Indian and Pakistani historiography, nationalist and revisionist, tends towards the blame game. Perhaps the most successful work up to now has been Ayesha Jalal’s, The Sole Spokesman (1985). Its fundamental argument is that Jinnah never wanted partition. Rather, it was the Congress which forced the partition on Jinnah. While ultra-nationalist Pakistani historians were exercised by the fact that it severely undermined the originality of the demand for Pakistan, in India critics of Gandhi and Nehru in general and pro-BJP authors in particular relished it because it could be used ideologically to build a case against Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. Indeed the Congress is not without blame and I have pointed out some major blunders such as the resignation of the Congress ministries in September 1939 and even more crucially the Quit India movement of August 1942 which effectively removed it from the political arena till June 1945. However, that Jinnah never wanted Pakistan is most certainly a myth. Any honest content analysis of his speeches from March 1942 till Pakistan came into being would not allow such an inference. Also, if one brings in British geostrategic interests in the partition into the analysis then one cannot tell a credible story without focusing on the complete picture. Intellectually such an approach is untenable. Another problem confronting serious research on the partition has been that the 12 volumes of the Transfer of Power, published by the British between 1970 and 1983, have been used selectively by Indian and Pakistani historians to tell a story suiting their script. These volumes are available only in a few universities and those too essentially in the UK. I spent a fortune in buying my own 12 copies, and what I found was very different from what the historians have been telling us.
Of late a perverted British specialty has been to peep into bed chambers in search of new material
With regard to the British writings on the partition, the aim has been mainly to highlight the role of their men as honest brokers wanting to close a deal between the Congress and the Muslim League that would leave India united in some form. The Cabinet Mission Plan of May 1946 is an example of that. However, of late a perverted British specialty has been to peep into bed chambers in search of new material. The famous Nehru-Edwina Mountbatten liaison has served that purpose well. A variation of it has been to ‘shed light’ on the alleged homosexual indulgences of some actors in the partition drama, thus adding more spice and scandal to it. All such literature makes for very interesting reading but is woefully inadequate at explaining the role of the British as the paramount power in the Indian subcontinent in the final outcome of the partition of India, Bengal and Punjab. To believe that the British would leave India without trying to ensure that their interests were safeguarded in the region is quite incredible when it comes to serious academic research. In fact the role of the United States and the former Soviet Union is also of great interest but in this series I shall focus only on the British role.
In this regard the publication of Narendra Singh Sarila’s, In the Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition (New Delhi: HarperCollins and the India Today Group, 2005), is an exception. He brings into the picture the role of Britain as an imperial power in decline and the USA as the future leader of the Western world in ascent in relation to the partition. His thesis is that the British had been planning to partition India for a long time. My understanding is that they had been considering it as an option for a long time but remained opposed to it till at least March 1947. The reasons for it I have explained in my two recent books. My contention is that the decision to partition India was arrived at very late and it was the British military which was the main force behind it. I have already said in earlier articles that Viceroy Lord Linlithgow had encouraged the Muslim League’s separatist posture and Sir Zafrulla was the one who conveyed that to Mr Jinnah. The 23 March 1940 Lahore resolution was a product of that communication. I also said that at that stage it was only a pressure tactic. The fact is that the British military favoured a united India till at least May 1946. On 11 May 1946, Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck prepared a top secret note on ‘The Strategic Implications of the Inclusion of “Pakistan” in the British Commonwealth’. In a long and detailed study of the pros and cons of partitioning united India he concluded that it would not serve British interests in the Indian Ocean because Pakistan would be an economically and militarily weak state whereas a strong and independent Indian state (post-1947 India), estranged from Britain, could move closer to the Soviet Union. In the end of his report he summed up his position: If we desire to maintain our power to move freely by sea and air in the Indian Ocean area, which I consider essential to the continued existence of the British Commonwealth, we can do so only by keeping in [it] a United India which will be a willing member of that Commonwealth, ready to share its defence to the limit of her resources. (Transfer of Power, vol. VII, 1977: 806).
