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Updated: Mar 11, 2022

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Some Facts and Perspectives on the Partition
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The Initial Days: Emergence of Religious Conflict

The policies by the British after the Revolt of 1857 underlined the separation of the Christian religion from the Queen’s rule. The British rule would not interfere with the personal affairs of the Indian population although the British maintained that Indians' traditions were ‘primitive’ and ‘abhorrent’. Therefore, ‘religious faith and observances would be left alone’.[i] The missionaries that were provided with subsidiaries were curtailed. In a sense, the belief that the new rule would convert the Indians to a new faith was undercut even though there were instances such as a Scottish missionary named Alexander Duff being under the impression that he had not done enough for the ‘Satan’s Empire’.[ii] On the other hand, new measures were taken to introduce Christian teachings through the classroom.

Divide and Rule ‘Divide Et Impera’

One of the major outcomes of the ‘Great Mutiny’ was the policy of Divide and Rule. The policy materialized through re-organizing the army. The earlier policy to mix caste, creed and religion was revised. This would fracture the unity that was being established in the states. For instance, it was important to break the growing solidarity in the Bengal regiments by introducing Sikh members. The policy was going to help strengthen the division that was already present between the groups. It would go on to see the formation of ‘class regiments’ and ‘class company’ and create fissures between the existing communities.[iii]

In short, the idea of division not only separated communities but also marked the root cause for the fracture between Muslims and Hindus. Much later, the final nail in the coffin came with the introduction of separate electorates.

Another important point that aligned with the policy of divide and rule was to ensure that the caste system continued to prevail which the British had earlier disregarded. The fear of christianization was also something the British dealt with. Fearing another revolt, the British rulers would also take into consideration the sensitivities of the Indian ruling class as it was this section of the society that had headed the Revolt. The agricultural class was also recognized as an important part of the imperial regime.[iv]

To know more about the policy of divide and rule:

To know more about the policies that developed in the 1857 Revolt:

Opposing views

Many would argue that the British were not entirely to blame for the Partition. The Muslim– Hindu animosity was arguably seething long before the British took over, for instance, when Aurangzeb reinstituted the jizyah tax that was imposed on non–Muslims.[v] The Marathas and other non–Muslim groups were opposed to such ideas although concrete identities such as the ‘Hindu’ did not exist back then. But this argument primarily condemns the romantic ideals of the Hindu–Muslim unity even if their battles were not on religious grounds but on the basis of gold, land and politics.

Moreover, acts of violence against non-Muslims in the Delhi Sultanate, for example, were not out of the ordinary. Religious violence was not an anomaly but a practice throughout history against the non-Muslim ‘infidels’.[vi]

To know more about Hindu–Muslim conflicts beyond the British rule:

Muslim as the Other

It is also important to note that there was an undercurrent of mistrust towards the Muslims from the government. They believed it was the Muslims who had much to gain from the Revolt of 1857:

It is interesting to note that a profound distrust was reserved for the Muslim community. Actually, as the events of 1857 ended, the British chose to throw the cover of responsibility on the Muslim aristocracy alone, notwithstanding the fact that the latter were not the only ‘culprits’. This is because the British assumed that the Indian Muslims were the bona fide fomenters and the main beneficiaries of the uprising. Commenting on this fact, Thomas R. Metcalf wrote: ‘As the former rulers of Hindustan, the Muslims had, in British eyes, necessarily to place themselves at the head of a movement for the overthrow of the British Government.'[vii]

Another important point to be kept in mind is that the Muslims were often treated as the Other. The East India Company, and then the British Government sought to justify their rule and marginalize the Muslim rulers as savage conquerors. [viii] This would help legitimize their rule and also divide the country. British scholars worked on the ‘orient’ in order to further probe into this narrative, insisting on the brutality of the Muslims and the role of the British in emancipating the non–Muslims from their reign. Chachnama was an Arabic text which was said to have been misinterpreted by the British in order to mislead and perpetuate hostility between the Muslims and Hindus.

