the fag-end of the Cold War that it happened in the shape of the Afghan war, but that actually brought an end to the Communist threat forever. Pakistan became India-centric, proving once again the theory that if you separate divided communities and give them independent states to run, the will fight inter-state wars, in a way carrying on from where they had left off when the world saw them fighting senseless communal civil wars. Pakistan was pragmatic given its 'mission statement' and joined up the superpower that was ultimately to win the Cold War. The pragmatism that gave it its nuclear weapons failed when it came to ideology. The 'threat from the west' that the British generals foresaw in the shape of Communism was to come from another creed, Talibanisation, which in turn threatened Britain on 7/7 this year when Al Qaeda killed 52 in London.
Out of personality disorders came partition
Author Sarila captures the weak moments of the leaders that let India be divided. When the endgame came in the shape of Partition Nehru was 'tired, worried and unhappy'. In 1947, Attlee announced that since no one agreed to legally decide the communal quarrel in India through the legislatures, London would create a kind of Central Government as a prelude to handing over power in 1948. Communal riots indicated that the leaders had actually let their quarrel get of out hand and were now at the mercy of violent events. The Interim Government that was formed had Nehru as prime minister who was obsessed with foreign affairs, already laying the foundation of India's future non-aligned anti-imperialist foreign policy at the expense of keeping his cabinet together where Liaquat Ali Khan as finance minister was following a separate Muslim League policy.
Gandhi rose in stature when he announced his opposition to the post-1947 Indian policy (more Patel's than Nehru's) of withholding Rs 550 million from the assets that had to go to Pakistan. (An earlier instalment of Rs 200 million had been paid.) Nehru and Patel were great but Gandhi regained the stature he had earlier lost through 'inscrutability', by forcing Nehru to pay Pakistan's dues. He was killed for it, but the man lives forever, far above all the mistakes the Hindu and Muslim leaders of India made in trying to decide what kind of freedom they wanted from the British Raj.
The two states tilted into war in Kashmir much earlier than any pessimist had ever anticipated. It took over 50 years for the two countries to sense that the world was laughing at the pathology of their predictable bilateral violence. Today they are thinking of their economies rather belatedly and have seemed to stop minding that they should be economically interdependent, forming a regional market that for once should ensure that their populations don't wallow in poverty.
Narendra Singh Sarila's recollections
Dawn April 29, 2007
REVIEWS: The play of forces
Reviewed by Shahid Javed Burki
There is no other subject in the history of the South Asian subcontinent that has attracted more analytical and historical interest than that of the British decision to partition their Indian empire into two parts, a predominantly Hindu India and a predominantly Muslim Pakistan. What was extraordinary about that decision was not that the British were made to recognise that the India they had ruled for almost two centuries could not be kept united. What made the move by London in response to the unrelenting pressure by Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League such a historic event was the acceptance that religion could be the basis of partition. Both the Hindu-dominated Congress Party and the British administration operating out of New Delhi had advanced secularism as the basis for governance. A secular state that protected the rights of all religious communities was the ideology pursued by the Congress although some of the political idiom used by Mahatama Gandhi had deep Hindu overtones. The British also believed that they could bring peace to the potentially divisive population over which they ruled by keeping religion out of politics as well out of statecraft.
Jinnah and his Muslim League stood these arguments on their head. They demanded the recognition of India’s large Muslim community as a separate entity since their faith distinguished them from the rest of India. This concept, developed over time in response to the campaign by the Congress to keep India united, eventually took the form of a two-nation theory. Not only were Muslims distinct from all other religious groups, argued Jinnah, they were, in fact, a separate nation that deserved a state of its own.
Much of the existing literature on the Indian independence movement and the partition of British India, accordingly, looks at the fateful events leading up to the creation of two states in what was once a colony administered by London from three very different angles. The British writers have focused on how London attempted to keep India united while recognising that minorities had political, social and economic rights that should not be overwhelmed by the majority. The Indian historians have examined the events from the perspective of a movement led by some extraordinary men who were able to challenge the once powerful British administration without shedding much blood. In a century that had witnessed some extremely bloody convulsions, the Indian Independence Movement was surprisingly peaceful. When blood was eventually shed, it was not to expel the colonialists but in sectarian violence among the subcontinent’s different religious groups.
The Muslim examination of the independence movement is understandably focused on how this particular community organised itself politically and successfully challenged two more powerful forces — the Hindu-dominated Congress Party and the British administration. The Muslim League’s success in creating the state of Pakistan could not have been anticipated in the early 1940s when Jinnah raised the demand for the creation of an independent Muslim state. But the political acumen of this man, the honesty of purpose he displayed, his extraordinary charisma, his ability to keep a fractious people under one political umbrella, all contributed to the success of the movement he launched to procure a separate state for the Muslims of British India. In examining the creation of Pakistan as a historical event of great significance, the Pakistani historians have understandably focused on Jinnah’s role, his personality and his character.
