Posts Tagged ‘Partition’

The Road to Partition

August 31, 2009

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.

Borrowed concepts

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.

Essential Reading:

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.


Jaswant Singh: What’s All the Fuss?

August 25, 2009

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. (more…)

On Cooperation and Individualism – 4

June 13, 2009

Before moving on in this series we need to make a correction.

One antonym for cooperation is competition; another is individualism. In the context of the behavior we have been discussing, individualism, not competition, was the appropriate term to use.

The inferences we have made are not affected but it is important to have the concept right.

Let us go over the essentials again and in a little more detail. The essence of the argument was that the nature of the labor requirements of different staple diets could be so different as to socialize very different behavioral attitudes in the communities. (more…)

On Cooperation and Competition – 3

June 13, 2009

I find it hard to believe that I forgot the reason for initiating this series on the possible origins of cooperative and competitive behavior using Malaysia and North India as the case studies.

I had wanted to revisit the partition of India.

This is an event in history that I visit again and again trying to understand how a tragedy of such magnitude could have occurred under the very noses of so many eminent personalities. And the one counterpoint I keep going back to is the situation in Malaysia which, from an ethnic perspective, was even more complex than India but was resolved in a much more satisfactory fashion. (more…)

Similar and Different: Bengal Revisited

April 17, 2009

What have we learnt from this extended discourse on similarities and differences? It is time for a recap and a summary.

We started with Vir Sanghvi’s angry pronouncement that Pakistanis and Indians were no longer similar; they may have been 60 years ago but by now ‘they’ were fundamentalist and ‘we’ were secular.

There were immediate rejoinders to this burst of annoyance with hurt pronouncements of sharing the same music and the same sports.

It became immediately obvious that there were two flaws with the framing of this discussion. First, human beings were not one thing or another; rather, they were better characterized as bundles of attributes. (more…)

Jinnah, Nehru, and the Ironies of History

March 22, 2009

Varun Gandhi is reported to have said some strong things about Muslims in India. So, I am told, did his father.

Let me use this as a peg to say something about Varun’s venerable great-grandfather whose maturity Varun seems unlikely to emulate. But beyond that, let me speculate about some neglected dimensions of the political history of the subcontinent.

Two remarkable statements made around the time of the partition of British India continue to intrigue me:

Here is Mohammad Ali Jinnah, addressing the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in August 1947:

You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State.

And here is Jawaharlal Nehru, writing to Chief Ministers of provinces in India in October 1947, pointing out that there remained, within India,

a Muslim minority who are so large in numbers that they cannot, even if they want, go anywhere else. That is a basic fact about which there can be no argument. Whatever the provocation from Pakistan and whatever the indignities and horrors inflicted on non-Muslims there, we have got to deal with this minority in a civilized manner. We must give them security and the rights of citizens in a democratic State.

How can we read these two statements given the history of which they were a part?

What intrigues me about them is the following:

Here was Jinnah, who had spent the previous twenty years arguing that Muslims and Hindus were separate nations, so completely different from each other that they could not live together. And here he was, on the creation of the country based on that logic of difference, saying all of you can now live together as equal citizens with equal rights.

And here was Nehru, who had spent the same period of time arguing the secular perspective that everyone was an equal citizen regardless of religion or ethnicity, still thinking in terms of minorities as special groups who needed to be dealt with in a civilized manner and given the rights of citizens.

I would have expected Jinnah to say something along these lines: I know it is going to be very difficult but we must now find a way to live together. And I would have expected Nehru to send out an unequivocal signal: We are all Indians now; there are no more majorities and minorities here.

It is time for some political psychology and this is my very idiosyncratic explanation:

I would argue that Jinnah’s innate values were secular. He belonged to a minority trading community from Gujarat where getting along with others was essential to survival and success. It is clear that Jinnah could never have believed from the outset that Hindus and Muslims were so intrinsically different that they could not live together. Had that been the case he could not have been the leading ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity till the 1920s.

It was something in the politics of the situation that must have convinced him that Hindus and Muslims could not live together in a constitutional arrangement in British India that would be acceptable to both communities. Based on that conviction (here we are not concerned whether that conviction was right or wrong) he fought his case and won. And once he won, and walked out of the courtroom, metaphorically speaking, the political imperatives for him disappeared and he became the secular Jinnah that he always was.

