Was it possible to avoid partition by 1946-47?
It may be worth dwelling on this question for a moment. Besides the strategic factor, there were other reasons for Britain to favour partition. One was the doubt in the British mind that India might not have a very good chance of surviving as an independent state. A top-secret appreciation, prepared in the Commonwealth Relations Office soon after British withdrawal elaborates this doubt. Factors such as India’s heterogeneous population, the North-South divide, the communal problem, the unruliness of the Sikhs and the policy of the Indian communists to spread dissension are cited in this context. One can’t say how far Attlee, or how many of his colleagues accepted this analysis. But notions of India’s instability were deeply embedded in the thinking of British officials, senior Conservative politicians and many journalists, including editors of newspapers. In the circumstances, it is not surprising that the British would hesitate to put all their eggs in the Indian basket.
There was another reason for the British tilt towards the creation of Pakistan. I have referred to the hatred for Indian leaders in general and for the Hindus in particular that most British civilians and military men in India had started to feel by 1947. The nationalists’ non-cooperation in the war effort had created deep distrust for them in Britain; particularly in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Therefore, the emotion among the English in favour of Pakistan was very great. (It has not subsided entirely even to this day).
The Indians too faced difficulties in cooperating with Britain. The British support for the Muslim League as well as for the Pakistan scheme had created a general and widespread suspicion of their intentions among the public. Besides, there were specific points of disagreement. Jawaharlal Nehru was willing to cooperate with Britain on several issues, including that of supporting the Commonwealth concept, which, he believed, would help to balance American influence in the world. But he was absolutely opposed to getting entangled in any schemes to contain or confront the Soviet Union and China. Also, he was bent upon fighting European colonialism as well as apartheid, even if his stance embarrassed Britain and its friends. A possibility that greatly excited him was the opportunities independence would offer India to mediate for peace between the West and the East and, in so doing, strike out a new path in world affairs. By appealing to the deep-felt urges of mankind for freedom, equality and peace, he believed that India could develop a diplomatic reach, which would be as effective in influencing world events as power politics and military strength. These concepts, of course, would be difficult to marry with British ideas* and were unlikely to persuade Britain to abandon the Pakistan scheme.
* “Over idealistic, inexperienced in foreign affairs, and far too vain” was the British High Commissioner’s (in India) top secret assessment of Nehru.
The findings in this book go against conventional wisdom in India and abroad. The Indians, by and large, believe that the Imperial power supported the partition plan to weaken India, so that it remained dependent on Britain even after independence. This is less than half the truth. The British left no stone unturned to push their allies, the princes-whose territories constituted one-third of the Raj-into the arms of India, except Jammu and Kashmir. This step helped unify disparate and fragmented parts into a cohesive country. If the British were out to weaken India, why should they have done this, or left the Andaman and Nicobar as well as the Lacadive Islands in Indian hands, which increased India’s naval reach in the Indian Ocean? Or, indeed, why should they have whittled Jinnah’s territorial demands to the minimum required for Britain to safeguard its defense requirements?
The English and people abroad generally believe that India was divided because Hindus and Muslims could not live peacefully together in one country and, a separate state-Pakistan-needed to be carved out of India for the Muslims. But the fact is that a division of two communities was never made. Nearly thirty million Muslims, or a third of the total Muslim population of India, were excluded from Pakistan. These Muslims residing in Indian provinces, in which they were minorities, were the only ones who could be said to be vulnerable to Hindu pressure or domination. The creation of Pakistan was justified in order to protect them, but they were left behind in India.*
*the Muslim population of India has more than quadrupled in fifty years and today (2006) about 145 million Muslims live here with people of other faiths.
The areas placed in Pakistan (the NWFP, West Punjab, Baluchistan and Sind) had Muslim majorities with no fear of Hindu domination and were being ruled by governments dominated by Muslims. Indeed, the NWFP and the Punjab had governments opposed to Jinnah’s Muslim League. But they were placed in Pakistan. These four province/units, however, had one common feature: the British chiefs of staff considered their territories of absolute importance for organizing a defense against a possible Soviet advance towards to the Indian Ocean.
Partition was a politico-strategic act. It was not to ‘save’ Muslims from Hindus; nor was it to weaken India. ‘Everyone for home; everyone for himself.’
