It was the British who divided India, the Muslims just played along

This article will show that the British were certainly involved in the partition.

Delving into the Partition of India is not an academic exercise. Understanding it is important because Partition is at the heart of the India-Pakistan conflict. When communities that had lived amiably alongside each other for centuries suddenly started killing each other, it cannot be explained as communal riots. There was clearly abetment that caused people to rush out of their homes and kill their friends and neighbours. The breaking of India by Muslims – solely on the basis of religion – was enough to cause a permanent divide between them and Hindus. Yet most Hindus would have ultimately forgiven and forgotten the episode. It was the Muslim League’s threats in 1946 that if denied Pakistan the Muslims would “turn Hindustan into a kabristan” (graveyard); the pogroms directed against Hindus in Bengal to demonstrate it was no empty threat; and finally the widespread riots of 1947 that irreparably poisoned relations between the two countries.

In 1919, after the British massacred nearly 2000 peaceful protesters in Amritsar’s Jallianwallah Bagh, the government passed a gag order and ensured that not a single protest was held anywhere in the country. In a particular Amritsar neighbourhood where an English woman was allegedly attacked, the local police forced Indians to crawl on their belly. Those who disobeyed were forced to lick the ground and then whipped senseless. It was also forbidden for two Indians to be seen together in Amritsar. Such practices and laws were normal under British rule and yet the same British government did not do anything to check the riots of 1947. What’s more, the highly professional, battle-hardened and neutral Indian Army of over two million was kept in the barracks. Just two army divisions stationed along the migration routes would have prevented clashes.

This article will show that the British were certainly not keeping aloof once they realised their game was up in India. Like a jilted suitor they wanted to offer a parting shot that was aimed at crippling India forever. The British knew that by virtue of its size, population and strategic location, an independent India was destined to become one of the most influential countries of the 20th century. Civilisational envy being at the core of English thinking, this could not be tolerated. How could a former colony they had ruled for so long, people they had murdered in the tens of millions, people they called niggers, people they derided as heathens and worshipers of strange gods be allowed to rise above the West?

Demolishing myths

The popular narrative about Partition is that Indian Muslims divided the country in 1947 because they did not want to live alongside the Hindu majority in independent India. This is view is not only simplistic, but wrong on so many counts.

Firstly, the secular and Islamist view that the British had snatched India from the Mughals, and therefore the Muslims should have been the rightful rulers of the country after the British exit, is wishful thinking resulting from incorrect knowledge of history. The fact is, the British had taken India from the Hindus and not the Muslims. Islam was a spent and defeated force in India by the mid-1700s by which time the Marathas had liberated vast swaths – at least 70 per cent – of India from Muslim rule. The Mughal emperor was a Maratha vassal, and a small, but powerful Maratha force was stationed in Delhi to protect the emperor from his Muslim rivals. Maratha commanders with their praetorian guards would enter the Red Fort at will.

After Delhi, the Marathas captured Lahore in 1758, which was followed by the incorporation of the whole of Punjab in the Maratha Empire. Muslim majority Punjab came under Hindu rule after a gap of 800 years. With the Marathas planting their flag on the walls of Attock, Commander Raghunath Rao wrote this memorable line to the Peshwa ruler in Pune: “Give me the freedom and I’ll leap across the walls of Attock.” And he added: “We have decided to extend our rule up to Kandahar.”

This was a significant statement because Attock was a frontier city, and the Marathas were contemplating the re-conquest of Afghanistan. Their grand plan could not take shape because of wars with the English, but it shows which community was on the ascendant.

Another important fact about India is that of the more than 600 kingdoms (or Princely States in British terminology) that comprised India, only 10 had Muslim rulers. This is the clearest indication that the rulers of India before the British were Hindus, not Muslims.

Plus, there is plenty of evidence that the wounds caused by the Muslims to the edifice of Hindu civilisation had healed – perhaps because its foundations were deep. Wajid Ali Shah, the ruler of the kingdom of Awadh, was famous for composing and singing Radha Kanhaiyya Ka Kissa (Tale of Radha and Krishna). Then there was the Urdu poet Mir Taqui Mir (1725-1810) who wrote: “Why do you ask to which religion Mir belongs? He has put a mark on his forehead, sits in a temple as he gave up Islam long ago.”

