Divide and Rule: A little-known chapter of history

Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah, the three key players, were all anglicised lawyers who studied in London and were called to the bar. Nehru was the most charismatic, articulate and, in addition, was a brilliant writer. Jinnah was a secularist rationalist with brilliant academic mind but lacked charisma. Gandhi shed western garb and tried to bring spiritual regeneration to politics which Jinnah thought was hogwash.


by Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

( September 9, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) That perception is dictated by perspective is well illustrated when one attempts to analyse the partition of India, with the aftermath affecting world politics even today, after seventy years. From a humanitarian perspective, there is no doubt, whatsoever, that it was the ‘Biggest British Blunder’ as I argued in my article appearing in SATmag of 19th August. However, from a political perspective, where ordinary lives do not matter, it can be argued that it is an unqualified success: the best ever of the divide and rule policy, which the British employed so successfully, in building and maintaining their vast empire. To this day, the effects of that policy have been felt in Sri Lanka and, to a large extent, it is the historical divisions that led to mistrust which is preventing true reconciliation. Can we learn lessons by studying the tangled web of politics that led to the partition of India? I am sure we can pick threads of relevance to us, today.

Etched in the memories of most of us is the ‘sanitized’ version, related beautifully in cinematography by Richard Attenborough in his multi-award-winning film ‘Gandhi’, released in 1982. It won eight Oscars, including the Best Film & the Best Director accolade for Attenborough and elevated Gandhi to Sainthood, without any critical appraisal of the part he played together with the two other key players, Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammed Ali Jinnah. Stories abound, including the one that says Nehru offered Jinnah to be the first Prime Minister of a united independent India, which Jinnah is supposed to have refused. All these aroused my curiosity to find the truth.

The most enlightening of all the programmes, which are many, broadcast by the British media to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of Indian Independence was the BBC programme, “India’s Partition: The forgotten Story” by Gurinder Chadha, a well-known British film director of Indian origin, who has made entertaining and educative films depicting the lives of Asians in Britain. “Bend it like Beckham”, which hilariously depicts the exploits of a daughter of orthodox Sikhs who rebels against her parents’ traditionalism by joining a football team, won the Best Comedy Film award at the British Comedy Festival 2002. “Bhaji on the Beach” depicts the clash of generations through a bus trip, undertaken by a group of Indian women of different ages, from Birmingham to Blackpool Illuminations. Interestingly, one of the lead roles was played by Kim Vithana, an actress of Sri Lankan origin.

Gurinder Chadha weaves an interesting tale, with the experiences of her own family, horrible events recounted by those who experienced them, interspersed with comments from expert historians like William Dalrymple, co-director of Annual Jaipur Literature festival, Yasmin Khan of Oxford University and Dr Shashi Taroor, a member of the Indian Parliament. Very good research by Debroshi Chakraborty enhanced the documentary.

Chadha’s Sikh family lived in Rawalpindi but had to get out hurriedly from Pakistan, no sooner had the line of partition been announced, as previously friendly neighbours turned on each other. Her mother and two sisters had to wait three nights in a train, starving, till the youngest succumbed probably to dehydration. Her mother recounts how they co-existed with Hindus and Muslims, not as friends but like brothers and sisters, till politicians made them kill each other and remarks, “History is written in blood not gold or silver.” The same sentiment is repeated by many others of different faiths. Chadha questions: “Why did this happen and the answer depends on who tells it. There are major discrepancies. Was it religious intolerance or something else?”

Surprisingly, the idea of a Pakistan was born not in India but in a leafy suburb of Cambridge. Britain seems to be the birthplace of many a revolutionary idea; after all, Marxism was born in Manchester, a fact many a Marxist is unaware of! It was in 1933, in a small house in Humberstone Road. Chowdry Rahmat Ali, a mature Bengali student doing his second law degree, wrote and published a pamphlet titled “Now or never: Are we to live or perish forever”. It is claimed in some quarters that he coined the term “Pakistan”, the Land of the Pure, on the top of a London bus; P for Punjab, A for Afghania (North-West Frontier), K for Kashmir, S for Sindh and STAN for Baluchistan. But his views did not gather momentum till much later.

Shahsi Tharoor is of the view that partition was a conscious decision by the British to weaken Indians, who were united to gain independence. British increased educational institutions for Muslims and electorates were created where only Muslims could vote, something unprecedented. He quips sarcastically: “Did British allow only Jews to vote in Golder’s Green?”

Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah, the three key players, were all anglicised lawyers who studied in London and were called to the bar. Nehru was the most charismatic, articulate and, in addition, was a brilliant writer. Jinnah was a secularist rationalist with brilliant academic mind but lacked charisma. Gandhi shed western garb and tried to bring spiritual regeneration to politics which Jinnah thought was hogwash. Gandhi and Nehru got on well together but both did not like Jinnah. Jinnah became increasingly suspicious of Gandhi’s prayer sessions at Congress meetings.