The British adopted the policy of divide and rule in India after the bloody revolt or the Great Mutiny of 1857. This was a policy to control Indians, not to divide India. The latter question arose when the British started to plan their retreat from India, the facts about which are the subjects of this story. If the impulse was Churchill’s, it was Attlee who implemented the scheme. Working behind a thick smoke screen, he wove circles around Indian leaders and persuaded them to accept partition.
The belief that the Cabinet Mission plan sought to avoid, or would have succeeded in avoiding partition is mistaken. The plan would have intensified the communal tension and most probably Balkanized India. However, it served HMG’s purpose as follows. It delivered a shock to Jinnah that the Attlee Government might move away from partition and prepared the ground for him to accept the smaller Pakistan. The entry of the Congress leaders into the Interim Government kept them from revolting; it softened them up to ultimately accept the Wavell-Attlee plan. The exercised served British public relations; it created the impression in the United States that Britain was working for Indian unity.
The plan for the smaller Pakistan was not worked out by Mountbatten in 1947, as generally believed, but by Lord Wavell in 1945, who submitted its detailed blueprint to London in February 1946. Mountbatten implemented the plan by persuading the two main Indian parties to accept the same. Advancing the date of British departure from June 1948 to August 1947 is often blamed for the chaos and killings in Punjab. The date was advanced after the Congress Party, in May 1947, agreed to accept the transfer of power on a dominion status basis, provided Britain pulled out of India forthwith. The Indian acceptance of dominion status, even temporarily, was important for Britain. (‘The greatest opportunity ever offered to the Empire’). It would facilitate the passage of the Indian Independence Bill in the British Parliament, by appeasing the Conservative opposition. It would prove to the world that India had willingly accepted partition; otherwise why should it agree to remain a British dominion? It would gain time to persuade Nehru and his friends to abandon their commitment to leave the British Commonwealth.
Penderel Moon, civil servant and historian who was on the spot has written: ‘The determination of the Sikhs to preserve their cohesion was the root cause of the violent exchange of populations which took place; and it would have operated with like effect even if the division of the Punjab had been put off another year.’ Admittedly, the Muslim attacks on farmers in the villages around Rawalpindi in March 1947 confirmed this community’s worst fears that the Muslim League was out to cleanse West Pakistan of non-Muslims, which actually happened. However, Linlithgow and Wavell cannot escape the responsibility for the Punjab massacres. They ignored the warnings of their governors, Henry Craik and Bertrand Glancy, that strengthening Jinnah’s Muslim League in the Punjab at the expense of the Muslims of the Unionist Party, who were opposed to partition-Shaukat Hayat used to call it ‘Jinnahstan’-would result in a blood bath in the province.. Wavell did forward Glancy’s warnings to London, but the policy to build up Jinnah as the sole spokesman of the Muslims continued.
The view that Britain, by staying on longer, might have avoided the Punjab troubles ignores the fact that the British neither had the troops nor the administrative capacity to control events in India by the summer of 1947. The vigour and speed with which Lord Mountbatten acted at least had the merit of confining the conflagration to the Punjab.
The British focus was no doubt on Pakistan as a future defence partner in the Great Game, but India too had its value. If it remained in the British family of nations, I.e., in the Commonwealth, this retention would add to British prestige and influence in the post- war world. How Mountbatten juggled the above two British goals, none-too-easy a feat? While viceroy of India, he prized away the North West Frontier Province from the Congress Party’s control and, while India ‘s governor-general after independence, he restrained it from occupying the whole, or more areas, of Kashmir. This made it possible for Pakistan to be formed as a defence bastion. Simultaneously he was able to build bridges between the British and India that led to the latter remaining a member of the British Commonwealth. The view that Mountbatten helped India to gain Kashmir, by persuading Sir Cyril Radcliffe to allot parts of the Muslim-majority areas of Gurdaspur district (in the Punjab) to India, is not well founded. A fair-weather road through this district was indeed the only route that connected the state with India. But it was Wavell’s blueprint for Pakistan, sent to London on 6 February 1946, which has to be studied in this context. The allotment had nothing to do with Kashmir or Mountbatten. Wavell had recommended:
In the Punjab the only Muslim-majority district that would not go to Pakistan under this demarcation is Gurdaspur (51% Muslim). Gurdaspur must go with Amritsar for geographical reasons and Amritsar being (the) sacred city of Sikhs must stay out of Pakistan.
