The Bitter Legacy of Partition

The human cost of Partition is a tragedy that defines the relationship between India and Pakistan today.
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The Bitter Legacy of Partition

In 2008 I was commanding British and allied troops in South-East Iraq. We had been withdrawn from Basrah city the previous summer and were now based at the airport in insufficient numbers to do much more than protect ourselves. None of us were quite sure why we were still there and when we asked London we were told that our job was simply to stay put less the American effort should be weakened politically, if not practically, should we withdraw. It was a strange strategy which failed to convince many, least of all the Iraqis. British soldiers are at their best in such awkward situations but even their patience was tried by being essentially restricted to guarding a perimeter while being subject to periodic rocket attacks.

What made this more irritating was being constantly told by the Basrawis that our forebears in the British Indian army would have behaved very differently. You cannot escape the legacy of the old British India in Basrah. The Basrawis took a particular delight in pointing out what a wonderful organisation it had been and how our grandfathers had bridged the Shatt al Arab waterway and built the botanical gardens. We were, they intimated, somewhat unworthy heirs to that great tradition. Naturally we didn’t necessarily agree but we had been reared on their exploits – the modern British army is more like the old Indian Army than the old British army – and we compared ourselves to them unfavourably. Yet the deeper we looked the more we began to see cracks in the Raj. The British Indian army had undoubtedly been a most impressive, if surprisingly delicate, machine, yet the much-vaunted administration of the Raj did not seem to have achieved that much. The average Indian had the same standard of living in 1947 as when the Mughal Emperor Akbar died in 1605, just after the East India Company was founded. Was what we were experiencing in Basrah actually just a repeat, albeit on a tiny scale, of the same old British pattern of being unable to leave when it was in everyone’s best interests for us to do so? We seemed to have improved the life of the Basrawis remarkably little in the 5 years we had been there; in 2008 there was still no functioning sewage system and very little power. More seriously, had our inability to leave India when we should have done, and had encouraged the Indians to expect that we would, led to the disasters of 1947, to partition, the division of Kashmir and to two nuclear armed nations who both spend on their armed forces large amounts of money that they desperately need for development?

Jawaharlal Nehru

It is important to appreciate that the events of 1947 were a disaster despite various attempts to portray them otherwise. Nobody wanted partition. Jinnah did not necessarily see Pakistan as a geographical entity. His vision was more a federated India with Muslims and Hindus sharing power, something he thought feasible based on the British government’s 1939 Palestine White Paper which optimistically envisaged a majority and a minority community working together. Congress on the other hand would not entertain any plan that saw the power of the centre reduced. India was already, they knew, fragile as a nation, and had only been held together by the Raj’s monopoly of force, of communications and of finance. As the Raj began to weaken, and by 1947 it was very weak indeed, the reality of what an India without firm government might become was bloodily apparent in the riots in Calcutta and Lahore. Besides which they could not work with Jinnah, although he had been instrumental in the early days of the Congress movement. Whereas Nehru saw Congress as a pan national party that appealed to all Indians regardless of religion, and to be fair to him there was a Congress Assembly in the fiercely Muslim North-West Frontier Province, Jinnah and the majority of Muslims saw them as a threat.

Yet by 1947 partition was probably inevitable. Congress saw no other way of getting rid of the Brits. Their leadership was getting old. Gandhi was 78 and Vallabhbhai Patel 72; Nehru was admittedly only 58 but had spent long years in prison and had lost his wife. They now just wanted to get on with governing while they still had a country left to govern and yet the Brits were still there. Partition was the only way of dealing with Jinnah and they saw it as a temporary measure. They did not think Pakistan was viable and predicted that it would soon be reunited with the mother country. The arrangements made after the announcement on 3rd June that India would become independent and Pakistan would be created that August certainly indicated a close working relationship with a joint defence structure and, at that stage, Mountbatten as a joint Governor General of two dominions in the Commonwealth. The concept was for two nations who would work much as England and Scotland, separate identities but united by shared strategic and economic interests.

