Why Partition?

Perry Anderson

By 1945, the era of Gandhi was over, and that of Nehru had begun. It is conventional to dwell on the contrasts between the two, but the bearing of these on the outcome of the struggle for independence has remained by and large in the shadows. Nor are the contrasts themselves always well captured. Nehru was a generation younger; of handsome appearance; came from a much higher social class; had an elite education in the West; lacked religious beliefs; enjoyed many an affair. So much is well known. Politically more relevant was the peculiar nature of his relationship to Gandhi. Inducted into the national movement by his wealthy father, a pillar of Congress since the 1890s, he fell under Gandhi’s spell in his late twenties, at a time when he had few political ideas of his own. A decade later, when he had acquired notions of independence and socialism Gandhi did not share, and was nearly forty, he was still writing to him: ‘Am I not your child in politics, though perhaps a truant and errant child?’ The note of infantilism was not misplaced; the truancy, in practice, little more than coquetry. Like so many others, dismayed by Gandhi’s scuttling of Non-Cooperation in 1922, in despair at his fast against the introduction of Untouchable electorates in 1932, baffled by his reasons for suspending civil disobedience in 1934, he nevertheless each time abased himself before his patron’s judgment.

Sacralisation of the national movement? ‘I used to be troubled sometimes at the growth of this religious element in our politics,’ but ‘I knew well that there was something else in it, something which supplied a deep inner craving of human beings.’ The fiasco of Non-Cooperation? ‘After all, he was the author and originator of it, and who could be a better judge of what it was and what it was not. And without him where was our movement?’ The fast unto death at Poona? ‘For two days I was in darkness with no light to show the way out, my heart sinking when I thought of some results of Gandhiji’s action … And then a strange thing happened to me. I had quite an emotional crisis, and at the end of it I felt calmer and the future seemed not so dark. Bapu had a curious knack of doing the right thing at the psychological moment, and it might be that his action – impossible as it was to justify from my point of view – would lead to great results.’ The claim that God showed his displeasure with civil disobedience by visiting an earthquake on Bihar? He had been ‘dragged away from the anchor’ of his faith by Bapu’s announcement, but deciding his mentor’s action was right, ‘somehow managed to compromise’. For ‘what a wonderful man was Gandhiji, after all.’ All these avowals date from 1936, when Nehru was politically more radical – ‘inclining to a communist philosophy’ – than at any other time in his career. By 1939 he was simply exclaiming: ‘India cannot do without him.’

In this degree of psychological dependence, different strands were intertwined. Quasi-filial infatuation with Gandhi was not peculiar to Nehru, but the depth of parental affection – withheld, often with extraordinary harshness, from his own children – Gandhi felt for Nehru was unique. Mingled with these emotional bonds were calculations of mutual interest. So long as he operated in the ambit of Congress, Gandhi could count on Nehru never taking adult political issue with him, while as Gandhi’s favourite, Nehru could count on prevailing over rivals to head Congress, and after independence, to rule the country. Still, was there not even so an intellectual gulf between them? In one fundamental respect, indeed there was. Nehru never had any time for Gandhi’s extraterrestrial dreams or earthly archaisms. He was a strictly intramundane believer in the benefits of industry and modernity. Yet this was not a dividing line that mattered much, so long as state power was out of reach. Where the political outlook of the national movement under the Raj was concerned, there was far less distance between mentor and pupil than the contrast in their cultural backgrounds might have suggested.

Gandhi did not claim much book learning. In London, he had found his legal textbooks full of interest – a manual on property law ‘read like a novel’ – but Bentham too difficult to understand. Tracts by Ruskin and Tolstoy were a revelation in South Africa. In prison in India he came to the conclusion that Gibbon was an inferior version of the Mahabharata, and that he could have written Capital better than Marx. What fixed his attention were the short list of works he had read by the time he came to write Hind Swaraj, and a limited number of Hindu classics. When he left South Africa, his basic ideas about the world were essentially complete. Not in more books, but in himself lay truth. ‘I have searched far and wide for another individual, placed in comparable circumstances, who has used the first person singular with such unabashed abandon as M.K. Gandhi,’ wrote one Indian critic, warning of the dangers of ‘such cocksureness in an ill-stocked mind’.

Nehru had enjoyed the higher education Gandhi didn’t have, and an intellectual development not arrested by intense religious belief. But these advantages yielded less than might be thought. He seems to have learned very little at Cambridge, scraping a mediocre degree in natural sciences that left no trace thereafter, did poorly in his bar exams, and was not much of a success when he returned to practise law in his father’s footsteps. The contrast with Subhas Chandra Bose, a brilliant student of philosophy at Cambridge, who was the first native to pass the exams into the elite ranks of the Indian civil service and then decline entry to it on patriotic grounds, is striking. But an indifferent beginning is no obstacle to subsequent flowering, and in due course Nehru became a competent orator and prolific writer. What he never acquired, however, was a modicum of literary taste or mental discipline. His most ambitious work, The Discovery of India, which appeared in 1946, is a steam bath of Schwärmerei. It would be unfair to compare Nehru to Ambedkar, the leader of the Untouchables, intellectually head and shoulders above most of the Congress leaders, owing in part to far more serious training at the LSE and Columbia. To read Ambedkar is to enter a different world. The Discovery of India – not to speak of its predecessor The Unity of India – illustrates not just Nehru’s lack of formal scholarship and addiction to romantic myth, but something deeper, not so much an intellectual as a psychological limitation: a capacity for self-deception with far-reaching political consequences.

‘India was in my blood and there was much in her that instinctively thrilled me,’ he told his readers.

She is very lovable and none of her children can forget her wherever they go or whatever strange fate befalls them. For she is part of them in her greatness as well as her failings, and they are mirrored in those deep eyes of hers that have seen so much of life’s passion and joy and folly and looked down into wisdom’s well.

Not all of The Discovery of India is of similar quality. But the Barbara Cartland streak was never far from the surface:

Perhaps we may still sense the mystery of nature, listen to its song of life and beauty, and draw vitality from her. That song is not sung in the chosen spots only, and we can hear it, if we have the ears for it, almost everywhere. But there are some places where it charms even those who are unprepared for it and comes like the deep notes of a distant and powerful organ. Among those favoured spots is Kashmir, where loveliness dwells and an enchantment steals over the senses.

A mind capable of prose like this was unlikely to show much realism about the difficulties facing the national movement.

When Gandhi was blackmailing Ambedkar to submit to the demand that Untouchables be treated as loyal Hindus within the caste system, rather than pariahs excluded from it, Nehru uttered not a word in solidarity or support for Ambedkar. Gandhi was fasting, and even though the lot of the Untouchables was a ‘side-issue’, as Nehru significantly dismissed it, that was enough. More was involved here, however, than simple unwillingness to differ with Gandhi on any issue on which he chose to take a political stand. Nehru, as he often confessed, was no believer: the doctrines of Hinduism meant little or nothing to him. But, in much the same artless way as Gandhi, he identified the religion with the nation, explaining that ‘Hinduism became the symbol of nationalism. It was indeed a national religion, with its appeal to all those deep instincts, racial and cultural, which form the basis everywhere of nationalism today.’ By contrast Buddhism, though born in India, had lost out there because it was ‘essentially international’. Islam, not even born in India, was inevitably even less national.

It followed that the system Gandhi had always insisted was the foundation on which Hinduism rested, historically preserving it from disintegration, had to be presented in a roseate light. Caste had its tares, of course, as Gandhi too conceded. But in the larger view of things, Nehru explained, India had no reason to hang its head. ‘Caste was a group system based on services and functions. It was meant to be an all-inclusive order without any common dogma and allowing the fullest latitude to each group.’ Mercifully free from what had handicapped the Greeks, it was ‘infinitely better than slavery even for those lowest in the scale. Within each caste there was equality and a measure of freedom; each caste was occupational and applied itself to its own particular work. This led to a high degree of specialisation and skill in handicrafts and craftsmanship’, in a social order that was ‘non-competitive and non-acquisitive’. Indeed, far from embodying any principle of hierarchy, caste ‘kept up the democratic habit in each group’. Later generations, hard put to take in that Nehru could have composed such enormities, can point to other passages in which he added that ‘in the context of society today’ – as opposed to the (undated) past – caste had become a ‘barrier to progress’ that was no longer compatible with democracy, political or economic. Untouchability, as Ambedkar would note bitterly, Nehru never so much as mentioned.

It would be a mistake to think Nehru’s embellishments of caste were tactical or cynical. They belonged to the same Schwärmerei as his discovery of the pluri-millennial ‘impress of oneness’ on the Indian character and the rest. History, Gandhi had written, was an interruption of nature. Its evidence was beside the point. What Gandhi had claimed for himself, Nehru generalised. ‘What is truth? I do not know for certain,’ Nehru wrote in The Discovery of India. ‘But truth is at least for an individual what he himself feels and knows to be true. According to this definition I do not know any person who holds to the truth as Gandhi does.’ In the cause of the nation, ‘Gandhi was always there as a symbol of uncompromising truth to pull us up and shame us into truth.’ With epistemological protocols like these, Nehru could perfectly well affirm the freedom and equality of caste on one page, and express a hope for its passing on the next.

