Thursday, Oct 06, 2022

Why Jaswant is wrong

Jaswant Singh’s book is a brilliant landmark encompassing accepted and contrarian views. According to him,Partition...

Jaswant Singh’s book is a brilliant landmark encompassing accepted and contrarian views. According to him,Partition (he uses the emotion-laden word “vivisection”) is the central event of 20th-century Indian history. Singh is wrong. The central event of the times was the ending of the British Raj. He argues that Nehru and Patel were as responsible for Partition as Jinnah. He is right. It is his position that Partition was a great mistake that is questionable.

Let’s look at the counter-factual “where would we be if Partition had not happened?” It’s impossible to say whether we would have been better or worse. We might have become a fractious violence-ridden Lebanon. We might have splintered into dozens of warring states,something that has happened before in our history. If things went well,we might have been a prosperous,happy utopia! This question does not have many takers among Pakistanis or Bangladeshis. Most of them,with a few exceptions,think that Partition was good. We must perforce take them at face value.

We need to look at the positions of Nehru and Patel based on the facts they knew and the bargaining chips they had in 1947. They were confronted by Muslim extremism and they had to reckon with the fact that the British would try to further their own interests and sabotage that which was not to their liking. Muslim extremists had two contradictory positions. The Muslim League position was that in a Hindu-majority India they would be overwhelmed. Their solution was to have Muslim-majority regions secede. The second extremist position (inspired by Deobandis and Ahrars) was that India was once ruled by Muslims and Muslims had a right to propagate all over India,not just in one part,and ultimately prevail. Conceding the secession of Muslim-majority areas,followed by other Muslims living in India as citizens of a secular civil society,was and,in hindsight,is far better than a so-called united country where large numbers are pursuing plans to “re-conquer” India.

While there is much to praise in Jinnah,he and his colleagues gave preference to collective rights and identities in contrast to the ideal of “individual citizenship”,the bedrock of the American and French revolutionary philosophies. For Napoleon,French Catholics or Jews were French “citoyens” in the public sphere doing whatever they wanted in their private spheres. For Jefferson,religious freedom in Virginia was to be exercised by individuals. To his credit,Nehru stood up for individual rights in the enlightenment tradition; he may have conceded a quasi-Marxian class consciousness,but never exclusive religious identity as the basis for citizenship.

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The British had a set of arguments which they both intellectually believed and which suited their self-interest:

— India is not a “nation”; only British “impartiality” kept this geographic tract together.

— The leadership of the Congress was dominated by radicals who would not support British interests post-Independence. They may even become pro-communist and pro-Soviet. A separate Pakistan would be


pro-British and would vigorously oppose atheistic communism and the Soviet Union.

— The Congress “stabbed Britain in the back” by launching the Quit India insurrection when Britain was in a desperate position after the fall of Singapore and Burma. It was typical of the Congress. They thought the Japanese would win and were trying to curry favour with the new conquerors. The Muslim League on the other hand had remained loyal and therefore deserved British sympathy and help.

— Creating a Muslim state in the Indian sub-continent would strengthen British relations with oil-rich Muslim states of the Middle East.


— Net-net the British were determined to allow secession,or at least the right to secession.

The Cabinet Mission Plan allowed for provinces and groups of provinces to secede after 10 years. This would have resulted in 10 years of wrangling and unrest followed by a break-up not dissimilar to that which happened later in Yugoslavia. The Congress rightly opposed this and realised that we needed to make a bargain with the British to get the best deal we can. The British after all were still the rulers. The two provinces of Punjab and Bengal had bare Muslim majorities (low 50 percentages) and these majorities despite some aberrations had some geographic consistency — western Punjab was predominantly Muslim and eastern Bengal was predominantly Muslim. Therefore,partitioning of these provinces could and did make sense. It has been wrongly argued by some that Nehru and Patel favoured centralisation while Jinnah and others preferred decentralisation. The centralisation debate was secondary. The issue was secession. Nehru and Patel were willing to live with a one-time secession but,like Lincoln,refused to countenance an ongoing “right of secession”. If the Cabinet Mission proposals had been accepted (as advocated by Seervai,Jaswant and others,who refer to it as the “last chance” for preserving a united India),one can be reasonably certain that in 1957 there would have been a partition and not just Lahore and Dacca but Jalandhar,Rohtak,Hisar as well as Calcutta,Asansol and Darjeeling would have separated from India leaving us with a husk of a country. In retrospect,rejecting the Cabinet Mission proposals which would have at best given India an illusory,unstable unity for a mere 10 years was among the smartest and most practical things that the Congress leadership did. The US had a civil war eight decades after independence. We may have avoided one 10 years after independence by agreeing to Partition.

Sardar Patel argued that we had a chance to develop 80 per cent of the country and the Muslim League were welcome to develop the other 20 per cent. This thought remains valid today — staying focused on development and less on rewriting history with hypothetical counter-factuals.

The writer divides his time between Mumbai,Lonavla and Bangalore

First published on: 01-09-2009 at 03:36:07 am
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