Revisiting 1947: A historian’s perspective

History is an argument without end. Could Partition have been averted? What would have happened if India was a federation or if Subhash Chandra Bose had ruled India?

 Photo by Nitin Kanotra/Hindustan Times via Getty Images  
Photo by Nitin Kanotra/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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Kaushik Roy

‘At the stroke of the midnight hour, while the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom…’ – the speech delivered to the Constituent Assembly on the night of 14/15 August by India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, proposed that independence of India was part of manifest destiny. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s Governor-General not to be left behind declared that he aimed to build a country where people of all religions would be equally honoured. This despite the fact that Jinnah rode to power giving the call for establishment of an independent state for the Muslims of South Asia where Quranic laws were to be honoured. For Jinnah, Islamic and modern secular principles were not contradictory just as for M.K. Gandhi, Hinduism was based on tolerant, liberal and humanist principles. In a nutshell, this was the contemporary indigenous politicians’ perspective.

Before the professional historians started writing about Independence and Partition, British officials and politicians aired their views about these two aspects. Winston Churchill believed that India was conquered by the sword and held by the sword. When the last Commander-in-Chief of British-India, Field-Marshal Claude Auchinleck sent a secret memo to the London government in 1946 that the British-Indian Army, the sword arm of the Raj, was disintegrating, senior politicians in the Whitehall realised that the days of the Raj were numbered.

Churchill, by then out of power, asserted that if the British were ever to leave India, the Indians would start fighting each other. A somewhat similar view was also put forward by British-India’s penultimate Viceroy Field-Marshal ‘Archie’ Wavell. His ‘Balkanization’ plan involved step-by-step withdrawal of the British from the subcontinent, leaving chaos and confusion throughout the length and breadth of the country. But this pessimistic view was not shared by Clement Attlee the British Prime Minister. Wavell was replaced by the vivacious Lord Mountbatten. Mountbatten unlike Wavell and Churchill had no such qualms or anxiety. However, what Churchill and Wavell had foreshadowed, actually happened in 1946 and 1947.

The first group of historians to study Independence and Partition of British-India could be categorised as the Imperialist School. The proponents of this school argue that Britain had conquered India in a fit of absentmindedness and the British policy was to civilise the Indians. Once the process of civilisation and democratisation was completed, the British masters planned to leave India to the ‘natives’. As part of this process, the British gradually devolved power to the Indians through a series of acts: first at the local level, then at the provincial level and finally, at the centre. In fact, the British tried their level best to keep India united, but the power hungry Indian politicians (especially the Hindu leaders of the Indian National Congress) bungled. The result was the mayhem of Partition. A good example of this genre is R.J. Moore’s Churchill, Cripps and India: 1939-1945, which came out in 1979.

In reaction to the Imperialist historiography, emerged the Indian, Nationalist School. The best practitioners of this approach have been the liberal Marxists like Bipan Chandra. The Nationalist historians shifted the focus from the British elites to Indian elites: from Churchill, Linlithgow (Governor-General of India, 1936-43) and Stafford Cripps to Gandhi and Nehru. While the Imperialist historians rely heavily on the private papers of the British politicians, the Nationalist historians built up their story with the aid of private correspondence of the high-ranking Congress leaders. Broadly, the Nationalist argument is that the British never had any design to devolve power on their own. The mass movements launched by the Congress under the stewardship of Gandhi forced the Raj to devolve power gradually. While the Congress wanted to establish a secular India, communal forces egged by the divisive politics of the British resulted in the Partition. Between 1979 and 2005, Bipan Chandra and his team have repeated this argument in their various publications.

Across the border, Pakistani Nationalist historiography emerged in reaction to Indian Nationalist historiography. Instead of Gandhi and Nehru, they focus on Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan. Indian nationalist heroes are portrayed as villains by Pakistani nationalist historians. And their heroes are villains of Indian Nationalist historiography. Basically, the Pakistani Nationalist argument is that there was an unholy alliance between the Hindu leadership of Congress and the British (especially Mountbatten). Thanks to the wisdom of Jinnah, the Muslims were able to escape the domination of Hindus by acquiring Pakistan.

The recent studies by the Imperialist School indirectly strengthened the Pakistani Nationalist view by challenging the Indian Nationalist historians’ argument. Ayesha Jalal in her monograph on Jinnah (1985) in a skewed way argues that Jinnah was not responsible for Partition. In fact, Jinnah was willing to settle for a federal India with separate groupings of Hindu and Muslim provinces. Jalal’s negative indirect arguments are reminiscent of David Irving’s twisted argument that Hitler was not responsible for the Holocaust. Further topping is added to this interpretation, by Joya Chatterji who in her monograph (1994) asserts that the Hindu bhadrolok politicians of Bengal were responsible for the partition of this province.

All these historians overlook the fact whether a federal India with a weak centre could actually have functioned in reality? Consider also the fact that the majority populace had granted equal representation to the minority who at the time numbered 33 per cent of undivided India’s population. Even if the Congress had accepted this idealistic scheme, the non-Muslim segment of the populace would have turned its back on them and supported the RSS. Again, if the Congress had accepted the Cripps Offer (federal structure) in 1942, Prime Minister Churchill would not have backed it. Churchill was unwilling to devolve even the shadow of power to the Indian politicians in wartime. What is damaging to the Indian Nationalist position is the argument put forward by William Gould (2005): that Hindu religious imagery was used by the Congress in its electoral politics. So, Congress was using Hinduism long before Jinnah used Islam to popularise the Pakistan programme.

