It is sad that the history we are taught in our countries is so one-dimensional that even the thought that the ‘Other’ might be semi-intelligent (let alone great) makes people catatonic. The predictable reaction is either to impugn the motives of the writer or to find selective evidence to prove that the real blame rests entirely on the ‘Other.’ The alternative of sifting through the arguments on their merits remains alien, unacceptable, impossible, or just too tiresome.
The reason Jaswant Singh’s book has made such a splash is because he is a front ranking politician with a very high reputation for integrity (for which, read Strobe Talbott’s Engaging India) and belongs to the BJP, all of which make the story impossible to ignore. Otherwise, this is an argument that has been made before and forgotten.
HM Seervai was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1972 and was universally acknowledged an outstanding legal mind. He wrote Partition of India: Legend and Reality in 1990 towards the end of his life when there was nothing to be gained by going against the grain. This was perhaps the first account of the Partition written after the release of the ten-volume Transfer of Power papers and given his legal background one would expect his reading of the documents to be just as, if not more, meticulous than that of Jaswant Singh.
Here is the Wikepedia description of the book:
His controversial Partition of India: Legend and Reality (1990) challenged the existing view that blamed the partition of India on the Muslim League. He argued instead that it was the latent bias on the part of Indian National Congress leadership which resulted in partition. It is a painstakingly accurate exercise of sifting through the Transfer of Power Papers, after which like a true jurist, Mr. Seervai has given his verdict and it is an interesting verdict but also a journey towards truth for Mr. Seervai who finished this book at the twilight of his own life. The journey, Mr. Seervai says, started with Rajmohan Gandhi’s fascinating inquiry into the life of Mr. Mahomed Ali Jinnah in which the author did not shy away from criticizing his famous grandfather Mohandas Gandhi for introducing religion into politics and refusing to accommodate the Muslims to share power. Rajmohan Gandhi’s analysis was a starting point for Mr. Seervai.
In The Idea of India (1997), Sunil Khilnani also took a nuanced stance towards the momentous events:
Hindu nationalism was a real mover in the agitation for Partition, both directly through the organization and action of Hindu communalists, and through its influence within Congress. Secular and Hindu nationalisms have invariably assigned primary responsibility for Partition to Muslim ‘communalism’ and separatism. Yet recent historical research has complicated the conventions of this picture…. The twists by which this came about were heavily contingent on the attitudes of the Hindu majority, as well as those of Congress….
The core of [Jinnah’s] disagreement with Congress concerned the structure of this future state. Jinnah was determined to prevent the creation of a unitary central state with procedures of political representation that threatened to put it in the hands of a numerically dominant religious community. As such, this was a perfectly secular ambition. But the contingencies of politics and the convenient availability of powerful lines of social difference pushed it in a quite contrary direction.
The Muslim insistence on a separate state crystallized only in the decade before 1947, and there is real force to the point that practical experience of Congress rule in the Indian provinces after the elections of 1937 was instrumental in encouraging Muslim political alienation. Congress governments, subject in many cases to the influence of nationalist Hindus, lost the trust of Muslims and so helped to kindle support for the Muslim League.
It was this erosion of trust that framed a desire to redescribe a ‘minority’ within British India as a separate ‘nation’, and to take it outside the boundaries of India. The political and intellectual weight of the Hindu nationalist imagination, with its desire for a clear definition of Indianness based on an exclusive sense of culture and of an historical past, was decisive in imposing an artificial cohesion to the diverse local Muslim identities on the subcontinent: indeed, Jinnah himself protested that the idea of Pakistan was foisted upon him by Hindu public opinion.
All this could be dismissed as self-serving, an attempt to gain advantage of some sort, or a misplaced apologia for Muslims. But if taken seriously as the reflection of learned individuals, it paints a picture of events that were immensely complex and that proved beyond the capacity of Indian leaders of all parties to resolve to their mutual satisfaction. It was a collective failure of tragic proportions and the desire to pin all the blame on this or that person only comes in the way of understanding why men and women of such stature failed to find a solution to the problem.
Once we get beyond the fixation of trying to find the one villain in the story, we can move on and attempt to understand the dynamic that drove the events of the first half of the twentieth century. How did the religious identities come about? What motivated the separate nationalisms? What prevented finding a mode of representation that could have reassured all parties? Why did so many individuals driven by such high ideals come up short? Why did a million people die and ten million made homeless? And what have we learnt from the failure and the tragedy?
We will engage with these issues in the second part of this series.