Could India have remained undivided is without doubt one of the more enduring ‘what ifs’ in recent history. There were other outcomes on offer and not until the dying days of the Raj was separation seriously contemplated. It was not predestined once the Empire decided to give up its jewel in its crown; not as though India was fated to be rent asunder: Two nations joined artificially at the hip, but glued under the weight of an Imperium.
Nothing was further from the truth.
Is it any wonder then that there is a whole body of work, partition historiography, to keep us imagining of the wondrous possibility of a united India, sans that horrific partition, the bloodiest in history: With the glittering prospect of being accorded a great power status, as if it was its natural destiny.
The partition story is complex and a series of inconvenient truths stumble out depending on who is writing the story. Each narrator guilty of glossing over a few details or selectively spotlighting half-truths to scapegoat individuals or political parties for this “cursed vivisection of India”. Incidentally, that phraseology is Nathuram Godse’s, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi to justify his dastardly act. He held Gandhi singularly responsible for tearing India apart: The irony is that the great man was totally against this vivisection of mother India. Meanwhile, the Quaid-e-Azam, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the Father of Pakistan, characterised the truncated homeland created for the Muslims of undivided India as a Pakistan that neither he nor his fellow Muslims wanted. And Abul Ala Mawdudi, the founder of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JII) condemned the very concept of a separate homeland contending that Muslims would be better off in undivided India. The JII’s bete noir, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) also equally denounced the division of India. Despite this, none of this variegated lot of protesters shared a common cause for each of them had distinctly different and totally incompatible reasons to oppose this move to split the country.
What then about the occupier, the British Empire, which had all the executive power to make or unmake India? Britain had an exclusive hold on this power unlike the other protagonists. The command and control centre was in Whitehall, but within the epicentre of the Imperium there were widely conflicting views ranging from the Labour Party, which took a sympathetic stand on India, to Winston Churchill who, until the last day, strenuously worked to undo the transfer of power. The last two Viceroys also had very differing views, Archibald Wavell, who was painted as a villain, was actually a wise and prescient ruler of India. Lord Mountbatten flamboyant, unlike his understated predecessor, loved India, but he was a man in a hurry and presumed fatally that he had all the answers to the unfolding crisis that was in the making much before he arrived on the scene. Unforgivable hubris that cost precious lives.
So then who wanted this unwanted partition? For many Indians, Jinnah was cited as the reason for this dismemberment though, as we saw earlier, he himself was initially against it. Meanwhile, within Pakistan, Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi and the Indian National Congress (INC) and to an extent Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, are named for this cursed vivisection, while Whitehall is blamed for covertly letting Hindu India get away with the major spoils of this division. There were too many actors, rehearsing for the role of the arch villain in this unfolding and terrible drama in which more than one million died and countless millions were uprooted from their homes.
Realistically, however, could India have remained undivided?
Among the many who have written on this subject none other than the famed historian Ayesha Jalal and her most recent book The struggle for Pakistan comes as close as possible to answer this vexed matter. She, however, cautions us that “Scholarship on the partition of India has produced more conflicting arguments than can be synthesised neatly to provide a definitive view of this watershed event in South Asian history.” Before we wade into substantive issues, listen to Jinnah: “The Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies ... They neither intermarry nor inter-dine together and, indeed, they belong to two different civilisations ... It is quite clear that Hindus and Muslims derive their inspiration from different sources of history.”
Jalal’s principal point revolves around the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946. This plan aimed at the transfer of power from the British government to the Indian leadership, by preserving India’s unity and granting it independence and her central thrust is that should the INC and in specific Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel — the two principal negotiators — had agreed to this formula, India could have remained undivided. Her book explains at length the complex build-up to this point of no-return, including that Jinnah used his relentless demand for Pakistan as a bargaining chip. He was willing to sacrifice even this, right up to the very end, if only a way could be found to protect the rights of the Muslims before the transfer of power was complete. Jinnah wanted to keep India united with political safeguards for Muslims. Otherwise, he felt the British Raj was simply going to be turned into a Hindu Raj once the British departed. Essentially, the plan was to give a constitutional structure of a confederation whereby the central government, in Delhi, would be empowered to handle nationwide affairs, such as defence, currency, and diplomacy, and the rest of the powers and responsibilities would belong to the provinces. The Muslim-majority provinces would be grouped, with Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan and the North-West Frontier Province forming one group, and Bengal and Assam would form another. The Hindu-majority provinces in central and southern India would form another group.
In contrast, the INC, Nehru and Patel were vehemently opposed to this constitutional structure, demanding instead a strong centre, primarily a unitary system within a federation and the provinces or states enjoying well-defined but limited rights. They were adamant that a weak centre that was being proposed would be a disaster and unviable; creating a totally effete and a moribund central authority that would be in no position to enforce its authority — and a prescription for the eventual beak-up of the confederation. And the INC was prepared even for the vivisection of India if it could not get a federal structure, a union of states, but with a powerful centre. This indeed was the rock on which the ship of state, the confederation, ran aground. Rest is history.
Accepting a monochromatic identity
The test bed to evaluate this idea of a confederation is to look closely at Pakistan, which championed this cause. Ironically, once the country was created, Jinnah moved rapidly to create a strong centre with very limited powers devolved to the provinces and indeed his demand for East Pakistan to accept a monochromatic identity and in particular his imposition of Urdu language on the Bengali population was the genesis for much of the tragedy that was to follow. Many of the leaders after Jinnah followed the same trajectory with variations, but essentially the structure was of a unitary state with the added aberration of one province, Punjab, virtually dominating all other provinces. The Punjab province in Pakistan is home to not just 65 per cent of Pakistan’s population, but is also the most industrialised province. Its gross domestic product is close to 60 per cent of the country’s and its Human Development Index highest of all the provinces. Indeed, this domination and a lack of a fair and equitable federal structure are perhaps the primary reasons why Pakistan has been unable to fulfil the dreams of the Quaid. Strange indeed that the very principle of greater autonomy, the bedrock of a confederation that Jinnah had espoused so strenuously, was jettisoned when the new state came to be created.
In contrast, in India, the federal structure for which the INC stood steadfast and suffered ‘vivisection’ is chief among the many reasons why some of the dreams of its founding father’s dream was realised. The cooperative federalism, far from perfect, that India has attempted to practise, is best seen on how the two successor states handled the language crisis that both faced during the last 70 years. The Urdu crisis of the early 1950s provided the spark for the eventual break-up of Pakistan and paved the way for the creation of Bangladesh, whereas the Indian state’s commitment to the principle of pluralism of languages bound the states together. The Tamil separatism, the seeds of which were ever present, even before the 1960s and 1970s, gradually faded away over time and Tamil pride and cultural resurgence, though intact, the destructive secessionist tendencies inherent in the movement has all but died out. The resilience, the elasticity and the give-and-take vested in federalism cemented India ever stronger.
The idea of an undivided India, however, remains strong and visceral and appeals to the better angels of our nature. Sadly, India’s experience for the last 70 years has been anything but perfect and so for good or bad, we must fall back on that famous V.S. Naipaul adage: “The world is what it is.”
Ravi Menon is a Dubai-based writer, working on a series of essays on India and on a public service initiative called India Talks.
Watch this space for the Pakistan-perspective on this issue, soon.