History History & Theory Partition South Asia

India and Pakistan: Traumatic Partition and the Elusive Independence

By Lal Khan

August 14th and 15th are celebrated as the days of independence of Pakistan and India from direct British imperialist rule. It is celebrated with great pomp and fervour, prompted by the state and the corporate media. The official historians of the ruling classes both in India and Pakistan have their own interpretations of the struggle for independence, suiting the interests of their bosses. However, this independence came about in the midst of a traumatic partition of the Subcontinent into two truncated states, Pakistan and India, accompanied by a communal holocaust. A frenzy of madness and a ferocious campaign of murder were unleashed on a religious and ethnic basis.

More than 750,000 people were slaughtered, hundreds of thousands maimed, and 12 million fled their homes — primarily in caravans of bullock-carts and blood-spattered trains — to seek refuge across the new border in what was the largest exodus in history. The outpouring of sexual savagery left scars that time has failed to cleanse. In Punjab, the atrocities cursing its inhabitants were embellished by an orgy of rape. Tens of thousands of girls and women were seized from crowded trains, refugee caravans and isolated villages in the most sickening spree of abductions in modern times.

In their renowned book, Freedom at Midnight, Lapierre and Collins narrate the baseness of this communal bestiality: “If they were Sikh or Hindu, a woman’s abduction was usually followed by a religious ceremony, a forced conversion to make a girl worthy of her Muslim captor’s auctioned possession in his home or harem… The Sikhs’ tenth Guru (Gobind Singh 1666-1675) had specifically enjoined his followers against sexual intercourse with Muslim women. The inevitable result was a legend among the Sikhs that Muslim women were capable of particular sexual prowess. Under the impact of events in the Punjab, the Sikhs forgot the Guru’s admonishment and gave free reign to their fantasies. With morbid frenzy, they fell on Muslims everywhere, until a trade in kidnapped Muslim girls flourished in their parts of the Punjab.”

However, the prelude to this nightmare was a mass uprising starting in August 1945, and culminating in the revolutionary insurrection of the ‘sailors’ revolt’ in February 1946, that led to a proletarian uprising and a revolutionary situation throughout the Subcontinent. The failure of the CPI leadership to grasp the moment diverted the course of history to such a traumatic fate. Already in 1942, the British Raj was losing control of the situation. On August 31, the viceroy to India, Lord Linlithgow, informed Winston Churchill in a secret telegram: “I am engaged here in meeting by far the most serious rebellion since that of 1857, the gravity and extent of which we have to conceal form the world…” As far back as February 1931, Churchill had declared in the House of Commons: “The loss of India would be final and fatal to us. It could not fail to be part of a process that would reduce us to the scale of a minor power.”

The message of this sailors’ rebellion of 1946 started to spread by word of mouth and then over the radio — the radio station had been taken over by the rebels — to military garrisons and barracks across India. Some of the sailors’ leaders broadcast the message of the uprising, as well as revolutionary songs and poetry around-the-clock. The revolt spread to 74 ships, 20 fleets and 22 units of the navy along the coast, including the naval stations of Bombay, Calcutta, Karachi, Madras, Cochin and Vishapatam. On 20 February, only ten ships and two naval stations were not in complete revolt.

In the beginning, this revolt was considered to be spontaneous, but that is not completely true. On the eve of 19 February, a strike committee was formally set up. Signalman M S Khan and petty officer telegraph operator Madan Singh were unanimously elected president and vice president of the committee. Both of them were under the age of 25 years. One was a Muslim and the other a Sikh: this was a conscious act to reject the religious divide being fed into the liberation movement by the native bourgeois leaders and their British masters.

Gandhi condemned this uprising of the sailors outright. The CPI leaders even lost the opportunity to link this naval revolt with the mass workers strikes taking place in the textile industry, on the railways and in other industrial sectors throughout India.

Congress and the Muslim League were afraid that revolutionary and class struggle ideas would penetrate into the movement they had done so much to tear apart along religious lines. They overtly and covertly intrigued to crush the revolt. In spite of this betrayal and the contemptuous attitude of the national bourgeois leaders, the revolutionary momentum of the uprising continued unabated, and the whole country was filled with the echoes of the slogan “long live the revolution!”