If this was his view of the national religion and its core institutions, how did followers of the faith that was national neither in origin nor in extension figure in his outlook? Nehru’s first real test as a political leader came with the elections of 1937. No longer an adjutant of Gandhi, who had withdrawn to the wings after 1934, he was president of Congress in the year of its triumph at the polls and the formation of its first regional governments. Crowing over the results, Nehru announced there were now only two political forces that mattered in India: Congress and the British government. There is little doubt that, with fateful self-deception, he believed this. In fact, it was a confessional victory. By this time, the membership of Congress was 97 per cent Hindu. It could not even find candidates to run in close to 90 per cent of Muslim constituencies across India. In Nehru’s own province, Uttar Pradesh, then as now the most populous in India, Congress had swept the board of Hindu seats. But it had not won a single Muslim seat. Still, relations between the Muslim League and Congress had not been bad in the electoral campaign itself, and when the results were in, the League sought a coalition between the two parties that would give it some representation in the ministry now to be formed in Lucknow. At Nehru’s behest – ‘I am personally convinced that any kind of pact or coalition between us and the Muslim League will be highly injurious’ – it was curtly told to dissolve itself into Congress if it wished any such thing. Ambedkar would describe the mentality of high caste Hindus as monopolist. Whatever the validity of such a generalisation, obviously questionable, there could be no doubt that the central ideological tenet of Congress was its claim to a monopoly of legitimacy in the struggle for independence.

Why then had ordinary Muslims, unlike all other Indians, failed to vote for it in sufficient numbers? Nehru’s answer was that they had been misled by a handful of Muslim feudatories, and would rally to Congress once they had understood the social interests they shared with their Hindu brethren. Under his leadership, a ‘mass contact’ campaign was launched to convince them of these. But unlike Bose, Nehru had little intuitive contact with the masses, and the effort soon fizzled out. It was the last time he would engage in an attempt at mobilisation from below. Two years later, no longer president, he colluded with the ousting of Bose, in theory a fellow fighter on the left of the party, but unlike Nehru immune to the spell of Gandhi, and a rival capable of denying him the succession. Bose ascribed Nehru’s desertion not to political ambition but to weakness of character. He was still not an independent actor, remaining, in the matter-of-fact judgment of Judith Brown, in her biography of Nehru, an ‘utterly reliable’ prop of the old guard within the party.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the Congress high command instructed all its provincial governments to resign in protest at the viceroy’s declaration of war on Germany without consultation with the people of India. The immediate result was to create a political vacuum, into which Jinnah, aware that London badly needed some show of loyalty in its major imperial possession, stepped with assurance. Declaring the end of Congress ministries a ‘day of deliverance’, he lost no time in expressing support for Britain in its hour of need, and winning in exchange its wartime favour. But he faced a difficult task. He was by now uncontested leader of the Muslim League. But the widely scattered Muslim populations of the subcontinent were far from united. Rather they resembled a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces could never be got to fit together.

Historically, the cultural and political heartland of the Muslim elite lay in Uttar Pradesh, where the League was strongest, even though only a third of the population answered the call of the muezzin. Far away to the west, Sindh, Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier were overwhelmingly Muslim. But, conquered late by Britain, they were a rural backwater dominated by local notables who did not speak Urdu and felt no allegiance to the League, which had scarcely any organisational presence in them. In two of the richest provinces of India, widely separated from each other, Punjab and Bengal, Muslims formed a majority – narrow in the former, and more substantial in the latter. In neither was the League a dominant force. In Punjab, it was insignificant. The Unionist Party that controlled the province was a coalition of big Muslim landlords and rich Hindu Jat farmers, both with strong ties to the army, and loyal to the Raj. In Bengal, where the League was led by aristocratic landowners owning huge estates in the east of the province, it was a mass peasant-based party, the KPP, that made the political running. Thus wherever observers looked at provincial level, the Muslim League was weak, either locked out of power by Congress in Hindu-majority areas, or bypassed by rival formations in Muslim-majority zones. What saved it was Jinnah’s standing as the only Muslim politician capable of operating with sufficient skill and brio at an all-India level to make the Unionist, KPP and other leaderships willing to let him represent them in negotiations with the British at the centre, while they held onto their provincial fiefs. This fragmented and disarticulated landscape was one of the reasons for the hubris of Congress after the 1937 elections. To its high command, the League looked like a spent force that might be ignored while the various local Muslim parties were co-opted or picked off at leisure.

The war would rapidly alter this configuration. The British, who in the aftermath of the Mutiny had regarded Muslims as the most dangerous of their subject populations in India, had by the turn of the century come to view them as the safest counterweight to the rise of Hindu nationalism, granting them separate electorates to ensure they would not automatically form a bloc with the Hindus in a common struggle against the Raj. On the other hand, they did not want communal violence to upset their claim to have brought law and order to the subcontinent, or to antagonise unduly the more powerful Hindu community, with its own numerous friendly landlords and traders. So they were careful not to be too one-sided in their favours. But once the Congress governments had abdicated, and the League was offering public support to the war effort, Jinnah became the viceroy’s interlocutor of choice. Though thoroughly secular in outlook and mode of life, for decades he had been rebuffed by a Congress whose sociological reality he could see all too clearly. In composition it was essentially a Hindu party, as Nehru senior – more lucid, or simply more candid, than his son – had noted, whose rule at the centre was unlikely to be more congenial to Muslims than it had proved in the provinces.

Hitherto, aware of the weakness of his base and unwilling to be pinned down by it, Jinnah had avoided formulating any too specific demands of the Raj. Now, emboldened by the turn of events, he unveiled a new programme. At Lahore in 1940, he announced that there were two nations, not one, in the subcontinent, and that independence would have to accommodate their coexistence in a form that gave autonomy and sovereignty to those areas where there was a Muslim majority. The wording of the resolution adopted at his behest by the League was deliberately ambiguous: it spoke of constituent ‘states’ in the plural and did not mention the word ‘Pakistan’ – which Jinnah subsequently complained was being pinned on him by Congress. Behind the vagueness of the phrasing lay the insoluble dilemma he faced. More or less homogeneously Muslim majority areas might be plausible candidates for the formation of an independent state. But did areas with less overwhelming majorities have the same potential? Above all, if majority areas seceded from a putative India, what would happen to the minorities – Jinnah’s own political base – they left behind? Would these not need the shelter of an encompassing union of some kind, in which the Muslim majorities could protect them from arbitrary exercises of Hindu will? Given all these thorns, might not Jinnah himself be bluffing – floating unrealistic demands as bargaining counters, to get a realistic maximum? Many thought so at the time, and not a few since.

Whatever gloss might be put on the Lahore Resolution, it was now clear that independence was not in itself going to be a guarantee of that ageless unity of the nation on which the ideologues of Congress had so often dwelt. The threat to this posed by the rivalry between Hindu and Muslim political identities was immediate and unmistakeable. What was Nehru’s reaction? In 1935 in a characteristic passage of his Autobiography, he had dismissed any possibility of a Muslim nation in India: ‘Politically, the idea is absurd, economically it is fantastic; it is hardly worth considering.’ ‘There is no religious or cultural conflict in India,’ he informed an American audience in 1938. ‘The tremendous and fundamental fact of India is her essential unity through the ages.’ Republishing his essay in 1941, after Lahore, he saw no reason to revise his claim that ‘the forces working for Indian unity are formidable and overwhelming, and it is difficult to conceive of any separatist tendency’ – it was staring him in the face – ‘which can break up this unity.’

By 1945 Wavell – commander-in-chief in India during the war – was viceroy and knew the imperial game was up, remarking: ‘Our present position in India is analogous to that of a military force compelled to withdraw in the face of greatly superior numbers.’ In June, Nehru and his colleagues were released from imprisonment for the Quit India campaign during the war, and in the winter provincial and central elections were held, still on the suffrage of 1935. The result was, or should have been, a cold douche for Congress. The Muslim League had not dwindled or vanished. Jinnah had used the war to build up its organisation, increase its membership, create its own daily, and gain a foothold in provincial governments from which it had hitherto been excluded. Dismissed as a busted flush in 1937, it won a landslide in 1945-46, taking every single Muslim seat in the central elections and 89 per cent of them in provincial elections. Its position in the Muslim community now approached that of Congress in the Hindu.

From London, the Labour government despatched a cabinet mission to negotiate a constitutional framework for independence acceptable to all parties. The federal scheme it eventually proposed bore some resemblance to the arrangements vaguely evoked by Jinnah at Lahore. But though by this time the position of the League had stiffened considerably, both parties at first consented to the plan. Two weeks later, Nehru repudiated it, declaring Congress free to act as it pleased. It was his first purely individual decision as a political leader. Even his hardline colleague Vallabhbhai Patel described it as ‘emotional insanity’, but once launched the torpedo could not be called back. In retaliation, Jinnah – who had always denounced street protests as a reckless appeal to the mob – declared a ‘day of direct action’ to demonstrate that Muslim patience with a constitutional road was now over. A politician skilled in manoeuvre at elite level, he had no experience of mass action or any idea of how to direct or control it. Communal slaughter ensued in Calcutta. Initiated by Muslim thugs, it ended – inevitably, given the relative size of the two communities – with many more Muslims killed than Hindus.

