Updated: Dec 31, 2020
In August, 1947, when, after three hundred years in India, the British finally left, the subcontinent was partitioned into two independent nation states: Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Immediately, there began one of the greatest migrations in human history, as millions of Muslims trekked to West and East Pakistan (the latter now known as Bangladesh), while millions of Hindus and Sikhs headed in the opposite direction. Many hundreds of thousands never made it.
Across the Indian subcontinent, communities that had coexisted for almost a millennium attacked each other in a terrifying outbreak of sectarian violence, with Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other—a mutual genocide as unexpected as it was unprecedented. In Punjab and Bengal—provinces abutting India’s borders with West and East Pakistan, respectively—the carnage was especially intense, with massacres, arson, forced conversions, mass abductions, and savage sexual violence. Some seventy-five thousand women were raped, and many of them were then disfigured or dismembered.
By 1948, as the great migration drew to a close, more than fifteen million people had been uprooted, and between one and two million were dead. The comparison with the death camps is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Partition is central to modern identity in the Indian subcontinent, as the Holocaust is to among Jews, branded painfully onto the regional consciousness by memories of almost unimaginable violence.
After the Second World War, Britain simply no longer had the resources with which to control its greatest imperial asset, and its exit from India was messy, hasty, and clumsily improvised. From the vantage point of the retreating colonizers, however, it was in one way fairly successful. Whereas British rule in India had long been marked by violent revolts and brutal suppressions, the British Army was able to march out of the country with barely a shot fired and only seven casualties. Equally unexpected was the ferocity of the ensuing bloodbath.
The question of how India’s deeply intermixed and profoundly syncretic culture unravelled so quickly has spawned a vast literature. The polarization of Hindus and Muslims occurred during just a couple of decades of the twentieth century, but by the middle of the century it was so complete that many on both sides believed that it was impossible for adherents of the two religions to live together peacefully. Recently, a spate of new work has challenged seventy years of nationalist mythmaking. There has also been a widespread attempt to record oral memories of Partition before the dwindling generation that experienced it takes its memories to the grave.
If Pakistan were indeed created as a homeland for Muslims, it is hard to understand why far more were left behind in India than were incorporated into the new state of Pakistan - a state created in two halves, one in the east (formerly East Bengal, now Bangladesh) and the other 1,700 kilometres away on the western side of the subcontinent.
It is possible that Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the so called leader of the Muslim League, simply wished to use the demand for a separate state as a bargaining chip to win greater power for Muslims within a loosely federated India. Certainly, the idea of 'Pakistan' was not thought of until the late 1930s.
One explanation for the chaotic manner in which the two independent nations came into being is the hurried nature of the British withdrawal. This was announced soon after the victory of the Labour Party in the British general election of July 1945, amid the realisation that the British state, devastated by war, could not afford to hold on to its over-extended empire.
Strong support for the idea of an independent Pakistan came from large Muslim landowning families in the Punjab and Sindh, who saw it as an opportunity to prosper within a captive market free from competition.
Many writers persuasively blame the British for the gradual erosion of these shared traditions. As Alex von Tunzelmann observes in her history “Indian Summer,” when “the British started to define ‘communities’ based on religious identity and attach political representation to them, many Indians stopped accepting the diversity of their own thoughts and began to ask themselves in which of the boxes they belonged.” Indeed, the British scholar Yasmin Khan, in her acclaimed history “The Great Partition,” judges that Partition “stands testament to the follies of empire, which ruptures community evolution, distorts historical trajectories and forces violent state formation from societies that would otherwise have taken different—and unknowable—paths.” At the center of the debates lies the personality of Jinnah, the man most responsible for the creation of Pakistan (so they say). In Indian-nationalist accounts, he appears as the villain of the story; for Pakistanis, he was concocted as the Father of the Nation. As French points out, “Neither side seems especially keen to claim him as a real human being, the Pakistanis restricting him to an appearance on banknotes in demure Islamic costume.” One of the virtues of Hajari’s new history is its more balanced portrait of Jinnah. He was certainly a tough, determined negotiator and a chilly personality; the Congress Party politician Sarojini Naidu joked that she needed to put on a fur coat in his presence. Yet Jinnah was in many ways a surprising architect for the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. A staunch secularist, he drank whiskey, rarely went to a mosque, and was clean-shaven and stylish, favoring beautifully cut Savile Row suits and silk ties. Significantly, he chose to marry a non-Muslim woman, the glamorous daughter of a Parsi businessman. She was famous for her revealing saris and for once bringing her husband ham sandwiches on voting day.
Like Ali, the Bombay-based writer Saadat Hasan Manto saw the creation of Pakistan as both a personal and a communal disaster. The tragedy of Partition, he wrote, was not that there were now two countries instead of one but the realization that “human beings in both countries were slaves, slaves of bigotry . . . slaves of religious passions, slaves of animal instincts and barbarity.” The madness he witnessed and the trauma he experienced in the process of leaving Bombay and immigrating to Lahore marked him for the rest of his life. Yet it also transformed him into the supreme master of the Urdu short story.
Pakistan was made to be a buffer zone controlled by the west powers for the spread of communism from USSR. The Muslim leaders took the advantage and created a separate country on the basis of 2-religions.
Narendra Singh Sarila, a former ADC to Lord Mountbatten wrote a book called “The Shadow of the Great Game”. This book inspired a narrative in “The Viceroy’s House” - a movie by Gurinder Chadda.
