There was no alternative to Partition

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

NH photo
NH photo

Mridula Mukherjee

How did the alternative of a United India get ruled out in 1947? The only one among the triad of the British, the League and the Congress who earnestly desired and had fought for a United India was the Congress. And even the Congress now was forced into a situation where it ultimately accepted Partition because there was little else it could do. The top leaders of the Congress, Kripalani, Rajagopalachari, Rajendra Prasad and Sardar Patel told Mountbatten by early April 1947 that Partition was the only alternative as it was better than civil war or imposition of unity. In fact, Jawaharlal Nehru, who had ruled out Pakistan in 1946, appealed a year later to his countrymen to accept Partition. On 4 June 1947, Gandhiji explained to the people why the Congress accepted Partition: “…We do not wish to force anyone. We tried hard. We tried to reason with them (the Muslim League) but they refused to come into the Constituent Assembly”. To his close associate, NK Bose, he said, pointing towards the prospect of civil war, “Don’t you realise that, as a result of one year of communal riots, the people of India have all become communal. They can see nothing beyond the communal question. They are tired and frightened. The Congress has only represented this feeling of the whole nation. How can I then oppose it?”

If, in a civilised democratic framework, a section of the people of a country reach a point where they decide that they want to leave the Union, however mistakenly, they cannot be forced to stay with the barrel of a gun pointing at them. Events in Scotland and Catalonia, where issues of independence are being decided through elections, are recent examples of this. The Congress had been consistent and clear on this point, no matter how much it disliked the idea of division. Since 1942, the Congress had said clearly that while they opposed the League’s demand for Pakistan, “if the Muslims wish to have Pakistan, it will not deny it to them”. It is often forgotten that Christianity and Islam came to India shortly after they were founded, and Christians and Muslims, and later Parsis, who were Zorastrian exiles from Iran where their religion was persecuted, had lived in different regions, taking on the local language and culture, with no threat to their religious identity. So, Partition was not inevitable, as the British ideologues would often have us believe, because Hindus and Muslims had always been at each other's throats, or because of Muslim tyranny over Hindus in the medieval period as British historians told us; or because Hindus and Muslims had been separate nations since time immemorial as Savarkar and Jinnah told us.

Partition became unavoidable in 1947 because in order to save and perpetuate their rule, the British fostered and nurtured divisions among Indians along religious lines. They were masters of the art of Divide Et Impera or Divide and Rule, they had played the game for long. From its inception in 1906, the Muslim League was a command performance with the sole purpose of acting as a counterweight to the anti-imperialist or nationalist demands of the Indian National Congress. Various policy measures were used to form the Muslims into a separate political bloc, the most pernicious being the instrument of separate electorates introduced in the Minto-Morley reforms of 1909. Under these, for example, both voters and candidates could only be Muslim. The assumption being that only Muslims could represent Muslims. This is what led to a divided polity and ultimately to Partition.

The seeds of Partition, a fractured polity, were sown well and deep. The British Government incorporated the idea of Pakistan in their proposal, known as the Cripps’ offer, in 1942. Linlithgow, who was Viceroy till 1943, suppressed the Congress, which was the pro-Unity force, brutally in 1942, and did everything to encourage the Muslim League. His successor, Wavell, continued to be very anti-Congress and pro-League. On 3rd April 1946, he referred to Gandhiji as this “malevolent old politician”. Mountbatten, who ostensibly came to India inclined towards Unity, also gave his famous Mountbatten Award in favour of Partition.

Can it be denied that a large part of the responsibilty for the carnage, the loss of lives, the devastated women and children, lies at the door of the British rulers because they decided to dismantle in 72 days the edifice of an empire that took almost two centuries to build, and effect division of the country, all at a time when communal violence was spreading? When Congressmen were in jail for having launched a movement asking the British to Quit India, Hindu Mahasabha members joined provincial ministries and the RSS did not support the nationalists. Yet ironically it is their descendants who are the loudest today in "regretting" Partition, and in blaming, not the British, but the one party that did the most to oppose the divisive politics which led to Partition , the Congress, and its leader Nehru, as was done very recently in the Indian Parliament at the highest levels of political leadership. Another legislator from the ruling party asked Muslims to go to Pakistan or Bangladesh, since they had asked for Partition. They still talk of Akhand Bharat or undivided India as their goal. To paraphrase Gandhiji for our purposes, expression of regret is a noble sentiment if it promotes love. But not if it promotes enmity, between Hindu and Muslim, between India and Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Can we regret their birth, and still hope to be friends.

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