Today we celebrate the 65th anniversary of India’s independence. Some mourn it as the 65th anniversary of India’s partition, which killed a million people and forced 10 million to flee across borders for safety.
Utopians wish Partition had never happened. Supposed realists say Partition was inevitable. I would go a step further and say it was desirable.
Had the British left without Partition, Hindu-Muslim antagonism would have escalated into civil war, leading ultimately to an even bloodier Partition. The civil war would have converted India into a hotbed of Hindu communalism and violence, with secularists sidelined as traitors or worse. Partition, warts and all, has been a better outcome.
Some well-meaning Hindus want the two countries to unite again. They have no idea how utterly insulting the suggestion seems to Pakistanis. For Pakistan, Independence Day celebrates independence from Hindu dominance no less than British dominance. To suggest returning to an undivided India means, to them, a return to Hindu dominance. This is as insulting to most Pakistanis as suggesting a return to the British Raj would be to Indians.
Partition was not inevitable. One myth fed to youngsters is that Britain forced Partition on India. That’s wrong. After arguing for years that Hindus and Muslims could work together, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel failed the acid test of working with the Muslim League when the British put them together in the interim Cabinet of 1946-47.
Muslim League finance minister Liaqat Ali riled Congress ministers by holding up financial sanctions for even minor things they proposed. Liaqat then presented a high-tax budget in 1947 to soak businesses that had made huge profits in World War II. Congressmen interpreted this as an attack on Hindu businessmen by a Muslim finance minister.
This was an unwarranted, communal interpretation: the high taxes fell equally on Hindu and Muslim businesses. Yet, Congress stalwarts concluded it was impossible to work with Jinnah, and that a clean Partition would be better. That’s how Partition happened, through the voluntary agreement of both the Congress and the Muslim League.
Today, we are used to coalition governments kowtowing to minority partners. Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi kowtowed to the Left Front in 2004-09 and to Mamata Banerjee after 2009. In retrospect, it seems amazing that Nehru and Patel could not put up with Liaqat’s needling. If only they had kept their cool and accommodated the Muslim League, some people argue, Partition would have been avoided, and the subcontinent would have been a far better, more peaceful place.
Sorry, but this totally ignores the desire of Muslims for a nation of their own, and their willing to make great sacrifices for that end. A Pakistani once told me that every time they hear of a communal riot in India, they thank Allah that they achieved liberation from Hindu domination and hypocritical crap about secularism.
Had the British left undivided India in 1947, the Muslim League would have continued its struggle for separate nationhood. Direct Action Day in 1946 was a Muslim orgy of violence aimed to demonstrate that Muslims would not sit by idly and acceptance Hindu dominance. That violence would have been repeated a thousandfold after the British left. With each new riot, communalism would have deepened, and inevitably overthrown secular forces.
We saw this in a microcosm in Yugoslavia. When communism and autocracy ended there, secular camaraderie soon gave way to sectarianism. Communities that had lived peacefully together for decades sought separate nationhood, and that turned them into bloodthirsty killers. Earlier, people of different communities had intermarried and had been comrades. But once violence began, it could not be stopped, and Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims went into a hate-filled spiral of violence. That gives us a small taste of what might have happened in an Indian civil war.
Like India, Yugoslavia had a mixture of people of different religions, languages and races. Nobody realised how fragile was Josip Broz Tito’s multi-ethnic nation, and how easily it would be subverted by underlying sectarianism. After Tito, Yugoslavia split not just into Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia but also into Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro.
Civil war in India would have created multiple partitions, as in Yugoslavia. Instead of two states, India and Pakistan, civil war would have created maybe a dozen countries, with multiple disputes and bitter civil war memories.
India in 1947 had no experience at all of nationhood or unity. Some empires had covered a large part of India, but imperial conquest does not translate into unity. India had historically been a battleground of hundreds of kingdoms, not a country. Winston Churchill once said, “India is just a geographical entity. It is no more a country than the equator.”
Unity in India was created after 1947 by the statesmanship of Nehru and his colleagues. Many British critics sneered that an independent India would disintegrate. Nehru proved them wrong.
But suppose India had not been partitioned. Suppose this had led to a thousand Direct Action Days and civil war. In that blood-soaked mess, would Nehru or anybody else have been able to keep India together? Not a chance. India’s Partition avoided civil war, and so provided the space for nation-building.
And so, even as we celebrate this 65th anniversary of Independence, let us not mourn Partition. It was a building block of the unified, secular India we have today.