Tag Archives: Partition of India 1947

Rise of Communalism in India: Tracing vestiges of the past

Rise of Communalism in India: Tracing vestiges of the past

Rise of Communalism in India: Tracing vestiges of the past


To understand the condition of communally charged times we today live in we need to trace our steps back as historians to the time when it all started. To ask the question if it all started at the same time or is the communal atmosphere a culmination of various processes that pull India apart. When did it become inevitable for “muslims” to have a separate nation of their own and was that nation the true manifestation of dreams of people who fought for it. Why would Ram Chandra Guha call independent India an unnatural nation? What is so unnatural about it?

Here I’ll try to make sense of the events that led to the freedom of united India into two separate nations, divided on the lines of religious affiliations.

The elections of 1937:

It has been said that most of the communalists before 1937 operated within a liberal framework, only after 1937 did the Hindu Mahasabha, the Muslim League and RSS veered towards extreme or fascist communalism. The question arises of the reason of this shift, which can be searched in the elections and results of elections of 1937. In 1936 All India Congress Committee decided to contest elections but left the decision of office acceptance for later. While the Socialist Party members were averse to the acceptance of office, the right wingers wanted Congress to accept office and form the ministries. While office acceptance raised great expectations it also brought power to right wingers who tried to rid congress of the clutches of socialists. And it was due to the pressure of these right wingers that not a single muslim representation was there in these 1937 congress ministries in 8 provinces. This became the basis of the idea of muslim Alienation by the Congress, which had until now been subtly expressed in the absence of major muslim participation in Civil Disobedience and Quit India Movement.  Moreover it has been noted that Congress and Hindu Mahasabha shared their cadres till the 1930s which would have made muslims apprehensive of the actions of Congress.

Dismal performance of Muslim League in these elections in muslim majority areas of Punjab and Bengal due to the presence of class based parties like Unionist Party and Krishak Praja Party, led Muslim League to launch a mobilization plan on the lines of religion. The passage of Shariat Application Act 1937 with spirited advocacy by Jinnah in the Central Legislative Assembly  provided a symbolic ideological basis for Muslim Solidarity on a national scale, transcending all divisive internal political debates.

Thus we see that when protesting against India’s drawing into World War 2 the Congress ministries resigned in 1939, Jinnah celebrated it as a “Deliverance day”.


The blurred idea of Pakistan:

In theory communalists, both majority and minority bank on the concept of a homogenous identity of a community which overshadows all other identities.  And it can be said that the idea of the utopic land of Pakistan was to some extent an elite manipulation of the masses, the intensity of emotions involved had more to do with the political and economic anxieties of various classes than with a profound urge to create an Islamic state.  Pakistan was presented as “a peasant utopia” which would bring in liberation for the Muslim peasantry from the hands of the Hindu zamindars and moneylenders, here again the basic reason was of social and economic in character. Moreover, it has been argued that Jinnah’s stand though belligerent was still inclined towards negotiation with Congress, his major public pronouncements in 1938 were ‘a model of communal moderation’. In an article published on 19th January 1940, he did not refer to Hindus and Muslims carving out their separate destinies, but commented ambiguously on two nations ‘who both must share the governance of their common motherland’.

Thus it can be positively concluded here that the idea of Pakistan as a separate nation sovereign in itself was not very clear, because viceroy Linlithgow could find no genuine enthusiasm for Pakistan among the muslim Leaguers even in 1942, he concluded that they would be content with Pakistan within some sort of a federation.


The Fateful Conference at Shimla:

Prior to the conference at Shimla that sealed the fate of the millions of muslims calling themselves Indians, in 1944 there was a huge blunder on part of congress that was that of the recognition of the demand of Pakistan as legitimate, where in April 1944 C. Rajagopalachari had proposed a plebiscite of the adult Muslim Population in muslim majority areas to assess if they wanted to join Pakistan and in July 1944 Gandhi proposed talks with Jinnah on the ‘Rajaji formula’ which amounted to an acceptance of Pakistan demand. But the talks failed due to non-compliance of Jinnah.

