Sixty-eight years is a fairly advanced age for an individual, but a small span of time in the life of a nation. This must be why, every so often, a book or article appears lamenting the Partition of India in 1947. These blame the Congress, the Muslim League, Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru, Patel — sometimes one, sometimes several, sometimes all of the above — for not doing enough to keep India together, or for actively aiding in its division. These books and articles then feed into what appears to be a widespread popular sentiment, to the effect that the citizens of what are now India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, would have been better off had they all been part of the same country.
I have thought long and hard about this question, both as a historian and as a citizen. And I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that although the large-scale communal violence before and after Partition could or should have been stopped or stemmed, the division of British India was not by itself a bad thing.
If Partition was to be avoided, it would have been on the basis of the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946. That plan envisaged a very weak Centre, which controlled currency, foreign policy and external defence. The provinces were in charge of almost everything else.
This aspect of the Cabinet Mission Plan is moderately well known. What is not, and in fact hardly discussed in the literature, is that under that Plan the situation of the princely states was left extremely vague. They could decide whether to join a province with whom they had boundaries, but the terms were not clearly specified. Besides, the possibility of individual princely states staking a claim to independence was not foreclosed.
It must always be remembered that when the British left the sub-continent, they left behind not two political entities but more than 500. For they departed without in any way resolving the problem of the princely states. A vast majority of these states were embedded in India; far fewer in Pakistan. It was left to Vallabhbhai Patel, VP Menon and their team to painstakingly integrate these chiefdoms, one by one, into what is now the Republic of India.
Had the Cabinet Mission Plan gone through, there is no saying what would have happened with the maharajas and nawabs. The Centre would not have had the powers it, in fact, enjoyed after August 15, 1947. The princes would have driven a harder bargain; the larger ones might even have stayed out. They might, out of vanity, have wished to retain their stamps, their archaic rail systems; some may have even applied for membership of the United Nations. And the British Tories who hated the idea of Indian independence would have actively aided these efforts.
This is the first reason why we must not be nostalgic for an undivided India; that this would have created a wholly disunited India, with not just the provinces but the princely states free to threaten, blackmail, or secede from the Union. How could we ever have created the unified Republic, with a single Constitution, a common rail system, and contiguous territory (‘from Kashmir to Kanyakumari’) that we have now?
The rejection of the Cabinet Mission Plan was crucial to the survival of what is now India. It allowed Ambedkar and his colleagues to draft a progressive and unifying Constitution that mandated multi-party democracy, judicial independence, free movement of people and goods and programmes to tackle social inequality.
In India today, the Muslims constitute 13% of the population, or one in seven. Had there been an undivided India, the percentage of Muslims would have been closer to 33%, or one in three. The demographic balance would have been more delicate; and prone to being exploited by sectarians on either side. The politics of late colonial India had already emboldened religious fanatics; Muslim as well as Hindu. However, the Partition of India allowed Gandhi, Nehru and Patel to stamp down firmly on majority communalism and assure minorities a free and equal place in the Republic.
Because of these great leaders India is not — or at least not yet — a Hindu Pakistan. But had this been one country rather than two it would have been far more difficult to contain communal violence. The first civil war between Hindus and Muslims might have been on the question of the nation’s language, and the script in which it was to be written. Other and more bloody battles might have followed. India would then have been Lebanon writ large; a horrifying prospect.
A third reason not to be sentimental about an undivided India is that we would then have been a frontline State in the Cold War. Sharing borders with Afghanisthan, we would have had to contend with Russian and American rivalries, and with jihad and jihadis, far more actively than we do now.
By rejecting the idea of an undivided India, I by no means condone the violence at Partition. The division could have been handled more wisely. The last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, was in too much haste, and more concerned with saving British lives than Indian ones. He failed to heed advice to post more troops in Punjab, sending detachments to protect tea estate managers and missionaries in the interior, while riots raged untamed in the heartland.
The Republic of India remains a work-in-progress. We are largely united and somewhat democratic. Yet deep inequalities of gender and caste persist. Religious and ethnic violence have not entirely abated. But while sentiment and nostalgia might induce a yearning for Akhand Bharat, the cold logic of history suggests that things would have been far worse for us if Partition had not occurred.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India. You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha. The views expressed are personal.