To know more about the misappropriation in the History of Sind:

The Rate of Literacy in the Muslim community

The average literacy rate among Muslims was lower than the Hindus: 6.4 per unit as opposed to the 8.4 for the Hindus.[ix] This would be one of the major reasons for the rift between the two communities, although Latika Chaudhary argues that Muslims may not have encouraged literacy once the Mughal empire began to decline; teaching predominantly happened through Quran reading schools and Madrasahs.[x]

Another possible reason for the disparity was that the elite Muslims believed that education should have its basis in religion and that its medium should be Persian. This idea did not find ground in the British educational policy. Moreover, in the late nineteenth century, the Muslims desired separate educational institutions in Bengal. However, these institutions seemed to be limited to the elite Muslims. Hindus also continued to have traditional schools but as Peskin argues, there was also rampant demand for English education:

It would be misleading to suggest that the Hindus moved en masse out of their traditional schools, the tols and pathsalas, or out of schools for learning Persian, to English schools. Acceptance of traditional schools persisted. But by 1831 there was more demand for English education than the Committee of Public Instruction was able to meet. The demand grew. As a result, there developed a class of Hindus who turned more and more to the West for models in taste, dress, habits, speech, and values. They turned away from their customary sources of learning to models which were most alien to them, but with which they could not have identified more closely.[xi]

The education rate, therefore, continued to be unequal till 1947 and as a result, there were more Hindus in administrative and commercial positions than Muslims which would later become a point of contention between the groups. Much later, Fazl-i-Husain would rally for fair representation for Muslims through reservations in schools and colleges. However, the Hindus and other groups were opposed to it even though the British supported the move.

To learn more about the education disparity:

To know more about Muslim education and communal conflict in colonial Bengal between 1854 and 1947, read:

Rowlatt Act

Despite the conflict between the different religious groups, the protests against the Rowlatt Act brought about a HinduMuslim unity. It is at a site of protest against the Rowlatt Act that the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was executed. The Act sought to censor the press and detain political activists, legitimizing their arrest without a warrant. Dr. Satyapal and Saifuddin Kitchlew, who were the chief voices against the Act, were thus arrested. A protest was held in Amritsar, along with which people were gathering for the Baisakhi festival, many of whom were unaware of the ban order against the right to assemble and had arrived from the surrounding villages for the fairs being held in Amritsar. The ground was enclosed on all sides and Dyer decided to open fire on the defenceless crowd in Jallianwala Bagh. This tragic event invoked solidarity between the Muslims and Hindus although this growing unity did not continue after the Non-Cooperation Movement was dismantled after three years. Rajmohan Gandhi states that 19191920 highlighted the firm unity that was evidenced by Lala Lajpat Rai who mentions Hindus preaching from the Badshahi Mosque during the protests.[xii]

The Lack of a Multilingual, Multi-Religious Party in Punjab

The lack of solidarity in the later years was due to the absence of a unified political party representing all religious groups. Congress was largely a Hindu, urban party; the Muslim League predominantly represented the Muslims and the Akali Dal represented the Sikhs. It is also important to note that all religious groups had their own internal divisions, according to Rajmohan Gandhi. The Muslims, for instance, were not a homogenous group and were divided by class, professions and biradaris. Therefore, representation was always a point of contention.

Moreover, the parties which developed after the three-year period of unity wanted to cater to the British sensibility. A man named Fazl-i-Husain took centre stage. He was a member of the Bhakti Rajput caste, a biradari. He played a key role in the Lucknow Pact. The Lucknow Pact established the formation of the separate electorate and also the need for self-government, which Husain spearheaded.

After the signing of the Pact, the British decided to support a party whose primary focus was on landed gentry. Fazl-i-Husain was one of the founding members of such a party, the Unionist Party, which was also supported by Chotu Ram—a Hindu. This party was primarily based in Punjab and represented all the majority religious groups there which also helped it slowly gain popularity—it didn’t hurt that it was also strongly supported by the British.[xiii]

In 1924, Gandhi tried to cultivate relations with Fazl-i-Husain. However, not all the members of the Congress were willing to compromise with their principles—Congress was largely a socialist party and to mingle with a party of landowners did not suit their interest. Nehru especially wasn’t keen on building a relationship with the Unionist Party. Therefore, this lack of unity in the nationalist movement became potent with time.