By the early 20th century, except for a few elite zamindars (landowners) and nawabs, the vast majority of Muslims had no collective memory of being a ruling class. On the contrary they were a largely poor and overwhelmingly illiterate group who did not think of themselves as “a nation within a nation” – as the Islamist ideologue Mohammed Iqbal disingenuously described Indian Muslims.

Iqbal, who first came up with the idea of Pakistan in 1930, was a bitter man who lamented the failure of the Muslim invasion of India. In his baleful verses, he mourns that the invincible armada of Hijaz (the holy land of the Muslims) that defeated so many civilisations had met its watery grave in the Ganges. He literally wept over the defeat of Islam in India and looked forward to a re-conquest. Iqbal’s biographer Maulana Syed Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi wrote that the poet was frustrated because “instead of breaking idols….stretching a begging hand for a loaf of bread has become the Muslim’s profession”.

Iqbal’s frustration arose not because of Muslim backwardness, but because many modern educated Muslims had become culturally Indian – rather than Arabic as he wished them to be. Barring some who daydreamed about re-establishing ‘Mughalistan’, Indian Muslims were not interested in a separate homeland. When Iqbal proposed a Muslim nation in northwestern India, it had few takers as there was no critical mass of Muslims who wanted to divide India. For instance, the Pathan areas of NWFP, which had 93 per cent Muslims, remained opposed to Pakistan till the day of independence. Even Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the eventual founder of Pakistan, sneered at the idea.

The British role

The idea for dividing India on religious lines predates any Muslim thinking. It was the British who first contemplated such a plan.

The earliest recorded reference to dividing India goes back to 1843. In a speech before the British Parliament, Thomas Macaulay, who introduced English education in India, offered a suggestion on how Britain should deal with India’s Hindu majority versus its Muslim minority. Britain, he said, should “take no part in the disputes between Mahometans and idolaters. But, if our government does take a part, there cannot be a doubt that Mahometanism is entitled to the preference”.

In his book titled Untold Story of Partition, Wali Khan, the son of legendary Pakhtun freedom fighter Badshah Khan, writes, “The British were manipulative people experienced in ways of modern sabotage. They seriously set out to find the best means for establishing control over the numerous small kingdoms and millions of individuals…..Unity among Indians spelt disaster for the British, which they wanted to avoid at all costs.”

After the 1857 War of Independence, the British had completely side-lined the Muslims while offering civil and military jobs to Hindus and Sikhs. But seeing the rise of a united Hindu front, they decided to appease the Muslims. Now it was the turn of the Muslims to get jobs, enter colleges and universities. In 1905, the British divided Bengal in two parts, with the larger East Bengal going to the majority Muslims. “This was a bone thrown at the Muslims,” says Wali Khan.

The rise of educated Muslims had some unintended consequences. Reformer Syed Ahmed Khan, who established Aligarh Muslim University in 1875, wrote: “I heartily wished to serve my country and my nation faithfully. In the word nation I include both Hindus and Mohammadans, because that is the only meaning I can attach to it…. These are the different grounds upon which I call both those races which inhabit India by one word, i.e. Hindu, meaning to say that they are the inhabitants of Hindustan.”

Wali Khan summarises the reformer’s vision: “Syed Ahmed Khan said that every inhabitant of India, no matter what his personal belief, can be called a Hindu by virtue of his belonging to Hindustan. The essence of his teaching was Muslims had to unite with Hindus against the British. The Hindus being the favoured community were being provided employment and education. The Muslims, on the other hand, were being deliberately ignored. Therefore the only way out for them was to join forces with Hindus.”

