The demise of Queen Elizabeth ll in August not only denotes the end of an era in Britain’s post War history but also the beginning of a new phase in Britain’s relations with India, the Commonwealth, and the rest of the world.
India has been celebrating 75 years of independence. How have Indo-British relations evolved over the last seven-and-a-half decades? Was India’s membership of the Commonwealth the result of Jawaharlal Nehru’s own sentimental attachment to Britain, or was it a part of Britain’s imperial design to keep its former colonies united by a common allegiance to the crown? These and other similar questions need a re-look to dispel some misperceptions.
Partition and the independence of India were preceded by decades of the agitation launched by the Indian National Congress (INC) against the British, first for Swaraj and ultimately for outright independence.
The Congress accused the British government of following a policy of ‘divide and rule to perpetuate its rule in India, both officially ~ through the resolutions of the Congress Working Committee ~ and unofficially through the statements of individual leaders.
Two decades after India’s independence, Krishna Menon told Michael Brecher in 1968: “Pakistan really was the result of the Indian struggle led by the Congress… So far as the British are concerned, it is their classic imperial solution.” But this is too simple an argument which does not recognize the socioeconomic causes that ultimately led to the partition of India.
There is no doubt that Britain’s policy of ‘divide and rule’ was formulated with the idea of perpetuating its rule in India and that many, though not all, British functionaries ~ political leaders and bureaucrats whether working in London or in India as well as some of the GovernorsGeneral and provincial Governors working in India ~ actively pursued that policy which becomes clear from a careful study of the Transfer of Power volumes edited by Nicholas Mansergh et al, and from the memories and biographies of many of the participants in the decision-making process.
During the tumultuous years preceding India’s partition, relations between the Congress and the British Indian government were particularly bad especially in 1942 when the INC refused to support the government’s war efforts ~ at a time when British forces had suffered military reverses in Southeast Asia and Japanese forces were close to the Indian border ~ and intensified its movement demanding the British should quit India, while the Muslim League continued its policy of passive support to the government.
INC’s ‘Quit India’ movement led to a policy of reprisals by the British. The Hindus in general, and the Congress, in particular, ~ as it was led mostly by the Hindus ~ became suspect in the eyes of the British while many British officials such as Sir George Cunningham, then the Governor of the NWFP considered the Muslims to be solidly anti-Japanese. The anti-Congress bias of the British started developing when they realised that the Congress was trying to develop an all-India nationalism that would threaten the British Raj, and they turned to the Muslims to thwart that possibility.
The provision for a separate electorate for Muslims (1909) was motivated by the idea of driving a wedge between the two communities. Once the decision was taken by the British government to classify the electorate based on ‘religion’, the theory of the two nations became a logical corollary, to be followed by the demand for a separate homeland for the Muslims. The suggestion that the partition of India was the result of a policy of ‘divide and rule’ has generally been resented by the British ‘official class’.
During the debate on the Indian Independence Bill, Lord Listowel, the Secretary of State for India, said in the House of Lords that when it became clear the Cabinet Mission Plan for one Indian Union would never be accepted and that there was no alternative form of government to which Hindus and Muslims would give their consent, “we had either to agree to implement their separation or to remain indefinitely in control of India.”
One should remember that India was the brightest jewel in the British crown, and it would have been a lasting achievement for the British if they could transfer power to a united India, as indeed they proposed to do through their successive efforts in 1942 and 1946. But it was already too late as differences between the Muslim League and the Congress had become deep-rooted making cooperation between them difficult, if not impossible.
Even Mahatma Gandhi, who was opposed to the idea of partition said in his statement of 4 June 1947: “The British government is not responsible for partition. The Viceroy had no hand in it. In fact, he is as opposed to partition as the Congress itself. But if both of us, Hindus, and Muslims, cannot agree on anything else, the Viceroy is left with no choice” (cited in V.P. Menon; Transfer of Power in India, 1957, p.382, italics added). Most Indians regard it as a placatory statement without much substance, but it has some truth; it is equally true that the nefarious role played by a section of the Conservative Party’s leadership, from Winston Churchill downwards ~ and their henchmen in India ~ to boost the Muslim League’s stand for a separate homeland, ultimately made partition inevitable.
The leadership of the Congress party was, to some extent, responsible for the rapid growth in power and influence of the Muslim League; they underestimated the ability of the League to exploit Muslim fears about Hindu domination and refused to recognise it as an organization representing Muslim interests. It was this implicit psychological rejection which led the League to make extreme demands to justify its existence as an organisation representing Muslim interests.
In the final analysis, the partition of India was the result of the attempts made by a section of the Muslim elite ~ represented by the Muslim League ~ to move out of the political-economic system to be dominated by the Hindu elite after the transfer of power and to create for themselves opportunities for autonomy and self-assertion. The INC committed a series of tactical mistakes during 1939- 46 – by resigning from the provincial ministries in 1939, refusing the Cripps offer in 1942 and launching the ‘Quit India’ movement that landed most prominent Congress leaders in jail, and gave the Muslim League the opportunity to increase its influence among the Muslims.
Finally, it was Nehru’s denunciation of the grouping scheme of the Cabinet Mission Plan (1946) that provided Jinnah with an ‘incomparable wedge to press openly for Pakistan’, Michael Brecher wrote later. Jinnah withdrew the League’s acceptance of the Cabinet Mission Plan and threatened to use violence to achieve his goal of an independent Pakistan.
The ‘Direct Action Plan of the Muslim League and the communal violence resulting from it made partition inevitable. In retrospect, it seems that the rejection of the ‘grouping’ scheme of the Cabinet Mission Plan was the right decision because, if implemented, it would have weakened the Centre and led to the Balkanization of India.