In 1947 the territory of Kapurthala state, then an autonomous entity, blocked access to Amritsar from East Punjab. That was why Radcliffe awarded certain areas of Gurdaspur to India to connect the Sikh holy city with the Sikh dominated East Punjab (and India).
Mountbatten continues to receive flak in Britain, Pakistan and India. Some of the British frustration at India’s independence (‘of course he lost it’), not unnaturally got rubbed off on the man who actually handed over power. The ex-viceroy, in his old age, talked a bit too much-about his success in India-which played into his detractors’ hands, with India being vilified in the process. His achievements for his country were very great, and they say in England: Good wine needs no brush!
Regarding the princes, unless some organic relationship could be established between the Central Government and the princely states, as was actually done through the process of accessions- into which the princes were no doubt stampeded by Mountbatten- a much worse fate awaited them. Ninety per cent of the princely states were too small to resist agitators entering from the Indian or Pakistani provinces and overrunning them, threatening their rulers’ lives and property. If some bigger states tried to break away by declaring independence, they would not have succeeded, because Britain was not in a position to come to their aid and the United States was against further Balkanization of India. The accession saved the princely order, if not the princely states. They laid the foundation for a peaceful revolution. (It is another matter that the British paid scant regard to solemn treaties signed with the princes, whereas they laid so much stress on their obligations to mere declarations made in the British Parliament to safeguard minority rights. After all, Pakistan would be a partner in the Great Game after they quit India; the princes had outlived their utility.)
Many, including some prominent historians,* are of the view that Mahatma Gandhi remained opposed to partition till the very end.
*Stanley Wolpert, after reading this manuscript, wrote to me that he believes that Gandhi had not agreed to partition.
His absenting himself from Delhi on Independence Day is cited as proof. However, his conversation with Mountbatten on 2 June 1947, a day before the partition plan was announced, his statement at his prayer meeting that afternoon, and his advice to the All-India Congress Committee on 14 June, all suggest that he had accepted the division of India as a necessary evil. He absented himself from the Independence Day celebrations possibly for a different reason. He would not have fitted in. His stature in India was far higher than that of either Nehru or Mountbatten. But these two alone would represent their respective countries at the official ceremony for the Transfer of Power; can one imagine the Mahatma sitting propped up in an open landau with Lord and Lady Mountbatten and Nehru, the foursome driving through the Delhi crowds throwing back flowers hurled at them? It would be ridiculous!
Britain’s pro-Pakistan policy on Kashmir was based on its desire to keep that part of its old Indian Empire, which jutted into Central Asia and lay along Afghanistan, Soviet Russia and China, in the hands of the successor dominion that had promised cooperation in matters of defence. In the open forum of the UN, Britain could not conceal its pro-Pakistan stand. The Americans in their internal telegrams have left a record of Britain’s pro-Pakistan tilt on Kashmir.
It is not the purpose of this book to pontificate on the rights and wrongs of actions of countries whose interests were involved in Kashmir. It is primarily to suggest that the Kashmir imbroglio in 1947-48 proved once more that all that happened during the end game of the Empire cannot be understood unless one keeps in view the overwhelming concern of the withdrawing power, as it pulled out, to secure its strategic agenda.
Nevertheless, I would like to touch upon two aspects of the Kashmir imbroglio. First, to say that, to begin with, Kashmir was considered a territorial issue, not a communal one. The communal argument was injected by Britain and Pakistan in the UN debates to bolster the latter’s claim. Be it noted that when Sir Zafrullah Khan told the Americans that ‘Kashmir was essential to the strategic defence of Pakistan, he was referring to Kashmir’s territory, not its people. Pakistan’s acquisition of Kashmir would compensate it for the ‘smaller’ territory it received than it had hoped for by partition, enhance its profile as a crucially strategic state in Asia touching the roof of the world- and help it build relations with powerful states. Pakistan’s attempt to capture Buddhist Ladakh on Tibet’s border could not by any stretch of imagination be described as ‘ a move to protect Muslims’.
