Seventy-one years back, on June 3, 1947, in a joint conference with the Congress and the Muslim League, the last Viceroy of India, Louis Mountbatten, announced the partition of India. What followed was a period of absolute terror, which, by some estimates, saw more than a million killed, and over 14 million people forcibly relocated. It is important for us to face up to why this catastrophe occurred, if only to avert another.
Many in India — and all our textbooks — hold Jinnah solely responsible for the split. It is time we acknowledged what the best of our historians already know, that he was not the only one to blame for that wretched event. Others — the British, the Congress, the Hindu Mahasabha — were equally, if not more, complicit.
Through the 1930s and 1940s India’s Muslims — even those who never wanted a separate Muslim state — felt the need to have a greater say in governance. It was one of the reasons why they, almost en masse, voted for the Muslim League across the subcontinent in 1946.
From the early years of the 20th century onward, a deep divide developed between Hindus and Muslims. This was not the least caused by a marginalisation of the latter in public life. Hindus held most of the jobs in the lower branches of civil administration and in education, they were, comparatively, streets ahead.
Part of the responsibility for this lay with the Muslims themselves for their leadership, lost in nostalgia, failed to modernise.
The community lacked reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy who successfully campaigned against Sati and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar who fought for widows’ remarriage. But lest we forget, the Congress had a lot to answer for too.
After its spectacular electoral success in the 1937 elections, the Congress hardly did anything to raise the confidence level of Indian Muslims in the provinces it governed.
The gross under-representation of the community in public services continued as did its backwardness.
This is something that Jinnah set out to correct. Much to his surprise, he found himself heading an unwieldy state separated by the Indian sub-continent at its widest.
A ‘mutilated, moth-eaten Pakistan,’ as he once referred to it, didn’t even last 25 years before breaking up.
Communal representation, the factor that split India at creation in 1947, had a long history going back to 1906 when a demand for it was first made on behalf of Muslims by a delegation led by the Agha Khan to the Viceroy. Jinnah bought into it much later and even arrived at a pact with the Congress to have it, in fact with the consent and blessings of India’s formidable nationalist, Lokmanya Tilak of “Swaraj is my birth right, and I shall have it,” fame.
Few today know that the Lucknow Pact, as it was popularly known, was arrived at in a joint session of the Congress and the Muslim League in 1916.
Jinnah who played a major role in getting the pact through, was hailed as an apostle of Hindu-Muslim unity by Sarojini Naidu. It was the Congress that later repudiated the pact. Jinnah’s is a cautionary tale for India. His is a story of continuous efforts by the Congress to marginalise him from the early 1920s onward.
A brilliant legal mind, Jinnah fought his corner doggedly and could convince most of India’s Muslims that it was impossible to trust their future to an overwhelmingly Hindu India without built-in safeguards to ensure their voice would be heard.
This is the kind of demand insecure minorities have always made through history, be they Kurds in West Asia, Chechens in Russia, Uighurs in China, and, lest we forget, or dare to admit, the Mizos, the Nagas and the Kashmiris in our own country.
Breakups are inevitable when coexistence becomes ‘suffocatingly’ impossible.
So, it has been with Pakistan itself, the former Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Sudan, Timor Leste, Kosovo and of course on a humongous scale, the USSR in the 1990s. The Sri Lankans alone seem to have come out on top and reasonably intact. After wiping out the LTTE, the reaching-out to the Tamils by the majority Sinhalese, though nowhere near perfect, has been truly remarkable.
Sometimes we are fortunate to have been sensible before everything got out of hand. More often, however, we are wiser after the event — the break-up of India being a case in point.
We had our Jinnah moment too and would, in all likelihood, have witnessed another partition of India in the 1960s, if good sense had not prevailed and a decision taken not to impose Hindi on those who did not want it in the first place.
Fulminating against Jinnah does not help anyone. It is more important to understand him and know what it takes to avoid, not just another partition, but a total fragmentation of an India that has been brought together with such great difficulty.
The United States, as someone memorably described, is a majority of minorities. That describes India too, constituting its great strength as well as its greatest weakness.
All through his time as Prime Minister, Nehru so dreaded the fissiparous tendencies, which threatened to break India, that he ran a strongly centralised state. However, he had the good sense to carry India’s many diversities with him, something that Modi and the BJP would do well to acknowledge and of course, emulate.
The author is visiting faculty at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.