In keeping with my motto of blogging yesterday’s news, I bring you a three weeks old post by the Head Heeb about the India-Pakistan partition 57 years ago.
With such a [bad] track record [post-partition], it’s inevitable that many people would question whether partition was a wise idea in either case. Randy McDonald, for instance points to a pair of recent Outlook India articles (1, 2) arguing that a united India might have evolved into a peaceful secular state. It’s impossible to tell for certain absent travel to alternate timelines, but I’m far from sure things would have worked out that way.
The reason is that the Indian-Pakistani conflict didn’t start in 1947 – it only got a new name. Violence and rivalry between Hindus and Muslims existed during the colonial and even the precolonial era; indeed, if this were not so, partition would never have become a serious option in the first place. The division of the Raj into India and Pakistan internationalized the conflict, but it was already an old one long before.
And, poor as the track record of partition may be, the history of attempts to force antagonistic peoples into a single state against their will isn’t any more successful.
[…] It’s easy to imagine dystopic scenarios in India’s case as well. Instead of being 12 percent Muslim, a unitary Indian state including Pakistan and Bangladesh would be more than 30 percent Muslim with Islamic majorities in several states and the population growth rate likely favoring the Muslims. This sort of population balance – especially a shifting one combined with historic minority nationalism – often makes majorities feel threatened and minorities restive. Any number of flash points – a major riot, a Delhi takeover of a Muslim-majority state, an electoral victory for a nationalist demagogue on either side – could spark a Muslim insurgency to add to those India is already facing in outlying areas. Partition exacted a heavy price, both in the initial blood toll and the subsequent decades of border conflict, but a unitary solution might have resulted in a colossal failed state rather than a smaller failing state and two others that more or less work. I have no more proof of this than Amitava Kumar or Ainslie Embree have of their more hopeful scenarios, but it’s arguable that, for all the tragedy it exacted, partitioning the Raj was actually the lesser evil.
And even if Kumar and Embree are right, partition is now a fait accompli.
Conrad Barwa built on Jonathan’s post with a post of his own at The Head Heeb.
[I]t is unlikely that it [two-nation theory] formed the primary aim or goal of even supposedly separatist organisations like the Muslim League, considering that the Pakistan resolution was the result of failed attempts to reach agreements on power-sharing with Congress during the Nationalist movement. I won’t rehash history here but the failure to accept the interim proposals of constitutional safeguards and the actual record of Congress provincial governments in the period of dyarchy; particularly in the United Provinces in the late 1930s indicated that as Nehru remarked ‘there lurked many a Communalist underneath a Congressman’s cloak’ and that Congress was quite cavalier in reaching an accommodation or sharing power with the Muslim League. This pattern was repeated several times right up to the Quit India Movement’s launch in 1942 and it bespoke more than anything else not Hindu Communalism but the arrogance and the blindness of Congress elites and leadership; the problem wasn’t that Congress saw itself as a Hindu movement but the nationalist movement of Hindus and Muslims and laid a claim to speak for both the Hindu and Muslim masses. Ultimately whatever one thinks of this, such an attitude led Congress to take stands which it couldn’t back up in the politics of day and given the immensely restricted electorates that operated then; any strategy that relied on mass movements might have been good when confronting a colonial occupying power but were handicaps in an arena where the primary constituency were the landed and propertied classes of the countryside and the town. It is worth remembering that these decisions were taken on the basis of extremely restricted franchises; less than 10% of the population were eligible to vote and this meant that in the case of Partition effectively 6% of Muslims took decisions that decided the fate of the other 90%. Moreover, as Patrick French has observed, most voters were quite misled as to what they were voting for, preconceptions at the time were that Punjab and Bengal, Muslim majority provinces would go to Pakistan and that Delhi, then a Muslim-dominated one demographically would do so as well. No one voted for Partition as such, which was the outcome of a decision taken by the political elites and by the administrative colonial power.
I think support for a partition among the Muslim middle class was quite late in coming, but in 1946-47 was probably more popular among than than the Muslim League leaders who might have accepted a confederation or a loose federation with minority rights.
There is also a very interesting passage that Conrad quotes from Krishna Kumar’s book “Prejudice and Pride” about school histories of the freedom struggle in Pakistani and Indian textbooks. I’ll have to add Kumar’s book to my big reading list.
One interesting aspect that Kumar and Conrad point out is that the subcontinental partition is often looked at as a last-minute thing, something that arose in the mid-1940s. However, there was a long history (of politics, landlords, religion, regionalism and more) behind it. In my opinion, Congress’s aloofness to the Muslim political elite in the late 1930s was probably one of the major reasons for partition.
Partition had a huge human cost. Anywhere from half a million to a million people died in the communal riots and more than 10 million had to leave their home for a new country. If a united India meant that those people would not die, it might have been worth it.
I have found too many Pakistanis who have taken the two-nation theory to heart and still dwell on the differences between Hindus and Muslims. At the same time, a number of Indians (Muslim, Hindu or otherwise) still think of the mistake of Partition. For a better future for South Asia, it is necessary to lokk beyond the problems and invented histories of the past.
Randy McDonald is thinking about an alternative history in which a united India got independence.
I’ll just observe that Bacha Khan, leader of what are now the Northwest Frontier Provinces of Pakistan at the time of Partition, strongly favoured his region’s continued allegiance to India and rejected Pakistan and the two-nation theory. Perhaps something was possible. Then again, the NWFP isn’t all of Pakistan.
NWFP was a strange place. It was (and still is) extremely conservative, religious and nationalist (of the Pashtun variety). At the time of partition in 1947, it was ruled by the redshirts of Abdul Ghaffar Khan (also known as Bacha Khan and Frontier Gandhi). The provincial government was against joining Pakistan, but a referendum vote showed overwhelming support for Pakistan in 1947.