In July 1947, Jinnah personally approached the Maharaja of Jodhpur and Maharaj Kumar of Jaisalmer and offered favourable terms to the rulers of these wholly Hindu- populated states to accede to Pakistan. He also approached the rulers of the Hindu- populated states of Baroda, Indore and others through the Nawab of Bhopal. Jinnah did so because he knew very well that the affiliation of the princely states to one or the other dominion was left entirely to their rulers by the same British act that created Pakistan. It was not a Hindu-Muslim question. That is also why Pakistan accepted the accession of the Nawab of Junagadh, a Hindu-majority state.
Secondly, it would be wrong to believe that because Kashmir was 77% Muslim, its people would, in 1947, have automatically wished to join Pakistan. The NWFP, next door, was 95% Muslim but we have seen how its people resisted the Muslim League and British pressure and remained with the Congress Party, till 1947, when the party’s leaders, in a quid pro quo with the British abandoned them. In 1947, the overwhelming majority of Muslims of the Valley of Kashmir, where well over half of the people of the state lived, supported Sheikh Abdullah and his National Conference Party. Whatever his other ambitions, Abdullah was absolutely opposed to Pakistan. Similarly, Jammu and its Dogra belt would have voted against Pakistan. The only Muslims of the state who would have supported Pakistan in large numbers at the time were those living along Pakistan’s border in the Poonch-Mirpur area.
Since Pakistan was created, the communal virus has spread to large parts of the subcontinent. I can’t say how the Kashmiris would vote today. But, in 1947-48, the majority, in all probability, would have supported the maharaja’s accession to India. And 1947-48 is the pertinent date, when considering the issue. In all fairness, the position that existed then cannot be brushed aside.
The successful use of religion by the British in India to gain political and strategic objectives was replicated by the Americans in Afghanistan in the 1980s by building up the Islamic jihadis, all for the same purpose of keeping the Soviet communists at bay. The Muslim League’s ‘direct action’ before partition in India was the forerunner of the jihad in Afghanistan. However, Al-Qaida’s attacks on the World Trade Centre towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington on 11 September 2001 woke up the West to the dangers of encouraging political Islam.
It was the Pakistan Government that, through the Jamaat-i-Islami, Pakistan, and their intelligence service, the ISI, created the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. The preaching of the Jamaat’s founder, Abdul Al Mawdudi, a migrant from India, envisaged a clash of civilizations and governments founded strictly on the tenets of the Shariat; he counselled jihad against non-believers. These views found an echo in many Muslim lands; they influenced Osama bin Laden. Even after the US-backed jihad in Afghanistan had succeeded, Pakistan continued to help the Taliban train terrorists to fight non-believers in the name of Allah. Without Pakistan’s backing, it is doubtful whether Islamic terror could have spread so far and wide in the world, despite Osama bin Laden, Saudi and Gulf petro dollars and Arab suicide bombers. The Americans are now taking steps to rein in the export of terror from Pakistan. But the genie has escaped the bottle. Some of the roots of the present Islamic terrorism menacing the world surely lie buried in the partition of India.
The British brought the ‘New Learning’ to India as well as the notion of the separation of religion from politics that had become the norm in Christian Europe after Renaissance. These features opened up the possibility for secularism–anathema to orthodox Muslims–to take root among the Muslims of India and for them to work a democratic constitution together with people of other faiths; indeed, for India becoming a laboratory of enlightened Islam. At the same time, Western social mores helped foster among the individualistic Hindus a greater sense of responsibility for society and feeling of brotherhood between man and man. Shashi Tharoor, the writer speaking of Hindus has asked: How can followers of a faith without any fundamentals become fundamentalists? But lack of parameters and a sense of social responsibility can also lead to intolerance as well as to parochialism. The good done by the spread of British liberal ideas in India in the nineteenth century was undone in the twentieth century by British politicians and viceroys, who introduced divisive policies such as separate electorates for Muslims (besides, of course, self-serving economic policies that overtaxed the farmers). British rule, to the end, maintained its duality: the civilizing mission and extreme selfishness mixed with cunning –though during its last days, ‘the Raj was about neither plunder nor civilization but rather survival’, as Fareed Zakaria, the columnist and writer has put it.
