I-Day ruminations: Could Partition have been avoided?

August 15 remains a day for contemplating whether India’s 1947 Partition was avoidable. Some say the British forced it. Any student of history will say this is laughably false.

The most popular narrative says Jinnah’s obduracy compounded by Congress’ lack of spine caused Partition. But historians globally disagree strongly. Read an excellent account in ‘Our Hindu Rashtra’ by journalist Aakar Patel. Those who abhor Aakar as an anti-BJP fanatic can read historians like Ram Guha or Perry Anderson.

In local elections starting 1909, the British Raj created separate electorates for Muslims — only Muslims could vote in these reserved seats, ensuring them a minimum representation. This was different from today’s reserved seats for Dalits and tribals: all parties field Dalits and tribals in these seats. In the old Muslim electorates, Muslims voted almost entirely for the Muslim League, ignoring supposedly secular Congress.

Congress castigated separate electorates as destructive of a national ethos. Actually, this was realpolitik. In a first-past-the-post electoral system, Muslims with one-third of the population would win far less than one-third of the seats. Separate electorates reduced Congress dominance.
Lala Lajpat Rai, the fearless ‘Lion of the Punjab’, viewed power-sharing with Muslims through separate electorates as impossible and proposed Partition. Hindus would control the bulk of the subcontinent, while Muslims would get (a) the Pathan majority NWFP: (b) the western half of a communally divided Punjab; (c) Sind; and (d) the eastern half of a communally divided Bengal. This proposal was made in 1924 before the word Pakistan had been invented. Yet it conformed exactly to Partition in 1947.

Despite secular claims, the Congress was overwhelmingly Hindu. Muslims constituted less than 1% of its membership in 1914, 2% in 1915 and 3% in 1916. Motilal Nehru baldly called Congress a Hindu body. This changed with Gandhi’s takeover of Congress leadership. He allied with Muslims, backing their Khilafat movement. But that alliance ruptured when he called off his non-cooperation agitation in 1922 after supposedly non-violent agitators burned a police station at Chauri Chaura. He never consulted Muslims in this decision, and so lost their trust.

In 1927 Jinnah, originally a Congressman organised an all-India meeting of Muslim outfits that produced the ‘Delhi Proposals’. Instead of a separate Muslim electorate, these proposals reserved one-third of Cabinet seats for Muslims; reserved seats for Muslims in Punjab and Bengal in proportion to their population; and proposed new provinces in Sind, Baluchistan and NWFP. Initially, Congress accepted these proposals. But Madan Mohan Malaviya’s Hindu Mahasabha objected strongly, and the Congress caved. A golden opportunity was lost.

An alternative Motilal Nehru report in 1928 proposed reserved seats for Muslims in proportion to population in joint electorates, but no reserved seats in the Central government or religion-based reservations in Punjab and Bengal, which would have meant Muslim majorities.

Jinnah then proposed a decentralised, federal India with uniform autonomy for all provinces, separate electorates, and one-third Muslim representation in both provincial and central Cabinets. These differences with Congress deepened thereafter on both sides. Historian KK Aziz says that only 15 of 33 proposals for Partition between 1931 and 1940 came from Muslims — many Hindus wanted it too.

The Government of India Act, 1935 created elected provincial governments. Congress swept the provincial elections in 1937. After this, says historian Perry Anderson, Nehru saw the political battle as one between Congress and the British, with the Muslim League and princes as mere fringe actors. Yet Congress membership was 97% Hindu. It could not even find Muslim candidates for 90% of reserved Muslim constituencies, which the Muslim League swept.

In the post-war 1945-46 elections, the Muslim League won 446 of 495 provincial Muslim seats and every central seat. The Congress swept open seats. The results were, alas, solidly communal.

An interim Cabinet was formed with Nehru as Prime Minister and Liaquat Ali Khan as Finance Minister. Liaquat’s budget imposed hefty taxes on industrialists. Most Congressmen called this anti-Hindu since the vast majority of industrialists were Hindu. Yet this was unwarranted communalism: the taxes hit Parsis and Christians too, including the mighty Tatas.

As Finance Minister, Liaquat could and did constantly thwart proposals of Congress ministers entailing government expenditure. This infuriated many Congress leaders, who said co-habitation with the Muslim League was impossible. Hence Partition, which Congress deemed unthinkable till 1945, was quickly accepted by the Congress when Mountbatten proposed this in 1947 in return for handing over power within a few months.

Had Congress been willing to share power under Jinnah’s earlier proposals, the horrors of Partition could have been avoided. But would deepening communalism have plunged an undivided India into civil war? Probably, and so I think Partition was the best solution. But it was not forced on India. It was ultimately Nehru’s choice no less than Jinnah’s.

This article was originally published in the Times of India on 15 August 2021.

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