By Catriona Luke
29 June, 2012
Pakistan and India continue to blame each other for the violence of Partition, but in terms of secrecy and incompetence the responsibility lay with the British, says Catriona Luke
Never complain, never explain used to be the British mantra for getting out of tight corners. Even under the public records 30-year rule, there are official documents in the state archives of Britain's world past that will never be released into the public domain. They protect officials who messed up, conceal atrocities; reveal the aspects of incompetence and malignancy of British rule abroad. The surgical division of India as an idea had all the hallmarks of coming from the British. It was done too fast, it was done when the British had already departed or gone back to the barracks. They knew full well what was going to happen if political consensus could not be reached. On 19th August 1945 Wavell put on record that if India was divided "we shall be heading straight for bloodshed on a wide scale". Cripps, Wavell, Pethick-Lawrence tried hard to keep the country together, but after the failure of the Cabinet Mission to Shimla in 1946 they regarded it, when they should not have, as being too late.
It has now been 65 years since Independence, and the consequences of Partition continue to lie in shadow across Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. It is also, and should be, a shadow to British writers who find themselves reporting on and covering south Asia. Hastily tidied away over lines on a map were the things that the British could not understand and which were inaccessible to them in language and culture: the intricacy and elusiveness of a fused sub continental way of life that had remained in place for a thousand years. Saddest of all is that when the poorest of the poor were told to move, in those terrible columns (kafilas), millions of people when told to move, they did. Partition is rarely seen as the last imperial order, but in the very fact of being obeyed that is what it was.
Andrew Roberts, a contemporary historian, had this to say about Mountbatten: "a mendacious intellectually limited hustler, whose negligence and incompetence resulted in many unnecessary deaths - the numbers of which increased exponentially as his meteoric career progressed", but he still misses the point. He goes on: "Any population transfers that were .... demanded could have been properly supervised and protected. Then - and only then - the country could have been partitioned and the two countries declared independent. In not following this common-sense sequence - indeed in taking the steps in almost the reverse order, with such horrific consequences - Mountbatten deserved to be court-marshalled on his return to London." Roberts wrote this in 1994, but although he means well, his orderly way of thinking hints at precisely the original difficulty. In 2003 it was the problem with the US and UK invasion of Iraq, and in Afghanistan. It is always the problem: the over-arching criticality of procedure. What kind of madness, or right, to move people about? On whose say?
From western writers, two of the best books on the arbitrariness of Partition are Yasmin Khan's The Great Partition (Yale, 2007) and Stanley Wolpert's Shameful Flight (OUP, 2006). The latter chronicles the political process of Congress, League and London and is dedicated 'To the memory of the million defenceless Hindus, Muslims and Sikh victims of British India's partition'. From Yasmin Khan's book what emerges is that as with all cataclysmic events, Partition's violence was born randomly of opportunism, chaos, personality politics, folly, confusion; from Stanley Wolpert's that Mountbatten accelerated the process. In The Great Partition it is very clear that the violence was primarily driven by the League's military wing and the RSS, an important part of partition that has been missed, and that pressure cooker conditions were created because the British withdrew their presence.
Yasmin Khan, who has both British and Indian grandparents, makes a study of the events leading up to August 1947, which begins with the British preparing to cut their losses. From 1946, when provincial governments, set up as a result of the elections, passed a power to League and Congress politicians in the north, the British used it for their own advantage to take the sting out of anti-British sentiment (the Bombay naval mutiny) to manage an exit. The withdrawal of civic infrastructure left a vacuum for the party-allied as well as the militarised wings of the RSS and Muslim League to flex their muscle. Politicians on both sides roamed freely with their militias, devising and implementing laws, dividing off political assets and distributing propaganda. Whatever had happened next, the British would no longer be present to maintain order.
The failure of the Cabinet Mission to Simla in May 1946 put a solution of consensus out of time for the British, and Khan notes that when the Cabinet Mission left, power had slipped out of British hands and into the towns and cities of provincial India. The state had begun to crack. There were riots in Calcutta; in the west the RSS and the League had been recruiting for months. In the first week of March 1947, Punjab began to burn. There was a flight of Hindu capital. The Sikhs became increasingly desperate. Khan thinks - and this is something the British did not understand but took literally - that linguistically Jinnah intended Pakistan as a metaphor and bargaining chip; no-one seriously considered that people would uproot and move. What he meant was not clear to all. And this seems not to have been unusual: all the politicians-in-waiting were saying things sometimes for opposition ears, sometimes for London's.
