The Road to Partition
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed


The Cabinet Mission Plan was the last hope for keeping India united, giving a chance to the two great religious communities to work together. With the failure of this plan, India took a tortuous and precipitous slide towards partition. The constituent assembly met but the League boycotted it. Weary of the mounting tensions in India and alarmed at the mutiny of the Royal Indian Navy, the British cabinet sent a new viceroy, Mountbatten, to Delhi to arrange for a transfer of power. Since the League was boycotting the constituent assembly, Mountbatten invited Nehru to form a cabinet. Jinnah was furious. He saw this as proof of the duplicity of the British and the connivance of the Congress. He called for “Direct Action Day” on August 16, 1946.

Until the 16th of August 1946, the leaders of the Congress and the League were in control of history. After that date it was history that was in control of them.

The Direct Action day was conceived as a day of peaceful protests. But in the communally charged atmosphere of India any excuse was sufficient to start a riot. The day passed peacefully in most parts of India but Calcutta was the scene of horrific riots with 6,000 dead and more than 20,000 injured. Some chroniclers have put the number of injured at over 100,000. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs burned each other’s homes and stabbed innocent men, women and children. For five days, Calcutta burned. The army which was still under the control of the British did not intervene until it was too late. So ferocious were the riots that they destroyed whatever hope still lingered for a negotiated settlement of the Hindu-Muslim issue.

Some historians have blamed Suhrawardy who was the Muslim League chief minister of Bengal for the riots. However, the British, after a thorough investigation concluded that this assessment was incorrect. The viceroy Wavell wrote to the British Secretary of India Patrick Lawrence in August 1946: “Last weekend has seen dreadful riots in Calcutta. The estimates of casualties are 3,000 dead and 17,000 injured. The Bengal Congress is convinced that all the trouble was deliberately engineered by the Muslim League Ministry, but no satisfactory evidence to that effect has reached me yet. It is said that the decision to have a public holiday on 16th August was the cause of trouble, but I think this is very far-fetched. There was a public holiday in Sind and there was no trouble there. At any rate, whatever the causes of the outbreak, when it started, the Hindus and Sikhs were every bit as fierce as Muslims. The present estimate is that appreciably more Muslims were killed than the Hindus”.

Jinnah realized that staying out of the cabinet would be a tactical error as it would give the Congress a free reign over policies at a time when the British were seriously contemplating a transfer of power. A coalition interim government was formed in October 1946. Pandit Nehru served as the prime minister of the interim government, Sardar Patel was the home minister, while Liaqat Ali Khan became the finance minister.

So intense was the animosity between the League and the Congress that the interim government became an arena for political one-upmanship rather than a platform for efficient administration. There was daily acrimony between the two sides. The League and Congress ministers held separate meetings. Instead of a give and take required in a democratic setup, each side sought to curtail the activities of the other. Liaquat Ali used his position as the finance minister to subject the Congress ministries to intense scrutiny. Bitterness grew among the cabinet members. Far from cementing a working relationship between the Congress and the League, the experience of the coalition interim government solidified the conviction of even reluctant observers that partition was inevitable.

Mountbatten was eager to finish the job of power transfer and return to London. He pushed the idea of partition, converted Nehru and Patel to his point of view and sold the project to the British cabinet. A divided India was more to the liking of Churchill who was now the opposition leader in the British parliament. Jinnah was still under the impression that partition would bring the provinces of Punjab and Bengal in their entirety into Pakistan. It came as a shock to him when the Congress advanced the position in March 1947 that partition of the subcontinent would also mean a partition of the great provinces of Punjab and Bengal. Only the Muslim majority districts would be included in Pakistan. East Punjab and West Bengal would stay in India. The 572 princely states were given the option of acceding to either India or Pakistan keeping in view their geography and the wishes of their people. Jinnah argued passionately to keep Punjab and Bengal united in Pakistan but failed to convince Mountbatten of his position. Reluctantly, he agreed to “a moth-eaten Pakistan”.

Widespread riots engulfed the Punjab starting in March 1947 and continuing through the end of the year. Ethnic cleansing on a scale rarely witnessed in human history was practiced on both sides of the new proposed border. No one knows how many innocent Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs perished in the riots. Estimates range from half a million to two million. Entire villages were decimated. Towns went up in flames. Thousands of women were abducted and raped. Children were burned. Fifteen million refugees crossed the new border.

Hindustan wept even as it rejoiced. And the new nations of India and Pakistan came into existence immersed in flames of hatred and soaked in rivers of blood. They have fought three wars and a fourth has been narrowly avoided.

Ibn Khaldun, the celebrated father of historical sciences wrote in his Muqaddmah, “The science of history is a noble, useful and honorable discipline because it shows us the character and events of previous generations. It throws light on the paths of the Prophets and informs us of the condition of rulers in the context of politics and governance so that if one wants to follow them, one may use history as a guideline”. There are lessons in the partition of British India for future generations.

Of late, there is movement towards a détente between India and Pakistan. I hope that the process continues, leading to lasting peace in the subcontinent and prosperity for the teeming millions of South Asia.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.