There is of course, the view that partition averted a worse disaster for India in the years to come. The past half a century has seen a phenomenal rise in Islamic fundamentalism and in the forces of political Islam. Such a development has drawn and deepened fault lines within many states with mixed populations of Muslims and others. Would it be possible in such circumstances, for the newly 500 million Muslims (by the year 2010) of an undivided India to settle down peacefully under a democratic, secular constitution? Partition, by compartmentalizing Muslim political power in the two corners of the subcontinent, has weakened the jihadis and given time for the pressure from economic globalization and the technological revolution sweeping the world to overhaul or temper the intensity of globalization of jihad or political Islam an ensure peaceful coexistence in the subcontinent.
All these questions are for the reader to ponder over. I can only express the hope that the knowledge of the hitherto not so well known facts about the politics surrounding the partition of the subcontinent might help to ease the mutual misunderstanding in the relations between India and the West that crept in around half a century back with the forging of the alliance between Pakistan and the West. The awareness that it was global politics, Britain’s insecurity and the errors of judgement of the Indian leaders that resulted in the partition of India might help India and Pakistan in search for reconciliation.
Introduction & Postscript
The USSR’s powerful victory over Germany in 1945 had increased Joseph Stalin’s ambitions to extend his country’s influence into territories on its periphery, indeed he had already started to do so in Eastern Europe. To the Soviet Union’s southern border lay the region of the Persian Gulf with its oil fields – the wells of power- that were of vital interest to the West. Under the circumstances, Britain could ill afford to lose control over the entire Indian subcontinent that had served as its military base in dominating the Indian Ocean area and the countries around the Persian Gulf for more than half a century and which was also the main source of manpower for the Imperial Army.
Once the British realized that the Indian nationalists who would rule India after its independence would deny them military co-operation under a British Commonwealth defence umbrella, they settled for those willing to do so by using religion for the purpose. Their problem could be solved if Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League Party, would succeed in his plan to detach the northwest of India abutting Iran, Afghanistan and Sinkiang and establish a separate state there – Pakistan. The proposition was a realizable one as a working relationship had been established between the British authorities in India and Jinnah during the Second World War and he was willing to cooperate with Britain on defence matters if Pakistan was created.
Very little attention has been paid so far to the influence of British strategic concerns on India’s partition. The subject is also fascinating because of the little known facts about the unobtrusive pressure the United States exerted on Britain in favour of India’s freedom – and unity – from 1942 onwards. Roosevelt’s object was to evolve a post-war order for Asia free from European colonialism. Churchill trumped this pressure by playing the Muslims, or the Pakistani card, that the real problem lay in Hindu- Muslim differences about India’s future and not in Britain’s unwillingness to accept self-determination for India. American pressure contributed finally in no small measure in persuading Britain to accept the inevitable in India, though the Indians never really recognized this contribution.
The successful use of religion by the British to fulfil political and strategic objectives in India was replicated by the Americans in building up the Islamic jihadis in Afghanistan for the same purpose, of keeping the Soviets at bay. There is no gain saying that nations will ever stop taking advantage of whoever or whatever comes in handy to achieve their immediate vital goals, not the least the US using the Pakistan military to counter the growing influence of the increasing jihadis in Pakistan. Or that the Great Game will not be played out again in Central Asia with different issues at stake and with different sets of partners. However, the Western policies of exploiting political Islam to pressurize India have run their course. The improvement in Indo-US relations since the mid-1990s is the result of these changes in the strategic picture.
Britain was bound to protect its strategic and economic interests from the damaging consequences of its withdrawal from its vast two century-old Empire in India. How this was done by outmanoeuvring the Indian leaders and partitioning India is the theme of this untold story.
The agreement to partition India was announced in Delhi on 3 June 1947. The following week the British Labour Party’s Annual Conference was held in Margate in Britain. There, addressing the delegates, Ernest Bevin, the British foreign secretary, stated that the division of India ‘would help consolidate Britain in the Middle East.’
On the day Bevin spoke, Krishna Menon was staying with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru at 7, York Road in Delhi. Settled in London, Menon then headed the India League in the UK, was a member of the British Labour Party and the sole interlocutor on behalf of Nehru with the British socialist leaders. He was the first Indian whom Lord Louis Mountbatten sought out on being appointed the viceroy of India in March 1947. Menon’s ego had then not inflated to the extent that was to warp his thinking and judgement after Nehru made him defence minister. Referring to Bevin’s remark, Menon wrote to Lord Mountbatten at the Viceroy’s House on 14 June, in long hand, as follows (whether or not he did so after consulting Nehru is not clear):
Is the frontier (northwest of India abutting Afghanistan and Iran) still the hinterland of the Imperial strategy? Does Britain still think in terms of being able to use this territory and all that follows from it? There is considerable amount of talking in this way; if Kashmir, for one reason or another, chooses to be in Pakistan that is further development in this direction. I do not know of British policy on his matter. I do not know whether you would know either. But if this be the British intent, this is tragic . . . As it becomes more evident, the attitude of India would be resentful and Britain’s hold on Pakistan would not improve it. I think I have said enough. Perhaps a bit too much.
