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Partition: the 67-year itch   ~   (by Irfan Husain)

Partition: the 67-year itch ~ (by Irfan Husain)

The following is a guest post by Mr. Irfan Husain. The article was originally published in the journal of the Pakistan Institute of International Relations.


Like an itch that won’t go away, people of my generation born before Partition keep scratching away at the words, actions and motives of the players involved in that momentous event. Each time we traverse this familiar territory, we hope to discover some new insight. In the course of this unending excavation into the past, we try to somehow uncover some hitherto undiscovered fact that explains the chain of events leading to the bloody separation of the Subcontinent in 1947. But despite the hundreds of books and thousands of articles written on the subject, we never seem to tire of the exercise. Apart from academic studies, the subject crops up constantly in the drawing rooms of the older generation, with endless speculation about the ‘what-ifs’ of history. The scab is constantly disturbed, and so the wound does not heal. But perhaps some wounds are too deep to heal.

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Credit: (

My dormant interest in the run-up to Partition was rekindled by a book sent to me by a kind reader recently. The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition by Narendra Singh Sarila is a fascinating account of familiar events cast in a new light. The author was heir to the princely state of Sarila in Central India, and was ADC to Lord Mountbatten. He then served in the Indian Foreign Service from 1948 to 1985 in a number of ambassadorial positions. While researching another subject in the India and Oriental Collection at the British Library, the author came across some documents that changed the direction of his research, and ultimately led to his intriguing book on Partition.

We in India and Pakistan tend to view fast-developing pre-Partition events as a series of chess moves between Muslim and Hindu politicians in a zero-sum game where the gains for one side equaled the losses for the other. But in this two-dimensional view, we lose sight of the much larger backdrop against which this drama played out. Sarila, with the help of impressive research, stands back and sees the vital context of the Second World War, and the compulsions of British politicians engaged in a battle for survival. For them, the war effort superseded all other considerations. So while Indian leaders saw their own struggle at the centre of their universe, Churchill and his colleagues viewed it as a small part of the global equation.

And it was not just the world war that preoccupied Churchill and later, Roosevelt: the post-war world order and the anticipated Soviet threat was also the subject of intense debate and planning. While decisions made in Whitehall directly affected events in India, unknown to most Indians, pressure from Washington influenced decisions in London. Once the United States joined the conflict following the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbour in 1942, Churchill was much relieved, but overnight, Britain became the junior partner in the war effort. Churchill could not afford to annoy the American President, and constantly humoured and reassured him on the subject of Indian independence.


The principal interest of the Allies in India during the war focused on recruiting soldiers, and boosting production of weapons and equipment. For this, they needed the cooperation and support of Indian politicians. Indian troops were a large and crucial component of the Allied armies, and a smooth and popular recruitment drive was essential. However, Nehru and many of his Congress colleagues wanted to use British dependence on Indian soldiers to gain a clear-cut commitment for independence. Sarila quotes Nehru:

“How can a person bound in chains fight? And if Britain is indeed fighting for freedom, should it not logically free India?”

To British ears, this demand smacked of blackmail. But Nehru was not alone: Subhash Chandra Bose, a popular Bengali leader, declared that ‘Britain’s difficulty was India’s opportunity.’ Nationalist leaders recalled that despite their support of the war effort during the First World War, their aspirations for independence had been brutally crushed. Now they were holding out for solid assurances before they would offer their cooperation.

Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah addressing partymen in 1939

But while Congress prevaricated and hedged, Jinnah offered the British the Muslim League’s support, seeking to obtain their help in overcoming his political weakness following the stinging defeat the League had suffered in the provincial elections of 1937. Despite the League’s claim to represent Indian Muslims, the reality is that it won only 108 out of the 485 seats reserved for Muslims. Jinnah recognised that he needed British support to overcome his political weakness. Shortly after the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, had met Gandhi on 4 September 1939, he met Jinnah. This proved to be a critical meeting in which the Muslim leader revealed his thinking, and the extent to which he was prepared to go to carve out a separate homeland for Muslims. Citing papers at the British Library, Sirala writes:

“While Gandhiji had offered tears and sympathy, Jinnah offered the Viceroy the means to win the war and a clear compact. He pledged ‘the loyalty of the Muslim community everywhere (as if he was the sole representative of the Muslims of India) and then, with reference to the Congress ministries in the provinces, told the Viceroy: ‘Turn them out at once. Nothing else will bring them to their senses. Their object, though you may not believe it … is nothing less than to destroy both you [the British] and us Muslims. They will never stand by you.’ And then spelt out his mind:

“Muslim areas should be separated from ‘Hindu India’ and run by Muslims in collaboration with Great Britain.”