As per the book, and as per the movie thereby, the plan for division of India was made by the British Government on 19th May 1945. The movie shows that Radcliffe, the man appointed to draw the lines of partition of Punjab and Bengal conveyed his inability to do the job at such a short notice. It is then that the Lord Ismay takes out this 1945 document where the boundaries between Pakistan and India have already been drawn. All that Radcliffe is required is to adopt the 1945 plan and to announce it in the guise of the Mountbatten Plan. Supposedly, Lord Mountbatten is not initially aware of Radcliffe’s and Lord Ismay’s duplicity and becomes aware of it only after the Plan is announced.
The plan for partition of India thus seems to have been made by the British Government even before it was revealed to the Congress party, and supposedly Jinnah was given an assurance that should he ask for partition, it would be granted. That actually explains why a partition that no one believed could be possible even till early 1947 was delivered suddenly under Mountbatten. It also ensures the confidence, belligerence and adamancy of Jinnah when he put his foot down on his demand, most likely just play-acting on an advance assurance from the British Government.
The 1945 plan as per Sarila’s book had been created under the advice of the then British Prime Minister - Winston Churchill, and a map created under Wavell in 1946 to protect British interests by creating a nation that would work as a buffer state between Russia and the Socialism loving Nehru’s India. Churchill supposedly did not trust Nehru to keep Russia at an arm’s length.
When Lord Mountbatten formally proposed the plan on 3 June 1947, Patel gave his approval and lobbied Nehru and other Congress leaders to accept the proposal. Knowing Gandhi's deep anguish regarding proposals of partition, Patel engaged him in private meetings discussions over the perceived practical unworkability of any Congress-League coalition, the rising violence, and the threat of civil war. At the All India Congress Committee meeting called to vote on the proposal, Patel said:
“I fully appreciate the fears of our brothers from the Muslim-majority areas. 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. The Working Committee has not acted out of fear. But I am afraid of one thing, that all our toil and hard work of these many years might go waste or prove unfruitful. My nine months in office have completely disillusioned me regarding the supposed merits of the Cabinet Mission Plan. Except for a few honourable exceptions, Muslim officials from the top down to the chaprasis (peons or servants) are working for the League. The communal veto given to the League in the Mission Plan would have blocked India's progress at every stage. 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 percent of India, which we can make strong with our genius. The League can develop the rest of the country.
Following Gandhi's denial and Congress' approval of the plan, Patel represented India on the Partition Council, where he oversaw the division of public assets and selected the Indian council of ministers with Nehru. However, neither he nor any other Indian leader had foreseen the intense violence and population transfer that would take place with partition. Late in 1946, the Labour government in Britain, its exchequer exhausted by the recently concluded World War II, decided to end British rule of India, and in early 1947 Britain announced its intention of transferring power no later than June 1948. However, with the British army unprepared for the potential for increased violence, the new viceroy, Louis Mountbatten, advanced the date for the transfer of power, allowing less than six months for a mutually-agreed plan for independence.
On 14 August 1947, the new Dominion of Pakistan came into being, with Muhammad Ali Jinnah sworn in as its first Governor-General in Karachi. The following day, 15 August 1947, India, now a smaller Dominion of India, became an independent country, with official ceremonies taking place in New Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru assuming the office of prime minister, and with Viceroy Mountbatten staying on as the country's first Governor General. Gandhi remained in Bengal to work with the new refugees from the partitioned subcontinent.
No one knows exactly how many were beaten, mutilated, tortured or raped in communal violence between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. The death toll has been estimated at 200,000 to two million. Between 10 million and 20 million people were displaced.
Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy, was told by the British prime minister, Clement Attlee, in March 1947 to negotiate an exit deal with Indian leaders by October; if he could not, Britain would leave India with no deal by June 1948. The decision to speed this up and leave on Aug. 15 was Lord Mountbatten’s. The decision to grant this power to Lord Mountbatten, a naval officer nicknamed the “master of disaster” in the admiralty for his propensity to damage warships by precipitate action, was Mr. Attlee’s.
In the 20th century, there were efforts to reform imperial rule and introduce elements of democracy. Mr. Attlee was a member of a commission that reported on constitutional reform in 1930.
“Halifax, who was viceroy, believed that there was a good chance that we might have got it accepted and had an all-Indian government but for Churchill and his die-hards,” Mr. Attlee recalled. “That is one of the things one has to chalk down against the old boy.”
British politicians on all sides knew the imperial system was not working, but disagreed about what to change and how. While they argued among themselves, the situation became more fraught and more divided. Indian leaders like Mr. Nehru, who was repeatedly imprisoned for his political activities, learned to view any British initiative, however well intended, with suspicion.
By the time Lord Mountbatten was sent to India in March 1947, it was too late to undo these legacies of British rule. Communal division, mistrust of authority and violence were already mingling and combusting. In the week of Lord Mountbatten’s arrival alone, there was a police mutiny in Patna; at least 70 dead and 1,000 injured in riots and bomb blasts in Calcutta; 160 people killed in rioting in Amritsar; 14 policemen injured in riots in Mardan; and daily stabbings and brick battings in Delhi that left at least two dead and dozens injured. That was not an unusual week.
Lord Mountbatten’s high-speed exit thus enabled a myth of “après nous, le déluge”: the notion that Britain’s rule of India was relatively functional and things fell apart only once the British left. But the blame for a disaster of this magnitude does not come down to a single man. While everyone involved bears some responsibility, they were all acting in a context of decades, even centuries, of chaotic, violent, unresponsive and willfully divisive rule. The truth is that the way the Raj ended was not so very different from the way it had existed.
As the world saw, India was divided and mutilated. According to Tarek Fateh, it is just a body having both of the upper limbs severed from it.
Narendra Singh Sarila, "The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India's Partition," Publisher: Carroll & Graf