At his wits’ end, Wavell called an interim government into being, headed by Nehru as prime minister, Patel as interior minister and – after an initial League boycott – Jinnah’s deputy, Liaquat Ali Khan, as finance minister. Each party was determined to thwart the other. The League boycotted a constituent assembly composed of delegates nominated on the basis of the provincial election results, so dominated by Congress, to which the government was in principle to be responsible; Congress blocked Liaquat’s proposal for a wealth tax on the grounds that since most businessmen were Hindu, the measure would be an act of religious discrimination. Such was the situation when in February 1947, the Attlee government announced that India would have independence by June 1948, and dispatched Mountbatten to take over as viceroy in charge of the handover.

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With Mountbatten’s arrival, imperial policy towards the religious divide in India came full circle. In the second half of the 19th century, Muslims were suspect to the Raj as first movers of the Mutiny, Hindus regarded as more dependable. In the first half of the 20th, favours were reversed, as Hindu nationalism became the more assertive and Muslim aspirations were encouraged as a check on it. Now, on the last lap, London lurched violently back towards the majority community as its privileged interlocutor. In 1947, the emotional intensity of the switch came from a sudden confluence of ideology, strategy and personality. The Labour regime in Britain viewed Congress as the Indian party closest to its own outlook; Fabian links with Nehru were longstanding. To sentimental affinity was joined national amour-propre. Britain had made of a dispersed subcontinent a single political realm for the first time in its history. For it to fissure at the moment of withdrawal would be to put a question-mark over what all right-thinking patriots, not least such products of an imperial education as Attlee, must regard with pride as the most remarkable creative achievement of their empire. If Britain had to leave India, India should be as Britain had forged it. Alongside such ideological investments in the unity of the subcontinent were considerations of a more material nature. Britain still had valuable possessions in Asia, not least in Malaya, the most profitable of its colonies and soon to be the theatre of a communist insurgency, which it was in no hurry to relinquish; while a short distance away from the North-West Frontier lay the traditional bugbear of the Raj, now in the far more fearsome guise of the Soviet Union. Division of the subcontinent – the chiefs of staff were unanimous – could only play into the hands of the Russians. If the gates of South Asia were to be barred securely against communism, the strategic interests not only of Britain, but also the West, required the bulwark of a united India.

All this indicated that the Muslim League, once a tactical expedient for the Raj, was now the principal obstacle to a satisfactory settlement of its affairs. Jinnah, personification of the difficulty it posed, could hardly expect the same treatment as the leaders of Congress, upholding the integrity of the heirloom to be bequeathed by Britain. But to this structural asymmetry was added the imbalance of an individual vainglory that fatally compounded it. We owe an indelible portrait of Mountbatten – that ‘mendacious, intellectually limited hustler’ – to Andrew Roberts. Full of imaginary exploits from the back seat of his Cadillac in Colombo, as figurehead commander of Allied Forces in South-East Asia, he arrived in Delhi overjoyed to be ‘endowed with an almost heavenly power. I realised that I had been made into the most powerful man on earth.’ A grotesque of sartorial and ceremonial vanity – obsession with flags and froggings regularly displacing matters of state – Mountbatten had two overriding concerns: to cut a figure fit for Hollywood as the last ruler of the Raj and, above all, to ensure India would remain a dominion within the Commonwealth: ‘The value to the United Kingdom both in terms of world prestige and strategy would be enormous.’

If the Raj had to be divided, it was the larger part – the larger, the better – that mattered for British purposes, so conceived. To all the political reasons why Congress was now the preferred partner in planning the future of the subcontinent, a personal one was now added. In Nehru, Mountbatten found delightful company, a social equal with a touch of the same temperament. Gandhi, who had always sought to remain on good terms with the British, had picked Nehru as his successor partly on the grounds that he was culturally equipped to get on well with them, as Patel or other candidates were not. Within weeks, not only was Nehru fast friends with the viceroy, but soon thereafter in bed with his wife, to the satisfaction of all concerned. The Indian state remains so prudish about the connubium that fifty years later it was still intervening to block the appearance of an American film touching on it, while its historians tiptoe round it. Affairs of the heart rarely affect affairs of state. But in this case the erotic ties of the triangle were, at the least, unlikely to tilt British policy towards the League. Diplomats are dismissed for less.

Even so, the language with which Mountbatten and Nehru, echoed by Attlee, regularly described Jinnah, at a time when Britain was ostensibly still seeking to bring the parties in India together, and Congress to lead a united country to independence, is arresting. For Mountbatten, Jinnah was a ‘lunatic’, a ‘bastard’, a ‘clot’, a ‘psychopathic case’; for Nehru, a ‘paranoid’ heading a party of ‘Hitlerian leadership and policies’; for Attlee, ‘that twister’.

Communal riots were raging in Punjab as Mountbatten arrived. Within a month he had decided that since the deadlock between Congress and the League could not be overcome, partition was inevitable. But how was the realm to be divided? Essentially, this came down to five questions. What was to happen to the two key provinces of Bengal and Punjab, where there was a Muslim majority but not of an overwhelming magnitude? How were the zones of princely rule, where neither Congress nor the League had any computable presence, to be allocated? Would there be any popular consultation, either about the principle of partition, or where its lines should lie? Who would superintend the process of division? Over what time period would it be implemented?

At this point, the reckonings of Congress and the League changed places. The credibility of Congress’s claim to represent the whole nation, the centrepiece of its ideology since the 1920s, had crashed with the demonstration of the League’s command of the Muslim electorate. But what was the League to do with its new-found strength? Six years after Lahore, Jinnah had still not found a way to square the circle of sovereignty for Muslim-majority provinces with safeguards for Muslim minorities in Hindu-majority provinces. All that had happened was that the slogan of Pakistan, which he had rejected in 1943, had proved so popular among Muslims that, without clarifying it, Jinnah had made it his own, now claiming that the word ‘states’ in the Lahore Resolution had been a misprint for ‘state’. He seems to have calculated that the British, confronted with the incompatibility of the aims of League and Congress, would ultimately, taking their time about it, impose a confederation to their liking on the two parties, in which the Muslim-majority zones of the subcontinent would be self-governing, with a central authority weak enough not to impinge on them, but strong enough to protect Muslim minorities in self-governing Hindu-majority zones. In the event, the cabinet mission produced a plan close enough to this vision.

But for Nehru, such a scheme was worse than partition, since it would deprive his party of the powerful centralised state to which it had always aspired, and he believed essential to preserve Indian unity. Congress had insisted on its monopoly of national legitimacy from the start. That claim could no longer be sustained. But if the worst came to the worst, it was better to enjoy an unimpeded monopoly of power in the larger part of India than to be shackled by having to share it in an undivided one. So while the League talked of partition, Jinnah contemplated confederation; and while Congress spoke of union, Nehru prepared for scission. The cabinet mission plan was duly scuppered.

Everything then turned on how the spoils were to be distributed. The British still ruled: Mountbatten would do the distribution. Nehru could be confident of his favour, but not in advance be sure of the extent of it. For Mountbatten, paramount in importance was keeping whatever states were to emerge from the Raj within the re-labelled British Commonwealth. That meant they must accept independence as dominions. The League had no objections. But Congress had since 1928 rejected, on principle, any submission of India to fabrications from London, expressly including future as a dominion. For Mountbatten, this raised the unacceptable prospect of the lesser community, which he regarded as the principal culprit of partition, becoming a member of the Commonwealth, while the larger community, not only relatively blameless but of much greater strategic and ideological importance, remained outside it. How was this conundrum to be solved?

The answer came from the Father Joseph of the moment, V.P. Menon, a Hindu functionary from Kerala in the upper ranks of the imperial bureaucracy, working on Mountbatten’s personal staff and a close confederate of Patel, the organisational strongman of Congress. Why not offer Indian entry into the Commonwealth to Mountbatten in exchange for a partition so point-blank that it would leave Congress not only in control of the far larger territory and population to which it was entitled by religion, but also in swift command of the capital and the lion’s share of the military and bureaucratic machinery of the Raj? As a final sweetener, Menon suggested throwing the princely states – hitherto left inviolate by Congress, and nearly equal in size and population to any future Pakistan – into the pot, as compensation for what would be foregone to Jinnah. Patel and Nehru needed little persuasion. If these assets were handed over within two months, the deal would be done. Informed of this breakthrough, Mountbatten was overjoyed, later writing to Menon: ‘It was indeed fortunate that you were reforms commissioner on my staff, and that thus we were brought together into close association with one another at a very early stage, for you were the first person I met who entirely agreed with the idea of dominion status, and you found the solution which I had not thought of, of making it acceptable by a very early transfer of power. History must always rate that decision very high, and I owe it to your advice.’ History would be less admiring than he supposed.

