The Partition debate

by Saad Hafiz

The intense debate over the Partition of India in 1947 continues six decades later. Some commentators have described the partition as neither inherently desirable nor necessary feasible but tragically inevitable. They attribute this to the Congress and Muslim League’s incompatible visions for India, which led to deadlock in talks forcing the British to impose a solution. Others suggest that the partition was a crude and unthinking form of gerrymandering with tragic consequences leading to a permanent poisoning of Hindu-Muslim relations. They dismiss it as a socio-religious experiment, a failure of leadership that the worst possible alternative was chosen. Messrs Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru and Mountbatten, the main players in the partition saga have been praised or vilified as strong-willed visionaries or mediocre statesmen. It has been suggested that they collectively lacked an emollient approach to negotiation and refused to look beyond the immediate political gains and losses.

In their defence, these leaders had to grapple with some pertinent lines of argument on the partition question such as: 1) can a concoction of complex power-sharing schemes to accommodate two mistrustful but inextricably linked populations be made to work and survive before considering partition 2) are there other means available to accommodate national and religious differences except forced assimilation or strict separation 3) can people feel safe only among their own kind and ‘national’ reconciliation will never work between people from different nations and religions 4) can different people accept being forced into the same state; or it helps to divide along national/religious lines to prevent future bloodshed 5) is the investment worth presiding over the shotgun marriage of mutually suspicious communities so fundamentally unable to tolerate each other’s presence that they are quick to engage in fratricide.

It was probably accepted that partition would not be perfect; and it was bound to be painful and carries risks. Creating new borders and moving people trapped within them are fraught with problems. It has been suggested that an un-partitioned India would have been a disaster for both Hindus and Muslims. That the fault-line of national politics in undivided India would have remained Hindu versus Muslim, in effect, the slogans of the ‘Kingdom of Ram’ and ‘Nizam-e-Mustafa’ forever at odds. No arrangement could be found to manage the threat of one community from dominating or blackmailing the other. The only solution available was Hindu and Muslim majority states, where for the most part Hindus and Muslims felt free to be themselves without feeling that they were on sufferance from the rulers. The following quotes are perhaps illustrative of the partition dilemma. “Although I honestly felt that in the context of India as a whole Muslims had legitimate cause for grievance against upper class Hindu chauvinism, I held the view very strongly indeed that the creation of Pakistan would never solve the communal problem. On the contrary, it would aggravate communal hatred and bitterness. Besides, I maintained that it would not ameliorate the condition of Muslims in Pakistan. The inevitable result of the partition of the country would be to prolong, if not perpetuate, the poverty, illiteracy and miserable condition of the toiling masses of both the States.” (Minister J N Mandal resignation letter to Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan.)

“The cruel truth is that this partitioning of India has actually resulted in achieving the very reverse of the originally intended purpose; partition, instead of settling contention between communities has left us a legacy of markedly enhanced Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or other such denominational identities, hence differences…” Jaswant Singh’s writes in his Jinnah India-Partition-Independence.

The cost of the Partition is hard to imagine — almost a million deaths, ten million homeless, and continued conflicts.It was an episode of brutal depravity that might be unmatched in recent history. Untold numbers of women suffered a fate worse than death; they were raped, sometimes tortured, gang-raped and murdered. These atrocities primarily occurred in Punjab and Bengal and involved venal criminality on the part of all parties concerned: Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. The violence has been attributed to the frustrated expectations, appeals to chauvinism and the communal fragility of that period. Despite these conditions, it is hard to fathom how people that lived together for years one day had no compunction in indulging in the most brutal carnage.

Generally, there has been limited focus in the Partition debate on what ordinary Indians actually wanted as the Partition bandwagon rolled along and decisions made by lawmakers far from the frontline changed the course of history of the subcontinent. Today, most would agree that the promises of the Partition have not fully materialised in either India or Pakistan. Traditional, conservative South Asian culture remains entrenched in patriarchal and feudal societies. A large underclass and poverty remains high. Suffocating religious thought, communalism, caste-ism and intensified bigotry is ever present. The political elites and dynasties have yet to concede to the masses real political and economic rights beyond tokenism. Thus, the post-partition generation may be allowed to wonder whether a workable formula, constitutional guarantees and a better management of demands in the political arena could have been found to avoid partition.

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