Menon was raising two important questions. One, whether the British strategy was to use West Pakistan and the princely state of Kashmir as bases to contain the perceived Soviet ambitions towards the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, as the north western region of undivided India had been used for the same purpose for over a century. And, two, whether British policy in this regard was so subterranean that even the viceroy of India was kept in the dark about it.
Krishna Menon writing in June 1947 to Lord Mountbatten had wondered whether Britain was following a hidden agenda, whose lid had been slightly raised by Bevin in Margate. Two weeks before Menon wrote to the viceroy, two US diplomats, Ely Palmer (envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Afghanistan) and R.S. Leach of the State Department passed through Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province of British India. They were invited to dine with Sir Olaf Caroe, the British governor of the province. On 26 May, 1947 Palmer and Leach reported to the State Department in Washington the substance of their conversation with Sir Olaf. Their report said that the governor asked them to come a little before dinner ‘so that they could have a quiet chat.’ During this chat, according to the diplomats, “the Governor first spoke about the ‘correct’ British policy looking towards a united India” but then had ‘spoken more frankly’ and had emphasized ‘the great political importance of the North West Frontier Province and Afghanistan’, which he described as ‘the uncertain vestibule’ in future relations between the Soviet Union and India. He also spoke ‘of the danger of Soviet penetration of Gilgit, Chitral and Swat’ (all situated on Kashmir’s northern border) and then significantly added: ‘He would not be unfavourable to the establishment of a separate Pakistan.’
Sir Olaf, before his appointment as governor of the NWFP, had been foreign secretary in Delhi from 1939 to 1946 and hence the principal advisor to two viceroys, Linlithgow and Wavell, on British India’s policy to forestall Soviet expansionism in Afghanistan Sinkiang and the regions of the Persian Gulf. Sir Olaf was really trying to use the Americans’ presence in Peshawar to ‘educate’ the State Department on the usefulness from a Western point of view of the creation of Pakistan and Kashmir’s adherence to it, as seen by a person with experience in the region. And, in the process, he had let the cat out of the bag.
After his retirement, the British Foreign Office sent Sir Olaf on a lecture tour of America. This tour was, in his own words, an ‘attempt to catch and save a way of thought known to many who saw these things from the East, but now in danger of being lost, in the hope that new workers in the vineyards may find in it something worth regard. In America he lectured on the theme (later collated and published in his book Wells of Power) that the Karachi Port and the coastline of Baluchistan standing at the mouth of the Persian Gulf were ‘vital to its (British) reckoning’. The British base in India- now Pakistan- had maintained stability in the Middle East since 1801, when Tsar Paul’s ambitions first blew the whistle. Russian pressure – ‘silent, concentrated, perpetual’- had predated communism ‘the Indian anchor’ had been lost, but Pakistan –‘a new India’ had emerged, a Muslim state that could help to establish a defence community of Muslim states and ‘show the way for reconciliation between the Western and Islamic models’. Caroe then posed a question: ‘Will Islam stand up to communism?’ The former foreign secretary of the British Government of India was later to boast that the US secretary of state, John Foster Dulles’s phrase ‘the northern tier and his own ‘the northern screen’ were ‘the same idea really’.
It was midway during the Second World War that the British authorities realized that they would have to quit India, their military base for over fifty years sooner or later. Their thoughts then turned to closing the gap that would result in a Commonwealth Defence against a Soviet move to the south, towards the ‘wells of power’ and the Indian Ocean. To find a solution, they looked for available opportunities and openings in India in the hallowed British tradition described by Churchill as follows:
We (British) do not think that logic and clear-cut principles are necessarily the sole key to what ought to be done in swiftly changing and indefinable situations . . . We assign a larger importance to opportunism and improvisation, seeking rather to live and conquer in accordance with the unfolding events than to aspire to dominate them by fundamental decisions.