In 1928, Jinnah left the Congress and agreed to joint electorates on the condition that Muslim seats would be reserved in Bengal and Punjab which were both Muslim–majority states. However, this proposal was rejected which was another strike against the unity of the country.

In 1936, Fazl-i-Husain died. The Unionist Party was then headed by Sikardar and later by Khizar Hyat Khan. Khizar Hyat Khan later lost support from the British as the British decided to support the Muslim League rather than the Unionist Party as it better suited their interest to create tensions within the two leading parties.

The Question of Nation and Nationality

The prospect of self-governance was only possible if India proved itself to be a ‘nation’. However, the possibility of India as a nation during the time of colonial rule was contentious. For instance, Tagore’s view on nation-building remained in contrast with the rest. He argues:

India has never had a real sense of nationalism. Even though from childhood I had been taught that the idolatry of Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.

The idea of nationalism, according to him, does not serve any purpose in India. The ‘organization’ of nationalism does not take effect if racial unity is amiss. Therefore, Tagore insisted that the western idea of nationalism should not gain vigour.

The inevitability of forming a nation was the only route to self-governance. B.R. Ambedkar refers to H.G. Wells’ argument that without a singular identity of a nation, self-governance is impossible. Ambedkar underlines the dubious nature of colonial India’s need to claim to be a ‘nation’ when it was far from it. [xiv] The ‘Hindu(s)’ according to him had already proclaimed themselves to be a nation and nobody dare contradict. What ensued was propaganda and the emergence of Hindu Nationalism:

The thesis was so agreeable that even serious Indian students of history came forward to write propagandist literature in support of it, no doubt out of patriotic motives. The Hindu social reformers, who knew that this was a dangerous delusion, could not openly contradict this thesis. For, anyone who questioned it was at once called a tool of the British bureaucracy and enemy of the country. The Hindu politician was able to propagate his view for a long time [ . . . . ] When it was about to succeed comes this declaration of the Muslim League—this rift in the lute. [xv]

But what did the Muslim League Declare?

According to Jinnah’s speech dated 1940, Muslim League would not partake in their claims of being a united nation. He said:

It is extremely difficult to appreciate why our Hindu friends fail to understand the real nature of Islam and Hinduism. They are not religions in the strict sense of the word, but are, in fact, different and distinct social orders; and it is a dream that the Hindus and Muslims can ever evolve a common nationality; and this misconception of one Indian nation has gone far beyond the limits and is the cause of more of our troubles and will lead India to destruction if we fail to revise our notions in time.[xvi]

The problem with the Hindu ‘propaganda’ as Ambedkar asserts, lay in its rift with the Muslim League. He rightly points out that the Muslims of India were not in solidarity with the sentiment of a ‘nation’. Ambedkar adds: ‘If the Muslims in India are a separate nation, then, of course, India is not a nation. This assertion cuts the whole ground from under the feet of the Hindu politicians. It is natural that they should feel annoyed at it and call it a stab in the back.’ [xvii]

However, Hindu Nationalism was steadily becoming a reality and Partition was one of its key consequences. Mohammad Ayoob suggests that, ‘The division of British India on the basis of religious majorities was the principal factor that reinforced and legitimized the ideology of Hindu nationalism, which had remained marginal during the freedom struggle.’[xviii]

To read more about the rise of Hindu Nationalism:

To read about Tagore’s idea of a Nation:

What is the Nation?

The idea of a nation according to Ambedkar, is a ‘social feeling’. He calls it the ‘longing to belong to a group’. Benedict Anderson much later would call it ‘an imagined political community [that is] imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign’.[xix] Aimé Césaire states in the context of colonization: ‘It is a fact: the nation is a bourgeois phenomenon. Exactly; but if I turn my attention from man to nations, I note that here too there is great danger; that colonial enterprise is to the modern world what Roman imperialism was to the ancient world: the prelude to Disaster and the forerunner of Catastrophe.’[xx] The idea of a nation is a discourse in itself which can be looked at in great detail. However, the surficial conceptions by Ambedkar and the rest drive home the fact that India was not a ‘nation’.