On 21 February, British shock troops opened fire on the sailors as they came out of their barracks in the Bombay fortress. This provocation changed a peaceful uprising into an armed rebellion. On 22 and 23 February, the imperialist forces martyred 250 sailors and workers. According to some eyewitness accounts, on 21 February, it seemed that the oppressed masses of the whole Subcontinent had risen up in a revolutionary movement against British rule. Navy Admiral Godfrey ordered the rebellious sailors to “surrender or perish”. In the early hours of 24 February it was evident that with the betrayal of the native political leadership the only option was to surrender and lay down arms. At 0600 hours on 24 February 1946, black flags were raised to announce surrender. In its last session, the strike committee passed a resolution that stated:

“Our uprising was an important historical event in the lives of our people. For the first time the blood of uniformed and non-uniformed workers flowed in one current for the same collective cause. We the workers in uniform shall never forget this. We also know that you, our proletarian brothers and sisters shall also never forget this. The coming generations, learning its lessons shall accomplish what we have not been able to achieve. Long live the working masses. Long live the Revolution.”

This episode stands out, however, as one of the greatest chapters in the history of the struggle for independence from British rule. Although this uprising was defeated, the movement showed the British what lay ahead. As a direct result of this uprising, the British Prime Minister Clement Atlee announced that the British would leave India before June 1948. Such was the blow inflicted on the confidence of the British rulers that they were forced to beat a retreat. The British, in connivance with subcontinent’s bourgeois leaders, hastened the process of Partition along ethnic and religious lines. After this episode, the British imperialists were determined not to leave the subcontinent united. Already Churchill had described Hindu-Muslim antagonism as, “a bulwark of British rule in India…were it to be resolved their concord would result in the united communities joining in showing us the door.”

The claims of official historians in India and Pakistan propping up elite politicians as having led the “independence struggle” and routed the imperialists are fabricated. The decisive role of the naval uprising and the revolutionary wave raging across the subcontinent was conceded by the then-Prime Minister Clement Attlee a decade later as a guest of P.V. Chuckraborty, the governor of West Bengal. In his letter of March 30th 1976, Chuckraborty wrote: “I put it straight to him (Attlee) like this: ‘The Quit India Movement of Ghandi died out long before 1947 and there was nothing in the Indian situation at that time, which made it necessary for the British to leave India in a hurry. Why then did they do so?’ In reply Attlee cited several reasons the most important were the revolt of the INA (Indian National Army)… and the RIN (Royal Indian Navy) Mutiny which made the British realize that the Indian armed forces could no longer be trusted to prop up the British.’ When asked about the extent to which the British decision to quit India was influenced by Mahatma Ghandi’s movement, Attlee’s lips widened in a smile of disdain and he uttered, slowly, ‘Minimal’.”

The true role of Gandhi and his ilk was clearly understood by the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. In 1939, on the eve of the catastrophes of World War II he explained:

“The Indian bourgeoisie is incapable of leading a revolutionary struggle. They are closely bound up with and dependent upon British capitalism. They tremble for their own property. They stand in fear of the masses. They seek compromises with British imperialism no matter what the price and lull the Indian masses with hopes of reforms from above. The leader and prophet of this bourgeoisie is Gandhi. A fake leader and a false prophet! Gandhi and his compeers have developed a theory that India’s position will constantly improve, that her liberties will continually be enlarged and that India will gradually become a Dominion on the road of peaceful reforms. Later on, perhaps even achieve full independence. This entire perspective is false to the core. The imperialist classes were able to make concessions to colonial peoples as well as to their own workers, only so long as capitalism marched uphill, so long as the exploiters could firmly bank on the further growth of profits. Nowadays there cannot even be talk of this. World imperialism is in decline.”

Trotsky explained further that during the war, “exploitation of the colonies will become greatly intensified. The metropolitan centres will not only pump from the colonies foodstuffs and raw materials, but they will also mobilise vast numbers of colonial slaves who are to die on the battlefields for their masters. Meanwhile, the colonial bourgeoisie will have its snout deep in the trough of war orders and will naturally renounce opposition in the name of patriotism and profits. Gandhi is already preparing the ground for such a policy. These gentlemen will keep drumming: ‘We must wait patiently till the war ends — and then London will reward us for the assistance we have given.’ As a matter of fact, the imperialists will redouble and triple their exploitation of the toilers both at home and especially in the colonies so as to rehabilitate the country after the havoc and devastation of the war. In these circumstances there cannot even be talk of new social reforms in the metropolitan centres or of grants of liberties to the colonies. Double chains of slavery — that will be the inevitable consequence of the war if the masses of India follow the politics of Gandhi, the Stalinists and their friends.”