Britain’s ‘Pakistan strategy’ succeeded brilliantly. Pakistan together with Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Britain joined the Baghdad Pact and later CENTO, which the US also joined, to form the defensive barrier against Soviet ambitions in the Middle East. In 1954 Pakistan entered into a bilateral pact with Britain’s ally, the USA, and, in 1958, provided an air base in Peshawar to the CIA for U-2 spy planes to keep a watch on military preparations in the Soviet Union. Then in the 1970s, Pakistan helped the US establish relations with China, to pressurize the Soviet Union from the east. And, in the 1980s, Islamabad provided the forward base from which the US could eject the Soviet forces from Afghanistan, precipitating the collapse of the USSR and altering the world balance of power.
On the other hand, the ‘Pakistan strategy’ did not prevent the Soviet Union from reaching out to India. This it did by supporting India against Pakistan, which had the backing of the Western powers, on Kashmir in the 1950s. In August 1971 an Indo-Soviet treaty, with a defence- related clause in it, was signed. This treaty restrained China from interfering in the forthcoming Indo-Pakistan war on Bangladesh. Treaties may be like flowers and young girls that last while they last, as Charles de Gaulle said, but the process of India purchasing Soviet arms on rupee payment and barter that started in the early 1960s has become an important and long standing feature of the Indo-Soviet relationship. Would the collaboration between these two countries have developed but for partition?
Pakistan also helped China extend its influence right up to the mouth of the Persian Gulf-via Pakistan. In 2004, hundreds of Chinese were building a port in Gwadar in Baluchistan, at the mouth of the Gulf. What facilities China will get from Pakistan remain undisclosed. To begin with, China befriended Pakistan so that the latter would not permit separatist Islamic influences to reach the Muslims of Sinkiang through the British-built road from the subcontinent via northern Kashmir to Kashgar–‘the main artery into Central Asia’, as Ernest Bevin once described it to George Marshall. From the 1980s, China has helped Pakistan neutralize the larger Indian conventional force, by supplying it directly, and through North Korea, nuclear weaponry and missiles. One may indeed ask: Would the 1962 Sino-Indian clash have occurred had India remained united? Would the Indian subcontinent have been nuclearized in the twentieth century but for partition?
The unobtrusive, but steady pressure exerted by the US on Britain in favour of India’s independence and unity from 1942 to 1947 has been (strangely) neglected by historians so far. Roosevelt made several attempts to persuade Churchill to grant self-government to India after the fall of Singapore, but in vain. As soon as an Interim Government under Jawaharlal Nehru was formed in 1946, the US recognized it and sent an ambassador to Delhi, to the consternation of the British. The Americans thereafter advised Britain to keep India united. They feared that India’s Balkanization would help the communists. It was only after March 1947, when the Congress Party itself accepted the division of the Punjab and Bengal that the US found itself helpless to do any more. ‘The Congress leaders had in fact abandoned the tenets which they supported for so many years in the campaign for united India’, wired the American Embassy in Delhi to Washington. The US pressure on Britain led to one predictable result. To fend it off, Churchill, in 1942, played the ‘Muslim’ or the ‘Pakistani’ card: that it was not British reluctance to grant self-government to India, but the serious differences amongst Muslims and Hindus on India’s future that was creating the problem. Such a move brought Jinnah’s 1940 scheme for partition and his two-nation theory centre stage. The theory of the ‘provincial option’, which created the constitutional channel by which partition could be put into effect, was concocted in London in 1942.
That by 1943 India had become an important adversarial factor in Anglo-US relations is not well known. This factor could have been liquidated by Indian disenchantment with America, or vice versa, or both. The record shows that Mountbatten, Krishna Menon and Attlee worked on Nehru to raise his suspicions about the US motives in Asia. Side by side, British speakers and diplomats propounded the idea in the US that the Indian Muslim had better imbibed the western legacy and was a more reliable partner than the basically feeble and unreliable Hindu. The Indian leaders’ ambitious foreign policy after independence, combined with their inexperience, took no time to collide with the Americans’ impatient and demanding nature, mixed with their ignorance about India.
