Useful Notes / The Partition of India

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The Worst Journey In The World

"Too loud for hope, too silent for victory."
S.S. Kantha, Synechdoche.

Every time the train stopped at a station, we would all hold our breath, making sure not a single sound drifted out of the closed windows. We were hungry and our throats parched. From inside the train we heard voices travelling up and down the platform, saying, “Hindu paani”note  and, from the other side, “Muslim paani."note  Apart from land and population, even the water had now been divided.
-A. Malhotra, Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory

The Partition of British India, simply called Partition or the Partition Era, refers to the splitting of India by the colonial authorities on the eve of the subcontinent's breaking away from British rule. More importantly, it refers to the various humanitarian, societal, economic, political, and criminal crises that arose from the rushed manner the British had carried it out. This event also created a great deal of the initial vitriol between India and Pakistan, which was made much, much worse later by The Kashmir Question, which itself was a direct consequence of this event.

It's really saying something that in the Indian Subcontinent, almost nobody uses the term "Post-Independence" to refer to the timeline of events after 1947. Instead, the term used is "Post-Partition".

Generally used as a backdrop in a great deal of Indian and Pakistani literature and media due to its tragic and dramatic nature. And it must be said that in most cases, they're radically toning down the actual tragedy, because the full-up presentation is way, way worse than any single work can actually encompass.

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    Prelude - The First Round Table Conference 

"As long as we rule India, we are the greatest power in the world. If we lose it, we shall drop straight away to a third-rate Power."
- George Curzon, Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905

It must be said that up until 1939, most people weren't taking the idea of partition seriously. It had existed as something of a speculative concept among the Muslim Elites for quite some time, but the bulk of the subcontinent's population regarded it as fundamentally absurd and wanted nothing to do with it, even Muslims themselves, who saw themselves as fundamentally Indian first and everything else next.

In addition, as detailed on the The Raj page, the British never controlled more than two-thirds of the subcontinent. Most of what remained was split up between hundreds of small kingdoms who owed fealty to the British Empire (think the Holy Roman Empire and All the Little Germanies, In India!), collectively known as the Princely States. The Big Four were Kashmir (modern day Jammu and Kashmir), Hyderabad (modern day Telangana), Junagadh (modern day Gujarat) and Travancore (modern day Kerala). They all contributed heavily to the British Government in exchange for being more or less autonomous within their own borders, and generally being left alone to do their own thing.

All of this changed with the Round Table Conferences held from the 1930s onward.

The First Conference was held in November 1930, and was called by Ramsay Mac Donald in the Royal Gallery at the House of Lords in London. The main reason the British even agreed to it was that by that point, India was quickly becoming ungovernable, with the locals not at all happy about being denied representation, equal rights and generally being kicked around and exploited mercilessly by the Empire. A number of high-profile assassinations, militant activity and small-scale insurgencies were making things explosive, and the high-handedness of the Imperial Police wasn't helping matters in the slightest. Also, MacDonald (and by extension, most of the Labour Party at the time) was far more favourable to giving the colonies some form of self-government, and he figured that he might be able to hammer out a way to ensure the British had their cake and ate it too, while giving the Indians something for the trouble.

Needless to say, it didn't work out. At All.

The British had about 16 representatives at the First Conference, the Indians had about 58 from the British Provinces and 16 from the Princely States. However, most of the Indian delegates weren't leading figures or politicians, but mostly just low-level representatives - for the simple and unsurprising reason that most of India's political leadership at that time was rotting in jail due to the Civil Disobedience Movement of the 1930s orchestrated by Mahatma Gandhi.