Thus the British intervention in June 1945 to start negotiations led to the Shimla conference, where Jinnah claimed for Muslim League the exclusive right to nominate all the Muslim members in the cabinet of an entirely Indian executive council, with the viceroy and commander-in-chief as the only British members. Congress, which then had Abul Kalam Azad as the president, however, refused Jinnah’s demand for that would amount to an admission that Congress was a party only of the caste Hindus.


The misinterpretations of the cabinet mission of 1946:

Ayesha Jalal argued that at no point between 1940 and the arrival of Cabinet Mission in 1946 did either Jinnah or Muslim League ever coherently define the Pakistan demand. But it was the very vagueness of the demand that made it an excellent instrument for a muslim mass mobilisation campaign in the 1940s, where everyone could interpret it in its own terms, where for peasants it was freedom from Hindu overlords , for the corporates it meant ending of Hindu competition.

The cabinet mission arrived in India to discuss two issue:

  1. The principles and procedures for the framing of a new constitution for granting independence.
  2. The formation of an interim government based on widest possible agreement among Indian political parties.

But it was seen that the two political parties had become more intolerant about their contradictory political agendas, with Muslim League Legislator’s Convention defining Pakistan as a “sovereign independent state” consisting of the muslim majority provinces and congress declaring that complete independence for united India as its demand.

After wide consultation across political spectrum a three tier structure of loose federal government for the Union of India, including both the provinces and the princely states was offered. Constitution would be settled for three levels of Union, Group and Province, the provinces would have the right to opt out of any particular group but not out of the Union. On July 6th,   Muslim League accepted it on the assumption that the basis and foundation of Pakistan was inherent in the plan. Congress announced conditional approval to this on July 6th but on 10th of July it declared that congress agreed to nothing else other than participation in the Constituent Assembly.

This event marks the shift of League from constitutional politics to agitational one. This was the beginning of the frenzy and madness with which Partition is today remembered.



Looking at the series of events that led to the ultimate division of a colony into two nations we can conclude here that religious fervour was basically a cloak in the guise of which many political and social ends were served by the people in position of power to manipulate masses, not all the muslims of undivided India dreamt of a Pakistan. The clever mixture of the propagation of terror and fear, the incapability of secularists, the economic and social desperations and the political manoeuvring were some of the reasons behind the creation of Pakistan but one can never truly find reasons for the inhuman massacres that were associated with it.  Violence was both the cause and consequence of Partition and this Partition was to haunt Indian nation was a long unending time.

What If Attlee Hadn’t Partitioned India?

Unity dreams deferred Jinnah after being sworn in as Pakistan’s head of state on August 14, 1947

Unity dreams deferred Jinnah after being sworn in as Pakistan’s head of state on August 14, 1947

“Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially.” Imagine those famous words spoken “at the stroke of the midnight hour”, not by Jawaharlal Nehru as leader of a partitioned Indian republic, but by Mohammed Ali Jinnah as premier of a confederation of the whole subcontinent. The new state is an independent dominion, like Canada and Aus­tralia, with the British monarch as king-emperor. It has a weak central gov­­ernment and strong, autonomous pro­­vinces like undivided Punjab and Ben­gal. Its constitution is based on the British government’s Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946 and acc­epted by both the predominantly Hindu Congress and the separatist Muslim League.

To persuade Jinnah, already dying of tuberculosis, to abandon his largely tac­tical demand for Pakistan, an indep­e­ndent state carved out of India’s Mus­­­lim-majority provinces, Mahatma Gan­­­dhi has given him the premiership of a coalition government at the centre. Nehru, whose arrogance and insistence on the top job had alienated Jinnah, has been slapped down in a realignment of the Congress leadership: Gandhi joining forces with anti-Nehru conservatives like Sardar Patel and Chakravarty Raja­gopalachari (Rajaji). Nehru had been collaborating closely with Lord ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten, sent as viceroy by the new Labour government to “cut and run” as quickly as possible. But the Nehru-Mou­ntbatten axis is seriously discredited by a scandal about Nehru’s affair with Lady Moun­tbatten, including ins­i­n­uations that the bisexual ‘Dickie’ was a willing participant in a menage a trois.

