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The Role of the British in the Partition of India

The Role of the British in the Partition of India

10 Mart 2014

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  • Kitap Adı: The Partition of India
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  • Yazar: Ian Talbot, Gurharpal Singh
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  • Sayfa sayısı: 224
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  • Yayıncı kurum: Cambridge University Press, New York
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  • Basım yılı: 2009
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  • ISBN: 9780521672566
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“We divide and you rule.”

M. A. Jinnah

 August 15, 1947 marked the day of the end of the 200 year long British rule and saw the partition of India into Muslim controlled Pakistan and Hindu dominated India. The vivisection of India, to quote Mahatma Gandhi, along religious lines resulted in one of the greatest tragedies of the century. The process claimed thousands of lives, displaced millions and resulted in an “enduring rivalry”. Regarding its far reaching consequences and long run effects it’s still under debate whether the partition was in the best interests for the peoples.

How did India’s partition come about? Why did Indian Muslim political elite demand a seperate state? What could British have done differently? Is partition a wise policy option in order to deal with ethnic conflict and communalism? How did Britain possess the moral right to impose partition? These questions are not easy to deal with. For many Indian political thinkers partition was the inevitable and least painful way for Hindus and Muslims which were supposedly not able to co-exist peacefully in a single state. Whether it was a wise decision to avoid civil war regarding the “irreconcilable differences” between Hindu majority and Muslim minority or a peculiar imperial practice of the British at the time of withdrawal still bothers many. The traumatic experience of partition, “the division of minds” still affects upon relations between India and Pakistan at both state and society level.

In this paper I will be discussing the role of the British administration in the process of partition of the Indian subcontinent on the grounds that set by Ian Talbot and Gurharpal Singh. I will be trying to seek an answer to whether the British administration acted responsibly in responding to the political demands of Hindus and Muslims. Attention will be given to the impact of British imperial approach in worsening already fragile communal relations.

The Partition of India is a well written and informative volume on partition historiography, partition process, its accompanying violence, forced migration and refugee resettlement. The volume opens with an overview and evaluation of the vast literature on the Partition of the Indian subcontinent. First and foremost the authors point out that no single interpretation can adequately explain what happened in 1947. The partition legacy is so rich in both India and Pakistan as an ideological resource that “its possibilities are continuously reconstructed at both state and community level.” (p. 4) Further Talbott and Singh draw attention to that Partition was not an inevitable outcome of communal conflict between Hindus and Muslims nor a direct result of divide-rule strategy of the British. Instead the authors argue that the partition process is not limited to the summer of 1947 and it is a result of several factors including political choices made by the British and by Muslim League and Indian Congress leaders, Second World War and widespread communal violence which made a peak in Great Calcutta killing of 1946. (p. 8) Obviously the authors dismiss the idea that the British played a major role during the transfer of power to the two dominions and they are in an effort to apportionate responsibility of the partition to the three parties. The authors warn against “the danger of over-reading British intentionality as the final arbiter.”  (p. 11) Yet one can find it not fully convincing to underestimate the traditional divide and rule approach of the British imperial diplomatic and political machinery. The British administration was very much part of the conflict. It was not an external observer nor a neutral balancer but the administration’s political arrangements at both national and provincial levels left a bitter legacy which are still felt today.

UntitledBy the end of the 19th century Britain on the verge of losing its dominions in Asia had to deal with several nationalist pro-independence movements led by educated elites in India. Indian National Congress was the pivotal participant of the pro-independence movement. Congress demanded to extend local participation in government and further to achieve greater autonomy. They for long kept their position for Indian unity. However negotiations over dominion status for India between imperial administration and Congress created fears of Hindu domination in the Muslim side. For many Muslim elites, Congress failed to advance Muslim agendas and protect the position of upper class Muslims in India. By 1940, a section of Muslim political elite was in favor of establishment of a seperate state. However as Talbott and Singh stated Indian Muslims like other Indians were not a unified body but “were divided by ethnicity, language and sect”. (p. 27) The Muslim League although operated with state patronage it was not capable of fully representing all Muslim communities. While the Congress was seen as a Hindu organization, the Muslim League primarily representing a section of Muslim political elites was accepted as the sole political representative organization.

While many Indian scholars maintain that British creation of seperate electorates based on religious lines in 1909 made Pakistan inevitable, Talbott and Singh argue that this argument is insincere and lack of depth. (p. 9) Yet they give some credit to the premise that the scientific mapping accompanying electorate system reflected the way the British understood the Indian society. Thus the decision to introduce seperate electorates for Muslims which initially intended wider participation of Muslims in politics resulted in creating political arenas for bitter competition along religious lines, helped to rise in the tension between Hindus and Muslims. (p. 29, 33)

As the authors draw attention to, the challenging and revisionist story of Partition put forward by Ayesha Jalal claim that the partition of India was a huge miscalculation in fact. She argues that Jinnah never wanted a seperate Muslim state and his real political objective from 1940 was to strenghten the voice of the Muslim minority in the future Hindu dominated Indian state. (p. 12) Putting aside the questions raised over Jalal’s reintepretation of Jinnah’s role, it is crucial to see that she suggests that Partition was not unavoidable if there had been more political structures for the participation of the minorities.

In the eve of Partition, Talbott and Singh notice, contradiction in the Britain’s stand towards the Muslim League and National Congress was apparent. (p. 39) Following Quit India campaign, British pursued a short term policy of marginalising Congress and bolstered the position of the Muslim League and Jinnah from 1940 onwards. (p. 11) British administration carried out widespread arrests of national and local leaders of Indian Congress whereas the Muslim League was free to propagate two nation theory and carving out a Muslim state out of India. (p. 34) Britain took full advantage of Jinnah and his political circles’ readiness to lead a seperate nation. As the country dragged into chaos and civil war the British played Indian National Congress and Muslim League off one another. Thus inevitably long term commitment of British to Indian unity was no longer valid.

India was a great source for the revenue and a strategic foothold in the region for the British empire. However British state was no longer able to hold vast territories of the Empire. In 1945 Labour Party’s victory over national elections accelerated the withdrawal process. Arguably one must consider anti-imperialist ethical concerns of Labor Party regarding the colonial structure of British empire in dealing with Partition process. Also there was a growing concern for widespread discontent about the slow pace of independence in India. However acceleration of withdrawal was not accompanied with certain arrangements which would prevent or at least scale down the tragic consequences. British hurried the handover plan, tried to avoid responsibility for further fighting and left no time for a better negotiated deal between Muslim League and Indian National Congress. Official arrangements of certain issues such as boundaries was inadequate to stop further conflicts. Neither British nor Congress and Muslim League leaders did not anticipate epic tragedy which accompanied Partition. (p. 37) When Mountbatten announced that independence would happen ten months earlier than anticipated, newly established Indian and Pakistan states had to deal with mass migration, widespread violence and anarchy.

Singh and Talbott conclude that Partition was not a departing gift of an  imperial power rather it was a result of intertwining factors including political choices made by both the British and India’s political elites within the context of the impact of the Second World War. (p. 58) The British played Congress and League off  one another in the meantime Congress and the League also made a series of “tactical errors”.