Jaswant Singh‘s book provides the excuse for this post. We are going to move away from narratives that seek a villain in the story. Rather, we will present a sequence of events that increasingly predisposed the outcome towards a division of the subcontinent. Along the path marked by these events, there were a number of crucial turning points at which different decisions could possibly have led to different outcomes. These remain the big what-ifs of our history.
In this narrative we present just the big picture and the key highlights. Each of the turning points needs a chapter to itself but it is useful to sketch an overview before we begin to start filling in the details. We hope to use the commentary for that purpose.
The British become masters of India
The story can start at any number of points but let us begin it in 1803. Before 1803, the British were one among a number of forces contending for power in India. With the defeat of the Marhattas in 1803, they became the sole masters taking the Mughal king under their protection.
Becoming sole masters meant that the British had now to rule India and a rationale had to be found for this rule. It is at this point that the humiliation of Indians begins because the rationale for British rule was found in the need to ‘civilize’ India, to raise her to the level where it could rule itself. Soon after, with the opening of the Suez route, came the missionaries who added the need to show the benighted heathens the true light. This is when the lingam became the penis as described by Professor Balagangadhara.
The rise and fragmentation of Indian nationalism
This humiliation festered till it burst in the first outpouring of Indian nationalism in 1857. Note that this was ‘Indian’ nationalism as all the disaffected, irrespective of identity, united to ask their reluctant king to lead them in the uprising. The roots of this composite Indian nationalism could be traced back to the formation of the Ghadr Party in 1913, perhaps the last non-elite resistance that was free of any prejudices related to religion, caste, ethnicity, or language, an aspect that would surprise many today. Perhaps, it was so precisely because it was a subaltern movement devoid of elite concerns for power, employment, and appropriation of resources.
Of course, the uprising was crushed. More important were the uneven (or at least perceived as such) punishments meted out to the groups that had participated in the uprising. This effectively split Indian nationalism along religious lines. Humiliation is a very powerful motivator and the responses to it left lasting impressions on Indian history that are being felt even today. (The most vivid account of this period is by William Dalrymple in The Last Mughal.)
Not only did Indian nationalism split into Muslim and Hindu nationalisms but each in turn split into nationalisms that looked for redemption to the past or to the future. On the Muslim side one can contrast the groups that set up seminaries with Syed Ahmad Khan setting up the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College. On the Hindu side, one can contrast the forward-looking vision of Nehru with glorification of a Hindu past by Savarkar.
Perhaps the lone voice of dissent was that of Gandhi who advised rejecting the British ‘habit of writing history.’ He must have sensed that given the context of India, any invention of a past would be divisive. “I believe,” he wrote, “that a nation is happy that has no history.” Khilnani explores this crucial point:
In contrast to nationalists who sought to construct a reliable future out of a selected past, Gandhi expressed profound distrust for the historical genre. He turned to legends and stories from India’s popular religious traditions, preferring their lessons to the supposed ones of history. The fact that so many on the subcontinent found these fables accessible, and recognized their predicaments and symbols, itself testified to a shared civilizational bond.
But it was too late in the day. It is ironic that Gandhi’s recourse to religious symbolism (including his support of the Khilafat movement in 1920 – which Jinnah opposed as ‘religious frenzy’) itself proved to be divisive.
By far the most influential of these invented histories in terms of impact on the immediate future was the nationalism espoused by Savarkar that equated India with Hinduism with everyone else “relegated to awkward, secondary positions.” Khilnani notes that “the Gandhian Congress adroitly marginalized the Savarkarite conception of Indian history and Indianness, but its presuppositions were never erased: many nationalists outside Congress, and even some within it, shared them.” This sentiment was to make itself felt after the elections of 1937.
The political fracturing of Indian nationalism
Just in case the widening of religious and cultural splits in Indian nationalism were not sufficient guarantors of British dominance, a political fracture would make assurance doubly sure. In 1905, Bengal was severed into two provinces: East Bengal,with 18 million Muslims and 12 million Hindus, and West Bengal, with a largely Hindu population of 47 million. The stated purpose was administrative efficiency—Bengal was too big to govern effectively — yet British advisers were quite clear about the political implications. “Bengal united is a power,” one of them counseled. “Bengal divided will pull several ways. That is what the Congress leaders feel; their apprehensions are perfectly correct and they form one of the great merits of the scheme….One of our main objects is to split up and thereby weaken a solid body of opponents to our rule.”
The objective was achieved. Here are Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s observations in his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian: “It was from the end of 1906 that we became conscious of a new kind of hatred for the Muslims, which sprang out of the present and showed signs of poisoning our personal relations with our Muslim neighbours and schoolfellows. If the spouting enmity did not go to the length of inducing us to give up all intercourse with them, it made us at all events treat them with a marked decline of civility. We began to hear angry comments in the mouths of our elders that the Muslims were coming out quite openly in favor of partition and on the side of the English.”