The role of the Muslim political elite in the struggle for liberation from the British was no better than the Gandhi clique’s. In the last analysis, independence was not won through a fight against imperialist rule but through agreements and rotten compromises at the top, in mortal fear of the growing unrest from below. But the ebb of the revolutionary upsurge of the workers and sailors allowed an opening for the religious question, which began to dominate politics. A generation earlier, Jinnah had warned Ghandi against mixing religion with politics. This man, who would one day be hailed as the father of Pakistan, had first been exposed to the idea at a black-tie dinner at London’s Waldorf Hotel in the spring of 1933. His host was Rahmat Ali, the Cambridge graduate student who had outlined the idea for a Muslim state in the Subcontinent on paper. The so-called “Now or Never” Pakistan Declaration of January 28, 1933, drafted by Rahmat Ali, received a “chilly rebuff” from Jinnah. “Pakistan”, said Jinnah — at the time a staunch proponent of Hindu-Muslim unity — “was an impossible dream”.

A decade later, Jinnah presided over a party whose candidates pulled religious strings to win electoral contests. But the arc of Jinnah’s political trajectory merely augments that of Indian politics as a whole. Congress was largely a secular organisation in the first two decades of the twentieth century. The emergence of Ghandi gave poise to religious chauvinists. The very fact that he brought spiritual sensibilities to the centre of politics stirred up punishing, divisive and contentious passions. Fundamentalist Hindu organisations were rarely present in the political mainstream before Ghandi. With Gandhi’s encouragement, religiosity infiltrated politics, often under the guise of “interfaith harmony” organisations like the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang, which fomented the notion of a Hindu nation. In periods of retreat of the class struggle, the ranks of these organisations swelled.

The elites of all religions also used this divisive religiosity for their interests and benefits. Muslim businessmen foresaw new independent markets, free from the competition of Hindu capitalists. Landlords hoped for the perpetuation of the Zamindari system. To the orthodox on every side, a theocratic state was conceived, in which officials and bureaucrats would find short cuts to seniority the more piously they postured. Such was the madness and lust for possessions during partition that the Islamic fundamentalists wanted the Taj Mahal broken up and shipped to Pakistan because a Moghul had built it. The Hindu chauvinists insisted that the Indus River, flowing through flowing through Pakistan, should somehow be theirs because their sacred Vedas were supposedly written on its banks more than two millennia ago.

However, the trauma of partition could still have been avoided had it not been the treacherous role of the leaders of the Congress. After the defeat of the Tories under Churchill in the 1945 elections in Britain, Labour won a landslide, to the surprise of many. The left reformist Labour leaders were terrified of the prospect of the harrowing bloodshed and conflagration they could foresee in the wake of a partition of the Indian subcontinent on religious lines. On 22 March 1946, Clemente Attlee sent a Cabinet Mission to Delhi — Lord Pethick-Lawrence, Sir Stafford Cripps, and Albert Victor Alexander — to resolve the crisis of transition of power to native politicians and prevent the holocaust of partition.

After protracted deliberations with the native political leaders, no agreement could be reached. Ultimately, the Cabinet Mission came up with its own “Constitutional Award” on May 16th. This envisaged a united India, including the princely states, with a federal government in charge of defence, foreign affairs and communications, along with a federal parliament and provincial governments with wide powers. The confederating units would be A — comprised of Hindu majority areas and sections — while B and C would include the Muslim-majority North western regions and Bengal-Assam respectively. A constitution was to be framed for the three sub federations, into which federal, independent India was to be administratively divided.

On June 6th 1946, Jinnah and the Muslim League accepted the Constitutional Award put forward by the Cabinet mission. By doing this Jinnah in fact had rescinded the Pakistan Resolution of 23rd March 1940, passed in the Lahore declaration and practically abandoned the partition of the subcontinent. Meanwhile, the Congress presidency had passed from Maulana Abul Kalam Azad to Jawaharlal Nehru in May 1946. Viceroy Lord Wavell saw it as an opportunity to accept Jinnah’s demand that the decision to nominate Muslim representatives to the interim cabinet be the sole prerogative of the Muslim League.

The Congress leaders could not arrive at a consensus to accept or reject the Constitutional Award. Reluctantly, after being pressurised by various quarters, they accepted it with conditionalities attached, but refused Wavell’s invitation to join the proposed interim government. Their gamble was that it would be next to impossible for Wavell to appoint a cabinet led by Jinnah without the participation of Congress. Their calculations proved to be correct. Wavell withdrew his offer on June 16th. Jinnah was deprived of his life-long ambition to be the head of the state of United India. Jinnah felt cheated by the Congress leaders but also considered the attitude and actions of Cabinet Mission members to be treacherous. Nehru was jubilant at the crushing of his adversary’s fondest dream. On July 7th at a press conference after the AICC session, an overconfident Nehru threw a spanner in the works. He said that his party had only agreed to participate in the Constituent Assembly, and once convened, the Assembly would have the power to change the Constitutional Award’s provisions, if it so wished, and the confederal units scheme would most likely not materialise at all. Dilip Hero in his recent book “The Longest August” assails Nehru for his role in instigating Partition: “Nehru’s discreet, aggressive statement finally and irrevocably killed the scenario of a united, independent India. It led Jinnah to withdraw the League’s acceptance of the Constitutional award. This was the last in a series of landmark events — all of these wrought by the Congress Party — which culminated in the partition of the subcontinent”.

