Written by Kamal Preet Kaur
The British deeply and ‘bitterly’ regretted dividing India. They were worried about the plight of the dalits, minorities, Sikhs, Anglo-Indians, princely states, and women as they left the country they had ruled. Some, including the then Prime Minister Clement Richard Attlee, thought that India and Pakistan would reunite after some time. Sounds strange? All of the above and more, while a matter of record, is not necessarily part of the popular public consciousness. Interestingly, some of the current climate in India and Pakistan, also finds an echo in speeches of the lawmakers thousands of miles away, seven decades ago.
Disclaimer: This piece is not an attempt to glorify the British or colonialism but to share the part of history that forever changed the connection between the ruler and the ruled. It’s a glimpse into what went inside the UK Parliament when the India Independence Bill was tabled. The speeches are a mix of oratory, commiserations, nostalgia, philosophy, poetry and historical events that took place 73 years ago. It is also a reflection of the characteristic British diplomacy at its best; the tone and tenor unabashedly self-congratulatory, balanced with expression of concern at leaving India “the way they found it” is simply astonishing.
One can almost hear the passion in the voice of Lord Pethick-Lawrence, 73 years after he said this in the House of Lords: “Mother India has been in ‘labor’ for a very long time, and everyone has been wondering what would be the character of the infant that would come into being. Lo and behold! Instead of one State emerging from the womb of Mother India, twin States are emerging”.
On the afternoon of July 10,1947, a hurriedly-prepared India Independence Bill was introduced to the House of Commons for the second reading by PM Clement Richard Attlee. In his hour-long speech, he said, “There have been many instances in history when States at the point of the sword have been forced to surrender government over another people. It is very rare for a people that have long enjoyed power over another nation to surrender it voluntarily…”.
“…just as India owes her unity and freedom from external aggression to the British, so the Indian National Congress itself was founded and inspired by men of our own race, and further, that any judgment passed on our rule in India by Indians is passed on the basis, not of what obtained in the past in India, but on the principles which we have ourselves instilled into them,” said Attlee.
What’s more noteworthy is this statement: “…I earnestly hope that this severance may not endure, and that the two new dominions, which we now propose to set up may, in course of time, come together again to form one great member State of the British Commonwealth of Nations.”
Prime Minister and other MPs, who appear to laud themselves over the generosity of their British spirit, eventually meet their match in a firebrand politician and campaigner for socialism Fife West MP Willie Gallacher. “…as he (Bromley MP H Macmillan) was describing all the wonderful things we had done for India, a question kept hammering in my head — if we had been doing so much for the Indian people, if we had been so concerned about their welfare, why, instead of asking us to get out, were they not begging us to remain?”
“Let anyone tell me that story about India and I will ask them why it is after 300 years of association with Britain that the caste system remains, and the untouchables are still there… The ruling class here with their kindred in India must take responsibility,” he further said.
Lord Indrajit Singh of Wimbledon, can’t agree more. Talking to the Indian Express, he said,“All major players during partition were at fault and the horrendous suffering of people could have been and should have been avoided. There could have been a united India with safeguard for all communities. But all that the British did was ‘divide and run’. Jinnah was at fault for insisting on a separate country and Pandit Nehru was more concerned about gaining power himself. It is a betrayal of humans by politicians. Millions of lives were lost and India was left a much poorer country.”
Of all the interesting speeches, one by MP for Saffron Walden RA Butler’s impassioned plea for Punjab stands out. “As Punjabi-born… I feel heartbroken…I would take this…last opportunity that Parliament will have, to make a special appeal…the only solution which, in my view, can mitigate the plight of the Sikhs. It is that the boundary commission should, in its wisdom, so define the boundary that the maximum portion of the Sikhs should be included in one area…”
Sharing his thoughts on the division of Punjab in context of Sikhs, World War veteran and Perth and East Perthshire MP Colonel Alan Gomme-Duncan said, “It is clear that no actual division of the ground will ever solve the Sikh problem unless there is a united Punjab… The Sikhs are a martial race. They are not likely to take things too calmly when things do not go the way they have had reason to think they would go.”
Reacting to this, Lord Singh say, “Nehru had promised to give Sikhs an autonomous place in the country where they could freely practice their faith, but later didn’t honour his own words.”
“I think that the division of the Punjab is nothing less than tragic… I believe that the Punjab…will be reunited within a few years,” said MP Godfrey Nicholson of Farnham.
