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BBC Partition Season: did India and Pakistan really need to split?

Mark Tully says Britain “divided and quit” India and Pakistan in 1947, leaving hundreds of thousands of people to die. 70 years on he asks, did partition have to happen?

Published: Wednesday, 9th August 2017 at 8:10 am

Partition was the inglorious end of British rule in India, the Raj, and the blood-stained birth of two new nations – Muslim Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. During the tortuous negotiation that led to partition, the then Viceroy, Lord Wavell, told the King Emperor, George VI, he was trying to hold a middle line between a “scuttle” and “repression”. Under the last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, the Raj did scuttle. As the distinguished Indian civil servant Penderel Moon put it, Britain “divided and quit”.


That is a harsh verdict and as a child of the Raj it gives me no pleasure to support it. I was born in India in 1935 and came to Britain in 1945. My family connections with India go back to 1842, and perhaps even earlier. But what else can be said about a government’s abdication of power that was followed by hundreds of thousands of people being killed and millions fleeing their homes? No one will ever know exactly how many Muslims were butchered in India and how many Sikhs and Hindus in Pakistan.

In her recent history of partition the British historian Yasmin Khan wrote, “The British Government’s most grievous failure was the shoddy way in which the plan [for partition] was implemented.” The situation had been allowed to get out of control before partition, with bloody riots in Calcutta in the east and the cities of Punjab in the west.

The force formed to curb the violence in the worst-affected province, Punjab, proved inadequate, because no one knew where the border between the new countries ran until after partition.

The enormous cost Indians and Pakistanis paid for their independence did not satisfy either of the men who led the new nations. Muhammad Ali Jinnah had complained that he would get a “maimed, mutilated, and moth-eaten Pakistan” if the provinces of Punjab and Bengal were divided. They were.

Jinnah also faced the problem of Pakistan having two wings separated by nearly 1,000 miles of Indian territory. He hoped that Islam would hold the two wings together, but language proved stronger than religion. Resentment against the imposition of Urdu as the sole national language sparked off a separatist movement in the Bengali-speaking east wing that culminated in the uprising of 1971, the war with India, the partition of Pakistan and the birth of the independent nation of Bangladesh.

Partition was also an unsatisfactory compromise for India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who had hoped the country would remain united.


Binita Kane is My Family, Partition and Me: India 1947

The most destructive legacy of partition is the continuing hostility between India and Pakistan, which has poisoned the atmosphere of the whole of South Asia and made it, according to the World Bank, “one of the least integrated regions of the world”.

The consequences for trade, communications and relationships between citizens have been dire. The status of Kashmir, the key issue between India and Pakistan, was unresolved by partition and remains unresolved today, with the Muslim-majority state divided between Indian and Pakistani-administered areas.

In 1972 I reported on the meeting between Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi and the mercurial Pakistani president Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the imperial summer capital of Shimla, high in the Himalayas, to resolve the issues arising from the Bangladesh war.

They included the fate of some 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war who had surrendered. I remember Bhutto holding a press conference to announce that the summit had failed. Then later that evening we were summoned again to be told that an agreement had been reached, evidence of the hard bargaining that went on.

India did release the prisoners of war. Bhutto assured Indira Gandhi he would persuade his people to recognise the line of control dividing the state as an international border. He did not, and for the next 22 years as the BBC’s Delhi correspondent I covered an endless series of India/Pakistan meetings that rarely got far beyond talks about talks.

Since then, living in Delhi as a freelance journalist, I have witnessed two periods when hopes were high only to see them dashed. At present the relations between the two countries are so bad that they are not on speaking terms.

So how do the citizens of South Asia see the outcome of partition? For Pakistanis it would, quite naturally, be considered anti-national to question the decision that created their country. They might well question the verdict of the British judge who drew its boundaries and most would say Pakistan remains incomplete without Kashmir. Bangladeshis are for the most part happy, because Bengali is now their national language and Islam their national religion.

Recently I travelled from the Indian border with Pakistan in the north to the city of Chennai in the south, finding out how Indians view partition today for my BBC World Service programme Children of Partition.

In Punjab, near the Pakistan border, I met elderly villagers who remembered fleeing from their homes to India. One told me his whole family was killed, but neither he nor his friends harboured any bitterness towards Muslims. They all wanted good relations to be established between India and Pakistan and spoke of pre-partition days when the different communities had lived in harmony.


Viceroy Lord Mountbatten at the partition conference with Jawaharlal Nehru (far left) 22 and Muhammad Ali Jinnah 

I found that tradition surviving in the nearby shrine of a Muslim saint being cared for by Sikhs and Christians because the Muslim families were all in Pakistan. In Delhi, a Sufi scholar also talked of India’s multifaith tradition, but now she said right-wing politicians were calling on Muslims to prove their loyalty to India.

The most vocal opponents of partition I met were Muslim weavers in a village some 320 miles east of Delhi. One said to me: “Partition was absolutely wrong. Muslims and Hindus were living together and I can’t understand how it happened.” Poor Muslims like the weavers are still victims of partition because their leaders migrated to Pakistan and have not been replaced.

Although the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party still hankers for the reunion of India, an MP, historian and influential BJP spokesman, Swapan Dasgupta, believed partition had made India “happier and more manageable”.

Sachin Pilot, a leader of Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi’s Congress party, told me that he didn’t believe the entire Muslim population could have been accommodated in a united India. It would probably have been harder to manage an India with large Muslim-majority areas on its borders.

A loose federation, which was the only alternative to partition on offer, might well have broken into many pieces. Anyhow, no one I met in India thought there could be any going back. But perhaps those north Indian Muslim weavers were right in saying it needn’t have happened if the tradition of Hindus and Muslims respecting each other had not been swamped by rampant religious nationalism.

In Kashmir today, Pakistani and Indian politicians are provoking nationalism instead of promoting peace. The armies of the two nuclear nations are firing at each other across the line dividing the state.

India accuses Pakistan of provoking unrest and sponsoring terrorism. Pakistan denies the terrorism charge and blames the unrest on the Indian security forces’ repression.

The casualties mount relentlessly. The legacy of partition lives on.


My Family, Partition and Me: India 1947 is on 9pm Wednesday, BBC1


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