For decades, the Congress and BJP have jointly nurtured the myth that Britain teamed up with Jinnah to impose partition on India, to institutionalise divide-and-rule even after leaving. No, says Jaswant Singh in his new book, partition was largely due to Sardar Patel and Nehru, who insisted on a centralised India and vetoed the loose federation favoured by Jinnah.
An angry BJP has expelled Jaswant. He wonders why the party is upset by his expose of Patel/Nehru. He should have known that his attack on the joint historical myth of the BJP and Congress was more damaging to the ideology of the BJP than of Congress.
Historically, India was a land of a thousand warring kings, along with divisions of language, region and religion. Division was a fact of life: the British did not have to invent it. Rather, as Maulana Muhammad Ali said to the British, “we divide and you rule.”
British rule consolidated a hitherto fragmented India. Even so, British India covered only half the area and two-third of the population of the subcontinent. The rest lay with 600-odd princely states. Had Britain wanted to continue divide-and-rule—and Churchill certainly did—it just had to stand by its treaties with the 600 princes, who wanted independence. But the Labour Party that came to power in 1945 was against such imperial games. Mountbatten, the last Viceroy, told the princes they must join India or Pakistan. This helped create two countries out of 600 princedoms.
Jaswant portrays Jinnah as a secularist wanting a loose federation of states, each with substantial autonomy. A loose federation was initially proposed by Mountbatten but rejected by Nehru, who said it would balkanise India. Nehru wanted a strong federal government for unity. Jinnah said this was a cloak for Hindu hegemony.
Jaswant is too kind to Jinnah, who had a communal streak as well as a secular one. His insistence that only the Muslim League could speak for Muslims was pure communalism. At one time he favoured a loose federation, but ultimately insisted on a separate Pakistan.
The Interim Government of 1946-47 included Congress and the Muslim League. Jinnah quarreled daily with Congress on issue after issue to deny it legitimacy.
Liaquat Ali of the Muslim League was Finance Minister in the Interim Government, and had the power to block any expenditure. He raised unending questions about and blocked spending by Congress Ministers, hobbling them. Patel said he could not even appoint a chaprasi without Liaquat’s approval, which took ages.
In February 1947 Liaquat presented a socialist “poor man’s budget”. This imposed a 25% tax on business profits over one lakh rupees, doubled the corporate tax, imposed capital gains tax, and doubled the export duty on tea. It also proposed a Commission to unearth tax evaders.
Socialists in Congress supported these proposals. But others like Patel were outraged, claiming that Liaquat was really attacking Hindu businessmen (like GD Birla) who had long financed Congress. This was a Hindu communal interpretation of a budget that equally affected Muslim and Parsi industrialists. More plausible was the fear of Hindu businessmen that Liaquat would selectively target them for tax evasion via the new Commission, a fear Patel shared.
This reflected in part unwillingness to accommodate the agenda of a prickly coalition partner. Ironically the Congress of Sonia Gandhi would in 2004-08 swallow more humiliations from a prickly partner than Patel in 1946-47. But in 1947 Congress saw itself as the natural party of rule, not a mere coalition partner.
Liaquat’s tactics were stunningly successful. They convinced Patel—and later Nehru—that working with the Muslim League was impossible. Alan Campbell-Johnson says in ‘ Mission with Mountbatten’ that Nehru and Patel accepted partition because “by conceding Pakistan to Jinnah they will have no more of him and eliminate his nuisance value; or as Nehru put it privately, that by cutting the head we shall get rid of headache.”
This supports Jaswant Singh’s claim that Congress opted for partition rather than share power with Jinnah. Pakistani historians like Ayesha Jalal argue that Nehru and Patel were unwilling to make the compromises necessary in a diverse democracy, and this led to partition. Other historians blame Jinnah and Liaquat for sabotaging any chance of a unified India.
Either way, we need to abandon the myth that the British imposed partition on India. Patel’s opposition to Liaquat’s budget was a prime driver of the change in Congress policy, from opposing partition to becoming a fully consenting partner in it. Jaswant Singh is wrong to absolve Jinnah, but right to highlight the role of Congress in partition.