Why did the Partition of India take place? Was it the inevitable result of a Subcontinent divided by religion and facing a power vacuum at the end of the Raj? Or was it a chance occurrence, arising from a unique set of historical circumstances? Many believe that, in fact, nobody was particularly keen on Partition — yet it happened anyway. A confluence of complex socio-economic realities and political compulsions in the wake of an intense and troubled colonial encounter provided a setting for the simultaneous climax of Partition and Independence amidst the dying embers of the British Raj.
The dissolution of British imperial authority in 1947 was as remarkable an event of modern times as was the camel-in-the-tent entry of the empire into the Subcontinent in the first place. The epic that was Partition continues to be perhaps the most tragic and controversial event of our times. Some commentators plead for an erasure of the memory of Partition, rather than to remind each generation of this crucial but painful outcome of the struggle for freedom. Literary evidence is adduced to illustrate the public’s disillusionment with the leadership for having accepted the dismemberment of the country, and several related theses remain strong in popular literature and opinion. First, that Partition was demanded by the Muslim League and its leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and that the Indian National Congress resisted it until nearly the end. Second, that the constituent assembly election of 1946 proved that the Muslim masses endorsed the Pakistan proposal by voting for the Muslim League. Third, that the bitter experience of the Calcutta killings of August 1946, in the wake of Jinnah’s call for Direct Action, changed the nature of the entire political movement.
It is understandable that the sensibilities of literary celebrities – concerned more with the human dimension of Partition than with the dilemma of those involved in the related negotiations – would inevitably differ from historical writings. Similarly, the emotive sensibilities of literary creations are bound to be more profoundly moving than are their prosaic historical counterparts. But if Jinnah was opposed to majority rule, and the myth of nationalism was exploded by the Pakistan resolution, then what were the alternative options that were available but not accepted?
The legacy of Partition still haunts the collective consciousness of the Subcontinent. It has bedevilled good-neighbourly relations between the two sovereign states of India and Pakistan in the endless questioning: Who, exactly, was responsible for this sordid political drama? The British, the Indian National Congress, the Muslim League – all have been blamed. Both Jinnah and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi have also shared the limelight for their political designs and attitudes, and, according to many, must share the responsibility for Partition. But the complex process of understanding why Jinnah chose to snap his bonds of nationalism and began to champion the cause of what he called ‘Muslim India’ raise several crucial questions. When did this journey from nationalism to communalism begin? When did Jinnah wear the mantle of aggressive communalism, and why? Why this metamorphosis from the liberal Jinnah to the ‘anti-Hindu’ Jinnah? What kind of transformation took place in the Indian political scenario to bring the relations between Hindus and Muslims to a point of no return?
It was partly due to the influence of English liberalism and partly the political beliefs of stalwarts like Indian political leaders Dadabhai Naoroji and S N Bannerjee that drew Jinnah to politics. Although he had been attending the Indian National Congress (INC) meetings for some years, it was only in 1906 that Jinnah took a prominent part in deliberations in its annual session. He was subsequently elected to the British Indian government’s Imperial Legislative Council from the Bombay Muslim Constituency in 1909. His interest in Muslim mass welfare became apparent from the qualified support he gave to then-INC leader Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s Elementary Education Bill in 1912. The following year, he joined the All-India Muslim League, which that year had changed its creed to declare as its objective, “the attainment of self-government suitable to India”. Jinnah was elected pre§ident of the League in 1916.
Dual membership in the Congress and League enabled Jinnah to work more effectively for Hindu-Muslim unity. He has been acknowledged as the real architect of the 1916 Hindu-Muslim constitutional agreement known as the Lucknow Pact, where he persuaded the Congress to accept the Muslim right to separate electorate. This dual membership ended in 1920, however, when Congress adopted a new article that decided to resort to non-violence and non-cooperation towards the attainment of self-rule. Jinnah, after all, was convinced that Gandhian methodology in the end would do greater harm than good to India, particular for its Muslims – as in fact it did. Indeed, Gandhi and Jinnah symbolised each other’s antithesis in both belief and way of life.