There was one last-minute hiccup. Due to present London’s finalised plan for independence and partition to leaders of all the interested parties at Simla, Mountbatten had a ‘hunch’ that he must show it in confidence to Nehru before any of the others saw it. Nehru’s reaction was furious: the plan did not adequately acknowledge that the Indian Union would be the successor state to the Raj, with all that went with such a position, and Pakistan a secession from it. The two were not to be put on the same footing. The viceroy thanked his lucky stars for his intuition. Without it, he said, he and his men would have ‘looked complete fools with the government at home, having led them up the garden path to believe that Nehru would accept the plan’, and ‘Dickie Mountbatten would have been finished and could have packed his bag.’ The invaluable Menon was to hand, and the day was saved when he redrafted the plan to Nehru’s satisfaction. In the first week of June, Mountbatten announced that Britain would transfer power at what he himself would describe as ‘the ludicrously early date’ of 14 August. The logic of such a rush was plain, and in speaking of it Mountbatten did not beat about the bush. ‘What are we doing? Administratively it is the difference between putting up a permanent building, and a Nissen hut or a tent. As far as Pakistan is concerned we are putting up a tent. We can do no more.’

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The rules laid down for the territorial division of the Raj excluded any consultation with its population. Instead, the legislative assembly of each province would decide to which state it wished to belong, with three exceptions. In Punjab and Bengal, the assembly would be given the option of dividing the province; and in the North-West Frontier, uniquely, there would be a referendum. Religion automatically assigned all but these to either India or Pakistan. In Punjab, the Muslim majority in the assembly voted for Pakistan, the Hindu and Sikh minorities for India. Bengal was another matter. With nearly four times the population, it was not landlocked, had a stronger common identity, a richer cultural-intellectual tradition and more advanced politics under the Raj. There, division was not a foregone conclusion. In the Hindu community a movement led by Bose’s brother Sarat, and in the Muslim community by the local head of the League, Hoseyn Suhrawardy, joined forces to call for a United Bengal as an independent state, adhering neither to India nor to Pakistan. Mountbatten wanted only two dominions in the subcontinent, though if it was difficult to avoid, did not rule out a third. Jinnah, to his credit, said he would not oppose a unitary Bengal. Leading a violent attack on the idea in Bengal was the ancestor of today’s BJP, the rabidly confessional Hindu Mahasabha. The first mass upsurge of Indian nationalism had come over Curzon’s division of Bengal in 1905, Hindu activists leading the revolt against it. Now the roles were reversed, Hindu chauvinists insisting that Bengal be partitioned on religious lines.

What was Nehru’s position? India should take as much territory as it could get: if religion was a lever to that end, so be it. Mountbatten reported a formal exchange with Suhrawardy to the governor of Bengal with the revealing phrase: ‘I warned him that Nehru was not in favour of an independent Bengal unless closely linked to Hindustan, as he felt that a partition now would anyhow bring East Bengal into Hindustan in a few years.’ East Bengal is today’s Bangladesh. For Nehru, Bengal could remain united only if it belonged to India. But as matters stood, the Congress high command took the view that ‘the independence of Bengal really means in present circumstances the dominance of the Moslem League in Bengal,’ and the party rallied behind the Mahasabha, with joint meetings whipping up Hindu demands for Bengal’s partition, Gandhi in support. When the question was put to the Bengal Assembly, the vote was 126 to 90 in favour of unity. But when representatives of West and East cast ballots separately, as they were required to do, the West voted for partition, the East against it, and divided along religious lines Bengal duly became. The prediction of its governor had proved accurate: ‘Bengal will be sacrificed on the altar of Nehru’s all-India outlook.’

What of the one province whose population would actually be allowed to express its views on partition? The North-West Frontier was an oddity on the political chequerboard. There, the settled zone – mainly Pathan – had seen the rise of a strong Muslim anti-colonialist movement, the Red Shirts, dedicated to a non-violence akin to, but independent of, Gandhi’s Hindu version. Led by a local landlord, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, popularly dubbed Badshah Khan, the movement was affiliated to Congress, though by no means always in line with it. The tribal areas of the province, tightly controlled by the British, were kept off-limits to nationalist organisation of any kind. Backed by Badshah Khan and the Red Shirts, Congress had won a majority in the provincial elections of 1946. But when Nehru paid a visit in the autumn of that year, after the mutual pogroms in Calcutta, he was given a hostile reception in Peshawar, and worse when he ventured into the tribal zone. Historically, the Muslim League had always been very weak in the province, but as communal tensions rose across Northern India, it started to gain strength not only in the settled but also in the tribal zones, mounting demonstrations and boycotts against the local Congress ministry, and a massive rally when Mountbatten descended on Peshawar.

The Red Shirts had campaigned on the platform of a united India, and won a majority for Congress in the provincial assembly. But the North-West Frontier was 95 per cent Muslim, and geographically separated from the rest of the Congress-held subcontinent. After his visit, Mountbatten judged it too risky to proceed as elsewhere, by a simple decision of the provincial assembly: some kind of verification of popular opinion as to its future would be necessary. Congress, opposed to any kind of referendum on partition, accepted one in the NWFP only on condition that it exclude any option for independence – Nehru even then still expressing a hope to Gandhi that ‘we can get out of it.’ For Badshah Khan, however, Congress’s acceptance of partition was a betrayal of innumerable promises to do no such thing, and the exclusion of any possibility of independence in a referendum, the one option that his movement could now realistically stand for, a double betrayal. The Red Shirts boycotted the referendum, nearly half the voters following them, the rest rallying behind the League to give an overwhelming majority for joining Pakistan.

Strategic considerations no doubt played a role in Congress calculations: a detached borderland did not fit the strong compact India had in mind, even if the province itself, as the Red Shirts bitterly pointed out, was far closer to Delhi than East Bengal was to Karachi within the impending Pakistan. But the unceremonious abandonment by Congress of the only Muslim province where it had twice won an – albeit borrowed – electoral majority indicated, clearly enough, the religious nature of the partition that it denied and the League proclaimed. Nehru’s own reception there was probably also decisive. In the judgment of Mukulika Banerjee, the best Indian historian of the Red Shirts, ‘Nehru was both notoriously vain and in possession of a considerable temper, and he is unlikely ever to have forgiven the Pathans for the humiliation he suffered at the hands of the Tribes … He returned to Delhi having given up on the Frontier.’ Badshah Khan, for whom the worst blow came where he had least expected it, is supposed to have told his fellow pacifist Gandhi: ‘You have thrown us to the wolves.’

The rest of the Raj was divided without even this iota of popular consent. The provincial assemblies nominally entrusted with partition had not been elected on the issue. Many indeed, as in the North-West Frontier, had been elected in opposition to it. They themselves represented only a fraction – fewer than one in seven – of the population. Partition was imposed from above, deliberately circumventing any expression of democratic will. ‘Never before in South Asian history,’ one trenchant local observer has written, ‘did so few divide so many, so needlessly.’[*] The validity of that adverb would need unpacking. But ‘murderously’ could have been written without fear of qualification. In Sumit Sarkar’s no less bitter words, ‘a “bloodless” winning of independence would be accompanied by an unimaginably bloody communal carnage.’ The number of those who died when the division was enforced has never been accurately calculated. But few estimates place it at less than a million. The number of those uprooted, fleeing to lands they had never known, was anywhere from 12 to 18 million: the largest avalanche of refugees in history.

Though communal killings occurred across north India, the major flashpoints were the two divided provinces, Punjab and Bengal. But there was a significant difference between them. Huge waves of refugees criss-crossed in Bengal. But, comparatively speaking, the expulsions occurred with relatively little violence. In Punjab, on the other hand, not only were the bonds of a common culture weaker, but the province had long been poisoned by its role as supplier of soldateska to the empire. In this traditionally militarised ambience, teeming with veterans of imperial war and repression, religious hostilities exploded in reciprocal massacre. Sikh vigilantes, from the community with most reason – it comprised no more than 13 per cent of the population – to fear what was coming, pre-armed by their religion with kirpans, and backed by the rulers of Patiala and Kapurthala, were already starting their deadly work before actual partition. Four and a half million Hindus and Sikhs were driven out of their homes to East Punjab, five and a half million Muslims to West Punjab, in a communal inferno.

The trail to this conflagration was laid on 7 July, when London dispatched the future law lord Cyril Radcliffe to Delhi to determine the boundaries of the two states, India and Pakistan, to be given independence five weeks later, on 15 August. He knew nothing of the subcontinent. But there already existed a detailed plan to divide it, drawn up in 1946 by none other than V.P. Menon and another Hindu bureaucrat, B.N. Rau, who would play a scarcely less fateful role in the events underway. Radcliffe adhered closely to the plan. But not closely enough for Mountbatten. Officially supposed neither to exercise any influence on Radcliffe, nor to have any knowledge of his findings, he intervened behind the scenes – probably at Nehru’s behest – to alter the award. Like most senior judges of the day – in the age of Denning, Widgery or Hutton, has it changed that much? – Radcliffe could be bent, not to money, but to power. Mountbatten had little difficulty getting him to change his boundaries to allot two pivotal Muslim-majority districts in Punjab to India rather than to Pakistan: one controlling the only access road from Delhi to Kashmir, the other containing a large arsenal.