To say that it was heavily lopsided in favour of the Princely States and the British is to put it mildly. However, some moves forward were made, such as the planning for the setup of a Federal Structure, Provincial Constitutions, Defence Services and all the other factors that go into the development of a Dominion State. The initial plan was that India would eventually turn out like Canada or Australia, with a British Governor-General and a more-or-less local government to run things. So far, so good. Then some bright spark asked about how the Princely States would figure into this calculation. The British suggested that it be built like a federation, with a relatively weak centre and relatively strong provinces. The Princely States agreed tentatively, with the condition being that they got to rule their own internal affairs with minimal interference from the Central Government. The Muslim League (the only ones actually backing the two-nation theory) also agreed to this, figuring that they could create smaller, exclusive Islamic Enclaves which they could then rule as they deemed fit.

Naturally, all hell broke loose back in India when the news got out. The people, and damn near every other party than the Muslim League, threw out the recommendations and demanded a full re-organisation and internal redistricting, with a strong centre and weak states. This demand the Princely States deemed unacceptable, understandably enough, but they engendered very little sympathy from the public, if any at all. This antipathy towards the Princely States was largely because they were seen as a gang of Sell-Out Lords, who'd compromised their independence for money, so no Indian who wanted self-rule was going to tolerate them. The bitter memory of 1857 also haunted people's minds, when the ancestors of these Lords had fought each other instead of the East India Company, resulting in them getting stomped flat by the British later.

Suffice to say, things went downhill after that, and the Conference ended without much getting done other than agreeing that some form of self-government had to be put in. The Princely States and the League pulling those stunts sowed the seeds of mistrust between them and every other Indian political outfit. And that, for all practical purposes, is where the problems began.

     Let's try that again? The Second Round Table Conference 

"Religions are different roads converging to the same point. What does it matter that we take different roads, so long as we reach the same goal. Wherein is the cause for quarreling?"
- Mahatma Gandhi

The Second Conference was held in September 1931. There were quite a few differences this time around. To begin with, Gandhi and the then Viceroy of India, Lord Irwin, had come to an agreement that the Indian National Congress (at that time, India's leading political party) had to get some representation, and Gandhi agreed to be their delegate. Also, Labour had lost the elections, and the new government was a Conservative coalition, who were a lot less sanguine about the prospects of giving "those filthy darkies" any form of representative government at all. They caved anyway since to not do so would only make matters worse.

The composition was more or less similar to the last time, but with fewer representatives from the Princely States, and Gandhi pretty much dominating the scene, along with a number of other prominent political leaders. It was even more of a mess than the first one. Gandhi outright declared that the Congress was the party of All Indians, that the Untouchables (historically the lowest of the low in India's caste system - think the Burakumin in Japan) were Hindu and shouldn't be discriminated against (something the Untouchables themselves were kind of split on - which would have consequences down the line that India is still grappling with) and that the idea of a weak Centre with such a diverse populace (culturally and confessionally) was ridiculous. He (and by extension, the Congress and most of India's political parties) outright threw out the scheme of separate electorates and special safeguards for minorities.

Needless to say, the British rejected all of Gandhi's proposals out of hand, as did the Princely States and the Muslim League. The representatives of the Untouchables, B.R. Ambedkar, also refused, citing that they would always be seen as second-class citizens no matter what, since he believed that the prejudice against them was too deeply ingrained into India's fabric to be fully cleansed. The actual merit of that position is Flame Bait incarnate in India even to this day - suffice to say, do not bring it up in polite company. We mean it.

At the end of it, the talks effectively ended with the British agreeing to create a system of Communal Awards (as a compromise solution) to the problem of minority representation, with the provision that any free agreement between the parties could be substituted for this award. Other than that, it was nothing but a total deadlock. The failure of talks further polarised the political landscape, and all the parties began bitterly issuing recriminations against each other, with the Muslim League sticking out as the main villains for sabotaging the talks (not without good reason - they basically obstructed proceedings along with the Princely States in the Conference, leaving Gandhi and the British frustrated).

The first incidents of sectarian violence began to break out roughly around this time, as the goon squads of all the major parties began to duke it out. However, it was quelled relatively quickly. This time.

     Third time's the Charm? The Third Round Table Conference 

"A machine with no engine and all brakes."
- Jawaharlal Nehru, on the Government of India Act of 1935.

