Partition was about human frailty through and through

The British did not get the united India they wanted

By Roderick Matthews

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Published: Tue 15 Aug 2017, 9:27 PM

Last updated: Tue 15 Aug 2017, 11:30 PM

Though the Congress movement was dominated by lawyers, its writers were always more influential. Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru can claim to have written modern India into being. Hind Swaraj (1909) and The Discovery of India (1946) described India as a living entity, with a coherent past and an unfathomable oneness. The India they celebrated could be loved and fought for. But to what extent was it an illusion?

Gandhi wrote of India's historic unity, which he believed the British had destroyed, and he tried to revive and guide that unity himself, initially at the head of the Khilafat Non-Cooperation agitation of 1919-22. But that movement, with a foreign religious issue at its heart, was an amalgam of discontents rather than an authentic expression of the whole nation. Too many chose to stand away from it, and it proved to be a deceptive peak; such unity of purpose was never achieved again. Yet the Congress remained determined to view itself as the embodiment of a nation.

When that view was questioned, Congress leaders had no answer, and continued to press for mass franchise as an antidote to imperial domination. Partition thus came to them with a profound sense of shock. They never considered it possible that the India they aspired to represent had been realised by alien violence, and did not foresee that it might be sundered by the arrival of democracy. Democracy had been the one thing that all Congress leaders professed to believe in, and was the prime justification for their demands for self-determination and independence. But none of them seemed to be aware of how contradictory these aims might prove to be in a land as diverse as India.

Lack of information, human frailty contributed to the overall tragedy, but ultimately the central failures of Partition were political, and the list is long.

The British did not get the united India they wanted. Despite persistent popular belief that the whole drama of Partition was a long-laid and carefully executed British plan, academic opinion has never wavered in its clear perception of the actual objective of British policy. In 1987, Anita Inder Singh wrote: 'The British favoured a transfer of power to a united India, which would keep the army undivided, and be of the greatest advantage to them strategically'.

Could it have been different? Those who say so need to do three things. They need to explain how the irreconcilable principles at stake could have been resolved; they must unpick the problems of legitimacy and self-definition that the parties faced; and they are obliged to supply realistic solutions that the participants failed to see at the time.

Legitimacy was a crippling problem for all three parties involved to the demission talks. The Congress claimed to represent all India, but didn't; the Muslim League claimed to represent all Muslims, but didn't. Finally, the British were supported by military force alone, and held only a nominal authority to enforce collective decisions.

This created not so much a trial of strength as a test of relative weakness. Even when it became clear, after the elections of winter 1945-46, that the Congress and the League could both make legitimate claims to represent large constituencies, this was not a fact that either could profitably admit of the other. Accepting that your opponent is stronger than you thought does not make it easier to get what you want. In truth, there was more impotence in play than strength. The weaknesses of the three contending parties remained buried in the system they were about to dismantle.

The process of self-determination was never going to be straightforward. Congress claims about the Indian nation were politically untenable; Muslim League claims about the Muslim nation were geographically unviable. Both sides harboured an aversion to federalism, and they played hardball, telling themselves they were acting for the greater good. Each took a stand that relied on self-certification, immune to compromise, thus restricting the scope and pitch of the demands that could be made, or accepted.

So much for the theory, but it was practicalities that really wrecked the search for a settlement.

Was Partition inevitable? No. Other arrangements could have been arrived at. Yet it was logical, if principles of self- determination were to be applied in a highly complex social setting. Politically, therefore, it was at least likely.

Partition was about human frailty through and through; stubbornness, exasperation and inexperience, but above all, ambition. To attempt to create a vast, new democratic political entity by agreement was a daunting challenge, never before attempted. New states have been created by conquest or revolution, or carved out of existing states by secession and civil war. Never by quarrelling, self-interested politicians. In British India, the task was to create a democracy out of an imperial system characterised by chronically under- developed politics. The leap was too great.

Gandhi's vision of nationalism was of the best kind, positive and inclusive, but not even he could eliminate all the negative accompaniments to the defining of 'us' and 'them'.

In the end the Congress could not bring its vision to reality. The dialogue it had held within itself was first interrupted, then superseded, and it chose to settle for less. Modern India came to the 'us' that asked for it. The 'them' made another choice-to be left outside. - Open magazine

Roderick Matthews is an author and specialises in Indian history

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