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Published in the 1-15 July 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Partition culprit: to each one's own

By Ram Puniyani

The Milli Gazette Online

Advani's statement on Jinnah (June 2005) also brought to fore one more debate, the one related to Partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947, some of the commentators and spokespersons of political parties criticised Advani for the ‘Jinnah comment’ on the ground that Jinnah was responsible for Partition of the country so how come we can call him a secular person. In this context many an opinions have been circulating as to who was the culprit of the partition tragedy.

One of the popular conceptions has been to blame Mahatma Gandhi for it. A section of Hindu Right wing had popularised that it was Gandhi's policy of appeasing the Muslims (does the term sound familiar!) due to which Muslims felt emboldened and went on to divide the country. Some opinions accuse Gandhi to the extent that since he had said that Partition would take place only on his dead body, how come he kept quiet and did not oppose Partition. One recalls that this was one of the pretexts of Nathuram Godse to kill the Mahatma. The other argument putting the blame on Gandhi comes on the premise that Gandhi went on to build and lead the anti-British movement and in turn unleashed the forces which partitioned the country. 

According to other opinion, it was Nehru's ambition to become prime minister that Partition took place. George Fernandes while rushing to the defense of Advani said similar thing, that Nehru backed out from the Cabinet Mission plans, so it was Nehru who was responsible for Partition. Not to be left behind Communists with their formulation of ‘Muslims are a separate Nationality’, a confused definition of nationality, is yet another in the list of culprits. This argument, for some, is that the communists by providing the theoretical justification to the demand of Pakistan are the primary culprits. 

One is sure that the popular perception in Pakistan must be that Hindus were dominating, the Congress, Hindu mahasabha, and RSS were bent on depriving the Muslims of the equality so Jinnah saved the Muslims by demanding a separate state to safeguard the interests of the Muslims of the country.

What is striking in these popular narratives is the omission of the role, which British played in the partitioning of the country. Partition process is generally perceived as the story of a Hindi film, easy to understand, a hero, a villain, one black, one white and so the understanding becomes easy. No straining of the thought process. It is another matter that one group’s hero is another group’s villain and vice versa. 

It also reminds one that in this singling out a villain there is an attempt to identify the individual who played this role. Some researchers with easy thinking see the whole tragedy as a clash of ego of the personalities. Nothing can be shallower than this. Most surprising part is the total blindness to the role of British in the process. It is also reminiscent of the story of elephant and the blind men, each blind man constructing his own elephant according to his own experience or whatever.

Partition was no simple process. It was a multi-layered phenomenon in which interests of different classes, the goals of colonial powers and the real politic of the political parties and the individuals all contributed their own share resulting in the tragedy of mammoth proportions. This was a tragedy of which scars are difficult to erase till today. Apart from the role of British, the colonial powers, the second major factor, which is not much grappled with, there were the diverging interests of the declining classes, landlords and kings and some middle classes on one hand and the rising classes, industrialists, a section of middle classes and the vast mass of peasantry on the other. Also somewhere totally missing in the narratives is the conflict between the pre-modern hierarchy of caste and gender and the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
The process of Partition was a multi-layered phenomenon. The base of this was the conflicting interests of landed gentry and those who survived on industries and those striving for equality at social, economic and gender levels. With the introduction of changes towards modernity the rise of educated classes, and industrialists was the major factor to form the core of national movement, against the colonial powers. While a lot of parallelism can be deciphered in the response of two major religious communities, the major difference in the response is due to the majority and minority responses being different in their articulation and expression.