Using the Muslims

To counter Hindu-Muslim unity, the British introduced communal politics. According to the Minto-Morley Reforms of 1909, in elections to local and municipal committees, Muslim votes could be cast only for Muslim candidates and Hindu votes for Hindu candidates. By proposing a communal rather than a national basis for politics, they forced the Hindus and Muslims into a position whereby if they wanted to enter municipal or community politics, their electioneering was limited to wooing their religious brethren, and fighting on religious rather than political issues.

The British then started looking for collaborators among Indian Muslims. In the land of Jaichands and Mir Jafars, this wasn’t so difficult. On November 2, 1921, Mohammad Shafi, a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, submitted a memo which proposed that to undermine growing religious unity in India, it was important to separate the Muslims from it. It also proposed an Anglo-Mohammadan Union that would operate in the interest of the British Empire.

On September 21, 1922 the Viceroy, Reading, wrote to Birkenhead, the Secretary of State for India: “I have sent you a telegram which will show you how near we have been to a complete break between Muslims and Hindus. I have been giving the greatest attention to this possibility, and I have the greatest assistance from Shafi in my council, who is a highly respected Mohammadan.”

Birkenhead wrote on January 22, 1925: “The more it is made obvious that these antagonisms are profound, and affect an immense and irreconcilable section of the population, the more conspicuously is the fact illustrated that we and we alone can play the part of the composers.”

Gaming the Muslim elites

Seeing the entire country united in the freedom movement, the British decided to separate the Muslims from it. The Muslim League proved to be the perfect tool for this job. When the League was established in Dhaka in 1906, one of the foremost principles was the creation of loyalty to the British rulers.

Through bribes, inducements and the promise of a disproportionately large role for Muslims in free India, the British made sure all top members of the Muslim League were on the same page. Crores for rupees for bribes, arson and rioting were provided by the Muslim nobility, with the Nawab of Bhopal being the chief funder. On February 9, 1931, Viceroy Irwin wrote: “I told him (Mohammad Shafi) that I thought they would all have to fight hard and that it was no good supposing that a few packed meetings or newspapers articles would do the job. They must go out as whole-time missionaries and carry the flaming torch throughout the length and breadth of India. They must be prepared to build up a great organisation which might focus all constructive efforts to fight the Congress… and they proposed to get to work, vigorous and comprehensive. This is encouraging and I only hope their good resolutions do not fade away. The League prepared a scheme, the financial aspect of which was the responsibility of the Princely Stares.”

The British succeeded in turning many Muslims away from the idea of independence. In 1939, Nawab Ismail Khan, a Muslim League leader from UP, wrote to the British that “a democratic system at the centre is not acceptable to the Muslim community”.

Another League leader sent a telegram to the Viceroy: “The Muslims have no differences with Great Britain….They wanted the British to stay and they are now growing popular with the Muslim community.”

According to Pakistani social sciences scholar and author Rubina Saigol, Pakistan was mainly created for the protection and promotion of the class interests of the landed aristocracy which formed the League. “The meeting at which the League was formed was attended mainly by the landed elite which feared that if the British left India and representative government was established, the traditional power of the loyal Muslim aristocracy would erode, especially since the class composition of the Congress reflected the educated urban and rural middle classes seeking upward mobility and a share in political power.”

Turning Jinnah

Under the chairmanship of Jinnah, the Muslim League passed the following resolution: “The Muslim League is irrevocably opposed to any federal objective, which must necessarily result in a majority community rule under the guise of democracy and parliamentary system of government. Such a constitution is totally unsuited to the genius of the people of the country, which is composed of various nationalities and does not constitute a national state.”

You have to hand it to the British for turning a staunch patriot into their stooge. Jinnah, the pork-eating, secular and nationalist Muslim leader, became the face of Partition with these infamous words: “Two nations confronting each other in every province, every town, every village. That is the only solution.”

As the rift between Hindus and Muslims grew, the British intelligence service in India wrote to the Secretary of State in London: “The differences between Hindus and Muslims have reached a point at which there is only one solution: partition. Thus, shortly, a nation of Muslim India should be established.”

Backdrop of war

World War II was at its peak in 1942 and the Germans were hammering London with V-2 rockets. All women and children in the capital of the empire – on which the sun never set – had been evacuated to the countryside. The Germans had raced 3000 km across Russia and were at the gates of Stalingrad. If that city fell, Adolf Hitler’s next target was the invasion of Britain.