Radcliffe finalised his award on 12 August, exiting rapidly back to England before it was announced. He made sure to leave no incriminating evidence for posterity, destroying all his papers. Today, only Auden’s feeble lines preserve his memory. Mountbatten, well aware of what was impending, delayed the announcement of the Radcliffe Award until 36 hours after India and Pakistan had received their independence. It is still customary, at least in Britain, to praise the Labour government for its emancipation of the subcontinent after the war – the finest hour, in the view of David Marquand, in Attlee’s career. The reality is that the transfer of power put through Parliament in the first week of July 1947, amid an outpouring of self-congratulation on all sides, was literally breakneck: not for those who voted it, but those who suffered it. If partition was to have any chance of being carried through peacefully or equitably, at least a year – the year London had originally set as the term of the Raj – of orderly administration and preparation was needed. Its conveyance within six weeks was a sentence of death and devastation to millions.

*

The British Empire bequeathed a series of partitions: Ireland, Palestine, India, Cyprus. But though colonial principles of divide and rule played a role in each, the cases were not the same. Ultimate architect of division in Ireland and Cyprus, ultimately indifferent to it in Palestine, when its time was up in the subcontinent British imperialism did not favour partition. But when London and its envoy in Delhi decided they could not prevent it, they made a human catastrophe of a setback to colonial amour-propre. The avidity of Congress for an instant division was the local motive of the disaster. But Congress could at least be sure that it would thereby gain the instruments and accoutrements of sole power in a preponderant domain. Its aim was cold-blooded, though in context rational. But it did not possess the means to realise its goal. Britain, still in command of the only army and bureaucracy across the Raj, retained those. What prompted it to inflict partition on its subjects overnight? The bauble of a title to save its face: for ‘empire’, now read ‘dominion’. The spirit of the transaction was perfectly expressed in its finale. There would be no British responsibility for the consequences. Having lit the fuse, Mountbatten handed over the buildings to their new owners hours before they blew up, in what has a good claim to be the most contemptible single act in the annals of the empire.

In the ensuing chaos, Congress made good a primary objective. To inheritance at midnight on 15 August of successor status to the Raj, with its seat at the UN, and control of the capital and three-quarters of the territory and population of British India, would be added a still greater share of its arsenal. Fourteen out of 20 armoured regiments, 40 out of 48 artillery regiments, and 21 out of 29 infantry regiments fell into its grasp, plus the larger part of the air force and navy. Of the 160,000 tons of ordnance legally allotted to Pakistan, no more than 23,000 ever reached it. There remained the question of how the territorial assets left outstanding by the grant of simultaneous independence were to be distributed – the two-fifths of the subcontinent ruled by princes over whom Britain had juridically been only suzerain. In theory they were free to choose their future. In practice, none had the means to resist annexation. The overwhelming majority – some 550 out of 560 – were Hindu potentates ruling Hindu populations, and were swiftly rounded up for India by Mountbatten, with assurances from Patel and Menon that their opulence would not be touched by the new authorities. In the two cases where the ruler was Muslim and the overwhelming majority of the population Hindu, Congress settled the matter by force. In Junagadh, a peninsula lying across the water from Sind, whose prince opted for accession to Pakistan, it sent in troops to secure the state for India without further ado. The vastly larger state of Hyderabad, where the benighted Nizam wished to maintain his independence, was seized with an invasion a year later. Post-partition, both actions enjoyed the support of the majority of the local population, and could be defended on grounds of self-determination, as conforming to its wishes.

In Kashmir, the boot was on the other foot. There a Hindu ruler – rivalling the Nizam in obscurantist tyranny – lorded it over a population that was overwhelmingly Muslim. The largest princely state in the subcontinent, it had been sold by the East India Company in the 1840s to a Dogra adventurer, whose descendants presided over a sectarian regime in which senior officers and bureaucrats were exclusively Hindu; down to 1920 there was a death penalty for Muslim peasants, most living in abject misery, should they kill a cow. In the next decade, the first political organisation in the state – unsurprisingly a Muslim Conference – came into existence, headed by a local teacher, Sheikh Abdullah. Within a few years, the Muslim Conference had become a National Conference, and by 1944 it had adopted a social programme to the left of both Congress and the Muslim League, drafted by communists within the party and envisaging an independent Kashmir as an Asian Switzerland. Its position, however, was weakened first by collaboration with the maharajah’s regime in the name of support for the British war effort, and then by an unsuccessful attempt to redeem itself by campaigning for his ouster, which landed Abdullah in jail in 1946. In the southern part of the state, Jammu, where the Muslim majority was not so large and a substantial Dogra population provided the backbone of Hindu rule, intercommunal tensions had for some time given a splitaway force, reviving the banner of a Muslim Conference, the upper hand over the National Conference.

At partition the maharajah, seeking to preserve his autocracy, declared neither for India nor Pakistan. His realm was 77 per cent Muslim, but Kashmir itself was 92 per cent Muslim, and shared a border with Pakistan but none with India. If religion and geography were to determine its allocation, there could be no ambiguity as to where it would belong. Yet it had never occupied a significant position in Jinnah’s political thinking. The ‘six provinces’ which, by the end of the war, he was demanding for Pakistan included Assam, with a large Hindu majority, but not Kashmir. The extraordinary ineptitude of his handling of Kashmir, once partition came, was the fruit of long-standing limitations. Jinnah was more quintessentially a lawyer than any Congress leader; more committed to constitutional methods of advance; and during the war tactically much closer to the British, for whom meddling with local rulers who had shown their loyalty to the Raj was out of bounds. Congress had long made scant attempt to build grass-roots organisations in the princely states; the Muslim League had made none. In 1947 a blinkered legalism seems to have prompted Jinnah to the naive calculation that the right of the Nizam to hold onto landlocked Hyderabad, in the middle of the Deccan, would be compromised by any challenge to the right of the maharajah to dispose of Kashmir, as if there were any realistic chance of the former not being absorbed by India, whatever the juridical niceties. Cultural formation also played its part. Historically a product of Bombay whose main following was in the central plains of Uttar Pradesh, Jinnah had little familiarity with the north-west of the subcontinent. Islam was not a reliable bridge. Abdullah, a pious Muslim who prided himself on Quranic lore, regarded Jinnah as little better than an atheist, while a Muslim League mission to Kashmir reported that the locals were so heterodox as to be little better than pagans. As Pakistan loomed, Jinnah’s mind was elsewhere.

The opposite was true of Nehru. Though himself born and raised in Uttar Pradesh, his ancestors had come from the Hindu elite of Kashmir, offering sentimental investment in a region with which he otherwise had little contact. First arriving there for a bear hunt in his late twenties, he did not set eyes on the region again till 1940. But when he did so, he commemorated the experience in a dithyramb of sexualised gush to embarrass a tourist brochure. ‘I wandered about like one possessed and drunk with beauty, and the intoxication of it filled my mind,’ he reported.

Like some supremely beautiful woman, whose beauty is almost impersonal and above human desire, such was Kashmir in all its feminine beauty of river and valley and lake and graceful trees … sometimes the sheer loveliness of it was overpowering and I felt almost faint. As I gazed at it, it seemed to me dream-like and unreal, like the hopes and desires that fill us and so seldom find fulfilment. It was like the face of the beloved that one sees in a dream and fades away on awakening.

Happily, no such thing. His strophes concluded: ‘Kashmir calls back, its pull is stronger than ever, it whispers its fairy magic to the ears, and its memory disturbs the mind. How can they who have fallen under its spell release themselves from this enchantment?’

How indeed. Alongside such fantasies were more material considerations. For Congress, as for British military planners after the war, Kashmir was a strategic redoubt commanding the approaches to Central Asia. Still more crucial was its importance as an ideological prize. If it went to India, it would demonstrate that Congress had built, as it had always said it would, a secular state in which a Muslim province could take its place among Hindu provinces, unlike the confessional state of Pakistan that had so gratuitously destroyed the natural unity of the subcontinent. Nehru, for whom its future was a matter of ‘intimate personal significance’, made no secret of the intensity of his feelings to Mountbatten, breaking down in front of Patel and weeping that Kashmir meant more to him than anything else, adding to Mountbatten’s wife that ‘Kashmir affects me in a peculiar way … like music sometimes or the company of a beloved person.’ Later he would simply cry out: ‘I want Kashmir.’ In June he was already explaining in a memorandum to Mountbatten that its accession to India would be the ‘normal and obvious course’ after partition, and that it would be ‘absurd to think that Pakistan would create trouble if this happens’.

