Responsibility for the partition of India continues to spark much heated debate. Among historians, some hold the British squarely responsible while others put the blame on the rift between Hindus and Muslims. Historians on the Left have argued that the partition was the result of both greed and convenience when capitalist supporters of the Congress struck a deal with their metropolitan counterparts.
More lately, historians have argued that Congress leaders chose to have a strong Centre, rather than share power with the League. The popular perception is that lust for quick and easy power prompted leaders to settle for a hasty and imperfect division.
It is also well known that both Gandhi and the Congress had stoutly opposed the two-nation theory and were against the Partition.
Gandhi in fact proposed to the Viceroy that Jinnah be appointed interim Prime Minister, in the hope that this would satisfy his ambition and wean him away from his insistence on Pakistan. Mountbatten noted that this pleased Jinnah’s vanity. However, Congress leaders were worried that if the Congress opted out of the constitutional arena, that would leave it open to reactionary forces.
Further, Pakistan could no longer be called off by appeasing Jinnah; there were leaders in the Muslim League who would stand for it. There was also the question whether Jinnah was sincere in his desire for a settlement. Accordingly, Gandhi withdrew his offer.
By the spring of 1947 leaders realised that reconciliation with communal parties was futile. Nehru described Jinnah to Hydari: “We are up against something which is neither political, nor economic, nor reasonable, nor logical.” Patel was also clear that there would be no more appeasement of the Muslim League.
The alternative to partition was imposing unity by force. P. D. Tandon, Congress leader and Speaker of the UP Assembly, was an active proponent of this view. But Congress leaders chose to accept Pakistan rather than compel unity.
Nehru was clear that use of the sword could not stem the communal forces– rather, the ensuing civil war would have long term consequences. A couple of months earlier, Congress President, Kripalani, had told the Viceroy that “Rather than have a battle we shall let them have their Pakistan”.
Hence when partition seemed inevitable, on 15 June 1947, Congress President, Kripalani, said that acceptance of partition flowed from the clause of no coercion in the resolution on the Cripps Plan.
Gandhi stated that the decision had been arrived at after taking into account the pulse of the people of all communities, be they Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus. “The demand has been granted because you asked for it. The Congress never asked for it. But the Congress can feel the pulse of the people. It realised that the Khalsa as also the Hindus asked for it.”
The hope in India and Pakistan being reunited after some years reconciled leaders to the reality of division. The expectation was that once passions subsided, common interests would draw people together and partition could be revoked.
Nehru put this eloquently- “we have often to go through the valley of the shadow before we reach the sunlit mountain tops.” Hence any measure that cemented Partition was to be avoided, be it dividing the army, transfer of population or parliamentary sanction for transfer of power to two dominions.
The AICC resolution on the 3rd June Plan made it clear that partition was accepted as a temporary arrangement that would bring violence to an end.
Ironically, for a believer in ahimsa Gandhi was willing to risk civil war. He wrote: “Let British leave India to anarchy, rather than as a cock pit between two organised armies” (‘Harijan’, 20 July, 47)
Congress and Gandhi then accepted partition on many grounds-- that it reflected the will of the people, that it was the only way out. On 4th June, Gandhi, after meeting the Viceroy and Congress leaders, said that the CWC had agreed to the vivisection of Pakistan and Hindusthan not under any threat of violence but as there was no other option left of getting round the Muslim League.
The hope was that Partition was temporary, that it could be turned back, once the imperialists were out of the picture and once Muslim League realised its folly. Partition was seen by the leaders as better than civil war or balkanisation.
The failure of the Congress to draw in Muslim masses into the national movement was another factor at play. Gandhi’s own reading of the communal situation was that both Hindus and Muslims had moved far from non-violence.
The possibility of anti-communal struggle was limited as cadres and the ordinary people were already communalised. Gandhi was aware of his limitations: ‘I have never created a situation in my life... People say that I had created a situation, but I had done nothing except giving a shape to what was already there. Today I see no sign of such a healthy feeling. And therefore, I shall have to wait until the time comes.’ (N.K.Bose, “ My Experiences as a Gandhian-II, p. 53)
Congress leaders certainly wanted early transfer of power to take the country forward out of the impasse created by non-cooperation by the League. As for Gandhi’s ‘alienation’ from the Congress the record seems to suggest otherwise. Gandhi dismissed rumours of his disenchantment with Nehru by saying, "he renounces things as easily as a snake its slough.”
Gandhi was consulted on political developments when in Noakhali. Kripalani and Nehru went to meet him there and asked him to be in Delhi. When he came to Delhi, he met the Viceroy and participated in the Congress Working Committee and AICC meetings in May and June.
Gandhi put aside his principled objection to partition and enjoined on Congressmen to close ranks and fall behind Congress in accepting partition. Congress and Gandhiji accepted partition at the end of a long and arduous period of countering the League’s concerted attempts to create communal violence and stall any agreement on a united India.
Nehru appealed to Gandhiji when the latter was in Noakhali: “But I have an overwhelming feeling that vital decisions are being made and will be made in Delhi affecting the whole of our future as well as of course the present, and your presence at such a moment is necessary.”
Gandhi explained his position: “But I proceed the other way. I had learnt when still a child the formula, “As in the macrocosm, so in the microcosm.”
Once Pakistan was announced, the Hindu Mahasabha raised the demand “to build up a real and powerful Hindu state”. This was firmly opposed by Congress leaders.
Patel spoke eloquently of how “the state must exist for all irrespective of caste and creed.” Congress leaders knew accepting this demand would be the real prize for communal forces as it would amount to accepting two-nation theory, which it had not accepted even when it accepted the creation of Pakistan as unavoidable in the given circumstances.
Gandhi fell to the bullet of a Hindu communal fanatic who was enraged at what he saw as Gandhi’s failure to prevent the vivisection of the country.
(Sucheta Mahajan teaches Modern Indian History at JNU and is the author of the book, Independence and Partition: The Erosion of Colonial Power in India, 1945-47)