The Americans had a poor opinion of the British Army’s fighting skills. In view of the capitulation of more than 300,000 British troops in France and their cowardly flight from Dunkirk, they knew the odds were high Britain wouldn’t put a fight. In this backdrop, they were pressuring Britain to quit India. The American view was that wars could not be fought without the cooperation of the people. Since more than two million Indian soldiers were fighting the Germans in Europe and Africa, and millions of Indians were working in the war industry at home, the support of the people mattered in a do-or-die war with the Nazis.

This opinion was shared by Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, who wrote to US President Franklin Roosevelt to persuade the British to quickly find a solution to the Indian problem. Roosevelt sent Chiang Kai-shek’s letter to Winston Churchill. The conniving British Prime Minister wrote back: “The Congress Party in no way represents India and is strongly opposed by over 90 million Mohammadans, 40 million Untouchables, and the Indian States comprising 90 million.” He also allayed American and Chinese fears that the Indian Army would revolt: “The military classes on whom everything depends are thoroughly loyal. In fact, over a million have volunteered for the army.”

Instead of listening to the Americans, the British were doing the exact opposite. They now thought of getting the Sikhs and Scheduled Castes to ask for homelands. Amery, the Secretary of State, wrote to the Viceroy and asked him to find out whether there was any possibility of the Sikhs demanding a Sikhistan, along the same lines as the Muslim League was agitating for Pakistan. However, this plan was dropped because Punjabi Muslims formed a large part of the Indian Army and the British did not want to lose their support by fanning Sikh separatism.

A separate State for Scheduled Castes was also suggested to weaken the Hindus. But Amery believed this wasn’t practical as these castes were spread all across India. However, he suggested that if the Scheduled Castes were converted to Islam or Christianity they could be given special protection.

Amery’s thinking was in step with Churchill who had a visceral hatred of Indians, especially Hindus. He once said, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” During the 1943-44 Bengal Famine when over three millions Indians were starved to death by the British, he ignored pleas to stop diverting grains from India, saying if there was a food shortage why wasn’t Gandhi dead then.

At the same time, Churchill and his ministers were constantly goading the Muslims to demand Pakistan and thereby Balkanise India. Alex Von Tunzelman writes in ‘Indian Summer’ that although Muslims made up just 35 percent of the Indian Army, Churchill lied that they constituted 75 percent. This was done to buttress the claim that Indian Muslims did not want to be ruled by the “Hindu priesthood”.

Churchill was inspired by Beverly Nichols’ 1944 book ‘Verdict on India’, which argued the British could not quit without creating a separate homeland for the Muslims. Tunzelman explains: “Afterwards, he declared to his wife he was depressed by the scorn with which the Raj was viewed in India and America….’I agree with the book and also with its conclusion – Pakistan.’ Churchill’s vocal support of Pakistan would be instrumental in creating the world’s first modern Islamic state….”

Churchill behaved like medieval Islamic raiders Ahmad Shah Abdali and Timur, who roused their troops with the promise of plunder and rape in India. In a letter to Jinnah, the pudgy Prime Minister hinted that India would be easy pickings for Pakistan. “Having got out of the British Commonwealth of Nations, India will be thrown into great confusion, and will have no means of defence against infiltration or invasion from the north.” According to Tunzelman, Churchill was “implying that a future Pakistan might be able to invade India”.

Tunzelman points to Jinnah’s trip to Britain in December 1946. “At Buckingham Palace, he found that the king was in favour of Pakistan; on talking to the queen afterwards, he found her even more in favour; and finally he spoke to queen Mary, who was ‘100% Pakistan’!”

The British royalty, which was required by protocol to be apolitical, was enthusiastically cheering for Jinnah, jehad and Pakistan. The British, cutting across classes, tried to forestall India’s independence by supporting Muslim separatism.