With the situation rapidly deteriorating, the British called a third conference in November 1932 to try and talk it out. None of the major Indian political parties attended, believing it was no use. And within Britain, Labour pretty much sat it out, calling it an exercise in futility - and being in the Opposition at that time probably contributed to their antipathy as well. Which meant that it was again mostly delegates who were pushovers or British officials.

About the only thing that was decided was that the Communal Awards would be kept and that elections would be held in 1937. This was the precursor to the Government of India Act of 1935, which implemented most of the proposals from the First and Second Round table Conferences, with a few concessions to all sides to sweeten the deal.

However, the whole thing was riddled with "safeguards" - which was a polite euphemism for saying that the Viceroy had the final say on what would happen and what wouldn't, as opposed to the will of the elected representatives. It was effectively just window-dressing, and made it clear to anyone with a brain that the British had no intention whatsoever of relinquishing power over India and it's peoples. Despite the provisions guaranteeing equality with British laws and customs, as well as equal treatment for Indians on par with the British, there were a hundred ways to undermine those provisions - all at the behest of the Viceroy, of course.

Naturally, people were pretty annoyed about it, but the Conservative government in London was unwilling to compromise and basically gave the Indians an ultimatum of take-it-or-leave-it. At that point, the politicians in India conceded, not without grumbling, and agreed to accept the bill, as well as contest the elections which were scheduled for 1937. Jawaharlal Nehru (who would go on to become India's first Prime Minster) called it "A Machine with no engine and all Brakes."

Unfortunately for everyone involved, he was to be proven right.

     Elections, World War Two and Armies, Oh My! 

"I wish the Musalmans all over India to observe Friday 22 December as the "Day of Deliverance" and thanksgiving as a mark of relief that the Congress regime has at last ceased to function."
- Muhammad Ali Jinnah, on the resignation of the Congress Governments on the outbreak of World War II.

The government held the first Provincial Elections from December 1936 to February 1937 in eleven Provinces. The frontier provinces were excluded, since it was full of nothing but warring tribals and border problems with the Afghans, and the British saw no reaosn to give them any ideas. Roughly 30 Million people had acquired the right to vote, of which 15.1 Million actually did. While an extremely restricted franchise, even the political leaders of the time admitted it was better than nothing at all. But the real jolts were to come once the results were released.

The Indian National Congress ended up forming the governments in nine provinces, with the Unionist Party (a Sikh representative group) winning the other two provinces. The Muslims League, to its humiliation, failed to win even a single province and ended up with just a little over a hundred seats. Even worse for them, they failed to do well even in areas that were historically Muslim plurality, with the message coming loud and clear that the locals just weren't interested in the Two-Nation theory at all. The only places they won seats at all were in areas that had a minority of Muslims, and where they could play on the fears of being dominated. But the bigger take-away was that the electorate in general, didn't care about such esoteric points, and cared more about local issues than anything else. It also showed the League a very uncomfortable truth - that it's members were generally seen as Aristocrats and Elites, out of touch with the man on the street.

To say that the Muslim League took the results badly is to put it mildly. They desperately attempted to form some sort of coalition government with the Indian National Congress, citing the Communal Awards and asking them to not nominate any Muslims or minorities except those put forward by the League. The Congress flat out refused to even consider it, since they figured (correctly) that the League was in no position to make demands, and that as the winners of the popular mandate, they could appoint who they damn well pleased.

Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, went into a year-long Heroic B.S.O.D., as did most of the League, being forced to sit in the opposition. Unfortunately for everyone, they drew exactly the wrong lessons out of all of this, and came to the conclusion that the only reason they'd lost was because the majority played spoilsport with them, and the only way to ensure "true justice" for Muslims was for them to have not their own state, but their own country. This was the point where the two-nation theory became an inevitability, and set the subcontinent down the path it eventually went.

