Research fellow Syed Badrul Ahsan explores the tragic and painful fault lines underpinning modern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
In these monsoon days of August in what once was the Indian subcontinent, memories of the blood-drenched division of India come alive. Or, more precisely, it is the mistakes, the blunders made by the principal actors of the time that we recall.
And we remember because of the great tragedy that was imposed on us, indeed on our parents’ generation – among the Hindu, Sikh and Muslim communities – the repercussions of which all of us, 72 years on, still plod through.
By splitting India into India and Pakistan, the divisions created by questions of faith, the instability engendered by British colonialism, the ethnic cleavages inaugurated by communalism continue to undermine the rise of a modern, cooperation-based subcontinent. As many as two million people died in the run-up to, and during, Partition. And some 14 million people were displaced.
Bengalis saw their ancestral land – Bengal with all its history and heritage – knifed through before freedom could arrive. In Punjab the story was similar, with Punjabis who had lived in love and community feeling for ages, suddenly discovering that their divergent religious beliefs were what mattered.
Where were the mistakes made? And who do we hold accountable for the bizarre turn of events which caused the wrenching division of a country that, until 14 August 1947, was home for all of us, we who today are strangers to one another as Pakistanis, Indians and Bengalis?
One of the earliest of blunders was the adoption of the Lahore Resolution by the All-India Muslim League in March 1940. Of course, there are all those commentators and historians who tend to argue that the resolution was a bargaining chip for Mohammad Ali Jinnah for a large measure of autonomy to be accorded to the country’s Muslim-majority provinces. He did not, it is said, actually expect an independent state for his co-religionists. Despite such assertions, the Lahore Resolution did damage the concept of Indian unity. In time, it would cause havoc.
And then there was the Cabinet Mission Plan. worked out in difficult circumstances by a three-member delegation of prominent British politicians – Stafford Cripps, Pethick-Lawrence and A V Alexander – in 1946. It was a tough call, seeing that the team found it hard for the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress to come to an understanding on the means of keeping India united. In the end, the Cabinet Mission held out hope, through its three-tiered plan advocating the emergence of an independent country with guarantees for its various units. A stubborn Jinnah was persuaded to accept the plan. But he had not reckoned with the possible reaction from his party colleagues, who felt his agreement to the plan had put paid to the Pakistan idea.
And then, in one of those inexplicable, improbable moments when politics and history take a bad beating, Jawaharlal Nehru gave Jinnah the perfect excuse to wriggle out of the deal. Why Nehru committed that blunder or whether it was a calculated move on his part remains a question which has not been answered to public satisfaction. This is how Nehru’s remarks on his party’s position on the Cabinet Mission Plan, stated on 10 July 1946 at a press conference, torpedoed what had essentially been a final attempt to preserve national unity:
‘The first thing is we have agreed to go into the Constituent Assembly and we have agreed to nothing else …What we do there, we are entirely and absolutely free to determine. We have committed ourselves on no single matter to anybody.’
That, it can be stated in hindsight, was the escape route Jinnah had been waiting for. On 27 July he withdrew from his earlier decision to accept the plan and went back to his demand for Pakistan. Nehru’s mistake led to other mistakes. Jinnah blundered this time when he called a Direct Action Day for 16 August 1946. Neither he nor his party spelt out the details of his new strategy.
No one specified the nature of the action day and at whom it was directed. But there were certainly the portents of disaster. Bengal prime minister and Muslim League leader Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, in blatantly partisan manner, decreed a holiday on 16 August. It was an invitation to bloodletting. Over four days Muslims and Hindus slaughtered one another on the streets of Calcutta. Between five thousand and ten thousand people were murdered, the putrefaction of their corpses polluting the atmosphere.
As 1946 gave way to 1947, more blunders were made. It was a mistake for the British government to replace Lord Wavell with Louis Mountbatten. From day one of his arrival in India in March 1947, it was clear Mountbatten was more drawn to self-promotion than to projecting an image of India moving peacefully toward freedom. The Indian Independence Act of 1947 and the Mountbatten Plan, known as the 3 June Plan, were the final nails in the coffin of a united India. They acknowledged the inevitability of a divided India. Mountbatten, who had a deadline of June 1948 for independence to come to India, simply brought the date forward to August 1947.
Throughout those final months of colonial rule, Mahatma Gandhi progressively retreated into silence. He remained busy trying to put out the fires of communal strife breaking out everywhere. As Nehru, Jinnah and Mountbatten celebrated what the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz would call the arrival of a pock-marked dawn of freedom, Gandhi mourned the passing of the India of history.
The bitter truth festers still in its manifest form: when the British power came to India, it found a country united in its diversity of culture and race and faith and language. It has left, 190 years later, a broken, impoverished, bloodied and amputated country behind, to be enveloped for decades on end in the hate engendered by religious fanaticism.
The bitterness sown through Partition has lingered. Pakistan remains a militaristic-communal state dominated by its army. Bangladesh’s secularism, in a parlous state today, will need a long time to return to the idealism born of the War of Liberation in 1971. Nehru’s secular India, underpinned by socialism, is today at grave risk from growing Hindu nationalism.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a senior research fellow at the School of Advanced Study’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies and is editor-in-charge at The Asian Age. His biography of Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, From Rebel to Founding Father: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was published in 2013. Recent works include Glory and Despair: The Politics of Tajuddin Ahmad, and History Makers in Our Times. He contributes to Dhaka Courier, First News, Dhaka Tribune, Bangla Tribune, Our Time, Indian Express, Asian Affairs, and South Asia Monitor.