Did Jinnah never see that there was a world outside the courtroom, that the forces that had been unleashed by the politics of separation would never allow the situation to go back to what it was, no matter what he wished or desired? It seems not.

Nehru, on the other hand, was a Kashmiri Pandit to whom the distinctions of caste and creed must have been second nature, a part of every act and practice. But Nehru, while not in the same league as Jinnah as a lawyer, was an intellectual steeped in Fabian socialism with the whole world as his observatory. For Nehru, secularism was not an inheritance by birth but a conviction that came from the exercise of intellect.

When framed in this perspective, one can expect that moments of stress could cause the templates of inheritance to exert some residual influence on how one sees the world. So, one can understand Nehru seeing Muslims, in the aftermath of the carnage of partition, more as minorities needing to be given equal rights and less as Indians who were entitled to them.

As we know from our own lives and times, it is not easy to overcome the prejudices and biases that one inherits at birth and to adopt radically different beliefs through an exercise of reasoned analysis. There seems little doubt that history will continue to accord Nehru the credit and stature that are his due for achieving what he did achieve given the tenor of his time.

But we can now push this psychological analysis further and note the complexity of the interplay between the beliefs inherited at birth and the convictions that are inculcated and sustained through intellectual endeavor.

Without the political imperatives that changed Jinnah’s beliefs, his descendants are avowedly secular. And without the intellectual rigor that characterized Nehru, his descendants are slipping back towards prejudice.

Contrary perspectives are welcome. For another analysis along similar lines, see The Tragedy of Jinnah by Simon Kovar. HM Seervai‘s book (Partition of India – Legend and Reality), written after the release of the Transfer of Power Papers, makes a similar argument.

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Governance in Pakistan – 5: An Example of a Good Analysis

March 15, 2009

Professor Ralph Russell died on September 14, 2008 at the age on ninety. Known as the British Baba-e-Urdu, he was a leading scholar of the language and was awarded the Sitara-e-Imtiaz for a lifetime of notable contributions.

Professor Russell was a scholar of language and literature and never thought of himself as a political analyst. But his training in the humanities endowed him with the ability needed for good analysis.

Here I take an extract from his essay (Strands of Muslim Identity in South Asia – first published in the 1980s) to illustrate the attributes of good analysis.

It is quite likely that Muslims and Pakistani readers were upset by this analysis. But Professor Russell, a great friend of Urdu, Islam and Pakistan, never let that keep him from saying what he felt needed to be said. It is from him that I picked up the line: Do you want me to say what I think or what you want to hear?

In another of his essays, Professor Russell says “I sometimes have the impression that in the field of Islamic studies more than most, scholars feel a need to be ‘diplomatic’ (which, let us face it, is only a polite way of saying ‘less than completely honest’) so that influential people will not be offended. And then he refers to Hardy in the Explanatory Note to Tess—that ‘if an offence comes out of the truth, better it is that the offence come out than that the truth be concealed.’ 

So here is Professor Russell not trying to be analytical but making an observation based on the analytical process. Follow the logic of the argument as Professor Russell tries to explain the rise of religious fundamentalism in Pakistan:

The sophisticated Muslim case underlying the separatist demands that ultimately became the demand for Pakistan rested on the secular or quasi-secular concept of the Muslims of the subcontinent as a separate nationality; in the years preceding independence it was this concept that was always stressed by the authoritative spokesmen of the movement for the creation of Pakistan. To such a concept religious orthodoxy was irrelevant. ‘Muslim’ meant anyone who called himself a Muslim, anyone who was born into the Muslim community, even if he were a militant atheist. Jinnah himself, the Qaid e Azam (Great Leader) of the Muslim League, was anything but an orthodox Muslim of the old-fashioned kind. For him, the concept of a Muslim nationhood implied even an onslaught on the conservative Muslin divines, and an effort, as he wrote in 1942, ‘to free our people from the most undesirable reactionary elements.’

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’—the prejudices which told them: ‘One Muslim is worth ten Hindus. We Muslims ruled over these people for centuries. We are a fine, manly people: the Hindus are slaves and cowards. Our type is the warrior, bold and generous: theirs is the banya, the cowardly, extortionate, hypocritical moneylender. Islam is a fine faith, the acme of all religious development: Hinduism is an inhuman and revolting system which sanctifies human degradation.’

And so on and so forth. 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.

