70 years ago, South Asia erupted. The sporadic violence that constituted the culmination of a largely non-violent independence movement was unpredicted and massive.
In a matter of weeks, 12 million people crossed newly-formed international borders, over a million lost their lives, thousands of children went missing, thousands of women were raped, conversions were rampant, dacoity and vigilantism were commonplace and the homeland of Gandhi and Buddha devolved into a state of anarchy.
When the dust settled after Partition, a million corpses lay rotting under the unforgiving sun, the most powerful empire in world history began its rapid descent and two countries were born, bursting from a cradle of voluminous blood.
The Second World War destroyed the British economy. Colonial arrogance was swept away from Westminster when Labour won the 1945 election, and it was replaced by a realistic weariness. The new Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, was highly in favour of Britain leaving India’s fate to Indians, realising rightly that Britain simply could not afford its empire any longer. Despite Churchill’s ceaseless fanfaronade, the sun was finally setting on the British Empire.
India during the Second World War
India in 1940s was in a slow but sure descent into disorder. The Great Depression had wrecked the world economy and caused massive unemployment in Britain and across her colonies. With the onset of the War, India was again forced to fight for a colonial master it was forced to be a subject of.
It must be remembered that the British Empire, not Britain, fought in the Second World War. Forces from around the world, from North America to Australia to South Asia to Africa, aided the Allied war effort.
British India was the crowning conquest of British colonialism. Comprised of modern-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the British Raj was monumental in seeing Britain through the War. In the words of Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, the British “couldn’t have come through both wars [World War I and II] if they hadn’t had the Indian Army”.
Indians fought with distinction throughout the world, including in the European theatre against Germany, in North Africa against Germany and Italy, in the South Asian region defending India against the Japanese and fighting the Japanese in Burma. Indians also aided in liberating British colonies such as Singapore and Hong Kong after the Japanese surrender in August 1945.
At the height of the conflict, more than 2.5 million India troops were battling Axis forces around the globe. Over 87,000 Indian soldiers died in the Second World War. The financial, industrial and military assistance of India formed a crucial component of the British campaign against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. India’s strategic location at the tip of the Indian Ocean, its large production of armaments and its huge armed forces were driving forces in the Allied war effort.
Cripps’ Mission, Quit India and the rise of the Muslim League
To sustain Indian support for the Allies, Britain sent a ministerial delegation as assurance that dominion status would be granted to India after the end of the War.
This attempt, named the Cripps’ Mission, was a complete failure. Its proposals were rejected by both the Indian National Congress (INC), the political and ideological leader of India’s independence movement, and the All-India Muslim League, a political party which professed to speak for the cause of India’s Muslim population.
The failure of Britain to provide assurance of independence after the War was the last straw for Indian nationalists. The INC mobilised under Mahatma Gandhi to launch the Quit India Movement. Gandhi declared it would be the final and largest struggle for independence, issuing a call to “Do or Die”.
Within hours of Gandhi’s historic speech, almost the entire leadership of the INC was jailed without trial. Without the guidance of the INC’s nonviolence-championing leaders, the Movement descended into violence.
Vandalism and small-scale riots rocked the countryside, looting and mobs became a common sight, droughts plagued the rural areas, especially in Bengal where over five million starved to death, and food shortages forced cities to ration supplies.
The British colonial government arrested tens of thousands of leaders, keeping them imprisoned until 1945. The lengthy imprisonment of INC leaders like Gandhi, Nehru and Patel meant that the Congress’s power was dismantled and this enabled the Muslim League, which had rejected Gandhi’s calls to join the Quit India Movement, to grow in influence and outreach. The growing incidents of communal violence in the country escalated the rise of the League, which was led by a Karachi-born lawyer named Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
In 1940, the Muslim League formally introduced the idea of a separate country for South Asia’s Muslim population, which was mainly concentrated in the North-west and the East. The mega-event that would one day be Partition grew as a virus in the League’s manifesto, catered by the distrust between the leaders of the two parties.
Pakistan was not merely a political entity or a demographic entity. To many of the League’s leaders, it was an ideological entity. For Jinnah, it meant the creation of his own state, and he envisioned it as an Islamic-secular state as opposed to INC leader Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of a secular India.