Mountbatten is packed off home in disgrace, while his perspicacious predecessor, Lord Wavell, returns as vic­eroy, resuming negotiations for a more gradual transfer of power to a united subcontinent. This slowly results in a new national unity coalition between Jinnah and the Congress conservatives. With Jinnah as his Muslim prime min­ister, Rajaji, a Hindu Brahmin, in due course succeeds Wavell as the first Indian governor-general of the newly independent dominion.

Night-stained dawn Lord Mountbatten salutes the Indian flag at India Gate on August 15, 1947, as Nehru and Edwina look on

Night-stained dawn Lord Mountbatten salutes the Indian flag at India Gate on August 15, 1947, as Nehru and Edwina look on

Hindu-Muslim tension, ratcheted up by the Pakistan demand and the Con­gress opposition to it, now subsides. Jinnah’s main powerbase, the influential Muslim minority of India’s central Hindi belt, is delighted with the new power-sharing deal. For them, Pakistan was always a tactical rather than a practical demand, because it would uproot them from their homes in a partitioned India. The two largest Muslim-majority provinces of Bengal and Punjab are equally pleased, bec­ause they remain undivided with powerful, devolved governments of their own. A year later, Jinnah dies, and his successors as leaders of the Muslim League, lacking either his charisma or ambition, accept the role of second fiddle to the Congress.  Gandhi’s gamble has paid off, and he lives happily on for another decade, instead of falling victim to a fanatical Hindu assassin.

Is this just a far-fetched, counterfactual scenario born of nostalgia and wishful thinking? Or could it have become a reality if the partnership of Clement Attlee, Lord Mountbatten and Nehru hadn’t rushed through a premature transfer of power to satisfy their own personal and ideological ambitions? The historical evidence suggests that there was no inevitability about Partition and that the key decisions were rather finely balanced.

It’s something of a myth that independence was won by direct action and that Partition was the inevitable price exacted by a colonial power determined to divide and rule. Effective independence was implicit in the constitutional reforms of the Raj in 1909 and 1919, well before Gandhi launched his civil disobedience movement. The Congress was knocking at an open door: the real point at issue was how to introduce parliamentary democracy in a subcontinent so diverse and largely illiterate.

The central problem with elected legislatures was to safeguard the interests of the Muslim minority, still rooted in its feudal past and fearful of domination by the more successful Hindu business and professional elites. The solution accepted by a reluctant Cong­ress was to have separate electorates for additional, reserved Muslim seats. What had still to be resolved was how to guarantee Muslim representation in newly devolved governments in the provinces and eventually at the Centre.

Matters came to a head with the new 1935 constitution, under which provincial elections were held on a greatly expanded franchise. In the United Provinces, the largest province, the Congress and the Muslim League contested in alliance against the loyalist Taluqdars’ party; while the Congress swept the “general” seats, the League won most of the seats reserved for Muslims. The logical outcome was a Congress-League coalition government, but Nehru turned down the League’s coalition offer and the Congress formed a majoritarian government on its own, leaving the League in opposition. This was precisely the scenario that Muslims dreaded at the national level, if independence were to mean majority rule.The United Provinces fiasco of 1937 was a turning point in the radicalisation of the Muslim League and its very moderate, secular-minded leader, Jinnah. It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely founder of a theocratic Islamic state than this whisky-drinking, pork-eating barrister, a ‘Bombay Khoja’ with his London education and his immaculate suits, his love marriage to a glamorous Parsi socialite, and his disregard for Islamic rules. Way back in 1916, when the Congress and the Muslim League agreed on an anti-British pact, Jinnah, as its chief architect, was hailed as “the ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity”.