It hardly needs to be said that if appeal to sentiments of this kind helped to mobilize the mass support without which Pakistan could not have been won, it also strengthened the religious (or pseudo-religious) fanaticism which Jinnah had opposed.

I am not saying that this is necessarily the correct diagnosis. What I am pointing out is the process by which Professor Russell explains the present through a link to the past and traces the consequences of actions taken and forces let loose a long time back to the conditions that exist at present.

If you feel Professor Russell is wrong, the field is wide open to present a better analysis. There would be little point, however, in the common response of merely accusing Professor Russell of being an agent of the enemy.

For those who consider Professor Russell’s description of the nature of the appeal to Muslim masses far-fetched, it would be salutary to read through the modern public school curriculum in Pakistan today (Here and Here).

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On the Emergence of Pakistan

January 29, 2009

A reader’s comment has raised the issue of the dynamic of Pakistan’s creation. The question posed is about the role of Mr. Jinnah’s leadership: did Mr. Jinnah’s charisma make Pakistan possible or was the yearning of Muslims for self rule the primary driver?

There have a number of other explanations for the creation of Pakistan and one can attempt to evaluate them by seeking answers to a few simple questions: (1) In which geographical areas did the demand for Pakistan emerge first? (2) Why did the demand arise when it did and not earlier? (3) Which social groups articulated the demand and lent it support?

Some of the explanations appear weak when evaluated against these questions. One of them is the religious explanation that presents the creation of Pakistan as the fulfillment of a religious desire for a state in which Islam could be practiced without hindrance. Given that religious groups were nowhere in the vanguard of the demand for Pakistan, this explanation can be rejected out of hand.

Another is the ‘cultural-geographical’ explanation that the areas that comprise Pakistan were never really a part of India and the movement was an expression of the reassertion of this separate identity. The facts are that demand for Pakistan did not emerge first and most strongly in these areas but rather in areas that remain very much a part of India. Some of the areas now in Pakistan were quite divided till very late when faced with the choice of acceding to the new country.

Then there is the explanation that portrays the origins of Pakistan as a democratic mass movement of the oppressed Muslim community against the dominant Hindu majority. However, there is no credible evidence that either the Muslim peasantry or the urban working classes were in the forefront of the demand for Pakistan. In this context, many people are unaware of the fact that elections in British India were held on the basis of a limited franchise.

There are of course explanations that focus on the role of individuals. In particular, it is often asserted that Pakistan was created by the brilliance or obduracy (depending upon your perspective) of Mr. Jinnah. Mr. Jinnah was no doubt a very able advocate for the cause when he decided to lead it but that is not conclusive proof that he was instrumental in creating the movement itself.

The officially sanctioned explanation in Pakistan is the two-nation theory that Muslims were a separate and distinct nation in relation to other religious communities in India and were therefore entitled to the right of self-determination. This is fine as a normative statement if one subscribes to the right of self-determination of communities as a principle for statehood although it is problematic because newly created states are themselves not homogenous. In the case of Pakistan, the theory boomeranged when the demand arose for the rights of the Bengali ‘nation’.

Even so, as an explanation for the emergence of the demand for Pakistan, the ‘two-nation’ theory remains unconvincing. In particular, it does not adequately answer the three questions posed earlier. The demand for Pakistan arose in those areas of British India where Muslims constituted significant minorities (e.g., UP and Bengal). It did not emerge first in Muslim-majority areas (e.g., Punjab and NWFP) or where Muslims were small minorities (e.g., areas in Southern India). And when Pakistan was created the majority of Muslims in the areas that remained in India did not move to the new homeland. Even if they felt they were members of a separate nation they did not feel they needed to be in a separate homeland.

In UP and Bengal where the population distribution had remained unchanged over time, the demand for Pakistan emerged only when the possibility became real that a key element of the status quo, the British, would withdraw from the scene. The potential disequilibrium in geographical areas with the maximum uncertainty over the future scenario triggered the jostling for relative shares of the reconfigured pie. Not surprisingly, landlords, entrepreneurs, professionals and salaried groups were in the forefront of this emerging competition for the redistribution of scarce resources. All of a sudden these groups, lacking confidence in their ability to compete or apprehensive of the motives of the competitors, concluded that Muslims were a separate nation that could not co-exist with other nations alongside whom they had been living for hundreds of years.