India at that time consisted of illiterate peasants who comprised more than 80 per cent of the population. And the concept of nationalism was alien and abstract for them. In their day to day life, the sharecroppers and landless labourers were not interacting with white men but with Hindu and Muslim landlords, merchants and shroffs. The only way to mobilise these peasants was to give the call for Ram Rajya or the land of paradise. Further, social developments, as pointed out by Satish Saberwal (2008) from mid-19th century onwards resulted in the genesis of exclusive Hindu and Muslim social formations. Use of religious imagery by the Indian political parties from the 1930s not only mobilised members from both these communities but also strengthened the concept of differences among them, thus ultimately setting the stage for Partition riots.

We also have Bengali sub-nationalist arguments. The Hindu Bengali sub-nationalist view is that if Subhas Chandra Bose had arrived in India with his Indian National Army (INA), then he could have averted Partition. After all, the Hindus and Muslims worked harmoniously in Netaji’s INA. Another strand of this argument is that some leaders within the Bengal Congress and Bengal branch of the Muslim League were for an independent Bengal. And that this scheme was sabotaged – by the Congress leadership headed by the triumvirate of Gandhi-Nehru-Sardar Patel.

If the Axis powers had won the war; then Bose would have been able to rule India with his INA. The term Netaji was derived from Duce and Fuehrer. Further, Bose had in mind a military dictatorship and not a democracy. And Bose wanted to establish BalakSena comprising young boys (equivalent to Hitler Youth) for fighting the British to death. If Bose had introduced his programme, I wonder, how many Bengalis would have remained his admirers? Some leaders of the Congress and the Bengal branch of the Muslim League, who felt marginalised by their respective high commands, wanted a United Bengal which would have satisfied their wishes for acquiring high offices. Jinnah in a bid to weaken the Congress supported the United Bengal scheme. Had Bengal emerged as an independent state then it would have probably become a fourth grade power like Uganda. Luckily for Indians, Mountbatten agreed with Congress not to establish an independent Bengal because the British wanted to leave a friendly government in Delhi for the post war era.

There is also a Muslim Bengali sub-nationalist view. The best example is Harun-or-Rashid’s monograph (1987), which argues that the Bengali Muslims were different from Bengali Hindus and also from the north Indian Muslims who dominated the Muslim League. The Bengali Muslims kept aloof from the Bengali Hindu-led Swadeshi movement (1904/5). The 1947 Partition did not satisfy the Bengali Muslims because they did not get a separate homeland. East Pakistan remained a colony of West Pakistan. The process of Partition reached its logical culmination in 1971 when East Pakistan became Bangladesh and the Bengali Muslims finally got their own desh. A tendentious and teleological argument no doubt! But after all, nations require their nationalist histories.

From the 1980s, Western academics came under the influence of bottom up approach. India witnessed the formation of the Subaltern Studies group. The 1990s saw a ‘cultural turn’ under the influence of postmodernism. The rise of low castes and women in the political and professional sectors also resulted in their demands for a slice of history. All these also influenced the scholars writing about Independence and Partition. Their argument is that both the Imperialist and the Nationalists (including the sub-nationalist) historiography focused on foreign and indigenous (central and provincial) elites. Now, historians must focus on the nameless and faceless common men and women.

However, ordinary populace had no private papers; nor did the government documents chronicle their activities. So, how to write their history? The culturalists/postmodernists argued that archives are unimportant. They started reading between the lines and focused on literary texts. Following Hayden White, they claimed that the distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ is a construction, which needs to be deconstructed. Since ordinary people were concerned with ordinary issues, these scholars started writing fragmented and disjointed micro-histories. Again, common people’s activities in most of the cases were not related to the ‘big events’. So, these scholars asserted that studying causation is not important. Rather, personal emotions and experiences are important in their own right. Thanks to their work (Urvashi Butalia, G. Pandey, etc.), we now know a lot about how the women were abducted and then violated, how men became displaced, etc. But, how the stage was created in which such activities were played out is not explained. Further, in their attempt to valorise the actions of the common people and to provide them with agency (that they were autonomous agents and not playthings of political elites), this approach could not satisfactorily explain collective participation of the downtrodden in mass violence during 1947.

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Richard Evans In Defence of History (1997) noted that archives are important for historical practice and causation cannot be left out. The rise of global history approach in the new millennium has resulted in the coming back of macro history in a big way. C. Bayly and T. Harper’s two books (Forgotten Armies, 2004 and Forgotten Wars, 2007) argue that the Second World War destroyed the British Empire which enabled the colonies to acquire independence. And when one state structure was being replaced by another state structure, during the succession crisis, large-scale violence breaks out.

Bayly’s books are very popular in India. But, these two books have reduced our national heroes to ‘small irrelevant pygmies’. Hence, they have not been accepted officially in India. Since, history is an argument without end, we hope that the debate will go on and the historians will continue to fight among themselves.

Dr Kaushik Roy is Guru Nanak Chair Professor, Department of History, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India and Global Fellow, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), Norway

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