The Legacy that Lives On!
Even after 64 years, the question remains pertinent – was the partition of India indispensable?
Our cover story this month attempts to highlight the golden era of the British Raj in South Asia and how it left behind various social, political and economic models to help the
region develop and prosper.
The British rule in India, by all accounts, was a mixed blessing. True, there were instances of the typical perfidy for which the British are notorious, such as taking sides in the hostilities among local rulers, other excesses like Warren Hastings’ extortions from the Raja of Banaras and the Begums of Oudh, the Mysore War, the Battle of Plassey and, ultimately, annexing India to the British Empire.
India’s resources were plundered. Its trade was stifled. India supplied cotton and jute, and Liverpool and Manchester sold the manufactured product back to India. Indeed there is practically an unending list of their excesses and torment.
But there was also a plus side to it. British rulers also introduced major social reforms, such as banning the custom of suttee under which a Hindu widow was burnt to death on the funeral pyre of her dead husband. They uprooted the menace of thuggee. The thugs were highway robbers. Disguised as common travelers they joined the caravans of tradesmen, killed them on the way by strangulation and looted their property. Their elimination ensured travel safety. And finally the criminal code that has stood the test of time and still remains the core of India’s law of crimes.
A network of railways and roads was another contribution. But perhaps the most valuable of all was the canal irrigation system they built in the Punjab that made it the granary of India. And it was also a British civil servant, Allan Octavian Hume, who co-founded the Indian National Congress that ignited political awakening among the masses and the struggle for independence from the British rule.
However, not only anglophiles but many more people disillusioned by the post-independence state of bad governance, agree that the colonial rule had to end. For a country of India’s size it was quite unnatural for it to remain a colony like the Malvinas (Falkland Islands). Nor could it be a dominion, like Canada, Australia or New Zealand, because, unlike those countries, India was not settled by the British. The idea of Independence acts on the human mind like a powerful amphetamine, a soma that renders them oblivious to everything other than their one goal. It was not surprising therefore that the Indian people demanded the right to manage their own affairs.
But power is also a strong intoxicant. To give it up willingly is the most challenging task. That is why most people prefer courting death to releasing their hold on power. The case of the Ivory Coast dictator Laurent Gbagbo is a most recent example. He lost the elections but hung on to power and plunged the country into a bloodbath till he was ultimately captured and removed.
The British also resisted parting with power. Responding each time to a new spurt in the public demand for self rule, they would relax their hold on power ever so reluctantly and in bits, such as the Minto-Morley and Montague-Chelmsford Reforms. They sent the Simon Commission and held Round Table Conferences. In the later stages they sent Lord Pethick Lawrence and Sir Stafford Cripps to negotiate the terms of transfer of power with the Indian leadership, when they saw that the die had been cast.
But by their foot-dragging they unwittingly ignited a very unfortunate communal divide that led to the vivisection of a large subcontinent into two and, ultimately, three pieces.
India’s partition was neither inevitable nor, indeed, desirable. Contrary to all the traducement against Mohammad Ali Jinnah by the Hindu rightists, more and more Indians now agree that he was not in favor of partition. The demand for Pakistan as a separate state was a ploy to force
the Congress to concede its demands which amounted only to safeguarding political rights for Muslims in an overwhelmingly Hindu India after independence.
It was Nehru’s arrogance and conceit that forced Jinnah’s hands. A little pragmatism from the former could have saved the day. The Congress could have accepted a few ministers from the Muslim League in the provincial assembly, particularly of U.P., after the 1937 elections. That would have softened Jinnah.
Instead, Nehru thought he could win the hearts and minds of the Muslims and wean them away from Jinnah’s appeal. He therefore, started the Mass Contact Movement. Though the Movement failed because it was launched side by side with the Wardha Scheme of education and the compulsory singing of vande mataram song in schools, but it only added to Jinnah’s bitterness which manifested itself in the Muslim League observing “Deliverance Day” when the Congress governments resigned and finally the Pakistan Resolution of 1941was passed.
But, as historians now agree, the Pakistan demand was a bargaining chip. It was not Jinnah’s ultimate goal, which was why he accepted the Cripps Mission formula for transfer of power. It was Nehru who sabotaged it after Jinnah’s acceptance. That was a golden opportunity lost due entirely to the Congress’ intransigence.
Lastly there was Mahatma Gandhi’s advice to make Jinnah the Governor-General of a united India after independence. That was a stroke of statesmanship par excellence. It was the last attempt to ensure India remaining in one piece. But, again, that was not to be, because Nehru & Co were tired of the struggle and wanted to bring in the harvest at any cost.
Thus that which need not happen, happened and India was bifurcated. The writer is a senior political analyst and former editor of SouthAsia Magazine.
Jinnah and Gandhi – Friends or foes?