A fresh wave of sectarian violence broke out some time after the polls, and it was a lot more difficult to crush it out this time around. Few people paid attention.

The elected ministries did try their best to administer their Provinces under the rules of the Government of India Act, but found most of their work being stymied by the Viceroy, Lord Irwin and later Lord Linlithgow, exactly as everyone had feared. The final straw was in 1939, when Viceroy Linlithgow pledged to provide all support to the British Government in London on the outbreak of hostilities with Nazi Germany, without even bothering to consult the elected officials of the people he was supposedly representing.

The Provinces, understandably upset, agreed to cooperate with the Viceroy only on the condition that Dominion Status or Total Independence was guaranteed after the War was brought to a conclusion. The British Government naturally refused to issue any such assurance. Jinnah, sensing the opportunity to get back at the Congress for denying him power, offered his full and unconditional support to the Britihs Government, and called upon all Muslims to do the same.

The Congress Ministries resigned en-masse, with their governments being dissolved. To further spite the Congress, Jinnah declared the day of the resignations as "The Day of Deliverance" and the British, annoyed at the Congress, gave him full backing.

In practice, nothing much changed. Both Muslims and Hindus stepped up as volunteers to the British Indian Army, since there already had been a long martial tradition throughout the subcontinent. Kipling's Finest had all the volunteers it would ever need.

But the optics of the move were horrible. What had been nothing more than a political protest had turned into a sectarian issue thanks to British policy and the League's behaviour. Unsurprisingly, the Indians regarded the League as The Quisling, siding with their hated oppressors instead of standing by their own countrymen for the cause of Freedom. And the fact that it claimed to speak for all Muslims - despite it being blatantly obvious it wasn't - fuelled sectarian violence across the subcontinent. The fact that the optics of the move made it look like more Muslims were joining the Army than Hindus (in reality, it was the other way round) made the situation even worse, with the Muslim Community feeling that they were taking the bulk of the responsibility for fighting, while the Hindus and everyone else were sitting it out.

Things only went downhill from that point onward.

     Wartime Moves and Perfidious Albion 

"A post-dated check drawn on a crashing bank."
- Mahatma Gandhi, on the Cripps Mission.

In 1940 in Lahore, the Muslim League put out a resolution where it affirmed it's backing for the Two-Nation Theory. Jinnah claimed that Muslims and Hindus were irreconcilably different, and that they would never coexist in peace unless they had their own separate nations. This resolution was known as the Pakistan Resolution, and demanded that the Muslim plurality provinces of Bengal, Sindh, Punjab and the Frontier be granted to the League as a separate nation. The hidden implication within the resolution was also that any other area with a Muslim plurality should join them too - this would become an explosive point later on.

It was only at this point that Lord Linlithgow, the Viceroy, realised that the situation had deteriorated too far. He offered to guarantee Dominion Status to India from the British Government. Having not taken the Pakistan idea seriously, Linlithgow supposed that what Jinnah actually wanted was a non-federal arrangement without Hindu domination. To allay Muslim fears of Hindu domination the 'August offer' of 1940 was accompanied with the promise that a future constitution would take the views of minorities into consideration. Unfortunately for him, by that point both the Congress and the League, irreconcilably opposed to each other and the British, told him to get stuffed and called the proposals too little, too late. Both sides demanded Purna Swaraj - Total Independence. Which meant no British overlordship, not even in name, not even as a face-saving gesture, nothing at all. Occupiers out of Our Country was now the only thing both sides agreed on.

The Congress started off a second round of Civil Disobedience, the height of it being the "Quit India Movement" in 1942. The objective of the movement was pretty much self-explanatory. Unfortunately for them, the man in charge of Downing Street was one Winston Churchill, and being the hardline Imperialist that he was, was willing to brook no defiance from anyone, least of all people he considered his racial inferiors. With the Japanese moving up Malaya and the Fall of Singapore, the prospect of losing India was simply too much for the British, and the movement was ruthlessly suppressed, with Martial Law being declared across India, and hundreds of thousands of people being jailed or outright shot out of hand. A combination of malicious neglect and incompetence also resulted in a famine in Bengal, historically a breadbasket of the north, which made an already horrible situation even worse. Sectarian violence flared up and was aggravated by all of this, resulting in increasing political, social and religious polarization that would have devastating consequences down the line.

