The Great Partition

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Yasmin Khan, Yale University Press, £20

This is probably the best book going on the partition of the British Indian Empire.

It provides an incisive analysis of the endgame of the empire between 1945 and 1947. What comes across loud and clear is the extent to which all the major players failed to foresee the consequences of their actions. Probably the ones most guilty of reckless adventurism were the Muslim League leadership, headed by Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Before June 1947 nobody really imagined that what did happen was possible. Khan shows that by the end of 1945 confusion and uncertainty dominated everywhere in India. The sole certainty was that the British would leave very soon. This produced a collapse in deference towards the British. Knowing that they were preparing for an imminent exit, few people thought that there was a need to show respect for authority. One of the strengths of the book is that it clearly maps the collapse of British authority, something that most accounts miss. The bizarre counterpoint to this is that as violence spiralled out of control in 1946 there were almost no attacks on British people.

The collapse rapidly accelerated after provincial governments were installed in April 1946. From that point the British lost control of the apparatus of the state at provincial level. Both Indian National Congress and Muslim League governments set about promoting their own agendas. The British were reduced to attempting to negotiate a solution at national level while their proposals were constantly undermined by events on the ground.

In February 1947 British policy shifted from attempting to negotiate an agreed settlement to organising the quickest possible exit. Khan clearly shows the consequences of this change, manifest by the arrival of Viceroy Mountbatten. Arrogant and ignorant, Mountbatten imposed his partition plan in the face of all objections. He found the Congress now willing to accept the plan, partly out of a blind hope that it would end communal killings as well as getting rid of the Muslim League. Jinnah, having spent years demanding Pakistan, could not reject a partition plan.

This revealed the bankruptcy of Jinnah and the Muslim League leadership. Khan clearly demonstrates how, up to the moment that the British and the Congress agreed to partition, the League leadership had paid no attention whatsoever to the possible territorial extent of an independent Pakistan. Up to that moment (despite the apparent origin of the name in the initials of Muslim majority provinces) Pakistan had simply existed as an abstraction, expressed in slogans. There were suddenly two months left to organise the creation of a new state that would maroon many of the main areas of support in India.

It is also true that nobody else had made any preparations for partition whatsoever. This shows again that until 1947 no one had considered that partition was a realistic proposition.

As Khan says, "There was nothing ancient or predestined about... politicised manifestations of identity. The experience of colonial rule had doubtless stirred up these divisions and added to a sense of separation, especially among the elites. Reminders of religious 'difference' were built into the brickwork of the colonial state." The British created the conditions for communalism, and conscious actions of competing factions of the aspiring ruling class combined with their desire to cut and run to create the catastrophe of partition.

In the end partition solved nothing. The idea that two religious communities that could not coexist inside one state could form two peaceful neighbours was always an absurdity. This was shown by the wars of 1947, 1965, 1971 (which produced a second partition, Bangladesh) and 1999.

Today the two states exist in a condition of perpetual confrontation. Their entire military planning (now nuclear enhanced) is directed primarily against each other. Another consequence, as shown by Khan, is that they have some of the harshest border regulations in the world. All three of the states see the citizens of their neighbours as potential "infiltrators", motivated by a desire to undermine the state. As she says, "All [the] consequences of partition have reinforced the estrangement of the two nation states." From her own comments on the Indo-Bangladesh frontier, she could have said all three.

There are gaps in her account. She needed to say more on how the Congress government of North West Frontier Province (a Muslim majority province) was abandoned when it could have proved to be the spanner in the works of partition. She does not develop the potential that a successful outcome of the Royal Indian Navy mutiny of February 1946 possessed to push the endgame in an entirely different direction. She does not explain how the Communist Party of India was marginalised during the entire process, even though there was a massive strike wave at the same time. This is all the more disappointing as she notes that there were unfulfilled massive and widespread hopes, part of "the turmoil that India was experiencing at the close of the Second World War and the sense of entitlement and hope that had fired the imagination of the people".

Even so, this should be essential reading for all socialists, as the conflicts which produced partition were never "solved", and remain with us today.