It is clear, however, that there should have been a longer, less rigid timetable for negotiation and settlement. Instead, Mountbatten made it a condition for taking the job of governor-general that he would have powers to do as he saw fit regarding the exit, that is, he would be accountable to no one. He accelerated the process, even though London had given him until June 1948.
Far from taking responsibility and running through every possible solution for settlement with Jinnah, Nehru and Gandhi, he withdrew into inner sanctums with his favourites and started the arbitrary process of dividing India's two most dynamic, productive and energetic states: Punjab and Bengal. Cyril Radcliffe, who was eventually tasked with making detail of the lines, was isolated and kept away from contact with the Congress and League governments in waiting. Mountbatten asked him to work fast, often hysterically intervened, for example, throwing a bottle of ink at one of Radcliffe's maps of Kashmir because he didn't like where he had drawn the line, and drove him to finish in five weeks what should have taken a year, or several years, and in fact never at all in the form that it took.
In addition to being incompetent, Mountbatten had a flair for secrecy and obfuscation. In the withdrawal period the British said little publicly, or simply lied. Evan Jenkins and Frederick Burrows, governors of Punjab and Bengal respectively, both against Partition and both conscientious men, were denied comment or input into what was to happen, and were unable to prepare protection and peace-building forces for the massive movement of people. Outside of these two states, hundreds of millions of people needed to have some idea of what would happen when the British left. The movement of people across borders was unthinkable. But in Nehru's broadcast of 3 June the phrasing is so British that you can almost hear Mountbatten's instructions: "the sands of time run out and decisions cannot await the normal course of events."
The details of the boundary awards were kept secret and given out at the last possible moment, and nothing could have been more specifically designed to escalate fear and violence. In the first three months after Partition, around 3.5 million refugees from India and 4.5 million from Pakistan, made perilous and dutiful journeys into the unknown. Up to a million people lost their lives. In Bengal, the trauma was deeper; it came on top of the famine in 1942-3.
Khan notes that in September 1947 Jinnah implored a park packed with people in Lahore to "make it a matter of our prestige and honour to safeguard the lives of the minority communities and to create a sense of security among them". He was broken by what unfolded. The intransigence and personality politics of the League and Congress took a heavy toll. Like Gandhi, he tried and tried again to the ease the situation. Nehru, for all his vast achievements, appeared less repentant - there is a hugely callous statement about having a thick skin which the deaths of '50,000 or 100,000' in Delhi took to breach. Having witnessed violence in 1947 just a year later he went on to unleash it yet again in Operation Polo in Hyderabad.
India and Pakistan have continued to tear at themselves and at each other over 65 long years. Every summer brings the remembered pain again. Every summer the newspapers on both sides of the border exhume the stories and try and make sense of what happened. The pain turns outwards as the countries blame each other and inwards as they blame their own natures. It is relentless because it comes to no end and no conclusion.
Complicating this are the events of 1947, which are held as the defining moment, almost as if time had stopped. The future would bring what could not be seen: the rise of the oil-rich Gulf States and Wahhabism, the US-Soviet Cold War and the invasion of Afghanistan. Through all this India benefited most with two bulwark or buffer states to the west and the east; all three countries, in varying states of hostility or war, suffered economically from the disruption of trade across the region.
There are clear lessons from history 65 years on: Jinnah intended not an Islamic state but a secular Muslim administration for Pakistan because he thought such a thing would avoid religious ethnicity being a dividing force in a united India. His emphasis on the secular and administrative parts is not incompatible with the fact that we are better when we live all together, regardless of the religions we were born into. Second, authoritarian power is more effectively countered by differences and plurality. Third, although Yasmin Khan estimates that the population of what is now Pakistan received just one in nine of its population by immigration, the sense of loss for those who went to India was also profound. Alice Albinia's Empires of the Indus, written in the early years of this century, contains a poignant question from one of the fishermen in Sindh, who asks her: "But why did the British take away our Hindu brothers?"
And surely there were positives too. The majority of people in the subcontinent stayed exactly where they were. For those who crossed the line and found their way to safety there were, as communities reassembled, many good and relatively happy lives. Borders may be lines on a map but the human spirit always finds a way over and under and through. Today traffic in internet, cable, digital form carries shared language, culture, memory, identity, music, cooking by Skype, chatter and gossip freely: all the things that reflect the long historical composition of the region. The future is fluid and positive if the deep states on either side of the border can get their heads around that.
Longer time frames and no Mountbatten would have brought something more organic to the post-1947 subcontinent, but I'm inclined to listen to Yasmin Khan on how Partition's violence was unleashed by militias and thugs and unscrupulous politicians, and that the enemy, as so often, was also within. But it is especially shameful that the British made such a large contribution.