Commenting on these events, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, in his book “India Wins Freedom”, dedicated to “Jawaharlal Nehru, friend and comrade”, attributed the episode as follows:

“This was one of the greatest tragedies of the Indian History and I have to say with the deepest regret that a large part of the responsibility for this development rests with Jawaharlal. His unfortunate statement that Congress would be free to modify the Cabinet Mission Plan reopened the whole question of political and communal settlement. Mr Jinnah took full advantage of his [Nehru’s] mistake and withdrew from the League’s early acceptance of the Plan”.

In most of the works on Partition, Gandhi is portrayed as the crusader of unity. Azad, his close associate and the former president of Congress, wrote about Gandhi’s position on Partition: “But when I met Gandhiji again, I had the greatest shock of my life to find that he had changed. He was still not openly in favour of Partition but he no longer spoke so vehemently against it. What surprised and shocked me even more was that he began to repeat the arguments, which Sardar Patel had already used. For over two hours I pleaded with him, but could make no impression on him”.

As the plains of Punjab and Bengal were being drenched with innocent blood from the post-Partition massacres of communal frenzy, Gandhi, one of the chief architects of instilling religious venom into the politics of the subcontinent, chose the posh Birla House, the spacious mansion of the textile millionaire Ghanshyam Das Birla, his long-term patron and financier, to preach his “spiritual nonviolence” demagogy. Nehru described the situation in India that fateful August as “a ship on fire in mid-ocean with ammunition in hold”. Across the controversial Radcliff line, Governor General Jinnah was on a visit to Lahore in those turbulent times. His rehabilitation minister, Mian Iftikharuddin, and editor of the Pakistan Times, Mazhar Ali Khan, flew him over the divided Punjab. He reportedly struck his forehead with a hand in a sign of remorse and said, “What have I done?”

With the defeat of the revolutionary upsurge of 1946, partition had become inevitable. The imperialists and their native stooges could not have risked a united subcontinent, as the struggle of independence would not have halted at the stage of national liberation. It would have pushed relentlessly forward towards social and economic liberation, overthrowing the rotten capitalism left behind by the British Raj to perpetuate imperialist plunder and the loot of the native bourgeois. Sixty-eight years since this elusive independence, the rulers of the South Asian Subcontinent are still pursuing the same policies of hate and prejudice that led to the bloody partition of 1947. The masses have suffered. According to a UNICEF report, the health conditions of masses are far worse today than they were during the imperialist occupation. This region has more than one-fifth of world’s population yet it holds more than 40 percent of the planet’s poverty. These are two nuclear-armed states, yet 44 percent of children suffer from stunted growth due to disease and malnutrition. The ruling classes in India and Pakistan have failed to carry out the tasks of creating modern, industrialised nation-states. None of the tasks of the national democratic revolution have been completed. The bigoted fundamentalists of the world’s oldest religion, Hinduism, now rule the largest democracy in the world, India. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, the ruling classes use religion to coerce the toiling masses with terror and black reaction perpetrated by the Islamic fundamentalists.

The masses have risen in revolts to challenge this exploitative and coercive capitalist system. The workers and youth of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have time and again risen in revolutionary upheaval, cutting across the religious and other prejudices of the past to demonstrate class unity and the capability of the working classes to challenge and change the system. The absence of a genuine Marxist leadership with sufficient roots in the class has always let them down and the movements have receded. They have endured many betrayals. But as long as there are classes the class struggle will surge again and again. A victory in any country of the Subcontinent will trigger revolutionary storms and upheavals in the whole region. Revolutions know no partitions and frontiers. In 1577, a unified state under Akbar, the Mughal emperor, stretched across the Subcontinent from Kabul to Rangoon. A revolutionary victory can lay the basis for a socialist federation of South Asia than can end this suffering and misery. It shall also undo the crimes of imperialism and their local toadies, who cynically carved the living body of people and cultures with history of common living for more than five millennia.

The renowned communist and poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote a long poem on 15 August 1947 on the morrow of partition, titled ‘Elusive Dawn’. The last stanza says the following:

There has been no easing
of the full weight of night.
Parched eyes, aching hearts are yet
to find their moment of deliverance.
Move forward;
the destiny we seek has still not yet arrived.