In Kashmir itself, trouble came of its own accord. It did not take long for the communal violence which erupted over the partition of Punjab to spread to Jammu. There Dogra ethnic cleansing started to drive out Muslims. Then a full-scale Muslim rising against Hindu rule exploded in the western borderland of Poonch. In the Valley, where Indian arms had been quietly stockpiled, a battalion materialised from Patiala. Finally, inflamed by reports of massacres of fellow Muslims in Punjab and UP, and backed clandestinely – also haphazardly and incompetently, without heavy weapons or regular command – from Pakistan, Pathan tribesmen poured down from the North-West Frontier towards Srinagar, killing and plundering in their path, the maharajah fleeing to Jammu. Once Pathan fighters were at the gates of Srinagar, Delhi went into high gear. There Mountbatten was now governor-general of independent India, whose army – like that of Pakistan – remained under the command of British generals. Acutely aware of the importance of Kashmir for Nehru, Mountbatten had as early as 17 July, nine days after Radcliffe arrived to draw the borders, been minuted by Menon that for India to have access to Kashmir required passage through the district of Gurdaspur in Punjab, the only overland route from Delhi to Srinagar, and though it had a Muslim majority, Radcliffe duly awarded it to India. There was never any doubt where Mountbatten’s sympathies lay.

Legal cover was still required for military intervention by India, and on 26 October this was duly provided by Menon, with a forged declaration of accession to India by the maharajah, supposedly brought back from Srinagar by Menon, when in fact he was still in Delhi: a document, now recently ‘discovered’, on which the Indian state bases its entire claim to Kashmir, but was unable to produce for over half a century. In reality the maharajah, now a panic-stricken fugitive in Jammu and in no position to decline protection from Delhi, was perfectly willing to sign on the dotted line, but the Congress high command, fearing Srinagar was about to fall, could not wait for this formality. Patel airlifted troops into the city, and under its British commanders, Mountbatten supervising operations, the Indian army swiftly took possession of most of Kashmir. When Jinnah belatedly attempted a counter-intervention by the Pakistani army, Auchinleck – commander-in-chief in Delhi – flew in to instruct Messervy, his opposite number in Karachi, that all British officers in the Pakistani army would have to resign, decapitating its command structure, if it made any move into Kashmir, which had legally acceded to India. Jinnah desisted. The Valley was handed to India on a British plate.

Still, it remained all too obvious that a province with an overwhelming Muslim majority had been acquired by force and – as would in due course become clear – fraud. Even the Labour government in London, pre-eminently well disposed to Congress, expressed unease at the upshot, Attlee finding it a ‘dirty business’. There was trouble too at the UN. The back-dated instrument of accession justifying Indian seizure of Kashmir, which could not be found after the event, was an embarrassment apologists have since only aggravated with bedtime stories that present Menon, on the correct date, waving the document in triumph to Manekshaw – the general who, a quarter of a century later, wanted India to finish off Pakistan altogether – with a triumphant cry of ‘Sam, we have got it!’, as if the fate of five million people were a lottery ticket. But the ex post facto assent of the maharajah – himself summarily put out of the way once the province was safely in Delhi’s hands – was no better defence, since India had brushed aside princely decision in favour of popular preference to take over Junagadh and Hyderabad. There remained, however, a third claim: that in Kashmir the popular will itself, embodied in Abdullah’s National Conference, wanted integration with India. There is little reason to doubt that Nehru, believing Abdullah a political fellow-spirit, persuaded himself of this. Abdullah had indeed followed the maharajah in approving accession to India, and once the maharajah was coralled, was installed by Delhi as prime minister of Kashmir.

But the option – temporary, as it turned out – of a leader and the mood of the people were not the same thing. Abdullah was a popular politician, then and later, in the Valley of Kashmir, but his National Conference faced fierce competition from the Muslim Conference that had split from it, and neither party had any mass organisation comparable to Badshah Khan’s Red Shirts, which had dominated the North-West Frontier since the early 1930s. Yet when it came to a plebiscite in the NWFP, religious identity trumped political allegiance, and the region voted for Pakistan. Abdullah’s hand was weaker than Badshah’s. That Delhi itself rapidly realised this is plain from what followed. Believing it could count on a favourable vote, India officially promised a referendum to show that Kashmiris had rallied to it by their own free will, not simply at a ruler’s whim. Their intelligence reports soon disabused the Congress leaders of this notion. By the summer of 1949, one of these reported from a tour of Indian-held territory that it was ‘midsummer madness to believe we can win the plebiscite’. Within another year Patel was writing to Nehru: ‘It appears that both the National Conference and Sheikh Sahib [Abdullah] are losing their hold on the people of the Valley and are becoming somewhat unpopular … In such circumstances I agree with you that a plebiscite is unreal.’ Four years later, Abdullah’s use had come to an end, and he was thrown into jail for conspiring against the state. No referendum would ever take place.

The concluding act of partition was a military conquest of familiar stamp: territorial expansion by force of arms, in the name of national integration. Nothing in the outlook of the Congress high command, or traditional pattern-books of nationalism, was inconsistent with it. What did Gandhi make of it? Did principles of non-violence and harmony between faiths distance him from the lunge for Kashmir? Far from it. ‘What is the reason for our fighting in Kashmir? I consider it barbarous for the tribal raiders to have attacked Kashmir; we had to send an army to fight them,’ he told a prayer meeting. ‘The simple fact is that Pakistan has invaded Kashmir. Units of the Indian Army have gone to Kashmir but not to invade Kashmir.’ What if war broke out between the two new states? ‘Do I imagine that the several crores of Muslims in India will be loyal to India and fight against Pakistan? It is easy to pose such questions but difficult to answer them … If later they betray you, you can shoot them. You may shoot one or two or a certain number. Everyone will not be disloyal.’ What of the province itself? ‘To whom does Kashmir belong? Right now I shall say it belongs to the maharajah because the maharajah still exists. In the eyes of the government the maharajah is still the legitimate ruler. Of course if the maharajah is a wicked man, if he does nothing for the people, I think it is for the government to displace him. But so far no such eventuality has arisen.’ Abdullah? ‘I have not the slightest doubt that if we show the least bit of slackness over Kashmir, Hyderabad and Junagadh are going to meet with the same fate. Sheikh Abdullah is a brave man. But one wonders whether he may not betray in the end.’ Prophetic words. Those who would in due course jail the traitor? ‘The government is composed of patriots and no one will do anything that is in conflict with the interests of the country.’

*

In the ranks of such patriots, none showed less slackness than Vallabhbhai Patel, minister for home affairs. In a ‘marvellous and deeply touching speech before officers and men of the Royal Indian Air Force on 1 October 1948’, as a centenary volume of his writings describes it, Patel reported:

While people talk of our failing to follow Gandhiji’s teachings, I wish to give you one example which I remember from his conversation. When Srinagar was touch and go, when we wanted to put our army in Srinagar and when the air force was asked … to carry the army and all its requirements quickly, they did it with wonderful speed; and if we had been late by 24 hours, the whole game would have been lost. That is the work which you have done, which is written in letters of gold in the history of Freedom. We are proud of you. But what Gandhiji said to me was: ‘I feel so proud when I hear the noise of these aeroplanes. At one time I was feeling very miserable and oppressed when I heard this. But when this Kashmir operation began, I began to feel proud of them and every aeroplane that goes with materials and arms and ammunition and requirements of the army, I feel proud.’ [italics in original]

Patel himself, who held that ‘what nature and God had intended to be one on no account can be split in two for all times,’ had wider aims in view, as these were recalled by Elmhirst, the admiring British air marshal who served under him: ‘If all the decisions rested on me, I think I would be in favour of extending this little affair in Kashmir to a full-scale war with Pakistan … Let us get it over with once and for all and settle down as a united continent.’ Congress had accepted partition as the price of a strong centralised state in which it could be sure of a monopoly of power, but in the mind of its top leaders it was a temporary concession. The party’s resolution of 15 June 1947 that formally agreed to partition made its position very clear. ‘Geography and the mountains and the seas fashioned India as she is, and no human agency can change that shape or come in the way of her final destiny’ – least of all ‘the false doctrine of two nations’. Mountbatten had engineered point-blank partition with the same end in mind, saying explicitly that this would ‘give Pakistan a greater chance to fail on its demerits’, and so was in the best interests of India, because a ‘truncated Pakistan, if conceded now, was bound to come back later’. In September, Auchinleck reported to London: ‘The present Indian cabinet are implacably determined to do all in their power to prevent the establishment of the Dominion of Pakistan on a firm basis.’ Nehru, who had for decades denied there was any possibility of an independent Muslim state in the subcontinent, repeatedly expressed his confidence that Pakistan was such a rickety structure – by October it was in his eyes ‘already a tottering state’ – that it had no chance of surviving. The delusions of the Congress nationalism reshaped by Gandhi to Hindu specifications died hard.

Only outside Congress was there lucidity. Predictably, of those who would go on to construct the Indian state, Ambedkar alone was early on clear-sighted enough to see that self-determination could not be denied Muslims if they wanted it, and to propose a rational solution. In 1944, at a time when the very idea of this was taboo in Congress, and still little more than a vague slogan in the Muslim League itself, he published the only serious work on the issue that would determine the outcome of the struggle for independence. Pakistan, or the Partition of India, whose references range from Renan to Acton to Carson, from Canada to Ireland to Switzerland, stands as a devastating indictment of the intellectual poverty of Congress and its leaders. Critical of Muslim introversion, alert to Vinayak Savarkar’s Hindutva, contemptuous of the myths of pan-religious amity, Ambedkar did not advocate separation of the two communities, but he proposed referendums to determine popular wishes and in the event that Muslims insisted on it, sketched the boundaries he thought might ensue. After partition, he would call for a division of Kashmir to allow its Muslim-majority zone, including the Valley, to join Pakistan.