The bear factor

Russia was a constant bogeyman in the British colonial government’s policies. When the Russians defeated the German Army at Stalingrad and smashed their way to Berlin, the British were shocked to discover the extent of Moscow’s military might. They decided to create an Islamic crescent around the boundaries of Russia fearing the Russians might make a play for the Middle Eastern oilfields and the warm port of Karachi. If earlier, Pakistan and the Muslim League were tools to deny India independence, now Pakistan was to be the buffer that would check Soviet expansion.

In 1946, the new Viceory Wavell came up with a new scheme, which Wali Khan explains in his book: “The disputed areas between the Congress and the Muslim League were located on the border. The Pakistan scheme was divided into two parts – North West and North East. These were areas with a Muslim majority. Wavell suggested that the areas with a Congress majority should be handed over to them and be given complete autonomy. The British, along with their army, civil servants, and families should move into areas with a Muslim majority. Since Wavell was a professional soldier he knew that if the North East and North West were separated from India and left under British control, what effect would it have upon the Indian defence policy? The territories were specified; in the East, Bengal and Assam, in the West, the Frontier Province, Punjab and Sindh. Delhi would be under direct British control and the rest would go to the Congress.”

Wavell’s plan was in keeping with the advice that Churchill had given him while the viceroy was on his way to India: “Keep a bit of India.” Basically, the British were prepared for the Balkanisation of India.

The Muslim League agreed to Wavell’s proposal. League leader Liaquat All Khan, who would later become the first Prime Minister of Pakistan and also be assassinated in double quick time, told the British: “If your excellency was prepared to let the Muslim League have only the Sindh desert, I would still be prepared to accept it.”

The American angle

When relations between Britain and Indian nationalists became strained, the US made several attempts to convince Britain to reconcile with the Indian leaders like Gandhi and Nehru. On May 1, 1947 two Americans, Ronald A. Hare, Head of the Division of South Asian Affairs, and Thomas E. Weil, Second Secretary of the US Embassy in India, visited Jinnah.

M.S. Venkataramani, an Indian expert on American studies writes in the book American Role in Pakistan: “Jinnah sought to impress on his visitors that the emergence of an independent, sovereign Pakistan would be in consonance with American interests. Pakistan would be a Muslim country. Muslim countries stand together against Russian aggression. In that endeavour they would look to the United States for assistance.”

The second problem Jinnah presented to these Americans was also a part of the British scheme. If the British left behind a united India it would have disastrous consequences for the western world. The Congress, being a sworn enemy of England and other Western countries, would be unwilling to protect their interests in the Middle East and the Gulf. “Jinnah coupled the danger of Russian aggression with another menace that Muslim nations might confront. That was ‘Hindu imperialism’. The establishment of Pakistan was essential to prevent the expansion of Hindu imperialism to the Middle East,” says Venkataramani.

So if the Americans gave Britain the permission to partition India and create the world’s first Islamic state, the West could build an Islamic bastion against the Soviet Union. The slogan was, “Create Pakistan and save the Western world!” (Pakistani leaders continued to act in a similar obsequious manner, with the army chief and dictator General Ayub Khan telling the Americans: “The Pakistan Army is your army.”) The US, which was desperate to stop the seemingly irresistible spread of communism across the world, finally fell in line.

British role in riots

Current minister and former army chief General V.K. Singh in his book ‘Leadership in the Indian Army’, mentions how the British officers and troops were encouraging riots. He writes: “Once the decision to divide the country was taken it was clear there would be large-scale movement of people in Punjab. To supervise their move and prevent violence, a Boundary Force, based on a division created under the command of Major General T.W. Rees with the headquarters at Lahore.”

General Kodandera S. Thimmaya was appointed commander of 5 Brigade, located at Amritsar, which was part of this force. Thimmaya “found that the British officers were indifferent and not very keen to prevent disturbances”.

Lt-General Thakur Nathu Singh had a similar experience with British officers. When India achieved independence, Nathu Singh was in command of the Derajat Force at Dera Ismail Khan in NWFP. “He was shocked at the behaviour of some British officers of the civil service, who were encouraging the local Muslim population to threaten Hindus and force them to migrate to India. He tried his best to check this, and brought it to the attention of the political leaders, who pleaded helplessness.”