Narendra Singh Sarila’s book — the subject of this review — is a very different account of the events that led to the departure of the British from India and their decision to leave the country divided not united. Sarila brings many credentials to his book. As a young diplomat he was appointed to serve on the staff of Lord Louis Mountbatten, India’s last Viceroy and the man given an enormous amount of power and freedom to determine the future of the land the British had once ruled. In some of the more recent writings of foreign historians — for instance the recent book by Stanley Wolpert — Mountbatten does not emerge as an attractive character. He seems to have been motivated in his actions by several flaws and weaknesses in his character. These led to the decisions that were to hurt Pakistan and benefit India. While Sarila’s Mountbatten is also not an attractive historical figure, the reasons for some of his actions are found in the play of forces that had considerable historical content. As suggested by the title of the book, the author believes that the British decision to partition India was not the result of a brilliantly conceived and articulated programme of action by Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Instead, it was the outcome of the ‘great game’ that the British and other western powers continued to play in the region that was to become first West Pakistan and later Pakistan.
Sarila is obviously influenced in his thinking by the 9/11 event and the ensuing conflict between the West, led by the United States, and radical Islam. He sees the growth of radicalism among the Muslims of the northwestern areas of South Asia — parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan — as an outcome of the game the British played. The chain of events and motives behind the British move in the 1940s as seen by Sarila was the product of a simple logic. By the time Mohammad Ali Jinnah raised his demand for the creation of Pakistan, the western powers had already brought much of the Muslim world under their political control. The British and the French had carved out the remnants of the Ottoman Empire into their spheres of influence. By extending them to South Asia by creating a Muslim state they could also dominate what were then India’s northwestern areas. This was an attractive proposition and was behind their push for the creation of Pakistan. In this story, Jinnah comes out as a pawn of the imperial powers rather than as an independent operator working to secure political freedom for the community of which he was a member.
Using the idiom of counterfactual history, the author carries forward his argument to the present times. He strongly implies that 9/11 would not have occurred had the British not played the great game by creating Pakistan. Had India been left united, New Delhi would have been able to absorb Islamic militancy within its political, economic and social structures and not allow it to parade so aggressively on the world scene. This is an important book and needs to be read in Pakistan since it puts clearly an argument that has begun to be made by the Indian establishment in its dialogue with the West. ________________________________________
The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition
By Narendra Singh Sarila
II: A Pakistani view
1947: Partition II
Dawn December 20, 2007
REVIEWS: Behind the scenes
Reviewed by A.R. Siddiqi
The story of Partition is an elegy without end. It is black with the congealed gore of the dead and resonant with the desperate yells of those in throes of death waiting for a saviour.
It was on the whole a weird combination of the shocking ignorance of the masses about the distinction between ‘freedom’ and ‘Partition’ and the hugely misplaced vision of the Indian (Hindu and Muslim) leadership to equate the end of the British Raj with independence. As the author would put it, while words like ‘Pakistan’, ‘Swaraj’ and ‘Partition’ acquired ‘concrete’ meaning ‘freedom’ itself was not clearly defined.
The ‘meanings’ of Pakistan had been ‘deliberately and conveniently avoided and ignored’ for the Muslims of South Asia by the Muslim League’s ‘elected’ legislators who gathered in Delhi in April 1946, to demand a single state instead of two (or more) sovereign autonomous states.
The ‘talismanic’ word, Pakistan was used ‘strategically’ to ‘rally’ the gullible, unwary masses round a cause little understood and still less explained. When an eccentric British member of the Indian Civil Service, Malcolm Darling, during his long equestrian journey through the north Indian countryside asked a village herdsman about Pakistan, he answered: ‘sanu kutch patta nahien!’ (we know nothing about it).
What Pakistan really meant was even more ‘opaque’. Was it the territorial quest for a new, sovereign Muslim country or a political interpretation of a ‘wildly improbable millenarian dream?’ Pakistan meant ‘myriad things’ to different people. The proposition could be interpreted either way to suit the pragmatic or Utopian perceptions of the Muslim League leadership.
Meanwhile ‘the issue of territory was repeatedly fudged’. Rehmat Ali, the young Cambridge scholar who coined the acronym Pakistan in the early ’30s, had a ‘pan-subcontinental’ view of Pakistan based on doctrinaire rather then physical borders regardless of demographic and communal (Hindu-Muslim) ratios of the respective areas or the zones. His was virtually a formula for the Balkanisation of India with the territorial and administrative balance titled heavily in favour of the Muslim minority.
