Mahatma Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. From its inception in 1906, the Muslim League was a command performance with the sole purpose of acting as a counterweight to the nationalist demands of the Congress(Getty Images)
Mahatma Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. From its inception in 1906, the Muslim League was a command performance with the sole purpose of acting as a counterweight to the nationalist demands of the Congress(Getty Images)

Blaming the Congress for Partition is a travesty

History matters. With the British continuing to give the veto to Jinnah, that the Congress, with great reluctance, to avoid civil war, and because it was left with no choice, “agreed” to Partition
By Mridula Mukherjee
UPDATED ON DEC 13, 2019 07:41 PM IST

Who was responsible for Partition of India in 1947? The answer is that Partition became unavoidable because in order to save and perpetuate their rule, the British fostered divisions among Indians along religious lines. They were masters of the art of divide and rule. From its inception in 1906, the Muslim League was a command performance with the sole purpose of acting as a counterweight to the nationalist demands of the Congress. Various policy measures were used to form the Muslims into a separate political bloc, the most pernicious being separate electorates introduced in the Minto-Morley reforms of 1909. Under these, for example, both voters and candidates could only be Muslim. This is what led to a divided polity, and, ultimately, to Partition.

The British did not try to make amends and leave behind a united India. Even before the Muslim League could take its own demand for Pakistan seriously, the British government incorporated the idea of Pakistan in Stafford Cripps’ offer in 1942. Viceroy Linlithgow suppressed the Congress, which was the pro-unity force, brutally in 1942, and did everything to encourage the Muslim League. Louis Mountbatten, who ostensibly came to India inclined towards unity, also gave his famous Mountbatten Award in favour of Partition.

Divide and rule could not, by a sleight of a hand, be converted into unite and quit. Its logic was divide and quit.

The instruments used by the British to divide the Indian people were religious, identity-based political formations. It was not only the Muslim League which played this role, but also organisations like the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The two-nation theory was first expounded by VD Savarkar, in his presidential address to the Hindu Mahasabha in 1937, when he said, “India cannot be assumed today to be a unitarian and homogenous nation, but on the contrary there are two nations in the main, Hindus and Muslims, in India.” The Muslim League adopted the theory later. When Congressmen were in jail for having launched a movement asking the British to Quit India, Savarkar wrote to the Viceroy offering support and Hindu Mahasabha members joined provincial ministries in coalition with the Muslim League. The RSS, which claims nationalism as its core ideology, did not participate in or launch on their own a single struggle against the British. Even in the last big battle for freedom, the Quit India movement, they were conspicuously absent, with their cadre reportedly being told to save their energies for the upcoming battle against the Muslims. Yet ironically, it is their descendants who are the loudest today in blaming, not the British, but the one party that did the most to oppose the divisive politics which led to Partition — the Congress. Last week, the highest levels of political leadership did so in Parliament to justify the introduction of the Citizen’s Amendment Act, which seeks to introduce religion as a criterion for conferment of citizenship.

But history matters. At the final stage, there were three parties to the decision to partition India in 1947. The Muslim League led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the British government, and the national movement led by the Congress.

Jinnah and the Muslim League were adamant on their demand for Pakistan. They had won a majority of Muslim seats in the provincial elections of 1945-46, and had also unleashed the Muslim National Guards on to the streets of Calcutta in August 1946, setting off a chain of communal violence which engulfed Bengal, Bihar and the Punjab, and threatened to spill over into a civil war.

The British, who were the key decision-makers, while making weak noises about a united India, never took a firm stand against Partition. They had, in fact, since the Simla conference of 1945, given a virtual veto power to Jinnah, and had also turned a blind eye to the sectarian communal violence. Nor were they willing to hand over power to the leading party of the Indian national movement, the Congress, alone.

The only one among the triad who had earnestly desired and had fought for a united India was the Congress. Even in 1946-47, when communal frenzy seemed to be enveloping the country, Congress leaders and workers, at great personal risk and sacrifice, tried very hard to turn back the wave of hatred. Mahatma Gandhi set new standards of heroic non-violent action, when he walked through the strife-torn villages of the remote Noakhali district of Bengal for four long months with a small band of unarmed associates. Jawaharlal Nehru, accompanied by Vallabhhai Patel, Maulana Azad, others colleagues in the interim government, and Jayaprakash Narayan rushed to riot-torn Bihar in October 1946 and stayed there for almost two weeks till peace was restored.

Their heroic efforts on the ground, and their consistent stand against Partition in the high level negotiations, failed to dissuade the Muslim League from continuing to stoke communal fires and from giving up their demand for Partition. With the British continuing to give the veto to Jinnah, that the Congress, with great reluctance, to avoid civil war, and because it was left with no choice, “agreed” to Partition. To interpret this as the Congress being responsible for Partition is making a travesty out of history.

Mridula Mukherjee is a former professor of history at JNU, and director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library
The views expressed are personal
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