Although the partition was reversed in 1911, things, not unexpectedly, could never revert to the status quo ante. The damage was done even if its ultimate consequences were not entirely intended. It was the prelude to the partition of 1947 and some of whose seeds were sown in Bengal in 1905.
The creation of religious identities
The shock of the great uprising of 1857 yielded two immediate lessons to the British – the need to learn more about Indian communities and to find a way to rule indirectly through a pliable elite. The first led to the introduction of the census (conducted in 1871) in which the determination of religion was of primary importance. This was contrary to the practice in Britain itself where a question about religion was not included in the census.
The fascinating story of the census is described in In the Making: Identity Formation in South Asia by Kamaljit Bhasin-Malik (2007). The notes of the census takers themselves tell the story – no one answered to the category of ‘Hindu’ when asked their religion and so Hinduism was defined as a default category – anyone who could not be classified into any other religion was listed as a Hindu. There was no room for ambiguity; all syncretic communities were put under one heading or another (see a brief description in this post). Thus were religious identities created – as Sunil Khilnani puts it in The Idea of India: “The terminology of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ was itself an inescapable imposition of the political accountancy of the Raj.”
The creation of political identities
At the same time, the mechanism envisaged to involve the local elite into the governance of India was electoral representation. Here again, the practice differed from that in Britain where the unit of representation was a territory. In India, the British chose the units to be communities “with immutable interests and collective rights.” And once again, these were determined on the basis of religion. “Defined as majorities and minorities, they were shepherded into communal electorates whose interest the British had to protect from one another” (Khilnani).
The decision to use separate electorates based on religion was a crucial decision taken in 1909. Any other marker of identity – territory, language, ethnicity – could have been used, if at all one was needed. Or proportional representation could have been employed to give adequate representation to the various groups that the British felt were vulnerable in the electoral system. But the British opted for religion. Ostensibly it was the Muslims who asked for separate electorates. It is well known now that the British principal of the Aligarh College and the private secretary of the Viceroy drafted the memorandum spelling out these demands. The Viceroy readily agreed to the demands. Thus “the dice were loaded against Hindu-Muslim unity” (see Raghavan here).
So religious affiliation was turned into a decisive distinction. Here is a quote from the conclusion of the Indian Statutory Commission in 1930:
So long as people had no part in the conduct of their government, there was little for members of one community to fear from the predominance of the other. The gradual introduction of constitutional reforms, however, had greatly stimulated communal tension as it aroused anxieties and ambitions among many communities by the prospect of their place in India’s future political set-up.
This is followed by the verdict of the Indian historian K.N. Pannikar: “the introduction of the principle of elected representation in public institutions actively promoted the rising of communalism in India.” (Both these quotes can be found in this post.)
The next crucial turning point came in 1932 when the draft Indian Constitution proposed by the British included separate electorates for Dalits – a proposal that was supported by Dr. Ambedkar. Gandhiji began a hunger strike because he felt that separate electorates for Dalits would “disintegrate Hindu society.” Apprehensive of the consequences, Dr. Ambedkar withdrew his support. Later, on his own deathbed, he is reported to have said that it was the “biggest mistake in his life.”
Two things are important to note here. First, no one in Congress opposed separate electorates for Muslims on the grounds that it would disintegrate Indian society (as it did). Second, the entire process of representation was not based on any consistent principle. The choice of separate electorates for Muslims was a bad one; but having made it, separate electorates for Dalits could have lent coherence to the system. Together, the Muslim and Dalit vote could have provided a balance to the Congress that could have made a first-past-the-post electoral system work. By giving separate electorates to one but not to the other the system became lopsided and unworkable.
The rules of the game
There is an important feature of this period of Indian history that is often overlooked. I will borrow the terminology of game theory to explain it. There are some contests that take place within well-defined rules of the game; there are other contests that take place to determine what the rules of a future game are going to be. There is a profound difference between the two. Think of two teams playing a game of cricket or negotiating over what the rules of cricket are going to be. Contests over rules are resolved most often when the balance of power is one-sided – thus the formation of the UN after WW2 when the big powers decided there was going to be a Security Council, they would be the permanent members, and they would have the right to veto. When the balance is not so lop-sided resolution becomes very difficult – as is the case in the negotiations over the WTO or climate change. Brinksmanship is common and statesmanship of a very high order is required to arrive at any mutually acceptable consensus. When the game itself is alien (as electoral representation was in India), the difficulties get compounded many times.
The 1937 elections
Given the electoral system in place, the Congress won an overwhelming majority in the 1937 elections. But as Khilnani notes: “there is real force to the point that that the practical experience of Congress rule in the provinces after the elections of 1937 was instrumental in encouraging 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 fanned a desire to redescribe a ‘minority’ within British India as a separate ‘nation’, and to take it outside the boundaries of India.”
The demand for Pakistan
Khilnani concludes the above line of argument with the statement: “The Muslim insistence on a separate state crystallized only in the decade before 1947.” It was in this period that Jinnah, the secular ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity (as vouched for most recently by LK Advani and Jaswant Singh) became the champion of Muslims only.