Rehmat Ali’s notional map showed a ‘fragmented patchwork of the subcontinent’ including such largely princely states as Hyderabad and Bhopal and cities like Aligarh and Delhi with predominantly Hindu population as independent entities outside India’s body politic and parts of Muslim Pakistan. Rehmat Ali’s Pakistan was ‘an imaginary nationalistic dream as well as a cold territorial reality.’ The dream was dominated by wishful thinking or an ecstatic vision of a Utopia sans cartography — almost a heaven on earth. One is irresistibly reminded here of the ‘Cloud-Cuckoo Land’ of Aristophanes in The Birds, one of his best surviving plays, ‘where the birds are kings and gods’: a Utopian sort of a commonwealth.
Imagine a land mass as big as India being divided ‘against the clock’ in some five weeks. Radcliffe arrived in India on July 8, 1947, and by August 17 his Boundary Commission award was out in its absolute finality beyond any question.
The ‘open-ended, conveniently ambiguous Pakistan demand’ came ‘crashing into territorial realities of population ratios and land usage’. The border drawn was little more than an ‘unknown border line’ open to endless mutually conflicting, antagonistic interpretations, endangering the cross-border peace and harmony of the two neighbours, born out of a huge trust deficit. The June 3 plan had been ‘so rushed’ and ‘inadequately’ thought out, that it had been difficult to decide ‘who was a rightful Pakistani and who was a rightful Indian.’ At the stroke of midnight on August 14, 1947, centuries old fellow citizens, even families, stood divided without a tangible thought about their status as to which state and society they actually belonged.Was it a casual leave taking or a traumatic farewell for ever? How on earth could such a catastrophic metamorphosis — from one of a compatriot to a foreigner — take place overnight? None of the leadership on either side of the divide had prepared the people, even remotely, to mentally accept the wages of the holocaust and lessen its stunning impact.
Besides the great human tragedy accompanying the infamous Radcliffe award, there were a ‘variety of eccentric features’ it ‘bestowed’ on the subcontinent’s political geography. The award created a ‘geographical settlement’ difficult to manage ‘at the best of times, even if all parties were in agreement.’
In Punjab the ‘most contested’ parts were Lahore, Amritsar, Gurdaspur, Hoshiarpur and Jullundar. In Bengal, Murshidabad and Malda the two Muslim majority districts, notionally conceded to Pakistan were awarded to India. The Pakistan flag raised at the district headquarters in Malda was suddenly replaced by the Indian flag on August 17.
The author candidly highlights the problems involved in the division of the military forces on religious lines and their role in accelerating partition. She writes at some length about the outbreak of the massive naval mutiny in Bombay in February 1946. Thousands of naval staff mutinied against the harsh behaviour of their British officers and ‘low pay and bad food’. The naval mutiny almost coincided with the disbandment of the Azad Hind Fauj of Subhash Chandera Bose after the surrender of the Japanese forces.
The Second World War and Partition ‘bled’ into each other hastening partition. Nearly half a million Indian soldiers had to be ‘cut and pasted into the new national formation’. The task, which Auchinleck had ‘reckoned’ would take five to 10 years had to be completed by March 1948 in all respects.
The author blames the British squarely for their ‘detached and diluted sense of responsibility’ in their ‘shameful flight’ (Stanley Wolpert’s words) from India. The British lost both their ‘manpower and the moral will to continue the Raj at the chalk face of empire…’ Mountbatten’s advancing the transfer of power date from June 1948 to August 1947 at a whim, made it even more incumbent for the British morally and practically to ensure a smooth transfer of power.
Yasmin Khan’s is a wide, all-embracing prism reflecting myriad of real-life characters behind the scenes little known to the outside world and yet contributing significantly to the traumatic epic of Partition. Gandhi, Jinnah, Jawahar, Mountbatten and others of their class, though centre-stage, had a supporting cast of scores prompting from the wings.
Industrial tycoons like Birlas and Dalmias played a significant role in generously funding the loungers and thus affecting the political agenda, no matter in how small a way. Communally-driven militias like the R S S, the Muslim League National Guard, and Zilma Pakhtoon with their ‘rigid, right wing’ ideologies formed the ‘dark underbelly’ of Partition. ________________________________________
The Great Partition: The making of India and Pakistan
By Yasmin Khan
Penguin Books, India
Available with Paramount Books, Karachi
1947: The partition of India