What turned this patriotic, pro-Congress Muslim into the sectarian separatist of the 1940s? Two of his recent biographers, Ayesha Jalal, a Pakistani-American academician, and Jaswant Singh, a former foreign minister of India, have converged on the same answer: the arrogance and intransigence of Congress leaders—Nehru in particular—and the pro-Nehru bias of the last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten. “Partition was the last thing Jinnah wanted,” says Jalal, and she agrees with Jaswant Singh that his demand for it was essentially a bargaining ploy.

The vague 1940 Muslim League resolution adopting the goal of Pakistan left wide open whether it would be a single or multiple entity, a sovereign state or an autonomous state within a state. Jalal emphasises that Jinnah’s two-nation theory was not a territorial concept, but a demand for parity between Hindus and Muslims. Most Muslims, after all, were minorities in Hindu-majority provinces, while the Muslim-majority provinces depended heavily on the commercial and professional skills of prosperous Hindu minorities.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869 - 1948) leaves the home of Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876 - 1948, left), founder of the Muslim League, en route to the Viceroy's Lodge in Delhi, 24th November 1939. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869 – 1948) leaves the home of Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876 – 1948, left), founder of the Muslim League, en route to the Viceroy’s Lodge in Delhi, 24th November 1939. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Quit India movement of 1942 proved a spectacular own-goal for the Congress, because it landed most of its leaders and active cadres in jail for the rest of World War II, while Jinnah filled the political vacuum, dramatically expa­nding his power base across India’s diverse Muslim communities. At the end of the war, constitutional negotiations resumed under the viceroy, Field Marshal Lord Wavell, a remarkable sol­dier-statesman with long Indian experience. His objective was to transfer power to a united India and for Britain to stay long enough to broker a workable settlement. But for the new Labour government headed by Attlee, the priority was a rapid exit, winding up an expensive empire that had long ceased to pay for its keep. Attlee sent out the Cabinet Mission, which did its best to reconcile the Congress goal of a majoritarian, unitary state with the Muslim League demand for effective safeguards and full autonomy for Muslim-majority provinces. The outcome was an ingenious three-tier sch­eme in which sovereignty would be sha­red in a pyramid, with the provinces at its base, groups of provinces with either Hindu or Muslim majorities above them, and at the apex, an all-India centre for defence and foreign affairs.

This would have been a unique constitutional experiment, more akin to the present European Union than a nation-state, but well suited to India’s political diversity. Both, the Congress and the League, reluctantly accepted the plan, but then fell out over its interpretation.

“What the Cabinet Mission intended and the way we interpret what they inte­nded may not necessarily be the same,” Gandhi told the viceroy.

“This is lawyer’s talk,” said an exasperated Wavell. “Talk to me in plain Eng­lish. I am a simple soldier. You confuse me with these legalistic arguments.”

To this, Nehru quipped, “We cannot help it if we are lawyers.”

The coup de grace for the Cabinet Mission Plan was delivered by Nehru in July 1946, when he publicly announced that a new constituent assembly, which would obviously have a large Hindu majority, would modify the Plan as it pleased. The Muslim League promptly seized on this to back out as well, reiterating its demand for a separate Pakistan and launching “direct action” to achieve it.

Two of Nehru’s closest colleagues have laid the blame for this breakdown squarely at his door. Maulana Azad called Nehru’s statement “one of those unfortunate events which changed the course of history”, lamenting the fact that “he is at times apt to be carried away by his feelings”. Sardar Patel, too, criticised Nehru for acting “with childlike innocence, which puts us all in great difficulties quite unexpectedly”.

Nehru himself maintained that he had acted out of the conviction that partition was preferable to a loose federation. He wanted to be master in his own house, free to implement his socialist policies through centralised economic planning; and the Muslim League, in control of large, autonomous provinces, would have been an unwelcome brake on all this. Most important of all was Nehru’s visceral hatred of Jinnah, recorded with brutal candour in his diaries: “Jinnah…offers an obvious example of an utter lack of the civilised mind. With all his cleverness and ability, he produces an impression on me of utter ignorance and lack of understanding…. Inst­in­ctively I think it is better to [have] Pakistan or almost anything, if only to keep Jinnah far away and not allow his muddled and arrogant head from interfering continually in India’s progress.”