Prof William Gould, a history teacher with a credible body of work on Indian Partition, shares the thought behind the unified Punjab idea. “I think there is a strong argument for the idea of Punjabi unity when you look back at the first four decades of the 20th Century, or earlier: Cities such as Lahore and Amritsar clearly had a cross-communal culture, and politically for the 1930s and early 1940s (following provincial autonomy), Punjab was governed by the Unionist Party which was a party based on Hindu, Muslim and Sikh alliances. If we look at the small Muslim majority in pre-partition Punjab, this politics of accommodation makes sense too – it was not in the interests of the majority community to attempt to control Punjab without reference to other communities.
Finally, we might also point to the shared economic interests of Punjab in the areas of agriculture, infrastructure (especially irrigation), and occupational traditions. In the lead up to Partition, Punjab not, until the very last minute, considered to be a province that should be physically divided and throughout M A Jinnah was entirely opposed to the idea of its partition. His vision was that the whole of Punjab should be contained within a future Pakistan state, and his argument was that a divided Punjab would be unviable. The idea of a dissected Punjab was used by the British in negotiations from 1946 (for example in the Cabinet Mission) as a kind of last resort or least preferred option as a means of attempting to get the parties to agree,” he explains.
Interestingly, another MP who hoped that the two dominions will reunite was Leyton West MP Sorensen. “I most earnestly hope and believe that in the course of time this partition of India will be bridged. For one thing, if it is proven in the days ahead that the Hindu minority within Pakistan and the Muslim minority within India have nothing to fear, but can live together in terms of sympathy and comradeship, that should surely supply the cement, which will ultimately unite these two peoples of India…”
Responding to how minorities in the two countries fare today, former MEP and current MP for Manchester Gorton Mohammed Afzal Khan, a ‘proud Punjabi’ says, “The then MPs knew that the fear element has to be taken out when they talk about minorities in both the countries. There needs to be a shift from extreme positions for peace to flourish between communities. It hasn’t taken place and hence we are still where we are. Leadership must take considerable responsibility for the sheer fact that it is in a position to make a difference to the lives of the people”. Without mentioning either Pakistan or India, Khan said, “Poor leadership plays divisive, divisional politics while good leadership shows fairness, justice and progress for all its people. Do you act like a bridge or do you become a wall that will determine the outcome? But we all should take some responsibility. Don’t complain about darkness, be the light, he says.
While debating on the India Independence Bill, Lester Hutchinson, MP for Manchester, Rusholme had termed the “question of Indian union or division” as two aspects of the same problem, which is that of Hindu-Muslim differences. “I do not think that partition is going to solve the differences; it is merely going to accentuate them. Imagine a situation where there are two powers on a territorial basis, each with a powerful army based and recruited on religious principles, without any attempt whatsoever being made to heal those essential differences. In my view, that would create the danger of catastrophe”.
Bringing the third reading of the Bill to the House soon after, the President of the Board of Trade, Sir Stafford Cripps, shot a reprimand to all his colleagues, “It is the inevitable outcome of a long history of difficulties and of tensions, of lost opportunities and human failures of which we have all had our share. None of us can point our finger at others and say, ‘But for you, all would have been well’.”
However, Bradford North MP Muriel Nichol had a sobering thought to share with her colleagues. “We ought to be reminding the people of our country that the high standard of life they enjoyed in years gone by was due in part to the great things that came out of India, worked for by the Indian people at incredibly low standards of living for themselves.”
Prof Sarah Ansari, South Asian history professor at Royal Holloway, University of London said, “I think MP Mrs Nichol has put her finger on the key point that the lives of people in Britain were the direct result of the lives of people in India, and that is so important for me as a historian. For me, Partition ‘is’ British history, particularly when we take into account how many people in the UK today have direct connections with the events of 1947 and their fall-out. Add to this that Partition triggered the largest twentieth-century displacement of people (perhaps as many as 14 million – we will never know the exact numbers), and it is clear why it is still so relevant to today’s world. The self-praise as recorded in Hansard being the stance of the government, is obvious and so cringe-worthy. What we see today can’t be removed from the past. The way two countries were set antagonistically from the very outset, even post-Independence most of the resources have gone into the Armed forces on both sides and not as much on education, health and elevating poverty.
Meanwhile, taking part in that debate, Sir John Anderson of Scottish Universities had remarked, “We are tonight witnessing the closing scenes of a drama, in which the action will take place, for the most part, off stage… How much of tragedy may be wrapped up in the strands of its tangled plot—and there may yet be tragedy—will not be known until the epilogue comes to be written—perhaps, many years hence.
What Midlothian and Peebles, Northern MP Lord John Hope said at that time, though supercilious, sums up where India and Pakistan need to go as countries and neighbours. “I would say in final farewell to India: Do not forget the law and order we gave you; do not forget the impartial justice we gave you; do not forget the tolerance and freedom of expression that we gave you. Of such quality is the light of the torch we now hand on to you. Do you keep it burning.”
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