Freedom Issue 2017: Essay

Was Partition Inevitable?

Roderick Matthews specialises in Indian history. He is the author of Jinnah vs Gandhi and Mountbatten and the Partition of British India
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It was about human frailty: stubbornness, inexperience and ambition

Though the Congress movement was dominated by lawyers, its writers were always more influential. Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru can claim to have written modern India into being. Hind Swaraj (1909) and The Discovery of India (1946) described India as a living entity, with a coherent past and an unfathomable oneness. The India they celebrated could be loved and fought for. But to what extent was it an illusion?

Gandhi wrote of India’s historic unity, which he believed the British had destroyed, and he tried to revive and guide that unity himself, initially at the head of the Khilafat Non-Cooperation agitation of 1919-22. But that movement, with a foreign religious issue at its heart, was an amalgam of discontents rather than an authentic expression of the whole nation. Too many chose to stand away from it, and it proved to be a deceptive peak; such unity of purpose was never achieved again. Yet the Congress remained determined to view itself as the embodiment of a nation.

When that view was questioned, Congress leaders had no answer, and continued to press for mass franchise as an antidote to imperial domination. Partition thus came to them with a profound sense of shock. They never considered it possible that the India they aspired to represent had been realised by alien violence, and did not foresee that it might be sundered by the arrival of democracy. Democracy had been the one thing that all Congress leaders professed to believe in, and was the prime justification for their demands for self-determination and independence. But none of them seemed to be aware of how contradictory these aims might prove to be in a land as diverse as India.

Given this ideological background, Partition could only seem like a violation, and it has always been an orphan event, something for which no one has been willing to take responsibility. This is extraordinary, considering the scale of what transpired.

So can we call Partition an aberration? Was it inevitable? And who, if anyone, got what they wanted out of it?

Before attempting to find answers, it is necessary to make an important distinction. The settlement of 1947 and the bloodshed that followed are two different subjects. The former resulted from an excessive concentration of power, the latter from an absence of it.

The leaders in Delhi, few in number and under intense pressure, did not foresee the results of what they were doing. They were fully aware of the potential raggedness of the entities they were seeking to create, and of the lives that would be disrupted, but they reassured each other that the very complexity of the situation would assure a peaceful outcome, via ‘hostage’ populations, which would guarantee good treatment for all.

In this they were terribly mistaken, but the higher objectives they had in mind, and their various personal interests, allowed them to rush past practical details in search of a more valuable prize: democratic self-government. Reading the historical record, it is apparent that everyone involved, with the possible exception of Gandhi, underestimated the difficulty of the task they were involved in.

Lack of information and human frailty contributed to the overall tragedy, but ultimately the central failures of Partition were political, and the list is long.

The British did not get the united India they wanted. Despite persistent popular belief that the whole drama of Partition was a long-laid and carefully executed British plan, academic opinion has never wavered in its clear perception of the actual objective of British policy. In 1987, Anita Inder Singh wrote: ‘The British favoured a transfer of power to a united India, which would keep the army undivided, and be of the greatest advantage to them strategically’. Two years later the distinguished jurist HM Seervai agreed, stating that British policy was ‘to transfer power peacefully to a united India’. All the documents we have confirm this view, as does the briefest reference to common sense.

Next, Jinnah. Though generally seen as the instigator and chief architect of Partition, he did not get the six intact provinces he wanted, though he did get a sovereign nation. On that level, Jinnah was a short-term winner, yet he was always the party keenest to delay the process, and the language of his speeches afterwards is revealing. He felt betrayed and conspired against. No patriot could relish calling his new home ‘moth-eaten’. He was repeatedly told that Pakistan would be too poor to maintain and defend itself, and subsequent events have shown that this was no idle warning. In his own words, he was not a man happy with the fruits of the division he had asked for.

Congress leaders too had their disappointments. They were denied possession of the ideal they had described and admired, but they did manage to create the substance of what they had wanted—a modern government using British machinery and liberal ideals. They fell short in their acreage, not their principles. India became a secular democracy and has remained so.

Could it have been different? Those who say so need to do three things. They need to explain how the irreconcilable principles at stake could have been resolved; they must unpick the problems of legitimacy and self-definition that the parties faced; and they are obliged to supply realistic solutions that the participants failed to see at the time.

Legitimacy was a crippling problem for all three parties to the demission talks. The Congress claimed to represent all India, but didn’t; the Muslim League claimed to represent all Muslims, but didn’t. Finally, the British were supported by military force alone, and held only a nominal authority to enforce collective decisions.

This created not so much a trial of strength as a test of relative weakness. Even when it became clear, after the elections of winter 1945-46, that the Congress and the League could both make legitimate claims to represent large constituencies, this was not a fact that either could profitably admit of the other. Accepting that your opponent is stronger than you thought does not make it easier to get what you want. In truth, there was more impotence in play than strength. The weaknesses of the three contending parties remained buried in the system they were about to dismantle.

The alien energy that created the Raj allowed nationalist sentiment to grow; it made space for and added force to its aspirations. But the quasi-moral faith in nationalism was misplaced

The British were a spent force by 1947. They possessed no power to impose terms, and did not care nearly enough about the detail of what emerged, as long as it was agreed. Imperial policy was reduced to a preferred outcome—a united India—but its main aim was to broker a peaceful settlement. On a more personal level, Mountbatten wanted to shift responsibility onto Indians as much as possible, while allowing enough room for him to take personal credit.

The Congress also had limitations. Its leaders always intended to retain the main institutions of colonial government, which they needed to implement their agenda of social and economic reform, and this tempered their willingness to agitate. Tipping the Subcontinent into anarchy was as much a dread for Nehru as it was for the British. The strong centre remained his main priority, and it was not an objective that could be abandoned if his idea of modern India was to materialise.