The condition of Ambedkar’s sanity was that he had broken with Hinduism. The condition of Nehru’s obduracy was that he had not. When in the summer of 1945 an emissary of the Communist Party, the one other force in the subcontinent that understood something of the principles of self-determination, appealed to him to accept the prospect of Pakistan, he was told that was impossible because of the strength of Hindu opinion in Congress. Three years later, Nehru would show what that attachment meant. When the Indian army took over Hyderabad, massive Hindu pogroms against the Muslim population broke out, aided and abetted by its regulars. On learning something of them, the figurehead Muslim congressman in Delhi, Maulana Azad, then minister of education, prevailed on Nehru to let a team investigate. It reported that at a conservative estimate between 27,000 and 40,000 Muslims had been slaughtered in the space of a few weeks after the Indian takeover. This was the largest single massacre in the history of the Indian union, dwarfing the killings by the Pathan raiders en route to Srinagar which India has ever since used as the casus belli for its annexation of Kashmir.

Nehru, on proclaiming Indian victory in Hyderabad, had announced that ‘not a single communal incident’ marred the triumph. What action did he take on receiving the report? He suppressed it, and at Patel’s urging cancelled the appointment of one of its authors as ambassador in the Middle East. No word about the pogroms, in which his own troops had taken eager part, could be allowed to leak out. Twenty years later, when news of the report finally surfaced, his daughter banned the publication of the document as injurious to ‘national interests’, faithful to her father’s definition of them. Had he not said ‘the Congress is the country and the country is the Congress’? Such was the way the borders of contemporary India were rounded out.

*

The struggle for independence from the Raj, like every major anti-colonial movement, drew on profoundly impressive human energies: great courage, devoted organisation, selfless sacrifice, political and moral imagination. Viewed historically, there was never any doubt that it would bring imperial rule by Britain to an end. That, after all, was the common fate of all European colonies after the Second World War. India was not ahead of other British possessions in the advance towards it. Ceylon had universal suffrage already in 1931, Burma its own prime minister by 1937. In the Dutch and French empires, Indonesia and Vietnam declared independence two years before India did so, in the teeth of military assault from Gurkha and Punjabi troops dispatched there in imperial solidarity by Mountbatten. As a theatre of conflict the subcontinent was on a different geographic and demographic scale. But these epic dimensions also explain why the transfer of power, when it came, was so unlike the ordeal in Indonesia or Vietnam. In the Dutch East Indies, the ratio of colonials to natives was 1:200; in Vietnam 1:475. In the Raj it was 1:3,650. The British had no hope of holding on after 1945, as the French and Dutch fought to do.

But if the independence of the subcontinent was inevitable, was its division too? A century later, the struggle against the Raj has generated a vast literature, within India and beyond it. But it is striking how rarely this issue is ever centrally or candidly confronted. The major question posed by the modern history of the region has yet to receive analytic treatment commensurate with it. Too much remains politically at stake in any of the possible answers. The standard nationalist version in India is that British policies of divide and rule were responsible for splitting the national movement and precipitating partition. Historically, British power had in truth always rested on divisions in the subcontinent. But confessional antagonisms between Hindu and Muslim communities were not, in the 19th century, a primary instrument of control, if only because they risked aggregating dangerously wide blocs of religious identity at the expense of more favourably fragmented political, ethnic and linguistic units. The Raj preferred safer subdivisions. When modern nationalism started to take hold among Hindus, the British accommodated the initial Muslim reaction to it with alacrity, granting separate electorates. But after that, no viceroy stoked religious tensions deliberately. For the British, the ideal arrangement was rather to be found in Punjab, the apple of the imperial eye: interconfessional unity around a strong regional identity, loyal to the Raj, against which neither Congress nor Muslim League made any headway in the interwar years. During the Second World War, when Congress came out against participation in the conflict, the League was favoured. But once the war was over, Britain sought to preserve the unity of the subcontinent as its historic creation, and when it could not, tilted towards Congress far more decisively than it ever had to the League. Popular conceptions in India blaming the creation of Pakistan on a British plot are legends.

If the Raj can be eliminated as an efficient cause of partition, we are returned to the famous remark of a veteran of Non-Cooperation at the Round Table Conference of 1931: ‘We divide and you rule.’ The ultimate drivers of the split were indigenous, not imperial. How were they distributed? The official view in Delhi, shared across the political spectrum, has always been that it was Jinnah’s personal ambition that fired Muslim separatism, destroying the unity of the national liberation struggle and wrecking what would otherwise have been its natural culmination in a single ecumenical state coinciding with the borders of the Raj and bearing the proud name of India. Like most politicians, Jinnah was certainly ambitious. But he was also an early architect of Hindu-Muslim unity; had little mass following down to the end of the 1930s; and even when he acquired one, probably aimed at a confederation rather than complete separation. The division in the struggle for independence, when it came, was confessional, but it was not Jinnah who injected religion into the vocabulary and imagery of the national movement, it was Gandhi. That he did not do so in any sectarian spirit, calling on Muslims to defend the caliph in the same breath as Hindus to restore the golden age of Rama, was of little consequence once he jettisoned mobilisation against the British without regard for his allies in the common struggle. Non-Cooperation died as a campaign to evict the Raj. It lived on as an all but permanent description of political relations between the two communities it had once brought together. What remained was Gandhi’s transformation of Congress from an elite into a mass organisation by saturating its appeal with a Hindu imaginary. Here, unambiguously, was the origin of the political process that would eventually lead to partition.

By the mid-1930s, Congress as a party was close to monolithically Hindu – just 3 per cent of its membership were Muslim. Privately, its more clear-sighted leaders knew this. Publicly, the party claimed to represent the entire nation, regardless of religious affiliation. The reality was that by the end of the 1930s, it commanded the loyalty of an overwhelming majority of the Hindu electorate, but had minimal Muslim support. Since Hindus comprised two thirds of the population, it was already clear that free elections on either an unaltered or a universal franchise would deliver Congress absolute control of any future all-India legislature. Common sense indicated that from a position of such strength, it would be necessary to make every feasible concession to ensure that the quarter of the population that was Muslim would not feel itself a permanently impotent – and potentially vulnerable – minority. Ignoring every dictate of prudence and realism, Congress did the opposite. At each critical juncture, it refused any arrangement that might dilute the power to which it could look forward. In 1928, after Congress had initially been persuaded to accept allocation to Muslims of a third of the seats in a national legislature, Motilal Nehru’s Report reduced it to a quarter, and Jinnah was shouted down for attempting to revert to the original agreement. In 1937, coalition government in Uttar Pradesh was rejected, and the Muslim League told to dissolve itself into Congress. In 1942, the Cripps Mission scheme for a postwar India was rebuffed by Congress for allowing constituent units the freedom to choose whether or not to join a future Indian union. In 1947, Nehru killed off the cabinet mission plan as a confederation for giving too much leeway to areas where the Muslim League was likely to dominate. The display of blindness was unvarying.

Generating it was a fatal mixture of social misperception, electoral architecture and historical mythology. Nehru believed, down to the end of the Second World War, that the Muslim League was a reactionary clique of big landlords with no significant popular base that could be discounted as a political force in the face of the huge electoral support enjoyed by Congress. There was truth in the comparison, but also illusion. Even at the height of its triumph in 1937, Congress did not command any considerable Muslim electorate, while the League would soon remedy its weakness. But the hubris of success was such that Nehru could say, ‘When I speak, I do not speak as an individual but I speak with the authority of the hundreds of millions of India,’ and add: ‘There is hardly any national body in the world to match the Congress.’ Intoxication of this sort was fortified by the most damaging legacy of colonial rule: not the stoking of communal furies, but the introduction of first-past-the-post voting systems, converting plurality into monopoly representation at constituency level. It was partly because even the British realised the dangers of this in India that they granted separate electorates as a limited safeguard for Muslim minorities. But the effect of the system would still be to inflate Congress victory at the polls far beyond its actual support, magnifying an already overweening sense of its dominance.

Finally, and most fundamentally, the ideology and self-conception of Congress rested on a set of historical myths that disabled it from taking sober stock of the political problems confronting the struggle for emancipation from the Raj. Central to these myths was the claim that India had existed as a nation time out of mind, with a continuous identity and overarching harmony prior to the arrival of the British. Congress, in this outlook, was simply the contemporary vehicle of that national unity, in which differences of religious faith had never prevented ordinary people living peacefully side by side, under the aegis of enlightened rulers. Imperialism had sought to set community against community, and a handful of self-seeking Muslim politicians had colluded with it, but independence would show the world an India stretching from the North-West to the North-East Frontier Agencies, at one with itself, a democracy governed by a party in the tolerant traditions of the greatest emperors of its past, the modern expression of a six-thousand-year-old civilisation.

