Indians played into Britain’s hands

Earlier this month, the Oxford Union, founded in 1823, invited four Indians to debate on the motion ‘This House Regrets the Partition of India’. Ashis Ray spoke for the motion

NH photo
NH photo

Ashis Ray

It’s a fact of history that the British adopted a policy of divide and rule in India to maintain their hegemony over the territory. Lord George Curzon, then the viceroy of India, partitioned Bengal in 1905 in the name of administrative efficiency. This, though, was annulled in 1911 following persistent protests, including movements spearheaded by the poet Rabindra Nath Tagore, who was to win a Nobel Prize for literature soon after. The British, especially the likes of Sir Winston Churchill, also indulged in a Great Game, which was to thwart the Soviet Union from accessing the warm waters of the Arabia Sea and consequently the emerging oil wealth of the Gulf. This boiled down to a friendly Muslim League leadership in control of the western wing of undivided India being seen as a better bulwark against the Soviets than a left-leaning Congress leadership.

But Indians were as much to blame for Partition, fighting and quarrelling between themselves and thereby playing into Britain’s hands. There was also the significant instance of a collapse in chemistry between Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the father of the Indian freedom struggle, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. In 1915, Jinnah was at the forefront of welcoming Gandhi back to India from South Africa. The following year, Jinnah was hailed as “the ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity” for putting up a united front against the British in the form of the Lucknow Pact. But by 1920, he was being heckled at a Congress party meeting for calling Gandhi “Mr Gandhi” and not “Mahatma”.

The mass imprisonment of Congress leaders after the 1942 Quit India movement and with the secular nationalist movement thereby grinding to a halt, communal forces took advantage of the political vacuum and embarked on poisoning people’s minds. The Muslim League and its allies on the one hand; the Hindu Mahasabha, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and such like on the other. Yet, all was not lost. In the winter of 1945-46, the trials of officers of Subhas Bose’s Indian National Army at the Red Fort in Delhi, united India as never before or since. Jawaharlal Nehru said: “The trial has taken us many steps forward on our path to freedom. Never before in Indian history had such unified sentiments been manifested by various divergent sections of the population.” But this was short-lived. By the summer of 1946, Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other, were slaughtering each other. So, could Partition have been avoided?

The British were clearly in a mood to cut and run. After mutinies in the Indian ranks of the British commanded Indian armed forces inspired by the INA trials, Field Marshall Claude Auchinleck, commander of the British military in India, advised Viceroy Lord Archibald Wavell that the security of Britons could no longer be guaranteed. The last British viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten’s meetings with Jinnah were disastrous. Jinnah was adamant about Pakistan. Nehru, who had initially opposed Partition, began to melt. Gandhi held out and could perhaps have been even more forceful in his stance. But the Congress was no longer listening to the Mahatma. With Hindu-Muslim riots escalating, Britain was now in an even greater hurry. It didn’t want to end up “refereeing a civil war”. Indeed, Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s announcement in the House of Commons that British rule in India would end not later than June 1948, was actually advanced to August 1947.

What has Partition achieved?

The purpose of Independence was to not merely attain selfrule; but to extend adequate food, clothing and shelter to all, eradicate illiteracy and disease, provide development and encourage a modern and scientific mind-set. These have been achieved below expectations in both India and Pakistan. Instead, what has emerged is a de facto or de jure military-mullah dictatorship in Pakistan and its agenda of being constantly at war with India. Worryingly, the Pakistani army doesn’t think twice about threatening to use nuclear weapons as a first strike strategy. Such weaponry of mass destruction in irresponsible hands is not just a concern for India, but for the entire world. Sadly, in India today you have an equally hateful dispensation in office. Instead of ignoring and remaining above lowly rhetoric, it has descended to that level. Narendra Modi’s desire to brow-beat Pakistan has been met with an unprecedented frequency in jihadi attacks on Indian military installations. Modi thinks he’s the cat’s whiskers. In reality, Pakistan has run circles around him. I have just returned from Delhi, where the concern among responsible civil servants is, Modi could manufacture a skirmish with Pakistan to regain popularity. Tragically, it is because of Partition that he enjoys such a diabolical option. The Indian subcontinent’s emancipation from British rule was founded on a non-violent philosophy. Ironically, the region has ended up as a major proliferator of nuclear weapons. The two Germanys have re-united, even North and South Korea are talking to each other; but India-Pakistan relations are in a state of freeze. It’s a logjam created by the legacy of Partition. As a lover of sport, I regret that Sunil Gavaskar and Imran Khan did not play for the same national side. I regret that the supreme talents of Indians and Pakistanis in hockey in the late 1950s and 1960s were ranged against each other. I regret the squash maestro Jahangir Khan was not an Indian. But above all, I much regret the Partition of India.

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