There has been a spate of books in recent weeks on Partition and the birth of Pakistan. The books have covered a range, from the ideological moorings of a nation of the Muslim peoples of the Indian subcontinent to the quest for a “new Medina” (to borrow from the title of Venkat Dhulipala’s book), from the role of Muhammad Ali Jinnah to that of Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, and exactly why the negotiations for a united but precarious India broke down.
Many postulates have been interrogated. Was Jinnah bluffing? Did he ever believe he would actually get an independent nation and be forced into self-exile from his beloved Bombay (now Mumbai), a city where he was still making investment decisions and tracking property deals even as he spoke of a resolve to split India. Did Nehru and Patel, and perhaps Mahatma Gandhi too, give in because they were too tired after a long struggle for freedom and saw a smaller but more organically united India as more workable than the sum of many parts held together by some version of the Cabinet Mission Plan?
What role did the British play? Clement Attlee, Prime Minister of the Labour government that came to office in 1945, may have wanted to leave behind a united India, at least one that was notionally one country, as the lasting achievement of the British imperial enterprise — but were there other forces at play? Was a section of the British establishment, particularly the imperial intelligence and military strategists who were at the cusp of becoming Cold War warriors, already planning for the next round of the Great Game?
Was the post-war challenge of the Soviet Union and the spectre of communism in Asia beginning to leave its influence? Did the Pakistan project emerge as a convenient and handy tool at this juncture? If Attlee desperately wanted the Cabinet Mission Plan to succeed, an Olaf Caroe saw this as unnecessary. For Caroe, one of the last British governors of the Northwest Frontier Province and a specialist in both, Pashtun sociology as well as the foreign policy of the Raj, a friendly power in South Asia, in anticipation of Western conflict with the Soviet Union, was an imperative. The Muslim League and its Pakistan mission seemed more amenable to this aspiration than Nehru and a seemingly cantankerous Congress.
In the end, none of this may have mattered. The forces unleashed by Muslim identity politics and given a sophisticated gloss by Jinnah were never going to go away. Even if India had been freed as a coalition of autonomous provinces nominally under one national government, fragmentation was inevitable. Internal political and religious conflict, perhaps even a civil war, at least in some regions, could not have been ruled out. It is likely Partition would have happened anyway, by perhaps the late 1950s or early 1960s, but after protracted blood-letting.
In this situation, Nehru and Patel chose the wiser option: leave Jinnah to his devices (and to his Pakistan) and set out to build a more cohesive albeit truncated India. Like the Chinese leaders who consolidated independent jurisdictions in Peking (now Beijing) and Taipei in 1949, the Congress patriarchs may have calculated that this separation was temporary and that within a few years the unviable other would sue for reunification. Of course, history was to judge otherwise.
This rendition of the past is one of those tantalising “what ifs” of history. It is part of a set of questions that arise every now and then, especially when a new book or academic study appears on the subcontinent and its stable instability. In August, the subcontinent’s month of myth and memory, the questions get only more pronounced.
However, August 14 and 15 are not the only dates of reckoning in this eighth month of the calendar. August 9, 1942, exactly 73 years ago this day, saw the inauguration of the Quit India Movement. This was the Mahatma’s last major mass movement. It was also perhaps the Mahatma’s last mistake. In a sense, no study of Partition, of British attitudes towards the Congress and of the lack of trust between Nehru and the British — including the mistaken belief of the Caroe school and others in the British establishment that a Congress-led India would lurch towards communism and be hostile to the strategic goals of the West — is possible without examining and re-appraising the Quit India Movement.
There is the conventional argument that Britain forced the Mahatma into a corner by not acceding to his demand for full independence for India as a price for Indian (and Congress’) commitment to the Allied cause in World War II. Yet, was it realistic to expect such a concession in the midst of a titanic struggle against the Nazis and the Axis powers, a conflict that had seen even London bombed by the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain just two summers earlier, in 1940.
To agree to the Congress’ demand at such a stage would have appeared to be a sign of weakness and a loss of nerve for the British government. It had a domestic constituency (back home in Britain) to answer to, and that was obviously going to take (at least temporary) precedence over the moral imperative and feasibility of holding on to India.
Nevertheless the Mahatma persisted. Cautionary voices like those of C. Rajagopalachari, who opposed the Quit India Movement, were ignored. The Muslim League, whether by conviction or in pragmatism, saw its chance and stayed out of the Congress-led protests. It won the colonial government’s gratitude, and found a sympathetic ear for its still out-of-the-blue idea of a separate country.
Much more than that the Quit India Movement convinced crucial sections in Britain that India and the Congress were not going to be reliable in the eventuality of independence. The ramifications were not limited to Partition. As such, one day, maybe even today, India needs to have an honest conversation with itself about the Quit India Movement: the folly of ’42.
The writer is senior fellow, Observer Research Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org