While Linlithgow did not follow Jinnah’s advice, Congress itself fell on its own sword: on 23 October 1939, it resigned its ministries in the provinces it governed following its sweeping victory in 1937. The cause for this ill-advised action was the Viceroy’s proclamation that after the war, consultations would be held with ‘representatives of various communities, parties and interests in British India and also with Indian princes…’

The Congress Party, as the dominant political force in India, clearly felt it would be marginalised in a process that put small and large groups on an equal footing. But by resigning its ministries in a huff, Congress leaders opened the door to Jinnah and the Muslim League. Crucially, the North West Frontier Province, despite being overwhelmingly Muslim, had voted in the Congress Party. By resigning, Nehru and his colleagues permitted the Muslim League to establish itself in a province whose control was essential to the formation of Pakistan.

Congress dug a deeper hole for itself when its Working Committee declared in Patna in February 1940 that the war was ‘an imperialist war’, and threatened to launch a civil disobedience movement. This gave Jinnah an opportunity to launch his call for Pakistan days later. He knew full well that given Congress intransigence, the British had no option but to form an alliance with the League. In a report to Whitehall, Linlithgow cites Jinnah as being clear that ‘democracy (i.e., majority rule) for India was impossible… He wanted Muslim areas to be run by Muslims in collaboration with Great Britain, and that Muslims would be able to safeguard [these areas] ‘because of their military power even those of their community who were domiciled in the Hindu areas’.

This misplaced notion of Muslim strength finds an echo in the later Pakistan military doctrine of ‘the defence of the East lies in the West’. But as we saw in 1971, the vaunted Muslim military might was no match for India.

In 1942, Sir Stafford Cripps was sent to India to negotiate with Indian leaders about the contours of the post-war dispensation. This was largely under American pressure: Roosevelt was concerned that with the Chinese (under Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists) fighting against Japan in alliance with the British and the Americans, Indians too would demand freedom. His views reflected those of Clement Attlee, the leader of the opposition Labour Party. To deflect these pressures, Churchill sent Sir Stafford Cripps to India in 1942 to offer leaders a deal on the post-war independence scenario. Included in the other clauses was the proviso that “all British Indian Provinces, or Princely States, would have the option to stay out of an Indian Union.” Another provision provided that the Cripps proposals must be accepted or rejected as a whole.


While opening the path to the creation of Pakistan, the Cripps proposals made it virtually impossible for Congress to accept them, and they were duly rejected. This gave Churchill a perfect excuse to turn around and say to Roosevelt that he had tried his best, but had been thwarted by an intransigent Congress.


If conservative British politicians and many generals seemed to side with Muslims at this point, it is because of the perception that this community was providing most of the soldiers fighting on various fronts in the war. Even Averell Harriman, Roosevelt’s suave representative, reported to the US President: “Approximately 75 percent of the Indian troops are Muslims… The Muslim population exceeds 100 million. The fighting people of India are from the northern provinces largely antagonistic to the Congress movement. The big population of the low-lying centre and south have not the vigour to fight anybody. The Prime Minister [Churchill] will not therefore take any political step which would alienate the Muslims …”


Even though the real number of Muslims fighting on the Allied side was closer to 35%, the perception that they formed the bulk of Indians in uniform was deeply entrenched. This influenced British and Allied thinking about post-war India to a great extent.

When set against the backdrop of the military reverses being suffered by the Allies in Europe, Africa and the Far East, it is possible to see why Churchill and many others had no reason or desire to rock the boat in India. They needed soldiers and supplies from their colonies, and everything else was low down on their list of priorities. Indeed, many of Nehru’s British interlocutors came away with the distinct impression that a future Congress-ruled India might be a hostile power. These reinforced Churchill’s desire to block, or at least slow down, India’s march to independence. These considerations also strengthened Jinnah’s position in the British calculus.