Neither Jinnah nor the League counted for very much in Muslim politics in the first half of the 1920s. The Khilafat and non-cooperation movements had captured the imagination of the masses. Disillusioned by the narrow communal approach of Hindu leadership to the constitutional question, Jinnah assessed that it was time to part ways. And so it proved to be. His “disillusionment and disappointment” at the 1928 Calcutta Convention led him to the conviction that Muslims had no chance of fair and equitable treatment in a united India. A few months later, Jinnah formulated his Fourteen Points, in which he lucidly summed up the Muslim demands. This represented neither despair nor a challenge; nevertheless, it is the first inkling we have of Jinnah’s ultimate decision that if Hindus and Muslims could not be united, he would at least unite the Muslims if necessary, against the Hindus. The historic Government of India Act 1935, which promised an Indian federation, was on its way to the statute book at the time, and it had conceded to some material Muslim demands. The Act opened opportunities for Muslims, but only if the communities could stand united on a common platform.
Although the demand for the creation of ‘Pakistan’ did not emerge at the national level until March 1940, the Sind Provincial Muslim League conference in October 1938 did adopt a significant resolution. That decision stated: “This conference considers it absolutely essential in the interests of an abiding peace of the vast Indian Subcontinent and in the interest of unhampered cultural development, to economic and social betterment, and political self-determination of the two-nations as Hindus and Muslims to recommend to the All India Muslim League … to devise a scheme of constitution under which Muslims may attain full independence.”
Jinnah was unmistakably moving towards separatism at this time, which he believed to be the only solution to the Muslims’ problems. Henceforth, he would work only towards this goal. The adoption of the Lahore Resolution at the League’s annual session in March 1940 was the starting point of the Pakistan Movement. Did the Muslims truly want separation? If they did not, the solution was simple: Jinnah could have gone to the Congress leaders and told them that all that Muslims asked for was separate electorates, special weightage and similar safeguards. He was certain that Congress would grant him any special concession he demanded – even though there was the danger that the Congress leaders would go back on such promises in the future, after they had secured control over the governmental and parliamentary machinery. In that case, however, Muslims would have had to accept the position of a ‘minority’ and expect to be treated as such. Jinnah did not regard Muslims as a ‘minority’, but as a ‘nation’ entitled to a separate homeland, and he said that no new constitution scheme could be evolved or implemented without the consent and approval of the Indian Muslim League. In short, the exquisite structure of Hindu-Muslim unity, of which Jinnah had been the chief architect at the Lucknow Pact of 1916, was demolished by his own hand in 1939 and 1940.
Historian Ayesha Jalal insists that Jinnah’s nationalist character remained unchanged, although he often altered his garb to deceive his opponents. Those opponents were not merely the British and the Congress, but also his ‘followers’ in the Muslim League. What did Jinnah want? Jalal says he wanted an India united by a strong centre. But he also wanted an effective Muslim voice at that centre, and for this he felt it necessary that there be one organisation that would speak for all Muslims – arguing that since they would be a minority voice, they should at least be a united minority voice. Local Muslims in each province could thus come up with their own arrangements, but Jinnah urged that they speak to the centre through one common front. Naturally, this common front would be the Muslim League, under his leadership.
Jinnah had to find a way to unite the Muslim-majority provinces behind a plan that would also protect the Muslims in areas where they were a minority. To this end, he took up the ‘two nation’ idea. The Lahore Resolution of 1940, later popularly known as the ‘Pakistan resolution’, made no mention of partition or ‘Pakistan’. Instead, it asked that the Muslim-majority provinces be grouped into “Independent States in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign”. The boundaries of the independent states were to be those of the existing provinces. Nothing was said about the nature or role of the centre. At first glance this may appear to be a setback for Jinnah’s assumed aim of a strong centre, but the plan can also be seen as a victory of sorts. As he was not then in a position to impose onto the provincial leaders his own concept of a strong centre, the best he could do at the time was to keep them from creating a weak federal structure of their liking. And this he did.
