Looking backwards and forwards from Partition

Updated on Aug 30, 2015 01:40 AM IST

Hindutva ideologues still periodically subject Indian Muslims to loyalty tests. This is where Mahatma Gandhi’s words are resoundingly relevant; whatever Pakistan (or Bangladesh) does to its minorities, the citizens and government of India must eschew a policy of retribution and revenge, writes Ramachandra Guha.


My last column, arguing that an undivided India might have become Lebanon writ large, attracted a fair amount of comment, both complimentary and critical. This was not unexpected, for Partition remains a controversial subject. That said, some of the criticisms were, to say the least, eccentric. I was accused by some of being an apologist for Jawaharlal Nehru, by others of being an RSS sympathiser. How those twin characteristics can be retained in one mind, one heart, one Indian, I will need the rest of my life to divine.

I had argued that had the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946 been accepted, it would have left India divided and weak. Partition on those terms was therefore the less devilish option. In this column, I ask: could Partition have been avoided sometime earlier? What, precisely, was the point of no return when the demands of the Congress and the Muslim League became incompatible and irreconcilable?

Some writers claim that Gandhi’s Quit India movement of 1942 made Partition more likely. That movement alienated the British from the Congress, while putting its leaders in prison. Meanwhile, Jinnah was at large, free to build up the organisation of the Muslim League and come closer to the rulers.

Writers with slightly longer memories might date the breach to 1940, when the Muslim League passed their so-called Pakistan Resolution. For, as scholars such as David Gilmartin and Venkat Dhulipala have shown, this greatly enthused Muslims across India, who were now consumed by the idea of an independent nation. The support for Pakistan grew, and grew; by 1946, Jinnah, far from being the ‘sole spokesman’ for the Muslims, was the vehicle for what was now a widespread popular demand.

Now go back further still, to 1937, when the Congress refused to enter into a coalition with the Muslim League in the United Provinces. In another crucial province, Bombay, it chose a Hindu rather than a better qualified Parsi as its leader. That opened the Congress to charges of majoritarianism, furthering the communal divide.

So, should someone searching for the roots of Partition stop at 1937? Or should he reach back to 1930, when the poet Mohammad Iqbal was chosen president of the Muslim League? In his presidential address, Iqbal argued that ‘the formation of a consolidated North-West Indian Muslim state appears to be the final destiny of the Muslims at least of North-west India’. This was the first clear statement of separation from a prominent Muslim. Is this when Pakistan became inevitable, with later ideologues adding on Muslim-majority Bengal to Punjab, Sind, Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province? Wait. We are not done yet. Perhaps it was not the revered Iqbal who sowed the seeds of Partition, but the still more revered Gandhi. Between 1920 and 1922, Gandhi led the Khilafat and Non-Co-operation movements. The first involved making common cause with the ulema, alienating modernising Muslims. The second involved mass street protest (albeit non-violent) against the Raj, alienating Moderates. A towering liberal Muslim was Jinnah; and he was a leading Moderate as well. Jinnah opposed Gandhi’s programme on both counts, for which he was shouted down by Gandhi’s supporters in the crucial Nagpur Congress of December 1920.

Gandhi and Jinnah enjoyed cordial relations until 1920. After that the breach between them grew. So perhaps the Nagpur Congress is where we must end our search for the origins of Partition.

Or perhaps we must dig deeper still. Our last stop may in fact be not 1920 but 1906, when a group of Muslim landlords and princes met the viceroy, Lord Minto, and demanded separate electorates to safeguard them from Hindu domination. This demand was granted; from 1909 onwards, Muslim voters were distinct from the rest of the population, catalysing a process of sectarian politics that found its logical end in the creation of separate nations altogether.

The arguments, the conspiracy theories, the vilification of long dead leaders shall continue. But let me end this column by looking forwards from Partition. For Indians, the creation of two nations posed this fundamental question: how should the government treat Muslims who had chosen to stay behind?

After 1947, a flood of Hindu and Sikh refugees came into India from Pakistan. Their plight led to demands for retribution, spurring violence against Muslims in Delhi and across northern India. Gandhi opposed this; as he put it in a speech of November 15, 1947, ‘I maintain that India belongs both to Hindus and Muslims. You may blame the Muslim League for what has happened and say that the two-nation theory is at the root of all this evil and that it was the Muslim League that sowed the seed of this poison; nevertheless I say that we would be betraying the Hindu religion if we did evil because others had done it.’

In speeches and radio broadcasts, Gandhi told his fellow Hindus that ‘it is your prime duty to treat Muslims as your brothers, whatever may happen in Pakistan’. When his words did not have the required effect, he went on a fast, which stemmed the violence in Delhi. Then, on January 30, 1948, he was murdered.

Hindus, horrified by what one of their own had done to the Father of the Nation, now drew back from demonising or attacking Muslims. The Union held. Seven decades after the Partition of India, a debate on what caused it is merely academic. But the question of how to contain and tame its lingering residues is of immense practical importance. Hindutva ideologues still periodically subject Indian Muslims to loyalty tests. This is where Gandhi’s words are resoundingly relevant; whatever Pakistan (or Bangladesh) does to its minorities, the citizens and government of India must eschew a policy of retribution and revenge.

(Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha. The views expressed are personal.)


    Ramachandra Guha is a historian based in Bengaluru. His books include India After Gandhi, A Corner of a Foreign Field, Environmentalism: A Global History, and Gandhi Before India. He tweets as @Ram_Guha

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