One of the key turning points was the 1937 elections for provincial governments, held in anticipation of the transfer of power, which resulted in a landslide victory for the Congress. Though the Muslim League did very badly, Jinnah expected the Congress to honour the power sharing agreement reached in advance. Unfortunately, the Congress disregarded this leading to bitter irreconcilable differences.

Then comes the Second World War for which Britain needs soldiers; Congress refuses to corporate and their leaders are thrown into jail. Jinnah seizes the opportunity and supports war effort winning the hearts of the British establishment. His powerful speech in Lahore in 1940, demanding a homeland lets the genie out of the bottle, leading to mutual boycotts and subsequent mayhem.

As soon as the war was over, in June 1945, Viceroy Wavell summoned all leaders to a conference in Shimla to decide on the future for India. Jinnah became adamant, argumentative and uncooperative with the claim that he was the sole representative of the Muslim people, undermining the communal unity of the Congress. Perhaps, this was a canny move, as Muslims gradually started considering him the ‘undisputed leader’

Just a month later, in spite of Churchill’s heroic war efforts, Labour won the election with a landslide and the incoming Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, sympathetic towards ‘Free India’ movement, wanted to get out of India and announces elections to the national government. Jinnah’s battle cry was “a Vote for Pakistan is a vote for Islam” and politicians of all sides used religious identity for voters to turn on each other. In March 1946, Attlee sent a Cabinet Mission to plan for an independent India. The plan was a free dominion with a federal structure. Each area had almost complete power except defence and foreign affairs which were to be controlled by the centre. Unexpectedly, Jinnah accepted it while the Congress rejected it. Nehru thought it would lead to balkanisation and, with hindsight, we can appreciate Nehru’s position.

The Direct-Action Day, 16th August 1946, called for by the Muslim League to demonstrate to the British Raj as well as the Congress Party, the strength of feeling of Muslims was a turning point and a precursor to the massive massacres that followed. After a meeting in Maidan park in the heart of Calcutta, Muslim mobs attacked Hindus triggering retaliatory violence. Killings continued for three days, costing more than 3,000 innocent lives, all in the name of religion! Most historians believe violence was so severe with communal hysteria because it was declared a holy war. What is holy about wars?

The British Governor could have intervened to prevent a bloodbath. Was the carnage allowed to happen? Whatever it may be, PM Atlee was appalled and called a conference in Downing Street but no consensus could be reached. Therefore, Nehru returned home immediately but Jinnah stayed behind for two weeks, a strategic move. He met important members of the ‘British Establishment’ including Churchill, the most important member. He met the King and Queen, too, and claimed that they were in favour of Pakistan, an unverifiable claim.

Churchill was known for his support for the creation of Pakistan and had a negative attitude towards India. He is supposed to have said: “I hate Indians. They are beastly people with a beastly religion”. But, his perception of Muslims was totally different: ‘They are like us’, he said because they believed in one God.

On 7th December 1948, Churchill met Jinnah at Chartwell, his country house. What they discussed over lunch is not known but could be easily guessed from a letter he sent to Jinnah; it is now in the British Library. It states: “My dear Mr Jinnah, I would greatly like to accept your invitation to luncheon on December 12th. However, it is best for us not to be associated publicly at this juncture. I greatly valued our talk the other day and enclose the address to which you may wish to send me any telegrams, sent without attracting any attention in India.” A covert operation, indeed!

Another valuable document in the British library is a document designated “Most secret” addressed to Churchill by military chiefs in May 1945. They had expressed concern that Russia would spread its influence over India endangering the security of South Asia. They wanted a strategic reserve in India, centrally placed, one suggestion being that Baluchistan be not included in the dominion. Nehru and Gandhi did not realise this but Jinnah did and acceded to the wishes of the ‘Establishment’ to get Pakistan. During the ‘Cold War’ Pakistan was an ally of the west as Churchill envisaged.

What would Churchill say about Pakistan today if he was alive today? More importantly, one may wonder how Pakistan is feeling about the West, especially the US. Having used them when needed, the US is now more interested in forging relations with India, dropping Pakistan like a hot brick!

They say we need to learn lessons from history, but do we?

Whatever that may be, I am sure no sensible person would disagree with Gurinder Chadha’s concluding remarks: “Although religion and culture are important in defining who we are, that does not mean they need to divide us. Rather, they should enrich us.”

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

Sri Lanka Guardian has been providing breaking news & views for the progressive community since 2007. We are independent and non-profit.

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