The Muslim League may have seemed like the driving force in the situation after the Lahore Resolution of 1940, but the limitations on its scope for action went even further. It had a degree of social weight, but it had no great institutional structure to rely upon. Its main muscle was the National Guard it could deploy, and its willingness to do so in Punjab greatly exacerbated the tensions in the province from 1946 onwards. But Jinnah’s hand was undoubtedly the weakest, and he was essentially forced to occupy a middle position between a supplicant and an irritant.

In sum, Congress leaders did not have the power to wish Pakistan away, but they did have the power to concede it. Eventually this was the power they used, and they used it to give Jinnah the worst deal they could. Jinnah ended up a bitter man. He never had the power to take what he wanted; he always had to ask.

But British impotence was the most serious factor, because it had a direct bearing on the massacres. While the leaders in Delhi were discussing constitutional systems, local populations were left to live out the consequences of decisions made by the high-ups. In this the British have to take full measure of responsibility as the incumbent government, but Indian politicians must take a share of this burden too, because they insisted on pursuing high ideals, while real-world consequences did not concern them sufficiently to find forms of viable cohabitation that might not have alarmed the local communities to such a degree.

The Congress never resolved the paradox that it was demanding self-determination for a favoured group—Indians—while denying it to others, including Muslims, Sikhs and Bengalis. This required a self-standing assertion about what was and was not a legitimate demand. The ‘national’ demands of the Muslim League also suffered from this problem vis-à-vis strong local identities, but Jinnah had a way out. He simply announced that all other demands were ‘subnational’, and thus not admissible.

The process of self-determination was never going to be straightforward. Congress claims about the Indian nation were politically untenable; Muslim League claims about the Muslim nation were geographically unviable. Both sides harboured an aversion to federalism, and they played hardball, telling themselves they were acting for the greater good. Each took a stand that relied on self-certification, immune to compromise, thus restricting the scope and pitch of the demands that could be made, or accepted.

So much for the theory, but it was practicalities that really wrecked the search for a settlement.

By 1947 there was a crippling lack of trust between the Congress and the League. This went back to the 1920s, when the Congress had refused to back constitutional schemes put forward by Muslims, and was exacerbated after the elections of 1937, when Congress leaders declined to accommodate minority Muslim representation in provincial coalitions. The rights and wrongs of these decisions were ramified—high principle, tactical guile and selfishness all played a part—but the result was to sow despair among Muslim politicians that the Congress would ever play fair. Some did not need accommodation from the Congress, especially in Punjab, but others did, and wartime events only strengthened Jinnah’s hand. The explicit demand for separate sovereign Muslim units, made at Lahore in 1940, crystallised any discontents there may have been, and Jinnah reaped the benefits in the elections of 1945-46, which should have removed all doubts about the political legitimacy of the League.

As a result, bad faith dogged the Cabinet Mission Plan. Its complex two-track provisions for a Constituent Assembly and an interim government, and the uncertainties that attended the grouping of provinces produced so many opportunities for tactical manoeuvring that what little trust remained between the leaders soon evaporated. The Plan could only ever have worked with a massive amount of goodwill behind it, and there was woefully insufficient to be had.

In the final months there were two crucial periods that assured Partition would arrive. The first ten days of March 1947 saw Punjab lose its non-sectarian coalition government, leading to serious rioting in Lahore and Amritsar. This set the scene for the anarchy that followed across the summer. Then the middle days of April 1947 saw three crucial events; Mountbatten accepted that the Cabinet Mission Plan was beyond revival; the provincial governors told him that order was dissolving; Congress leaders privately told him that they would accept partition. Plans were then made and agreed.

The national movement may have been ‘anti-imperialist’, as the likes of Bipan Chandra have asserted, but there is no clear political opposite to ‘imperialism’, whatever that can be taken to mean. Nationalism was never the great strength of the freedom movement; the demand for freedom was. Indians wanted what the British had, and what they thought they had been promised. But the desire for freedom was not a specifically nationalist desire; freedom meant different things to too many people for easy agreement to be reached. By 1947, nationalism had turned into the problem, not the solution.

India’s demand for freedom was just and reasonable, and was pursued with dignity and invention. But its implications were much more complex than any of its advocates realised, until too late. The alien energy that created the Raj allowed nationalist sentiment to grow; it made space for and added force to its aspirations. But the quasi-moral faith in nationalism was misplaced. Nationalism is not adequately self-defining; it has no specific content. It can define communities, and it helps to identify injustices, especially perpetrated by outsiders. But it cannot draw borders, and it has a darker aspect, which it needs to regulate itself internally, in order to extract the maximum power of collective action. This exclusionary aspect, which creates distrust of outsiders, is a natural accompaniment to nationalism, and needs careful management. Even if Gandhi did not feel its force, too many of Jinnah’s followers did.

Was Partition inevitable? No. Other arrangements could have been arrived at. Yet it was logical, if principles of self- determination were to be applied in a highly complex social setting. Politically, therefore, it was at least likely.

Partition was about human frailty through and through; stubbornness, exasperation and inexperience, but above all, ambition. To attempt to create a vast, new democratic political entity by agreement was a daunting challenge, never before attempted. New states have been created by conquest or revolution, or carved out of existing states by secession and civil war. Never by quarrelling, self-interested politicians. In British India, the task was to create a democracy out of an imperial system characterised by chronically under- developed politics. The leap was too great.

Gandhi’s vision of nationalism was of the best kind, positive and inclusive, but not even he could eliminate all the negative accompaniments to the defining of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

In the end the Congress could not bring its vision to reality. The dialogue it had held within itself was first interrupted, then superseded, and it chose to settle for less. Modern India came to the ‘us’ that asked for it. The ‘them’ made another choice—to be left outside.