The actual outcome of the movement that was triggered by this self-interest was never a foregone conclusion and along the way there were many twists and turns, gambles and missed opportunities, narrow political triumphs and broad human tragedies. Our interest here is not to recount the details of who did what to whom; rather we are interested in explaining what gave rise to the big forces that changed the face of the Indian subcontinent. An examination of these forces makes it hard to conclude that the interest of the masses, of any religion, figured prominently amongst them. The fact that the interest of the masses continues to be ignored in most countries of South Asia lends credence to this belief.

Religion, ethnicity, race and nationality remain very emotive and powerful forces in society and it is often to the advantage of self-interested groups to broaden the base of their support by appealing to these emotions. Most of the time such forces get out of control leading to outcomes that no one had actually anticipated. It is no surprise that the scale of the human tragedy that overshadowed their political successes or failures shocked all the participants in the drama of Partition.

Which explanation do you favor and why?

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What If India Were Not Partitioned?

September 27, 2008

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. Hindus would never have been able to rule Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan or the Frontier.
  4. Without Partition there would have been no Nizam-e-Mustafa.
  5. 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.
  6. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

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The Art of Democracy

June 4, 2008

Samia Altaf 

The furor over the display of nudes at the National Art Gallery in Islamabad made me think of the Partition. Both situations represent the challenge of reconciling different points of views without conflict. And both are complicated by the fact that we desire to live in a democratic society.

In the case of the Partition we failed. It was perhaps the most tragic failure of our times – a million people lost their lives and over ten million lost their homes. The conflict at the National Art Gallery is the same type of problem in principle but the stakes are much smaller and we can think about how to resolve the dilemma without losing control of our emotions. Hopefully we can draw some macro conclusions from a micro situation.

The first thing to note is that democratic governance is not equivalent to majoritarian rule. The views of a majority do not prevail unconditionally and in every circumstance. The right of every citizen has to be respected and protected as long as it is within the law. Even a law-abiding minority of one is important in a democracy.

So, the fact that the majority of people would not like the display of nudes is not sufficient argument to remove them from the gallery. At the same time, it is important to recognize that the majority does find nudes embarrassing and that their display is a deterrent to people taking their families to the exhibitions. It is also not enough to argue on the other side that nudes are acceptable in other countries. We have to find a solution in the context of our own cultural preferences. 

It was encouraging to read in the news reports that many of the protesters were comfortable with a display of nudes in a private gallery but not in a public one. This provides a starting point for a solution. Why can’t we have a private section in the National Art Gallery where entry is limited to those who can choose with full knowledge of the nature of the contents?

This is not something unfamiliar. This kind of rating is routinely applied in the movie industry where films are categorized in accordance with the explicitness of the content. It is then up to the viewer to make the choice of viewing or not viewing the film. 

The bottom line is that most of the time we can find rules to accommodate the rights and sensitivities of all citizens without having to resort to extreme authoritarian solutions.

And this brings us back to the Partition where our leaders failed to find the rules that would have allowed different groups to coexist in a democracy without fear of domination. The electoral rule of a single representative in a geographical constituency with a first-past-the-post system aroused concerns of majoritarian domination. The British attempted to resolve this with a system of separate electorates along religious lines that only succeeded in hardening the communal divide.

There were alternative rules available to consider. For example, till 1994 the electoral system used for the Lower House in Japan combined multi-member districts with a single non-transferable vote. The system had features distinguishing it from both plurality and proportional systems. Members were chosen from electoral districts having from two to six seats depending on the population of the district. In a four-member district, for example, the top four vote-getters were elected and the candidate who came fifth lost. The most important implication of such a system was that candidates could get elected with as little as fifteen percent of the total votes cast in a district enabling minorities to find representation even if voting was along communal lines. 

It is impossible to say whether such a rule could have prevented the Partition. The point to note is that the choice of an electoral system is a vital element in democratic constitutional design and that the choice of electoral rules can make or break a country. Electoral rules are also much easier to change and adapt to circumstances than other components of a political system.

The same principle holds in other situations. The intelligent choice of rules can prevent conflicts without restricting the choices of numerical minorities with perspectives at odds with those of the majority. It is often how we approach a situation that determines the results we can achieve. 

Samia Altaf is the 2007-2008 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. This op-ed appeared in Dawn, Karachi, on June 1, 2008.

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