Categories History Capsule


There are many theories about Partition: relating to the fundamental questions of ‘Why?’ ‘Who?’ and ‘When?”.

Official histories of Pakistan subscribe to the ‘two nations’ theory and argue that the Pakistani nation was the inevitable crystallization of the desire of the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent to remain a distinctive community, separate from the Hindu population around them. A characteristic and particularly passionate articulation of this theory is to be found in Aitzaz Ahsan’s The Indus Saga and the Making of Pakistan. According to Ahsan, the Indian subcontinent is made up of two civilizations, Indus and Indic (or Gangetic), and ‘Indus has been one large, independent, politico-economic zone for the past countless centuries (…) [It has had] a rich and glorious cultural heritage of its own (…) [and is] a distinct and separate nation’.

Completely differently, the community of historians belonging to the main current of Indian nationalism blamed Imperialism for tearing the two communities apart, disrupting the bonds that had joined them together for centuries. According to this perspective, the Partition of the Indian subcontinent was the logical conclusion of the ‘divide and rule’ policy of the British by which they had insidiously played off the Hindus against the Muslims in India. According to some of India’s most notable historians (including A.K. Banerjee, Sumit Sarkar and Bipan Chandra ), this was a political strategy that the British had hit upon from the time of the Partition of Bengal in 1905 and had pursued with a single-minded zeal ever since. However, it is important to note that while both these theories, propounded as part and parcel of the ideology of post-colonial nation states, have had wide popular support, neither of them can provide an adequate explanation of the central event of the Partition in modern South Asian history. Many British observers, of course, saw the whole thing quite differently. British imperialists in particular prided themselves on their fostering of the unity of India during British rule, and blamed primordial divisions among the Indians themselves for the division and bloodshed that marked the last days of the empire.


Intimately related to the issue of why the Partition happened is the question of who was (or were) responsible for it. And among the most prominent Indian leaders of the time, more often than not, the finger is usually pointed at Mohammad Ali Jinnah. In India, he is seen not as the father of Pakistan but as a collaborator of the Raj; a man who, in his capacity as the leader of the All India Muslim League, precipitated the division of India by being willing to accept nothing short of a sovereign state for the Muslims in the subcontinent in the final negotiations with the British that led to the transfer of power in 1947. Rather differently, Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal, in a pioneering study of the statesman , has proposed a counter-thesis to this notion by saying that the Partition was forced upon Jinnah by the Congress High Command in the penultimate phase of the British rule in India. According to her, the actual reason behind the Partition was not the scheme of the British but the constitutional tussle for greater representational power in the government that had gone on for close to four decades, between the Congress and the Muslim League.

Yet, the man who remains the most controversial figure of that epochal time on the subcontinent is not any Indian leader, but the British Viceroy himself, Lord Louis Mountbatten. From Alan Campbell-Johnson in the early 1950s and Philip Zeigler in the mid-1980s, down to Stanley Wolpert in 2006, Mountbatten continues to interest and intrigue historians (mostly British). However, over the past six decades, his reputation has suffered, a change that is reflected in the very titles of his biographies/portraits – from Alan Campbell-Johnson’s very earnest Mission with Mountbatten to Andrew Roberts’ sarcastic Lord Mountbatten and the Perils of Adrenalin.

The most recent attack on Mountbatten has been mounted by Sir Stanley Wolpert in Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British Empire in India, where he declares:

“If for no other reason than to counter the many laudatory, fawning accounts of Lord Mountbatten’s ‘splendid’, “historically unique’, ‘brilliant and wonderful’ viceroyalty that have for more than half a century filled shelves of Partition literature and Mountbatten hagiography, I feel justified in adding my Shameful Flight to history’s list of the British Raj’s last years. [For among all the important players of that time] none (…) played as tragic or central a role as did Mountbatten.”

Yet another theory, advanced with great persuasion by Narendra Singh Sarila (who was ADC to Lord Mountbatten), claims that there was a crucial link between India’s Partition and British fears about the USSR gaining control of the oil fields of the Middle East. In other words, it was important to partition India to safeguard and consolidate British strategic interests in the Middle East. According to this theory, once the British leaders realized that the Indian nationalists (i.e. the Congress) would not join them to play the Great Game against the Soviet Union, they settled for those willing to do so (i.e. the Muslim League). In the process, they did not hesitate to use the Muslims of India as a political tool to fulfil their objectives.

The British historian, Nicholas Mansergh, interestingly has an entirely different take on the whole issue of the Partition. He is of the opinion that it was not so much the complexity of the communal situation as the nature of the political relations then existent in India that caused the catastrophe of 1947. To quote him:

“The more important of those [political] relations were without exception triangular. There were the three principal communities, the Hindus, the Muslims and the Sikhs, in descending order of magnitude; there were the three political groups, the princes, the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress in ascending order of importance; and there were the three arbiters of national destiny, the British, the Congress and the League. In each triangle there was the predisposition – it is almost a law of politics – of the lesser to combine against the greatest.”


It is interesting to note that not only is there disagreement about who or what was responsible for the Partition, there are also differences among historians as to when it all started – the journey towards Partition – and which province (i.e. Punjab or Bengal) played the more decisive role in the enfolding drama.

