The Partition That Never Was

More than seventy years after partition led to the birth of Pakistan, we uncover the truth behind the split, and what lies ahead for the Indian subcontinent.

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August was an interesting month for India and Pakistan as both countries celebrated their independence, alongside the birth of a new Pakistani leadership under former cricketer Imran Khan.

But while citizens in Delhi were flying kites and hoisting flags, festivities were muted in the northern state of Indian-administered Kashmir. Just days before the Aug 15 Independence Day, separatist militant groups warned students to stay away from attending cultural activities in government schools, or face deadly reprisal.

Such news is hardly surprising. The restive region has experienced high tensions since the time of partition, culminating in an estimated 47,000 deaths. Recent years have also seen jihadist groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba enter the fray, which serve to reinforce already strong notions of a Hindu-Muslim divide.

Certainly, religion is central to what has often been a testy relationship between India and Pakistan since the 1947 partition. That Pakistan itself was birthed from religious upheaval is an all too common narrative, but is that really the case?

The politics of partition

For historian Ayesha Jalal, the brief answer is no.

Speaking at a panel discussion at the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) last month, the Mary Richardson Professor of History at Tufts University said: “Religion as faith had very little to do with the politics of difference in late colonial India.”

“It’s useful to remind ourselves of the subtle but important difference between religion as faith and religion as a social demarcator of identity.”

While religion was a contributing factor, Professor Jalal insisted that the failure of a power sharing agreement between members of different religious communities at the all-India level was far more a reason for partition.

By 1946, the British were in a haste to decolonise as they sought to rebuild after a long-drawn war that had emptied their coffers. Subsequently, the Indian National Congress led by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru held power sharing talks with Muhammad Ali Jinnah of the All-India Muslim league, who had won enough Muslim votes to become the legitimate voice of the Muslim minority.

While the Congress always proposed a unitary state with a strong centre, political parties representing minority interests had growing suspicions and believed Hindu dominance would be inevitable once the British exited India.

For Jinnah himself, partition was always a last option. On one hand, he wanted to secure political rights and autonomy for Muslims in the North-Western and Eastern zones through provincial groupings. Yet on the other hand, the Indian National Congress was opposed to the idea. To that end, the British proposed the Cabinet Mission Plan, which was a federation that essentially fulfilled Jinnah’s request for autonomous Muslim states, while retaining power in the central government over defence, foreign affairs, and communications.

Unsurprisingly, the move was rejected by Nehru, who felt that it left the centre too weak to achieve the goals of the Congress. This was coupled with vacillation on the British part, who were unsure about handling the divisions between Congress and the Muslim League. Ultimately, Jinnah’s frustration with the indecision of the British, and Congress’ refusal to acquiesce led him to proclaim on 16 Aug 1946 what was known as Direct Action Day, also known as the Great Calcutta Killings.

Aftermath of the Calcutta riots of 1946 | Wikipedia

What was meant to be a peaceful show of Muslim unity sparked off heavy riots in Calcutta that left 4000 dead and saw a point of no return between the Muslims and the Hindus. The ensuing violence hastened decision making on all sides, and a year later on 15 Aug 1947, Pakistan was born.

India’s first Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Patel said at the time: “Nobody likes the division of India and my heart is heavy. But the choice is between one division and many divisions. We must face facts. We cannot give way to emotionalism and sentimentality.

“Whether we like it or not, de facto Pakistan already exists in the Punjab and Bengal. Under the circumstances I would prefer a de jure Pakistan, which may make the League more responsible. Freedom is coming. We have 75 to 80 per cent of India, which we can make strong with our own genius.”

Nehru’s hypocrisy

To be sure, religion played a key role in fuelling separatist rhetoric, especially for the common folk. But a glance at Nehru’s position on Palestine would suggest that India’s first prime minister was unswayed by a religious antagonism alone.  

While Nehru and Jinnah were staring down the reality of partition, David Ben Gurion, who was de facto leader of Israel at the time, was facing a similar dilemma with Palestine. Given the deep geopolitical divisions, shared colonial heritage, and above all, a seeming religious divide, the Israel-Palestine problem was one that drew many parallels to India’s partition.

But despite plumping for partition back home, Nehru took a completely different tact with the situation in Israel. On 3 Sept 1947 – barely two weeks after independence – the Indian delegation to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) proposed a federal plan calling for a unified Arab-Jewish community. In it, the plan outlined a federalisation of Israel’s political system, one that granted West Bank’s residents Israeli citizenship and some political autonomy.

While partition had been the preferred solution for India, Nehru was advocating the complete opposite for Palestine. Nehru had rejected Gandhi’s repudiation of a partition, yet was advocating for a plan where he visualised the cohabitation of Arabs and Jews under one political system.

“Having achieved independence through a partition, Nehru was urging the Arabs and Jews of Palestine to live under one roof through accommodation and cooperation,” said Professor Kumaraswamy of Jawaharlal Nehru University, who was also present at the panel discussion.

“The Federal Plan is not only a sign of Indian naivety, but also a reflection of its hypocrisy; its political pragmatism was confined to the subcontinent, but (it espoused) moral eloquence elsewhere. Therein lies the irony of Nehru’s contradictory positions vis-à-vis the two partitions.”

It’s hard to know for sure what Nehru was thinking at that time, but it does suggest that he did not believe religion to be a sufficient condition for two separate nationalities to be created. The reality was that in spite of the animosity between Hindus and Muslims in late colonial India, partition was more likely to have been driven by political considerations.

Partition in the present

Fast forward to today however, and the narrative has shifted somewhat.  

With Taliban activity rife in Pakistan and Hindu nationalists taking power in India, recent years have seen India-Pakistan battlelines drawn on religious fronts. The 2008 Mumbai attacks is case in point, in which a series of shootings and bombings launched by Pakistan based jihadist group Lashkar-e-Taiba claimed the lives of 166 people.

Pakistan PM Imran Khan and India PM Narendra Modi | Youtube

Political developments have also been fraught with tension. Earlier this month, Pakistan’s newly elected PM Imran Khan wrote to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi with offers of talks to discuss terrorism and trade, a gesture that was met with derision on all sides – including Pakistani opposition.

India eventually pulled out of the talks following the kidnap and murder of three policemen in Kashmir by Hizbul Mujahideen terrorists. In a strongly worded statement, New Delhi said that Pakistan’s “evil agenda” was exposed, with the “true face” of Imran Khan revealed in his first month in office.

In many ways, the partition of 1947 is still playing out in today’s climate of suspicion. In India and Pakistan, it lives on in the minds and memories of its people, who relive this nostalgia and pass it on to future generations. Certainly, partition should not be viewed as just a single phenomena that occured at one point in history; its consequences are far reaching and have carved their place in the present long after the horrific events that accompany it have occurred.

“Partition may have become a distant memory for many and its invocations in public discourse limited to scoring points on the grid of patriotism,” noted Professor Jalal.  

“But its presence in everyday life across the great divide of 1947 are indicators of its historical significance not merely as an event that occurred seventy years ago but a process that is very much part of the present.

“An ongoing process with neither an end nor beginning, partition structures the post-colonial South Asian experience.”

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