However, such a view was not necessarily shared by his peers. General Officer Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Command, Lieutenant General Sir Francis Tuker took up cudgels on behalf of Pakistan. He opined: There was much therefore to be said for the introduction of a new Muslim power supported by the science of Britain. If such a power could be produced and if we could orient the Muslim strip from North Africa through Islamia Desertia, Persia, Afghanistan to the Himalayas, upon a Muslim power in Northern India, then it had some chance of halting the filtration of Russia towards the Persian Gulf. These Islamic countries, even including Turkey, were not a very great strength in themselves. But with a northern Indian Islamic state of several millions it would be reasonable to expect that Russia would not care to provoke them too far. (While Memory Serves, London: Cassell and Company,1951 edition: 26–27). After the Cabinet Mission of May 1946 failed, the next move towards partition was the 20 February 1947 statement of Prime Minister Attlee that power would be transferred to Indians by June 1948. Attlee chose a cousin of the King, Lord Louis Mountbatten, as the last viceroy to India—to oversee and manage the transfer of power. Since the passing of the Lahore Resolution in March 1940, the Sikhs had insisted that, if India was divided on a religious basis, the Punjab should also be so divided so that areas where the Hindus and Sikhs were in a majority would be separated from the Muslim-majority parts of the Punjab. The Congress Party supported this Sikh demand in a resolution dated 8 March, 1947. The Congress also insisted on the partition of Bengal. Once the Congress had decided that it must accept a partitioned India it wanted to keep the international border as far away from Delhi as possible and therefore the partitions of Bengal and Punjab made crucial strategic sense to its leaders.Mountbatten had been specifically tasked to ensure that, united or divided, India remained in the British Commonwealth. One of Jinnah’s confidants, the Nawab of Bhopal, sent a telegram to Mountbatten in which he suggested that, if Pakistan was granted, Jinnah could be persuaded ‘to remain within the Commonwealth’ (Transfer of Power, vol. X, 1981: 36). However, the viceroy tried to convince Jinnah not to demand the division of India because a united India would be a strong and powerful nation whereas Pakistan would be economically and militarily weak. Jinnah remained unimpressed. Rather, he insisted that a separate Pakistan would seek membership of the Commonwealth, which should not be denied to it because: All the Muslims have been loyal to the British from the beginning. We supplied a high proportion of the Army which fought in both wars. None of our leaders has ever had to go to prison for disloyalty…. Not one of us had done anything to deserve expulsion from the Commonwealth…. Mr Churchill has assured me that the British people would never stand for our being expelled. (ibid: 541). At this stage, there was a dramatic change in the attitude of the British military on partition and the creation of Pakistan. Thus, senior military and civil officers—RAF Marshal Lord Tedder (in the chair), Admiral Sir John H.D. Cunningham, Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, Lieutenant General Sir Leslie C. Hollis, Minister of Defence, A.V. Alexander, Chief of the Viceroy Staff, Lord Ismay, and Major General R.E. Laycock—in a memorandum prepared at the meeting of the Chiefs of Staff Committee in London on 12 May 1947, strongly supported the assumption that it would be good for Britain if Pakistan remained in the Commonwealth. It was noted: It was feasible that Jinnah . . . might well announce a Moslem application to remain within the Commonwealth. A number of Princes might do the same thing. On the other hand, Hindustan might well stick to the declared intention of Congress to be a free Sovereign State, although there were signs that some Congress leaders had doubts of their ability to continue without some British advisers and administration (ibid: 788). After considerable deliberation, the Chiefs of Staff agreed that their views should be submitted to the Prime Minister. They agreed: From the strategic point of view there were overwhelming arguments in favour of Western Pakistan remaining within the Commonwealth, namely, that we should obtain important strategic facilities, the port of Karachi, air bases and the support of the Moslem manpower in the future; be able to ensure the continued integrity of Afghanistan; and be able to increase our prestige and improve our position throughout the Muslim world. . . . There was therefore everything to gain by admitting Western Pakistan into the Commonwealth. A refusal of an application to this end would amount to ejecting loyal people from the British Commonwealth, and would probably lose us all chances of ever getting strategic facilities anywhere in India, and at the same time shatter our reputation in the rest of the Moslem world. From a military point of view, such a result would be catastrophic’ (ibid: 791–2). Mountbatten finally announced the Partition Plan to divide British India between two states, India and Pakistan, on 3 June 1947. It drastically expedited the transfer of power from June 1948, as had been announced on 20 February 1947 by Attlee, to mid-August 1947—that is, in less than eleven weeks. It envisaged a Pakistan comprised of two separate geographical entities, East and West Pakistan, where the Muslims were in a majority. Moreover, the Partition Plan stipulated that the legislative assemblies of Bengal and Punjab would vote on partitioning their provinces. On 20 June, the East Bengal Assembly voted to divide Bengal and on 23 June the Punjab Assembly returned a similar verdict (Ahmed 2012: 215-219). During 21—31 July, territorial claims by the conflicting parties were presented before the Bengal and Punjab boundary commissions. The arguments put forth were based on zero-sum tactics that nullified any consensus on the distribution of territory. Even the judges nominated by the two sides made partisan recommendations. Therefore, the Chairman of the Boundary Commission, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, prepared an award which, although ready on 13 August was not made public until 17 August—that is, after India and Pakistan had become independent! It created considerable bitterness on both sides. In Pakistan, particularly, it was assailed as a conspiracy hatched by Nehru and Mountbatten to compel Radcliffe to award Muslim-majority areas to India. I will be looking at the Radcliffe Award in the next article.
Of late a perverted British specialty has been to peep into bed chambers in search of new material
The actual partition process proved to be one of the bloodiest as the machinery that Mountbatten put in place proved to be woefully inadequate to stem the rising tide of violent rioting and terrorism. Some 14-18 million were forced to flee their homes – it is the biggest forced migration ever recorded in history. The fatalities that took place are counted between 1 -2 million (Ahmed 2012). Naturally the worst casualties took place in the Punjab and Bengal, but what happened in the Punjab dwarfed the human suffering that took place elsewhere. In the divided Punjab anywhere between 500,000 – 800,000 were killed. There is good reason to believe that the biggest loss of life was that of East Punjab Muslims even when for months – March to June 1947 – most of the attacks took place in the Muslim-majority districts and the non-Muslims, especially Sikhs, were the main victims. Why did the British military make a complete turn within a year – from 11 May 1946 to 12 May 1947 precisely? The answer must be because it was felt that future Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru may resist becoming an appendage of the Western policy of building a front against Soviet Communism. On the other hand, the Muslim League leadership had been marketing Pakistan as a frontline state and many in the British military establishment were convinced that a smaller Pakistan would be far more dependent on Western help and aid and in lieu of that serve a very important geo-strategic role in the future. Ironically, British ambition of remaining a major power in South Asia proved to be delusional. American influence increased rapidly. I have also shown that the Americans were against the creation of Pakistan for the same reason Field Marshall Auchinleck had given – a divided India would be vulnerable to Communist expansionism, but in the American analysis it was China and not the Soviet Union that needed to be kept out of South Asia. The partition of India was not something the British as an entity had planned in 1940 and then promoted. On the contrary, it was a very late decision which had some early proponents.