Partition Puzzle: Role of British Policy

By Ram Puniyani

Jaswant Singh in his recent book on Jinnah has praised the secular nature of Jinnah and has held Nehru-Patel responsible for Partition of India. Many people from Pakistan are praising Jaswant Singh’s book to the sky, while here in India there is a mixed reaction. Most strong one came from BJP President Rajnath Singh who hinted that any praise of Jinnah, will be met with strict action. The problem with such formulation, Jinnah was secular, Nehru-Patel were responsible for partition, is that it is an extremely superficial analysis and does not look at the complex multilayered phenomenon of partition tragedy. It totally by passes the role of British rulers and the different interests of diverse classes during freedom movement. The response to the book is either at emotive level, our leader versus your leader, or how dare you speak against our icon!

In the midst of the whole debate, the British get away with the cake. As such they not only took all the measures, implemented all policies which were divisive but also accepted all the demands which led to partition. In the process they ensured that even after they leave, the interests of imperial powers, UK-USA, in the Middle East remain safe and secure. This ensured that they continue to dominate the area and retain their military and political base in the region. While the mini battle, Jinnah versus Nehru-Patel is on, the role of the major culprits of partition, the Colonial powers of yesteryears and the imperialist power of today is generally not being brought under scrutiny.

If we look at the British polices, right from the beginning there were germs of divide and rule. They saw Indian society as divided along religious lines, underplaying the fact that the real divisions were not along religious lines but along class and caste lines. Shaken by the massive revolt of 1857, their subtle policies of ‘divide and rule’ started becoming more overt and articulate. In 1858 Lord Elphinstone, Governor of Bombay Province, in his communication to The East India Company’s executives wrote, “Divide et Impera’ (Divide and Rule) was old Roman motto and it should be ours.” In return Charles Wood, Secretary of State for India wrote that, “The antagonism of Indian races was an element of strength to the British India. Therefore ‘a dissociating spirit’ should be kept up, for if India was to unite against us, how long could we maintain ourselves.”

Both these quotes amply indicate towards shape of policies in times to come. As a foundation of these polices, ‘doctoring of mass consciousness’ along religious lines began through specially sponsored History books. The two major ones’ in this direction were Six Volume ‘History of India as told by her Historians’ by Elliot and Dawson and History of India by James Mill, who periodized the Indian History into Hindu Period, Muslim Period and British period. This periodization gave the impression that history’s period is determined by the religion of the king. Needless to say that the medieval administration of Kings was never based along religious lines; their court officials and chain of Landlords were belonging to both the religions. These British sponsored accounts of History argued that Muslims Rulers had enslaved India and now British have come to end the misrule of Muslim Kings. Such an account became a convenient tool in the hands of Hindu communalists, Hindu Mahsabha and RSS, to play their part of divisive politics amongst masses. The Muslim League turned it around to say that Muslim rulers were glorious and great.

This communalization of minds was the fertile soil on which the communalists could plant their narrow agenda of Muslim Nation and Hindu Nation. Another British Historian Sir T.W. Holderness in his book Peoples and Problems of India mooted the idea that Hindus and Muslims regard themselves as separate nations. This book came out in 1923 and in the same year Savarkar came out with his book, ‘Hindutva or Who is a Hindu’?, where the same formulation was presented in a different way.

At concrete level on the political chessboard, Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy of India, partitioned Bengal (1904) with communal motivation and this was probably the first concrete experiment in communalizing the politics at big level. Curzon went on to declare that this is an attempt to invest in the Mussalmans of Eastern Bengal. Just a couple of years later (2006) the delegation of Muslim Landlords and Nawabs was received by Viceroy, where he declared that these Muslim elite to be the representatives of Muslim community. The delegation went to ask for separate electorate for Muslims, and these separate electorates introduced later acted as the trigger to polarize the nation along religious lines. Many a members of this delegation were also part of United India Patriotic Association, an organization of Hindu and Muslim landlords and Kings which had come up in the wake of formation of Indian National Congress. Indian National Congress was critical of British and in response, this association pledged to enhance the loyalty of the people to the British crown.

Thus Viceroy Minto subtly encouraged Muslim communalism, and later the same delegation members went on to form Muslim League. Lady Minto in her communication takes pride in what the Lord had done. She commented that what has happened, the receiving of delegation etc. will pull back sixty million people from joining the ranks of seditious opposition, meaning the rising national movement.

MacDonald’s Communal Award of 1932 was the next step, which enhanced the communal divides. Interestingly in 1939 Congress firmly told the British that they will not join the war efforts until they are guaranteed freedom in return. And lo and behold in 1940 Jinnah comes with the demand for Pakistan at Lahore Muslim League convention. Can such things be coincidental? Demand of Pakistan may have been a bargaining counter but its timing is interesting.

No doubt the Cabinet mission plan could have prevented partition, but it is debatable whether it would not have sown the fissiparous tendencies amongst the princely states and the states where Muslim League was in majority. The other necessity which made British to partition India, related to their strategic needs in the area. At the end of WWII, the global power equations changed. USA and USSR both emerged as major powers. US had posted its representative in India from 1942. With British deciding to leave India, freedom was imperative. The British calculation at this time was that an Undivided India with leadership of Congress will not let Britain continue with its military bases in the area. With USSR coming up in a big way, Mao Tse Tung rising in China and section of Congress leadership impressed by socialism, UK-USA were sure that India will not side with them in their global designs of countering USSR militarily and in continuing their oil plunder in middle east. Here comes the Radcliff Line, which runs in the areas adjacent to Iraq, Afghanistan and Sinkiang. British diplomats had the job cut out for them, to make Jinnah accept moth eaten Pakistan and to make Congress leadership to accept the partition.

Somehow the plans of imperialists were immaculate. And in times to come Pakistan, where Mr. Jinnah wanted to have religious freedom, was converted into a land ruled by Mullahs, Army and American Ambassador. It was the same Pakistan which was supported to the hilt on the Kashmir issue; the idea was that US strategic interests are safe with this arrangement. It is a matter of great relief that Pakistan is struggling to come out from the vice like grip of Army, but can it shed its client state type status vis a vis US, is the million rupee question. The people of Pakistan have been big victim of Imperialist designs all through while Pakistan military has been having all the green pastures for itself.

In partitioning India, colonialists reaped rich harvest at the cost of the people of the subcontinent, millions dead, a single entity India, divided into Pakistan, India and Bangla Desh. These countries keep on spending a major part of their budgets in investing in armaments and fattening of their armed forces, something which could have been meaningfully invested for the growth and development of the region. We need to wake up from the blame game and see the real culprit.

(Ram Puniyani could be contacted at


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