Cleansed from this edifying vision was the obvious fact that variegated Hindu populations, which had never formed a subcontinental state of these dimensions, had for centuries been subject to Islamic conquerors, formed in a faith at virtually every point – not least in its attitude to idols – antithetical to their own. The practical necessities of rule might temper arrangements with the infidel – much subsequent idealisation surrounding figures like Akbar, as ruthless as the rest of his line in dealing with Rajput or other native foes – but there was never any doubt which religion had the force of the sword behind it, or that sectarian clashes at ground level would punctuate the record, as in every premodern society with more than one confession. Under the British the tables were turned, and it was plain which community now had the upper hand. For Congress to believe that such deep legacies of conquest and conflict, such sweeping inequalities of power and reversals of them, could be erased with a mythology in which Congress was the natural offspring of Mother India, could only be self-deception on a heroic scale. The consequence was a fatal partisan arrogance. What need could there be to arrive at a modus vivendi with the Muslim League, when the party of Gandhi and Nehru already embraced every part of the nation? Broadly, ‘it was the persistent Congress claim to speak for the whole country as the only alternative to British rule that precipitated the crisis and made partition inevitable,’ the historian B.B. Misra has written. On this evidence, had it acted more modestly and wisely, the subcontinent could have avoided the calamity of its division.

Yet it can of course be argued that no political force could have averted that division, so deep and so long-standing were the differences, and latent antagonisms, between the two major religious communities of South Asia. This was the position of the original advocates of Pakistan, and has remained the stance of its spokesmen and rulers ever since, in a no less mythological and anachronistic vision of ‘two nations’ projected back to Mughal days or the mists of time. For obvious reasons, it has never been acceptable to official Indian nationalism, where Muslims were canonically regarded as Hindus converted – under pressure – to Islam, whom culturally and ethnically little or nothing otherwise separates from their fellow countrymen. Empirically, however, the case is not to be dismissed. For the subcontinent was not just the theatre of two major, incompatible religious systems, but also their associations with unequal political power, and to boot a recent dramatic reversal of the hierarchy of dominance between them. Could a secular nationalism ever have successfully unified two such communities of believers?

That was the original goal of Congress, when it was still an elite concern. But if Gandhi put paid to it, the question remains whether even without him, the logic of mass organisation in populations as steeped in the supernatural as those of South Asia would not have transformed Congress into the Hindu party it became. For everywhere in the region, political awakening was intertwined with religious revival. Well before Gandhi, the first stirrings of nationalism in Bengal were soaked with modernised Hindu appeals: its canonical work of fiction, Bankim Chatterji’s Anandamath – whose poem invoking the goddess Durga would supply Congress with its anthem ‘Vande Mataram’ – was already extolling wholesale destruction of Muslims as alien underlings of the British, while the first political leader with an ardent national following, Lokmanya Tilak, was rousing his compatriots in Maharashtra with a new cult of the elephant-headed god, Ganesh. In the background, communal riots were already spreading. Nirad Chaudhuri’s autobiography offers a vivid description of confessional antagonisms in turn of the century Bengal. Prodromes like these might suggest that the chances of non-sectarian politics would anyway have been cut off in due course. Supporting evidence could be adduced from Ceylon, where the struggle for independence was led by a conservative elite that never wavered from a secular nationalism, offering an example of everything Congress had ceased to be, yet which within a decade after independence had fallen into the hands of a vicious Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism (the country itself renamed in its honour ‘Holy’ Lanka), plunging the island into decades of deadly communal warfare. On this reading, Gandhi’s dictum ‘If religion dies, then India dies’ could be reversed. The unitary India of his dreams died because the particularist religion of his forebears lived. Congress could then only superficially be held responsible for partition, its successive blunders and hauteurs becoming effects, not causes, of a rift that was bound to split the Raj once the British left.

Such a conclusion, however, is not more palatable to polite opinion in India than the alternative. Confronted with the outcome of the struggle for independence, Indian intellectuals find themselves in an impasse. If partition could have been avoided, the party that led the national movement to such a disastrous upshot stands condemned. If partition was inevitable, the culture whose dynamics made confessional conflict politically insuperable becomes a damnosa hereditas, occasion for collective shame. The party still rules, and the state continues to call itself secular. It is no surprise the question it poses should be so widely repressed in India.

Historically, the larger issue could be held undecidable. What is not beyond accounting, however, is something else. Whether or not partition was bound to come, the plain truth is that the high command of Congress took scarcely any intelligent steps to avert it, and many crass ones likely to hasten it; and when it came, acted in a way that ensured it would take the cruellest form, with the worst human consequences. For even were a scission of the subcontinent foreordained by its deep culture, its manner was not. At the hour of division, the political cupidity of Congress, in collusion with the dregs of the viceregal line, not only inflicted enormous popular suffering, which certainly could have been avoided, but compounded it with a territorial greed that has poisoned India’s relations with its neighbour down to the nuclear stand-off today.

Though by then, as he remarked sadly, he had lost any real power, in his last months Gandhi tried to stem the tide of communal violence. Yet he cannot be acquitted of any connection with it. He had consistently envisaged what might occur, and in advance accepted it. As early as Hind Swaraj, he had said that if his countrymen started to fight after the British withdrew, ‘there can be no advantage in suppressing an eruption: it must have its vent. If therefore, before we can remain at peace, we must fight among ourselves, it is better that we do so.’ In 1928 he wrote: ‘I am more than ever convinced that the communal problem should be solved outside of legislation, and if in order to reach that state, there has to be civil war, so be it.’ In 1930: ‘I would far rather be witness to Hindus and Mussulmans doing one another to death than that I should daily witness our gilded slavery.’ In April 1947, he told Mountbatten that ‘the only alternatives were a continuation of British rule to keep law and order or an Indian bloodbath. The bloodbath must be faced and accepted.’ To an Indian journalist, he said he ‘would rather have a bloodbath in a united India after the British quit than agree to partition on a communal basis’. In the dénouement, the violence that satyagraha spared the British was decanted among compatriots, as Gandhi had said was preferable.

To his honour, when the pogroms erupted in 1947, he did what he could to stop them, to good effect in Calcutta. But still trapped in the Hindu nationalism out of which he came, he cheered on the seizure of Kashmir, if more as a befuddled spectator than an effective agent in the final debacle. Few historical figures have been purer embodiments of Weber’s ethics of conviction. Since those convictions were beyond earthly reason, he cannot be criticised for them. Nehru, not a spectator but an architect of the outcome, possesses no such exemption. Eager at all costs to enter his inheritance, confident that subtractions from it would only be temporary, his record falls under another jurisdiction: the ethics of responsibility.

Among the books consulted in the writing of this article:

Lineages of the Present: Ideology and Politics in Contemporary South Asia by Aijaz Ahmad (Verso, 377 pp., £14, 2002, 978 1 85984 358 1)
The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts by Ishtiaq Ahmed (Oxford, 500 pp., £32.50, March, 978 0 19 906470 0)
The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power by Tariq Ali (Pocket Books, 336 pp., £8.99, 2009, 978 1 84739 374 6)
The Pathan Unarmed: Opposition & Memory in the North-West Frontier by Mukulika Banerjee (James Currey, 256 pp., £17.99, 2000, 978 0 85255 273 5)
Nehru: A Political Life by Judith Brown (Yale, 407 pp., £18, 2005, 978 0 300 11407 2)
The Partition of Bengal and Assam, 1932-47: Contour of Freedom by Bidyut Chakrabarty (Routledge, 288 pp., £100, 2004, 978 0 415 32889 0)
Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition, 1932-47 by Joya Chatterji (Cambridge, 324 pp., £36, 2002, 978 0 521 89436 4)
The Princes of India in the Endgame of Empire, 1917-47 by Ian Copland (Cambridge, 320 pp., £40, 2002, 978 0 521 89436 4)
The Rediscovery of India by Meghnad Desa (Bloomsbury, 512 pp., £25, 2011, 978 1 84966 350 2)
The Life of Mahatma Gandhi by Louis Fischer (HarperCollins, 672 pp., £8.99, 1997, 978 0 00 638887 6)
Independence and Partition: The Erosion of Colonial Power in India by Sucheta Mahajan (Sage, 428 pp., £31.99, 2002, 978 0 7619 9368 1)
Britain Since 1918: The Strange Career of British Democracy by David Marquand (Phoenix, 512 pp., £14.99, 2009, 978 0 7538 2606 5)
An Autobiography by Jawaharlal Nehru (Penguin, 672 pp., £13.99, 2004, 978 0 14 303104 8)
The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru (Penguin, 656 pp., £29.99, 2004, 978 0 670 05801 3)
War and Peace in Modern India by Srinath Raghavan (Palgrave, 384 pp., £60, 2010, 978 0 230 24215 9)
The Garrison State: Military, Government and Society in Colonial Punjab, 1849-1947 by Tan Tai Yong (Sage, 333 pp., £39.50, 2005, 978 0 7619 3336 6)

[*] Aijaz Ahmad, radicalising Mushirul Hasan’s original sentiment.