As Britain’s military situation improved from its nadir in 1942, the thoughts of its planners began to turn to a post-war world, and Britain’s position in it. Sarila informs us that the day Germany surrendered on 5 May, 1945, Churchill ordered “an appraisal of the long-term policy required to safeguard the strategic interests of the British Empire and Indian Ocean”. The report was on Churchill’s desk a fortnight later, and its central point was that it was vital for Britain to retain its military connection with India, irrespective of the political arrangements that followed the war, for the following four reasons:

“Its value as a base from which forces located there could be suitably placed for deployment both within the Indian Ocean area and in the Middle East and the Far East; a transit point for air and sea communications; a large reserve of manpower of good fighting quality; and from the northwest of which British air power could threaten Soviet military installations.”


Much of Britain’s post-war policy was driven by the fear of Soviet expansionism. At stake were Iraqi and Iranian oilfields deemed essential for Western economies, and both within Soviet range. Driven by military and economic considerations, and frustrated by the perception that an India led by Congress might not support Britain’s strategic interests, the creation of a pro-West Pakistan became more and more attractive. Sarila summarises Lord Archibald Wavell’s views thus:

“1.India’s primary usefulness to Britain was in the field of defence and not any more as a market.

2.Because of its fading power in India, Britain would have to withdraw from India sooner than later after the Second World War.

3.The Congress party rulers, who would rule India after the British withdrew, were unlikely to cooperate with Britain on military matters and foreign policy, whereas the Muslim League Party, which wanted a partition of India, would be willing to do so.


4.The breach to be caused in Britain’s capacity to defend the Middle East and the Indian Ocean area could be plugged if the Muslim League were to succeed in separating India’s strategic northwest from the rest of the country, a realizable goal considering the close ties that Lord Linlithgow [Wavell’s predecessor as viceroy] had built up with Mohammed Ali Jinnah during the Second World War.”

Even though Churchill appeared to favour this approach, it was far from being the unanimous view among military circles. Field Marshal Auchinleck was of the opinion that a united India would be the preferred option. However, Congress’s determination to adopt policies independent of Britain’s defence needs caused Wavell’s views to prevail. Field Marshal Montgomery recommended in a 1947 top-secret memo:

“The area of Pakistan is strategically the most important in the continent of India and the majority of our strategic requirements could be met … by an agreement with Pakistan alone. We do not therefore consider the failure to obtain an agreement with India would cause us to modify any of our requirements.”

nehru mounbatten jinnah

Despite the formidable research Sirala has marshalled to support his thesis of British strategic interests leading to the creation of Pakistan, Alistair Lamb reaches a very different conclusion in his Birth of a Tragedy: Kashmir 1947. According to the author, writing in 1994, British generals and civil servants considered India to be the successor state to British India. British military planners were of the view that if India had to be partitioned because of Jinnah’s intransigence, the new country would be too weak to work as a counterweight to the Soviet Union. It therefore made more sense to strengthen India, and hence the award of the Muslim-majority Punjab district of Gurdaspur to India to facilitate easy access to Kashmir.

In Pakistani eyes, the truncated country they received at Partition was the result of Machiavellian moves by Mountbatten, and was part of a conspiracy to weaken the Muslim state at birth.

So here are the two opposing narratives: Hindus in India were convinced that the very creation of Pakistan was proof of British partiality towards the Muslims, and part of a strategy to leave behind a feeble India; Muslims in Pakistan, on the other hand, are convinced to this day that the British supported Congress, and Jinnah had to fight tooth and nail to achieve the Muslim League’s goal of a separate country for the Muslims of the Subcontinent.

So how do we reconcile these two divergent narratives? And how can Sarila and Lamb both be right in their analysis of the British motives and policies leading up to their exit from the Subcontinent?

One explanation could be that after the political decision to partition British India along religious lines had been taken, it was left to Mountbatten to attend to the details. And this inexperienced last viceroy was in a hurry to divide the Subcontinent and pull out. Apparently, he also preferred the suave Nehru to the prickly and abrasive Jinnah. According to many accounts, these personal dynamics did influence the outcome.

nehru mount

Whatever the reasons, neither side was happy with the result, and we continue to speculate on the underlying causes of Partition to this day. Sometimes, the wound is too deep to heal.


You can read Irfan Husain’s columns for Dawn here. He tweets @irfan_husain

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