Wavell, who was trying to bring both sides back to the negotiating table, lamented in his diary early in 1947: “There is no statesmanship or generosity in the Congress.” But Attlee decreed otherwise and summarily replaced Wavell with another, far more glamorous soldier-statesman. Earl Mount­batten of Burma came armed with the aura of his military victories, his royal lineage and his “progressive” politics. In what Churchill called “a premature, hurried scuttle”, Attlee announced that, regardless of a political settlement, Britain would quit India by June 1948.

No Himalayan blunder then? Troops head for the border during 1962. How would a united India have played the great game? (Photograph by Corbis, From Outlook 19 August 2013)

No Himalayan blunder then? Troops head for the border during 1962. How would a united India have played the great game? (Photograph by Corbis, From Outlook 19 August 2013)

Both Attlee’s deadline, and his choice of the man to implement it, proved dis­astrous. Mountbatten’s vanity was leg­e­ndary. His chief concern on the eve of his departure for India was what he should wear on arrival. “They’re all a bit left wing, aren’t they?” he asked one India expert. “Hadn’t I better land in ordi­nary day clothes?” He was delighted to be told: “No, you are the last vic­eroy. You are a royal. You must wear your grandest uniform and all your dec­­o­rations and be met in full panoply.”

Three months after his arrival, Mountbatten suddenly announced that he was bringing forward the British departure to August 15, 1947, and transferring power to two successor states carved out of Hindu and Muslim majority areas. “The date I chose came out of the blue,” he later boasted. “I chose it in reply to a question. I was determined to show I was master of the whole event.” He was even more cavalier at a public reception on the eve of Partition, saying that the best way to teach a youngster to cycle was to take him to the top of a hill, put him on the seat and push him down the hill—by the time he reached the bottom, he’d have learnt to cycle.

Rushing through Partition before the security forces were ready for it, Mou­ntbatten made little attempt to explore the alternatives. In a meeting with the viceroy, Gandhi suggested that the existing interim government led by Nehru be dismissed and Jinnah invited to form a new one. “What would Mr Jin­nah say to such a proposal?” Mou­ntbatten asked in surprise. The reply was: “If you tell him I’m the author, he will reply, ‘Wily Gandhi!’” The viceroy made no attempt to follow up Gandhi’s wily offer, which might have changed the course of history by offering Jinnah an honourable retreat from Partition.

A major reason for Mountbatten’s failure to conciliate Jinnah was his all too obvious intimacy with Nehru. Widely rumoured at the time, and now confirmed by the memoirs of his daughter, Mountbatten facilitated a love affair between his beautiful, wealthy and very independent wife and his handsome Congress premier. “She and Jawahar Lal are so sweet together,” he wrote to his elder daughter. “They really dote on each other. Pammy (his younger daughter) and I are doing everything we can to be tactful and helpful.” While his daughter saw this as “a happy threesome”, the bazaar gossip was less charitable. There’s one account of a handful of love notes between Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten reaching Jinnah, who chivalrously returned them.

The most appropriate epitaph on the Raj was provided by the Punjabi official who declared: “You British believe in fair play. You have left India in the same condition of chaos as you found it.” As for Nehru, he first crowed about the mangled Muslim state that emerged from the cutting up of Punjab and Ben­gal, saying, “The truncated Pakistan that remains will hardly be a gift worth having.” But a year later, he said, “Per­haps we acted wrongly…. The conseque­nces of that partition have been so ter­rible that one is inclined to think that anything else would have been preferable…. Ultimately, I have no doubt that India and Pakistan will come close toge­ther…some kind of federal link…. There is no other way to peace. The alte­rnative is…war.” Even as he spoke, the two new states were already at war over Kashmir.