That it all went so badly wrong is one of the tragedies of the last century. The violence during 1946 and early 1947 was surely an indication of how deep ran the mistrust between the Hindu/Sikh and Muslim communities in the Punjab and in Bengal, the two provinces that would be divided by the Boundary Commission. Sir Evan Jenkins, governor of the Punjab and one of the greats of the Indian Civil Service, had been warning Delhi since March that it would require four Army divisions (about 100,000 men) to police his province in the event of partition, the Punjab police by then being a broken and discredited force. But no plan was made to provide such a force despite the half million Indian Army being one of the few government institutions which was still functioning; nor were the 100,000 odd British and Gurkha troops used. A quite extraordinary order from the Labour government in London in fact specifically forbade British troops being used to protect Indian life. A token force was put together by late July but it was just 17,000 men, just one soldier for each of the Punjab villages that would be affected. No attempt was made to use the Indian Air Force and the soldiers who were deployed were locally recruited so were not exactly impartial when they saw their communities affected. By early September it had been disbanded.

The result was that between August and October over one million Punjabis lost their lives as Muslims fled the Sikh and Hindu gangs in the eastern Punjab and Hindus and Sikhs fled west Punjab for the safety of India. It was a tragedy made so much worse as neighbour turned against neighbour; communities who had lived together for centuries were butchered by people with whom they had been at school, played, worked and lived. In Bengal, by contrast, there was very little violence. There were several reasons for this, not least that Curzon’s previous partition made the Boundary Commission’s job easier as they had better records to work with. It was also because the local commander, General Sir Francis Tuker, ignored his orders and deployed troops into Calcutta. In the years ahead the partition of Bengal and the eventual birth of Bangladesh would prove as traumatic and bitter as the Punjab but at least 1947 passed with much less loss of life.

The massacres of that sad summer created a bitter distrust between the two new nations but it could possibly have been overcome had it not been for what happened in Kashmir. The Raj only directly ruled two thirds of India. The remaining third, together with 100 million people, was still ruled by hereditary princes who had entered into separate treaties with the British government. There were 562 of these ‘Maharajahs’. Some ruled what were little more than large estates while others, such as Hyderabad, was the size of Italy. A few were corrupt despots but many were conscientious and popular rulers like Travancore which had a model education system and Jodhpur, which had managed to avoid the terrible famine of 1942-44 despite being a largely desert state. The princes now maintained, with some logic, that as they represented independent states, they should decide on their own future. Both Hyderabad and Travancore argued that they should be allowed to choose independence, the latter pointing out that its population was larger than Australia’s and London had already granted the Australians independence.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah

Congress, already sensitive to the partial disintegration of India, would have none of it and the princes were given the choice of opting to join either India or Pakistan. In the event geography dictated that the vast majority became part of India. Kashmir, however, presented a challenge. A largely Muslim state that would be on the border of the two nations, it was ruled by a weak Hindu maharajah. He vacillated, encouraged by Nehru, a Kashmiri who thought of Kashmir as possessing India’s soul, between joining India, which would be more convenient for his dynasty, or obeying the diktats of both physical and human geography by acceding to Pakistan. He still had not decided when in mid-October Muslim tribesmen from the North-West moved into western Kashmir. He panicked, signed up for India and Nehru deployed troops to protect his capital in Srinagar. The eventual ceasefire line is even today policed by the United Nations.

The Kashmir dispute has come to encapsulate relations between India and Pakistan. It should have been sorted prior to the declaration of independence and the creation of Pakistan in mid-August but it wasn’t. The two other princely states that held out, Junagadh and Hyderabad, were both taken over fairly painlessly by India. Coming on top of the terrible slaughter in the Punjab, and the 15 million people who found themselves homeless, relations between Karachi and Delhi sank to a low from which they have never really recovered. 75 years on, far from two nations sharing common institutions and interests, we have two nuclear armed powers who have fought three major wars and continue a mutual counter insurgency conflict on their borders.

We were still in Basrah five years after we had supposedly participated in an operation to overthrow Saddam Hussein. We were still in India 350 or so years after we had gone there to trade and when the perceived needs of empire had long overtaken pure commercial interest. It is hard now to find any benefits from how we finally left. Pakistan is a proud nation but few Pakistanis would maintain that the last 75 years have been a struggle and the breakup of Pakistan and Bangladesh was bitter. 15 million people lost the homes they had enjoyed for centuries. Although arguably it led to a wave of immigration to the UK from which our society has benefitted enormously, we should be aware that most of those who came only did so because they had been uprooted, usually in harrowing and bloody circumstances. Whatever the Basrawis may have thought, we do seem to repeat a pattern. We have been quite quick to intervene but we are not very good at leaving.

Barney White-Spunner commanded British and allied troops in Southern Iraq in 2008. He is the author of the international bestselling Partition: The Story of Indian Independence and the Creation of Pakistan in 1947.

The Bitter Legacy of Partition