Struggle for supremacy
The Partition of India and Pakistan can now be analysed from a distance provided by time. What were the actual consequences and effects of the ideas, theories and implementation of the Partition proposal? What can be said of the Two Nation theory? It is open to discussion now (as it was questioned then) whether Hindus and Muslims are separate entities with different cultures, social practices and mores. It can be argued that people of different faiths living in the same region have more in common with each other than with their co-religionists in other regions. But if we concede to the idea that Hindus and Muslims are two separate ‘nations’, can this be a basis for choosing a mode of government? The answer is a definite no: it is impossible to have two parallel governments in one state. The solution is to have a government that is blind to this separateness. To have reserved seats or separate electorates for Muslims, or a partial ‘mutual hostages’ theory is not a cure. All of these approaches only set the stage for battle. As experienced earlier, the only complete solution along such lines would involve a mass transfer of population – and we have already seen the carnage resulting from the relatively limited transfers of 1947.
What, then, of the fears of Hindu domination at the centre? With the rise of the BJP in India, at least this worry may appear to have had some basis. Yet this has also been something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. While the Hindutva movement does feed off pre-existing prejudices and works hard to continue spreading them, the ‘betrayal’ of Partition has been a potent weapon in its armoury. The Muslim League itself suffered early and severe setbacks because Muslims did not vote as a bloc. It should have been realised that the case would be similar with Hindus. Further, democratic rule is not merely a matter of who receives the most votes. Small parties often hold the balance of power between larger rivals, as has been the case with recent coalition governments in both India and Pakistan. While Jinnah was perhaps kept from seeing this due to the overwhelming success of the Congress among the non-Muslim voters and the lack of any serious rival to its power, he must at the same time have been aware of the factionalism within the Congress itself.
Whether Hindu-Muslim conflicts should be seen as part of a struggle for supremacy between two ‘nations’ is another matter. Because of its implicit assumptions about different communities with conflicting, irreconcilable aims, the question of how to protect ‘Muslim interests’ must itself be seen as an attempt at creating and escalating such conflicts. If Jinnah did not achieve the Hindu-Muslim unity he wanted, it was not merely because he fought forces that were stronger than himself. It was also not because he made a crucial error or two in tactics or strategy. Instead, in the opinion of this writer, he simply fought the wrong war. By seeking to protect ‘Muslim interests’ at the centre through some special arrangement, he had already conceded that these interests were essentially different from those of non-Muslims.
All of the preceding discussion assumes that Jinnah did indeed have one unswerving, coherent underlying plan. There is a possibility that he did not. It is certainly true that some of his followers were chasing the most fleeting and irrational of hopes. Perhaps their leader was no different. Or perhaps this man, acknowledged by his contemporaries to be a master lawyer, became so caught up in the game of negotiation and making sure that the ‘opponent’ did not win that he failed to recognise what it was that he himself was fighting for.
How cruelly ironic that Independence, claimed to have been achieved through Gandhian non-violent and peaceful means, in fact resulted in one the most barbaric of communal holocausts of the 20th century, accompanied by one of the largest migrations the world has seen. The artificiality of the Partition based on religion was glaringly proven a quarter-century later with the creation of Bangladesh. ‘Partitioned independence’ proved disastrous, and not only for the contemporary population. Trouble lingers as a potent legacy of these decisions: three wars and constant tension between India and Pakistan, the sway of communalism and fundamentalism, the menace of terrorism, the dangerous rise of communal fascism — all are rooted in one ill-fated Partition.
Undoing that process remains an important dream and shared need of Southasia. Such a reconciliation cannot come about through the Akhand Bharat of Hindutva dreams, however, based on the subjugation of ‘minorities’ by ‘majorities’. Rather, it must be through some form of confederation of India-Pakistan-Bangladesh, on the basis of independence and equality, as well as shared culture and heritage.