And here there is another critical twist in the story. Recall that all the leaders who mattered at this stage of history represented India but were not representative of India. They were all British-trained lawyers with whom the British felt at ease because of their competence and intellect and degree of comfort with European ideas. Khilnani remarks how unrepresentative Indian political parties were and that “most people in India had no idea of what exactly they had been given. Like the British empire it supplanted, India’s constitutional democracy was established in a fit of absent-mindedness.”
Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his book The Burden of Democracy writes:
The significance of India’s democratic experiment was itself disguised by the historical process through which it came about…. It was not the object of ideological passion, it was not born of a deep sense of conviction widely shared, but it was simply the contingent outcome of the conflicts amongst India’s different elites, or an unintended by-product of the British having produced too many lawyers adept in the idioms of modern politics.
The fact that the leaders representing India were lawyers and not politicians by tradition or training had a major impact on subsequent events. When Jinnah took on the brief for Pakistan, his entire focus converged on winning his case. Like it would for any lawyer, the case became the world and everything outside blurred in significance. Professor Ralph Russell has a perceptive take on this dilemma when he notes that there had indeed emerged a “sophisticated” case for Muslim separation based on secular or quasi-secular concepts (see here).
But such sophisticated concepts could not arouse the mass Muslim enthusiasm which the leadership needed if acceptance of its demands were to be enforced. With the illiterate and half-literate Muslim masses, what carried weight was precisely the ideas of the ‘most undesirable reactionary elements’… An appeal to the Muslim masses to come into the political arena could, in the late 1930s and 1940s, hardly have had any other result than to fan this sort of Muslim chauvinism. The response to Jinnah’s call in December 1939, to celebrate a ‘Day of Deliverance’ when Congress ministries resigned, already showed this; still more horrifying was the response to his Direct Action Day of 16 August 1946.
This aspect needs to be mentioned briefly although it is perhaps of the greatest importance. The European concepts that dominated the thinking of Indian elites were grafted onto Indian soil without much analysis of their compatibility with local realities. Their efficacy and applicability were assumed to be universal: Westminster-style democracy was introduced in a vertically stratified and horizontally polarized society and nationalism in a multi-national polity, to mention only two dimensions. Khilnani remarks on the latter: “The special frisson of Savarkar’s ideas lay in their translation of Brahminical culture into the terms of an ethnic nationalism drawn from his reading of Western history.” Gandhi who was most skeptical of these borrowed concepts was swept aside because the alternatives he presented were not considered modern enough.
We have reached the end of the road on this whistle-stop journey and can pause here to recap. The following were the key markers of the road to Partition: The establishment of British supremacy in 1803; the humiliation of Indians; the rise of Indian nationalism and the uprising in 1857; the discriminating punishments and the splitting of Indian nationalism into Muslim and Hindu nationalisms; the first census in 1871 and the creation of religious identities; the separate electorates for Muslims in 1909 and the creation of political identities; the denial of separate electorates for Dalits in 1932 and the resulting imbalance in the electoral calculus; the contest over the rules of an alien game and the resulting brinksmanship; the elections of 1937 and the disappointment of the Muslims; the lack of experience with electoral compromise and the dominance of lawyers; the determination of Jinnah to win his brief; the mechanisms to mobilize the political support of largely illiterate voters; the Day of Deliverance in 1939.
By this time things had reached such a pass and sentiments had hardened to such an extent that the leaders, brilliant and clever and selfless as they were or might have been, had lost control of events and were just being sucked into the undertow. Put these happenings in the framework of intellectual concepts and ‘modern’ systems borrowed from Europe without consideration of their appropriateness to local conditions and one can get a sense of how overwhelming and impossible the challenge would have been to the ‘best and the brightest’ in British India.
Each one of the great leaders got something right and something wrong. None of them got everything right. And that was the tragedy of India.
Sunil Khilnani: The Idea of India
Kamljit Bhasin-Malik: In the Making: Identity Formation in South Asia
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: The Burden of Democracy
William Dalrymple: The Last Mughal
Ralph Russell: Strands of Muslim Identity in South Asia in How Not to Write the History of Urdu Literature
Bettina Robotka: Democracy in India – A Historical Perspective in The Cultural Construction of Politics in Asia by Hans Antlov and Tak-Wing Ngo (eds.)
Karl E. Meyer: The Invention of Pakistan – How the British Raj Sundered, World Policy Journal, Spring 2003. (Material on the 1905 partition of Bengal is taken from Meyer.)
Radha D’Souza: Revolt and Reform in South Asia: Ghadar Movement to 9/11 and after, Economic and Political Weekly, February 2014.
Note: I would like to experiment with this post keeping it as a live text almost like a Wikipedia entry. Let us see if we can end up with a shared history of this period in British India.
The content on the Ghadr Party and the political fracturing of Indian nationalism – the 1905 partition of Bengal – were added in June 2014.