This is the quintessential ‘What If’ question. It is counterfactual because now we can never know what would have happened if India had not been partitioned. But we can speculate about the possibilities and try and construct plausible scenarios for purposes of understanding and discussion.
In this post we argue against the scenario presented by Aakar Patel in his op-ed in The News on September 22, 2008. Aakar Patel’s one-line conclusion is that an unpartitioned India would have been a disaster for both Hindus and Muslims.
Let us first list the points we aim to contend:
- Unpartitioned India would be the word’s largest country (1.4 billion people), the world’s largest Muslim country (500 million) and… the world’s poorest country (over 600 million hungry).
- In undivided India, religion would have dominated political debate, as it did in the 30s and 40s, and consensus on reform would be hard to build internally. All energy would be sucked into keeping the country together. Undivided India would have separate electorates, the irreducible demand of the Muslim League and the one that Nehru stood against. A democracy with separate electorates is no democracy at all.
- Hindus would never have been able to rule Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan or the Frontier.
- Without Partition there would have been no Nizam-e-Mustafa.
- The fault line of national politics in undivided India would have remained Hindu versus Muslim. Jinnah alone understood that from the start. Nehru and Patel understood it much later, agreeing to Partition. Gandhi never understood it; if he did, he never accepted it.
- Three parts of undivided India had a Muslim majority. The west became Pakistan, the east became Bangladesh. Sooner or later, the north will become something else: the Muslims of Kashmir do not want to be India. But Indians do not understand that.
Let us now respond in order and present a different perspective:
- Undivided India need not have been the world’s poorest country. The resources, attention and energy that have gone into the continued hostility since Partition could have been channeled into development. (See the cost of conflict estimated by the Strategic Foresight Group, Mumbai). The huge market and the complementarities of arbitrarily divided ecosystems could have yielded great benefits. Huge investments went into making up for the division of the Indus water system, for example.
- A democracy need not be a mechanical and rigid system. Malaysia, with three, not two, hostile communities found a way to adjust its system of governance to suit its constraints. South Africa, with its bitter history of apartheid, found a way in its constitution to work around the hostilities. There was no reason India could not have found a similarly workable formula.
- There is no reason to think in terms of one community ruling the other. Indeed, that is a framework that is incompatible with democratic governance. The fact is that almost right up to Partition, the Punjab’s Unionist Party had found a mechanism to govern with a coalition of the major communities.
- Even after Partition there is no Nizam-e-Mustafa. The fact that a large number of Hindus in India today want the Kingdom of Ram does not mean that their demand needs to lead to a redefinition of India. These kinds of demands need to be resolved in the political arena.
- Jinnah did not feel from the start that the fault-line in undivided India would have remained Hindus versus Muslims. In fact, Jinnah was the advocate of Hindu-Muslim unity because he believed it was possible. The management of any fault line is up to the leadership as shown by the examples of Malaysia and South Africa mentioned earlier. Ireland is another example.
- Three parts of undivided India had a Muslim majority but the demand for Pakistan did not originate in these areas. In fact the Muslim majority areas of the west were the last to sign on and even then very reluctantly. The Muslims of Kashmir seemed quite satisfied with the situation under the Farooq Abdullah government. Their attitude is more a function of India’s mismanagement (and post-partition Pakistan’s incitements) than of some innate hatred of Hindus. There is no cure for mismanagement. Even the Muslim west and east could not coexist in the face of political folly.
It is quite possible to argue that there were many possible resolutions of the situation that prevailed in India in the 1930s and 1940s. It was a failure of leadership that the worst possible alternative was chosen. India lacked a statesman of the caliber of Mandela who could see beyond the immediate political gains and losses.
The cost of the Partition is hard to imagine – almost a million deaths, ten million homeless, and continued conflicts. Add to this the subsequent costs in Bangladesh and the ongoing ones in Kashmir. If the inability of Hindus and Muslims to live together is given as the sole reason for the Partition, it should be considered that in all the one thousand years that Muslims lived in India, there was never once this scale of conflict or bloodshed.
It was possible to live together. In fact Hindus and Muslims continue to live together in India even though their relations were poisoned and made immensely difficult by the fact of the Partition.
One could just as well argue that the Partition was a disaster for both Hindus and Muslims as also for the Sikhs whose homeland was cut into two. A united India would never have allowed the Saudis or the Americans to set up madrassas and train jihadis within its territories. Dim-witted dictators would never have been able to occupy the positions of power they were in post-Partition Pakistan and Bangladesh.
We can say that Manto in Toba Tek Singh had the right perspective on the partition of India.