“Two Nation” theory and Direct Action Day
Throughout the 1940s, there were talks and demonstrations over what came to be known as the “Two Nation” Theory. Jinnah espoused that Hindus and Muslims were two entirely different peoples and entirely different nations and the two could not be accommodated in the same country. Nehru opposed any partition of British India, saying that in a secular India an individual’s religion will not define his or her worth or citizenry.
Meanwhile, even as these talks between the INC and the Muslim League took place, in the countryside and the town and cities, the political divisions were been translated into overt communal violence. The relationship between Hindus and Muslims was deteriorating rapidly.
The graveness of the situation was exemplified on August 16, 1946, when the League, afraid that an independent India would not be accompanied by an independent Pakistan, called upon the Muslims to demonstrate against the British and the INC. This day, called Direct Action Day or the Great Calcutta Killings, witnessed the worst communal riots British India had seen. Road battles between Hindus and Muslims, mainly in Bengal, saw widespread manslaughter and over 4,000 deaths and over 1 lakh displaced – all in a span of 72 hours.
The violence of Direct Action Day spread to other parts of Bengal and to Bihar, Punjab and the North-western Frontier Provinces. The seeds of Partition were sown; it was only a matter of time before the harvest would burst out.
Mountbatten, Radcliffe and riots
The British, eager to leave India as soon as possible (by June 1948, Attlee had announced) delegated the strenuous task of supervising the transfer of power to Louis Mountbatten.
Mountbatten would be the last Viceroy of India and would oversee the violent partition of British India into India and Pakistan. A fifth of the land and almost a fifth of the population would constitute a newly-formed Muslim state. Pakistan seemed ungainly from the very beginning, being comprised of two separate pieces of land separated by 2,300 km of India. The process of drawing lines on the map was one thing; but the on-ground process of Partition was bloody and violent, especially for Punjab and Bengal, which were the main regions being partitioned.
To split India, Britain sent Cyril Radcliffe, a lawyer and Law Lord who had never been to India before in his life. To him was tasked the duty of determining of destinies of over 350 million people, people he had never met and knew nothing about.
Partition – the legacy
To quote Mark Tully:
So how do the citizens of South Asia see the outcome of partition? For Pakistanis it would, quite naturally, be considered anti-national to question the decision that created their country. They might well question the verdict of the British judge who drew its boundaries and most would say Pakistan remains incomplete without Kashmir. Bangladeshis are for the most part happy, because Bengali is now their national language and Islam their national religion.
Recently I travelled from the Indian border with Pakistan in the north to the city of Chennai in the south, finding out how Indians view partition today…
In Punjab, near the Pakistan border, I met elderly villagers who remembered fleeing from their homes to India. One told me his whole family was killed, but neither he nor his friends harboured any bitterness towards Muslims. They all wanted good relations to be established between India and Pakistan and spoke of pre-partition days when the different communities had lived in harmony.
I found that tradition surviving in the nearby shrine of a Muslim saint being cared for by Sikhs and Christians because the Muslim families were all in Pakistan. In Delhi, a Sufi scholar also talked of India’s multifaith tradition, but now she said right-wing politicians were calling on Muslims to prove their loyalty to India.
The most vocal opponents of partition I met were Muslim weavers in a village some 320 miles east of Delhi. One said to me: “Partition was absolutely wrong. Muslims and Hindus were living together and I can’t understand how it happened.” Poor Muslims like the weavers are still victims of partition because their leaders migrated to Pakistan and have not been replaced.
… Anyhow, no one I met in India thought there could be any going back. But perhaps those north Indian Muslim weavers were right in saying it needn’t have happened if the tradition of Hindus and Muslims respecting each other had not been swamped by rampant religious nationalism.
In Kashmir today, Pakistani and Indian politicians are provoking nationalism instead of promoting peace. The armies of the two nuclear nations are firing at each other across the line dividing the state.
India accuses Pakistan of provoking unrest and sponsoring terrorism. Pakistan denies the terrorism charge and blames the unrest on the Indian security forces’ repression.
The casualties mount relentlessly. The legacy of partition lives on.
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