By P.C. Alexander
The question as to who was responsible for India’s Partition into two independent countries has been dominating media headlines for the past few weeks. Some writers and political parties have taken the stand that Muhammad Ali Jinnah was mainly responsible for India’s Partition, while some others have tried to pin the responsibility on Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. A surprising feature of these comments is that most of them are based on the assumption that the British only had a marginal role in the Partition when it happened in 1947 and that the main responsibility lay with India’s leaders.
It is true that after the assumption of power by the Labour Party in Britain in 1945, Britain had been genuine in its intention to quit India without destroying the unity of the country. But this change in the attitude of the British government towards India’s demand for Independence was a post-World War II development — Britain had been left too weak and debilitated to continue its role of imperial domination over India by use of force.
After the revolt of 1857, the British government had appointed a commission to examine what exactly went wrong in their assessment of the situation in India and what should be done to tighten their hold over the country. Lord Elphinstone, governor of Bombay in a note dated May 14, 1858, to the Governor-General had unabashedly advocated the policy of "divide and rule". He stated: "Divide et impera was the old Roman motto and it should be ours". Sir John Wood, another ardent colonialist, in a letter to Governor-General Elgin had said in plain words, "We have maintained our power by playing off one party against the other and we must continue to do so".
The division of Bengal in 1905 and the creation of a new province with a Muslim majority was one of the first measures taken in pursuance of the divide and rule policy. The grant of separate electorates for Muslims and the incorporation of this right in the Indian Councils Act of 1909 were indeed important landmarks in Britain’s efforts at isolating the Muslim community from the Hindus. From then on the course of Hindu-Muslim unity took an altogether new course of confrontation and alienation. By the time the Labour government expressed its support for the idea of Independence for a united India, the mischief had already been done and Jinnah found the field quite congenial to press his demand for Pakistan. If the British government had not openly resorted to its policy of divide and rule, Muslims would not have felt encouraged to make such a demand.
Therefore, "the first accused" in the crime of partitioning India was the British government itself. The "second accused", of course, is Jinnah who had returned from London in 1934 to take up the leadership of the Muslim League which was then in a state of steady decline. Jinnah was no longer the liberal-minded secularist whom most people in India had admired during the early phase of his political career. In the second phase of his leadership, he deliberately adopted the policy of using "hatred" as a political weapon in his fight against the majority community in India. He systematically and vigorously promoted sentiments of hatred against the Hindus among the Muslims and made them believe that their social and economic backwardness was the result of deliberate attempts by the Hindus to keep them as their subordinates.
However, there was one mistake in Jinnah’s calculations and that was that he had ignored the fact that the logic adopted for the Partition of India as a whole could apply also to the Partition of Punjab and Bengal where the non-Muslims were in a majority in several districts contiguous to India. Jinnah had become the victim of his own dangerous logic and had to eventually be satisfied with the "moth-eaten and truncated" Pakistan he could get from India. As far as partitioning of India on the basis of population figures of Muslims in certain provinces goes, the responsibility should lie with Jinnah along with the British rulers of India.
Now about the charges levelled by some writers against Nehru and Sardar Patel for agreeing to the creation of even a truncated Pakistan. No one denies the fact that Nehru and Sardar Patel agreed to the Partition of India after it became clear that Punjab and Bengal would also be partitioned on the same criterion. For Nehru and Sardar Patel, who had spent their entire adult life fighting for the freedom and unity of India, even a Partition limited to certain districts of Bengal and Punjab was a very bitter pill to swallow. But the policies of the British government and Jinnah had not left then with any other alternative. If the Congress Party did not agree to the Partition even on a limited scale, freedom itself would have got postponed indefinitely as the British would not have left India leaving a power vacuum at the Centre. Further, if Nehru and Patel had not agreed to this limited Partition of the country, they would have been accused of dereliction of duty in preventing conditions of anarchy in India.
Finally, a word about the alleged failure of Mahatma Gandhi in preventing the Partition. Gandhiji was asked a question by some visitors as to why he did not fast unto death for this great cause. Gandhiji himself told them that he had had no time to build an alternative leadership and that, therefore, it would have been wrong to weaken the present leadership under these circumstances. He went on to say with great mental anguish: "Who would listen to me? You (Hindus) don’t listen to me. The Muslims have given me up. Nor can I fully convince the Congress of my point of view". In other words, on the issue of Partition he had accepted failure. With absolute transparency this great votary of truth admitted that there was nothing that he could do to prevent Partition.
It is, indeed, a great irony that some commentators have chosen to criticise even Gandhiji for his failure to prevent Partition, ignoring the circumstances in which he found himself at the dawn of the Independence of the country.
P.C. Alexander is a former governor of Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra
Source: The Asian Age, New Delhi