For Jinnah, to get even a moth-eaten Pakistan was, as a leading imperial historian put it, “an amazing triumph, the outcome not of some ineluctable historic logic, but of the determination of a single individual”. It is sobering to con­­s­ider what might have happened if Mou­ntbatten, instead of bringing forward the date, had delayed it. Jinnah, already in the final stages of tuberculosis, died 13 months after partition.

** FILE** Muslim refugees sit on the roof of an overcrowded coach of a train trying to flee India near New Delhi , in this Sept. 19, 1947 file photo.  About 5 million Muslims migrated from India to Pakistan after India gained its independence on Aug. 15.  Sixty years ago this month, India and Pakistan won their Independence, now Pakistan, no stranger to domestic turmoil, is embroiled in an increasingly violent struggle between Islamic extremists and moderates, where as India is racing to become an economic powerhouse, lightning growth has transformed the country and fueled a consumer boom. (AP Photo/FILE)

** FILE** Muslim refugees sit on the roof of an overcrowded coach of a train trying to flee India near New Delhi , in this Sept. 19, 1947 file photo. About 5 million Muslims migrated from India to Pakistan after India gained its independence on Aug. 15. Sixty years ago this month, India and Pakistan won their Independence, now Pakistan, no stranger to domestic turmoil, is embroiled in an increasingly violent struggle between Islamic extremists and moderates, where as India is racing to become an economic powerhouse, lightning growth has transformed the country and fueled a consumer boom. (AP Photo/FILE)

The state he left behind was born to fail, and most Congress leaders expected that this malformed offspring would soon return, tail between its legs, to Mother India. It had virtually no industry, with the markets for its agricultural produce left behind in India; although it produced three-quarters of the world’s jute, the processing plants were all in India. The predominantly Hindu entrepreneurial classes had fled with their capital and expertise. The ruling elite of the Muslim League were mostly refugees from India and soon at odds with the predominantly Punjabi population they governed. The Bengali Muslims of East Pakistan had little in common with the western half, a thousand miles away.

Little wonder that Pakistan fell prey to a series of corrupt and repressive military and civilian regimes and that its eastern wing, after another bloody war and an estimated 3 million casualties, broke away in 1971 to become Bang­ladesh. After the Soviet invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan became the base for militant Islamists fighting the Russians, which further weakened its civil society and radicalised a younger generation  that had already been incensed by India’s occupation of Muslim Kashmir.
The counterfactual story would have been far more positive. Granted, a united Indian federation, based on the Cabinet Mission Plan, would have had its share of friction and tensions; but, over time, the glue of shared power might have held the Congress and the Muslim League together, at least on issues of external security. India, without Nehru’s pro-Soviet brand of non-alignment, would probably have allied with the West and, like the Raj, would have seen Afghanistan as a vital buffer state from which the Russians must be excluded. Under Indian protection, Afghanistan would have remained a benevolent, westernising monarchy with little scope for the Taliban.

Without a hostile Pakistan on its borders, India would also have been far better able to check Communist China’s ambitions. The Raj had seen an independent Tibet as a necessary buffer against Chinese expansionism. “Rather than see a Chinese occupation of Tibet,” a British general had warned in 1946, “India should be prepared to occupy the plateau herself.” In 1959, a serious Indian ultimatum would probably have prevented China from occupying Tibet and ending its autonomy under the Dalai Lama. If so, India would have been spared military defeat in the disastrous 1962 Sino-Indian War, for which the Nehru government was so patently ill prepared.

A decentralised union of sovereign provinces would not have been any less eff­icient or productive than today’s India, with a weak, fragmented coalition at the centre, dominated by strong regional parties. Over time, the Hindu-Muslim religious divide would perhaps have faded, given the myriad ethnic, regional and linguistic identities that make up the Indian mosaic. The union would also have been cemented by rapid growth, as a dynamic private sector, unshackled by Nehru’s state socialism, outstripped the mini-tiger economies. Yes, a united subcontinent could have entered the 21st century as the world’s second largest economy, well ahead of China.

Original Author: Zareer Masani

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