Could Partition have been avoided?

It is important to mention that despite more than two decades of British machinations and divide-and-rule policies, few Muslims backed the Muslim League. Finally, the colonial government had to create an ‘unlevel’ playing field in the critical general election of 1945 – which was a virtual referendum on Pakistan – in order to make the League appear to have the backing of the Muslims. Under the Government of India Act 1935, only 17 per cent of the Muslim population was entitled to vote, with the majority of voters comprising the Hindu-hating Muslim elites of UP and southern India. On this basis alone they sanctioned the division of India.

The Congress leaders like Gandhi and Nehru, who were openly Anglophile, and also lacked the stomach for a fight, settled for what they got. Not one of them, except Sardar Patel, considered digging in for a fight and calling the Muslim League’s bluff. Since the League represented a minority of Muslims, a few days of mobilisation by nationalist Indians would have been sufficient to silence their goons. But this was prevented by leaders like Gandhi who curiously did nothing when Muslims went on killing sprees, but preached non-violence and threatened to commit suicide by fasting when Hindus counter-attacked or merely acted in self-defence.

Here General Nathu Singh’s thoughts are worth their weight in gold. “He felt that the British were very deliberately partitioning India to make it weak, even hoping that it would become ‘ungovernable’ and force the warring factions to ask them to extend their stay in the colony. He felt that the armed forces, being unaffected by the virus of religion and communalism, were capable of holding the country together and thereby avoiding Partition. He never forgave Nehru and the other leaders for their failure to consult the armed forces, or to take them into confidence before deciding to accept Partition.” (V.K. Singh pp 72-73)

The creation of Pakistan was unprecedented because it was the first country to be created on the basis of religion since Prophet Muhammad established the Islamic state of Medina in 622 CE. How karmic that virtually every terrorist act directed against the West, including the UK and the US, can be traced back to Pakistan.

The saddest aspect of Partition is its lack of finality. Had there been an orderly – and complete – exchange of populations, there would be none of the hatred that exists today in relations between India and Pakistan. However, the majority of Muslims who supported Partition stayed back instead of leaving for the Promised Land. Their children and grandchildren have multiplied manifold and are now causing disturbances across the country. In hundreds of mini enclaves in Muslim majority areas, we are seeing the same communal taunts directed at Hindus as was common during the pre-Partition days.

The July “azadi march” in Assam by Bengali Muslims before they were dispersed by Indian security forces is a pointer to the next wave of demands from Muslims emboldened by their rising numbers. Similarly, the expulsion of hundreds of Hindus from UP’s Kairana town – barely two hours from the national capital New Delhi – is yet another mini Partition. And just like in 1947, we have the 21st century Gandhis and Nehrus, such as Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramiah who has reportedly banned Hindu processions in streets that have mosques or churches. Needlessly to say, the biggest enemy of Hindus are Hindus. To quote the apt Pogo line: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

If the past is prologue, in the coming years and decades mini Partitions will only increase. Partition only whetted the jehadi’s appetite; having tasted the side dish, Pakistan, they are now eyeing the main course – India.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

Rakesh is a journalist at New Zealand’s leading media house. He mostly writes on defence and foreign affairs.
His articles have been quoted extensively by universities and in books on diplomacy, counter terrorism, warfare, and development of the global south; and by international defence journals.
Rakesh’s work has been cited by leading think tanks and organisations that include the Naval Postgraduate School, California; US Army War College, Pennsylvania; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC; State University of New Jersey; Institute of International and Strategic Relations, Paris; BBC Vietnam; Siberian Federal University, Krasnoyarsk; Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi; Institute for Defense Analyses, Virginia; International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, Washington DC; Stimson Centre, Washington DC; Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia; and Institute for Strategic, Political, Security and Economic Consultancy, Berlin.
His articles have been published by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi; Foundation Institute for Eastern Studies, Warsaw; and the Research Institute for European and American Studies, Greece, among others.