The Americans, to begin with, showed more understanding of India’s position on Jammu and Kashmir than did Britain. Throughout 1948, the US insisted that J&K’s accession to India could not be brushed aside unless it lost the plebiscite that India itself had offered and, meanwhile, Pakistan forces that had entered the state had to be withdrawn. It was the US stand that prevented J&K’s accession to India being negated, at British behest, by the UN Security Council. But while Britain was able to maintain good relations with India, the neutral Americans were cast as villains of the piece. This was largely due to Nehru’s basic mistrust of capitalist America, his faith in socialist Britain and the personal ties that the Mountbattens had developed with him. To bring to light an important, but ignored historical truth is by itself worthwhile. This is all the more appropriate because India has never recognized the goodwill that the US showed for India’s independence and unity during the end game of Empire. Admittedly, today, given Russia’s retreat from Central Asia and the growing mutual concern about terrorism and political Islam, a new chapter is opening up in Indo-US relations.
The story is also a cautionary tale for Indians. The leaders of the Congress Party were inspired by high ideals. They built up a broad-based all-India organization without which the struggle for independence would not have been possible. They revived the sagging morale and confidence of a fallen people, contributing to ‘India’s great recovery’, to use K.M. Panikar’s phrase. They devised instruments such as Satyagraha (peaceful mass protest or resistance), answering violence by non-violence. Such measures put moral pressure on the democratic British people to push their government to recognize India’s legitimate demands. These were great achievements. But the Indian leaders remained plagued by the Indians’ age old weaknesses of arrogance, inconsistency, often poor political judgement and disinterest in foreign affairs and questions of defence. Overconfidence and bad judgement made them spurn in 1928 Jinnah’s efforts to make the Muslims agree to the abolition of the pernicious separate electorates. They failed to include, after the party’s massive victory in provincial elections, in their governments, in 1937, those Muslim League leaders who wanted to taste the plums of office. The British archives reveal that in their negotiations with the viceroys in the 1940s, there was no consistency-without which there could be no success in diplomacy or war-or indeed a clear, realistic policy. The Congress Party resolution of 11April 1942 rejected the Cripps offer that sought to divide the country by giving the provinces the right to stand out, but spoke elsewhere of the right of units to break away from the Indian Union. In his talks with Jinnah in September 1944, Gandhiji suggested district-wide referendums in British provinces claimed by Jinnah, thereby accepting the principle of some kind of partition. In his letter to Cripps of 27 January 1946, Nehru mentioned the possibility of the division of Punjab and Bengal. In fact, they could not even make up their minds on whether or not to accord priority above all else to India’s unity or to consider non- violence a higher duty.
Resigning from governments in British provinces in 1939 and launching the Quit India movement in 1942 proved counterproductive. For Nehru to agree to include Muslim League ministers in the Interim Government in September 1946, before the League had entered the Constituent Assembly and agreed to stop ‘direct action’ or terrorism was another blunder. To prematurely declare in 1946 that India would become a republic, while engaged in delicate negotiations with the Attlee Government on a future settlement, was a mistake. By the end of 1946, they had been manoeuvred into such a corner that if Sardar Patel had not stepped forward ‘to have a limb amputated’, as he put it, and satisfy Britain that there was a danger of India’s fragmentation, as Britain searched for military bases in the bigger princely states by supporting their attempts to declare independence.
Protected by the British power for so long and then focused on a non-violent struggle, the Indian leaders were ill prepared, as independence dawned, to confront the power play in our predatory world. Their historic disinterest in other countries’ aims and motives made things none the easier. They had failed to see through the real British motivation for their support to the Pakistan scheme and take remedial measures. Nor did they understand that, at the end of the Raj, America wanted a free and united India to emerge and to find ways to work this powerful lever. Glaring mistakes were made in handling the Kashmir imbroglio.
The Mahatma who galvanized and united the heterogeneous Indian people in the 1920s with his mystical appeal that amazed the world, was of little help to his countrymen as they faced aggression, not from the British police, but from jihadi forces. Jinnah, though playing a weaker hand, had a better grasp of what the British were after and offered a realistic quid pro quo, threatening the use of violence to hammer home his demands.
The documents also bring out the anti-Congress Party and anti-Hindu sentiments of the British officers serving in the country even as they prepared to quit India. Most such officers, who stayed on after independence, went over to serve Pakistan and did their damnedest against India.
By courtesy: The Shadow of the Great Game by Narindra Singh Sarila