In late 1942, Sir Stafford Cripps was sent to negotiate with the Congress for supporting the Empire in the War in exchange for Dominion status after the War ended. The only reason Winnie was even willing to try was because The United States began piling on diplomatic pressure on the British to end their domination of India, and Roosevelt was adamant that the British decolonise. However, desperate to not lose the alliance they'd already made with the Muslim League, the Cripps Mission included a clause that said that no part of the British Indian Empire would be forced to join the post-war Dominion.

Needless to say, the Cripps Mission was doomed to fail from the start, and that's exactly what happened. The League threw out the idea, saying that it was not addressing their Pakistan Resolution and the Congress, with most of it's members in jail and adamant about a unified India, also rejected every single proposal, sticking to their "''Purna Swaraj'' or Bust" platform. The end result was the Congress, effectively immobilized by being in jail until August 1945, could do nothing to stop the violence flaring up across India, which the League kept fanning, with sectarian clashes becoming commonplace as the League's supporters clashed with other right wing groups, further deepening the polarization across the subcontinent.

Needless to say, the British soon began seeing the League as Unwanted Assistance, as did every other political outfit. This With Us or Against Us mentality would persist, and would go on to be the last step along a bloody path that had been in the making for the past decade.

     Post War Moves and the Road to Partition 

"India is a continent of human groups belonging to different races, speaking different languages, and professing different religions [...] Personally, I would like to see the Punjab, North-West Frontier Province, Sindh and Baluchistan amalgamated into a single State. Self-government within the British Empire, or without the British Empire, the formation of a consolidated North-West Indian Muslim State appears to me to be the final destiny of the Muslims, at least of North-West India."
- Mohammed Iqbal, on the concept of Pakistan.

By late 1945, the situation in the subcontinent had deteriorated to the point that the British were just barely hanging on. Exhausted by the War and unable and unwilling to continue, the government under Clement Attlee figured they may as well just give in, and ensure an orderly exit from the subcontinent.

Despite this, in 1946 there were a series of mutinies of Indian Armed Forces across the subcontinent, the worst being that of the Royal Indian Navy in February 1946 at Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and Karachi. While all the uprisings were suppressed due to the main political parties playing truant as they were afraid of a strong military undermining them post-Independence, the British ultimately saw it as the point of no return. The weekly intelligence summary issued on 25 March 1946 admitted that the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force units were no longer trustworthy, and, as far as the Army was concerned, "only day to day estimates of steadiness could be made".

In early 1946, new elections were held in India. With the announcement of the elections the line had been drawn for Muslim voters to choose between a united Indian state or Partition. Earlier, at the end of the war in 1945, the colonial government had announced the public trial of three senior officers of Subhash Chandra Bose's defeated Indian National Army who stood accused of treason. Now as the trials began, the Congress leadership, although it had never supported the INA, chose to defend the accused officers. The subsequent convictions of the officers, the public outcry against the convictions, and the eventual remission of the sentences created positive propaganda for the Congress, which enabled it to win the party's subsequent electoral victories in eight of the eleven provinces.

The negotiations between the Congress and the Muslim League, however, stumbled over the issue of the Partition.

British rule had lost its legitimacy for most Hindus and conclusive proof of this came in the form of the 1946 elections with the Congress winning 91 percent of the vote among non-Muslim constituencies, thereby gaining a majority in the Central Legislature and forming governments in eight provinces, and becoming the legitimate successor to the British government for most Hindus. Had the British intended to stay in India, the acquiescence of the Indians to British rule would have been in some serious doubt after those election results.