According to David Page, in Prelude to Partition: The Indian Muslims and the Imperial System of Control 1920-1932, the 1920s were a crucial period in the shaping of the subcontinent, in preparing the ground for the emergence of Pakistan and in casting the character of Indian nationalism. Page is of the opinion that a study of colonial strategy and structures at this time helps to explain how the building blocks of Pakistan were put in place, how it became possible for the various Muslim communities situated in different parts of India to see it as a common goal; and to understand the kind of contradictions involved during the Pakistan movement. The most startling proposition made in this book is, however, the argument that the development of representative institutions at this time (which provided first partial and later substantial provincial autonomy) should not be seen simply as concessions by the Raj to Indian nationalism but rather as a means of offsetting the nationalist challenge and the perpetuation of Imperial control.

Anita Inder Singh in The Origins of the Partition of India 1936-1947 puts forward the thesis that:

“1936 is a useful starting point [to discuss the Partition of India] as it furnishes the immediate background to the coalition controversy between the Congress and the League in UP in 1937, regarded by many as a milestone on the road to partition.”

While Singh concedes that the Muslim League’s demand for a sovereign Muslim state at its Lahore session in March 1940 was a great leap forward for the Pakistan cause, she argues that the most decisive step taken in this direction was the League’s election campaign in the Punjab and its attempt to gain power in that province between 1944-47. She is of the opinion that unlike Bengal (where the League ministry had already been able to cultivate grass-roots support during the Second World War), the greatest electoral battles of the mid-1940s were fought in the Punjab, because ‘the possibility of an inter communal coalition in the Punjab posed the greatest threat, in the eyes of the League, to the emergence of Pakistan’.

On a different note, Joya Chatterji, in her book Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition 1932-1947, focuses her research on the political scenario in Bengal, and identifies the 1930s as the decade when the communalization of politics reached a new high in the province. Chatterji shows clearly how the prospect of a permanent subordination to a Muslim majority converted many Hindus to the idea that Bengal must be partitioned, and that Nehru and Patel in opting for a truncated Pakistan had the strong support of the provincial Congress in Bengal. Overturning popular notions about the state of Bengal politics at this time, Chatterji argues:

“Bengalis were not passive bystanders in the politics of their province; nor were they victims of circumstances entirely out of their control, forced reluctantly to accept the division of their ‘motherland’. On the contrary, a large number of Hindus of Bengal, backed up by the provincial branches of the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha, campaigned intensively in 1947 for the partition of Bengal and for the creation of a separate Hindu province that would remain inside an Indian union.”

It may be noted here that Bengal Divided was part of a new trend in partition studies (since the 1980s) which focused on regional instead of national politics; and where the primacy of all-India perspectives was replaced by a new importance given to regional and provincial contexts. As Chatterji succinctly puts it in her ‘Introduction’:

“This is not an argument that the determination of Bengali Hindus to see their province partitioned explains the decision to partition India. It suggests instead that the study of a provincial separatist demand may enrich our understanding of Partition, providing the subtext to a story too often reduced to an account of the priorities of statesmen in Delhi and London.”


All these diverse viewpoints notwithstanding, it is an indubitable truth that the Partition of the Indian subcontinent, apart from being tragic, was also profoundly ironic as none of the three major players got what they wanted. Shorn off eastern Punjab and western Bengal (including Calcutta), Jinnah only got the ‘maimed, mutilated and moth-eaten’ Pakistan which he had rejected out of hand in 1944 and then again in 1946. For the Congress, the final release from the British Empire came ‘only by compromising on the two main principles of the Indian nationalist creed since the late 1920s – unity and full independence.’ For not only was India partitioned when she finally gained her freedom (entailing a total reversal of all that the Indian National Congress had stood for), but her leaders also accepted ‘Dominion Status’ rather than the full independence to which they had been committed since the adoption of the ‘Purna Swaraj’ resolution at Lahore in 1929.

On their part, the British had definitely not envisaged the bloody transfer of power that eventually took place. The Partition of India was patently not in their interest, and neither the Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten nor the then Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, were in favour of it. However, when it became clear to them that Partition was inevitable, the British, confident about the strength of their administration in India, decided on an organized operation. This was a most deplorable lack of foresight on their part, for they did not take into consideration the primordial communal passions that would be (and came to be) involved in forcibly uprooting people from the land they had been attached to for generations, and it was too late when they realized that the drawing of arbitrary borders was much more than an administrative exercise. Consequently, they witnessed a complete breakdown of their own administration with most British officers of the British Indian Army and the Indian Civil Service having already left or in the process of leaving India, the Indian officers leaving their ranks (and sometimes joining the communal forces); and above all, the mass frenzy of the common populace, sworn to wreak havoc on each other. It brings to mind the very ironic words that Shahid Hamid (in Disastrous Twilight) quotes an unknown British Magistrate as saying: ‘The British are a just people. They have left India in exactly the same state of chaos as they found it.’ Indeed, if the possession of India was the crowning glory of the British Empire, the Indian dominions ‘the jewel in the crown’, then the relinquishing of this empire, the way that the power was transferred from British to Indian hands in 1947, represented the crowning failure of that most steadfast pillar of the British Empire – its administration.

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