Now apply this test to the Muslim claim. Is it or is it not a fact that the Muslims of India are an exclusive group? Is it or is it not a fact that they have a consciousness of kind? Is it or is it not a fact that every Muslim is possessed by a longing to belong to his own group and not to any non-Muslim group?[xxi]

However, Ambedkar argues that there exist several points of commonality that could foment into a ‘nation’, and that religious unity need not be the sole point of focus—other integral facts also need to be taken into consideration.

Reliance is placed not only upon racial unity but also upon certain common features in the social and cultural life of the two communities. It is pointed out that the social life of many Muslim groups is honeycombed with Hindu customs. For instance, the Avans of the Punjab, though they are nearly all Muslims, retain Hindu names and keep their genealogies in the Brahmanic fashion. Hindu surnames are found among Muslims.[xxii]

Although Ambedkar argued for different kinds of unities, he also acknowledged the ‘antagonism’ that brewed between the two communities, stating that if they truly desired the Partition, it should not be contested. According to him, the present ‘antipathy’ that exists between the two communities cannot give way to ‘unity’, thereby Partition may be a reality; which it was.

Link to Ambedkar’s book:

A United Bengal

Furthermore, the fear of Partition gave way to the suggestion that Bengal remain united but independent from India, becoming a sovereign state although the proposal did not gain momentum due to Nehru’s reluctance towards the suggestion. Sarat Bose rallied for a united Bengal, unwilling to divide the state on religious grounds. However, his attempts were largely unsuccessful.

To know more about the proposition of a ‘United Bengal’:

To read more about the idea of Jinnah’s Pakistan:

The Two-Nation theory

It is largely believed that the Divide and Rule policy gave way to communalism between the Hindus and the Muslims. When the theory was developed and by whom is a matter of debate. Recently, Shashi Tharoor in his book Why I Am a Hindu claimed that it was Veer Savarkar from the Hindu Mahasabha that developed the theory.[xxiii]

Ambedkar on the other hand stated that there are differences between the two theories propagated largely by Jinnah and Savarkar. He stated that Savarkar believed that the two nations should dwell under a single constitution, adamant in his proclamation that these are two nations and that Hindus will enjoy a dominant position. The realisation that Savarkar and Jinnah were in agreement of the idea of two nations surprised Ambedkar, predominantly because they were in opposition with each other and ideologically disparate.

The idea that India would be divided on the basis of religion was contested by many. Gandhi was not in support of a division based on religion. Maulana Azad, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the Khudai Khidmatgar were strongly opposed to the idea.

The Election of 1946

The election of 1946 was a game changer. Although the idea of a separate state had long before laid its foundation, any hopes of a united India were dashed. In the beginning of the election the Congress party had 55 out of 102 elected seats, or 88 per cent share in the general constituencies, while the Muslim League won 100 per cent of the Muslim constituencies: 30 out of 30. But election was yet to be held in the provinces. Both the parties were optimistic about the outcome. In Punjab, where the Muslim majority was slightly higher, the Muslim League won 75 seats out of 178, while the Congress won 43 seats. The Muslim League had a majority support in Bengal.

Punjab had a coalition government after the elections. However, the party was overthrown as the Punjab Muslim League (AIML(P)) cited that it was ‘non-representative’. Riots ensued and as a result, Governor’s rule was imposed till the Partition took place although Master Tara Singh, the Akali leader, was strongly opposed to the Partition. The violent riots which began on 3 March 1947 were said to have continued till Pakistan was formed.

A major fact remains that Pakistan would not have been a reality if Jinnah’s demand for majority electorates in Muslim-majority states, namely Punjab and Bengal, was conceded. However, that proposal was rejected by the majority party.

Another important turn of events took place when Mahatma Gandhi offered to Jinnah the position of Prime Minister of a united India. The proposal was rejected by the cabinet.

The Proceedings of the Partition

Radcliffe Commission