The feudal classes responded to the formation of Indian National Congress by throwing up of the opposition to this party by the Rajas, Nawabs, Jamindars and Jagirdars. Congress, which used the prefix Indian, was opposed by the ideologies coming from Muslim elite as being a party of Hindu interests. At the same time the Hindu elite called it as the most unfortunate thing to have ever happened to Hindus as the Congress was treating the Muslims equally. The ‘appeasement of minorities’ formulation has its roots here. While Sir Syed told fellow Muslims to keep off the Congress, Pandit Lekhram called the Congress as the biggest misfortune for Hindus. Ignoring these people, people from of all religions joined this political process, which acted as an umbrella for all the political tendencies as well. The crystallization of Muslim communalism into Muslim League and Hindu communalism into, first Punjab Hindu Sabha and later Hindu Mahsabha, which was to be supplanted by the RSS, took place in due course of time. I will not go into the minute details of all the events, steps and the individual ambitions in this tragic drama but try to focus on the diversity of class interests of the people of India, some involved in the anti colonial struggle and others witnessing the national movement from the sidelines. 

Muslim and Hindu communalisms were based on the understanding that religion is the base of nation state. While superficially opposing each other their basic premise was the same. It came up in the form of Muslim League asserting that Muslims were a separate nation since Mohammad bin Kasim first attacked Sindh and later Muslim went on to rule the country. On the same wavelength the Hindu communalists stuck to the ideology that India was a Hindu Nation and the foreigners, Muslims and Christians would have to respect this fact. Savarkar's Hindutva or ‘who is a Hindu’ was the first major theoretical outpouring establishing religion as the base of a nation. In Hindu Mahasabha sessions Nepal Naresh (Emperor) was prominently upheld as the monarch of all the Hindus World over. In 1938, Hindu Mahasabha President Bhai Parmanand was forthright in stating that, “Mr Jinnah argues that there are two nations in the country. If Mr Jinnah is right and I believe he is, that the Congress theory of building common nationality falls to the ground. The situation has got two solutions, one is the partition of the country into two and the other to allow Muslim state to grow within Hindu state.”

RSS ideologue Golwalkar was more forthright to state that India is a exclusive Hindu nation and minorities are to be dealt with the way Hitler dealt with Jews and others, “To keep up with the purity of the nation and its culture, Germany shocked the world by purging the country of the Semitic races — the Jews. National pride at its highest has been manifested here.” (MS Golwalkar, We or Our nationhood Defined, Nagpur, 1938, p. 27). The Muslim communalists were gradually shifting towards demand for a separate nation, Pakistan, and its culmination came in the form of Lahore resolution of 1940. While a section of Muslim elite was behind this resolution, large sections of Muslim community were against this. 

In 1940s the communalists resorted to blatant propaganda against the other community laying the foundation of the communal violence in times to come. The second offshoot of this was sections of middle classes gravitating to communalism in larger numbers. The surface phenomenon of these did get manifested in the contrasting stands, which the communalists on one hand and the national movement on the other hand took the primary reason for Jinnah to leave the Congress and become the spokesman of Muslim League was not because of his being a Muslim or an ardent Islamic follower. Primarily these were the aristocratic, constitutional values and his opposition to the mass movement, the participation of masses in the anti-British struggle. Interestingly both communal streams, Muslims and Hindus kept aloof from the national movement and did not have the mass participation of broad sections of society. Both were again not the subjects of British repression.

The role of British is the one least criticised in the popular opinion and common sense. British saw this country inhabited mainly by Muslims and Hindus. This was not the popular consciousness or identity at that time but in due course it became the primary identity. Their steps, to recognise the Muslim feudal elements as the representatives of Muslims, their dubbing the Congress as representative of Hindus, partition of Bengal on communal lines, separate electorates and communal award clearly sowed the seeds of divide and rule policy. The colonial masters were clear that an undivided India will be a big player on the world political scene threatening their primacy and jeopardizing their interests in the subcontinent. Jaswant Singh while reviewing one of the books on Partition recalls an interesting incident. Lord Wavell before coming to India went to meet Churchill who was very busy at that time. As a substitute for the discussion on the matter he asked Wavell if the plan to give freedom to India was afoot. Churchil told him to ensure that part of India was kept for ‘us’, meaning colonial powers. A large presence of US troops on the Pakistani land and its acting as the base of US and hatchet man of imperialists today shows the foresight of colonial powers and the means they adopt to see that their interests are safe and secure.

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