The Muslim League won the majority of the Muslim vote as well as most of the reserved Muslim seats in the provincial assemblies, and it also secured all the Muslim seats in the Central Assembly. It was finally able to make good on the claim that it and Jinnah alone represented India's Muslims - and Jinnah quickly interpreted this vote as a popular demand for a separate homeland.

The British were desperate at this point, and came up with the Cabinet Mission. Through this mission, Britain hoped to preserve the united India which they and the Congress desired, while concurrently securing the essence of Jinnah's demand for a Pakistan through 'groupings' - what that term meant was never made clear. The Cabinet mission scheme encapsulated a federal arrangement consisting of three groups of provinces. Two of these groupings would consist of predominantly Muslim provinces, while the third grouping would be made up of the predominantly Hindu regions. The provinces would be autonomous but the centre would retain control over defence, foreign affairs and communications. In essence, it was the same nonsense that the British had hoped to push through at the First Round Table Conference.

Needless to say, the League voted in favour of it, and everybody else flat out rejected it. The League was incensed, and proclaimed the 16th of August as "Direct Action Day" to "peacefully" demonstrate the feelings of the League. When asked to specify Jinnah retorted: "Go to the Congress and ask them their plans. When they take you into their confidence I will take you into mine. Why do you expect me alone to sit with folded hands? I also am going to make trouble."

What followed next was a indication of the turmoil that was going to follow, and in more ways than one, actively contributed to it.

    "Direct Action Day" Rioting 

"A madness has descended upon the people!"
- Unknown Policeman in Calcutta, when asked about the situation on the ground.

Following Jinnah's declaration of 16 August as the Direct Action Day, acting on the advice of R.L. Walker, the then Chief Secretary of Bengal, the Muslim League Chief Minister of Bengal, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, requested the Governor of Bengal Sir Frederick Burrows to declare a public holiday on that day. Governor Burrows agreed. Walker made this proposal with the hope that the risk of conflicts, especially those related to picketing, would be minimized if government offices, commercial houses and shops remained closed throughout Calcutta on the 16th. Unfortunately, the Hindu businesses, and the Hindu community in Bengal in general, regarded this as little more than a thinly veiled threat, and refused to close up shop, defiantly refusing to follow the order.

On the morning of the 16th, Suhrawardy gave a speech to the assembled followers of the League in Calcutta, preaching that they be restrained in their dealings - but he rather spoilt the effect by asserting that till 11 o'clock that morning all the "injured persons" (read - targets of injustice) were Muslims, and the Muslim community had only retaliated in self-defence. The implication went out to the dumber and more bloodthirsty sections of the assembly (many of whom were armed with sticks and knives) that it was an open invitation to disorder. As such, within an hour, massive communal riots flared up all across the city, and would continue the entire week, in some of the worst atrocities seen till date in the region - a record that wouldn't be eclipsed until a year later.

The British were caught completely off-guard by this horrifying turn of events. It must be said that the local authorities, under the League's control, deliberately downplayed the situation, allowing the rioters to go after anyone they didn't like. The targets retaliated, burning down whole districts, which only made the situation worse. Finally, the Army had to be mobilised, and the riots were only put down once the Gurkhas were sent in. The butcher's bill came up to 10,000 dead, Hindu and Muslim alike. Funnily enough, the Europeans and Christians were left alone, as both sides expended their vitriol on each other.note 

And it wasn't restricted to Bengal. The madness spread across all of North India, only that it wasn't as bad as it was in Bengal. Which isn't really saying much.

Needless to say, it effectively made the Partition an inevitability. Too much blood had been spilled, too many grudges had been made, for any sort of peaceful resolution to come out of it. And the fact that the League had (whether by inaction or deliberate malice) not quelled the rioting made for the worst optics.

     The Radcliffe Lines are Drawn 
"This Bloody Line"
- Sir David Radcliffe, in an unusually candid moment of reflection on the Borders drawn.

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