AN EXAMINATION OF THE COMMUNAL VIOLENCE SURROUNDING THE PARTITIONING OF INDIA

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11 December 1999

 

The motion picture Earth, released in 1998, examines events taking place during the summer months of 1947 in the city of Lahore, in what is today Pakistan. The story unfolds in the days leading up to the independence and partitioning of India into two sovereign nations: India and Pakistan. Though the film centers on fictional characters, the events in the picture provide a factual representation of the unprecedented communal violence that accompanied independence. The result of which cost the lives of one million men, women and children, and led to the displacement of twelve million people from their homes.

The movie painted in broad strokes the religious differences that led up to the eventual partitioning of the nation and the accompanying violence. However, the film failed to address whether the communal violence was fueled by factors other than religion and if the bloodshed was avoidable to begin with.

The motion picture represented my first intellectual encounter with this issue. Upon viewing the film, my instinctive reaction, as a person of Indian heritage, was to ask what had driven my fellow countrymen to commit these atrocities against each other. Since these events occurred during the final days of Great Britainís colonial rule of India, was Britain therefore somehow a conspirator in this catastrophe? My desire to blame someone but my own countrymen fueled the original thesis of this paper: to demonstrate Great Britainís responsibility for the holocaust that accompanied the partition of India. However, upon investigating this subject matter, I have found that history does not always lend itself to form such indisputable conclusions.

In researching the topic of the paper, it became evident that the communal violence arose from ancient religious differences manifested in modern territorial demands. Though Britain did not play a role in creating the religious distinctions, their actions during this period were a contributing factor to the magnitude of the civil unrest. Britain, prior to the granting of independence, was still the governing body for the subcontinent. They were responsible for maintaining law and order, a crucial task at which they so abysmally failed. This paper will examine events during the process of independence and demonstrate that Britain, through ill-conceived policies during their final stages of rule in India, must shoulder, along with the governments of India and Pakistan, responsibility for the resulting violence.

Clement Atlee, Prime Minister of Britain, on February 20, 1947 announced the intention of granting independence to India by June 1948. Accompanying this announcement was the appointment of Louis Mountbatten as the Viceroy of India, the highest representative of the British government on the subcontinent (Campbell-Johnson 364). As Viceroy, Mountbatten was assigned the duty of effecting independence by ensuring the smooth transfer of power. During the course of the next nine months, decisions by Mountbatten and the main political parties of India would tragically affect the lives of millions. Though the subcontinent achieved independence, the decisions that accomplished this goal were fraught with mistakes - mistakes that cost the lives of countless people.

Though the ethnic strife examined in this paper occurred primarily in 1947, it is necessary to look much further back in time for the roots of the conflict.

The principal cause for the communal violence lay in the religious differences between the two main faiths of the subcontinent - Islam and Hinduism.

Hinduism had been brought to India in 200BC by Indo-European conquerors descending from central Asia upon the original inhabitants of the subcontinent, the Dravidians. The Islamic faith arrived in 1192 by way of Muslim invaders. Beginning in 1527 and continuing through 1757, Muslim Mughal emperors imposed their unbending rule over most of India.

The two faiths planted on the subcontinent were not only dissimilar but quite opposite in their beliefs. Where Islam was founded by a prophet, Mohammed and follows a precise text, the Koran, Hinduism was a religion without a founder, structured liturgy or a churchly establishment. A Hindu worshipped a God in almost any form he chose, whether it be in the form of animals, spirits, planets or natural forces. To the Muslim, there was but one God, Allah, and the Koran forbade the faithful to represent him in any shape or form. A Hindu temple was a kind of spiritual shopping center, a clutter of goddesses, elephants, monkeys and other religious idols. A mosque was quite the opposite. It was a spare, solemn place, in which the only decorations permitted were abstract designs and the repeated representation of the ninety-nine names of God (Collins and Lapierre 36).

A further barrier to Hindu-Muslim understanding lay in their social differences. Hindu society was based on a caste system according to which every member belonged in a specific social tier. This ranged from the highest caste, Brahmans, to the lowest caste, the Untouchables. To Muslims, Islam was a brotherhood of the faithful devoid of any such caste system. Millions of Hindus who found themselves in the lowest caste converted to Islam in order to escape their misery. This action was never forgotten by the Hindu faithful.

To the social and religious differences had been added an even more divisive distinction: economic. With the arrival of the British in the early nineteenth century, the Hindus had been far swifter than the Muslims to seize the opportunities that British education had provided. Consequently, the Hindus became the bankers and industrialists of India. In the towns and villages, Hindus through their roles as moneylenders became the dominant commercial community.

By the early twentieth century, the Hindu and Muslim communities in India became increasingly divisive. Therefore, it was a natural progression that these differences begin to manifest themselves in the expanding political arena.

The Indian drive for independence gathered momentum in 1915 and involved Hindus and Muslims working together to achieve their common goal. Mohandas Gandhi, decided that the freedom struggle should take on the guise of a religious crusade. Unfortunately, the ranks of the main political party in India at the time, the Congress Party, were filled with Hindus. The movement thus took on a predominantly Hindu tone, causing Muslims to become suspicious of the Partyís intentions. Compounding the situation further was the refusal by some Congress leaders to share power with the Muslims, thus leading to the Muslims creating their own political party: the Muslim League. Muslims began to feel that once India achieved its independence, they would be condemned to the existence of a powerless minority. Following Britainís announcement in June 1946 of its desire to grant India independence, the Muslims League felt their only course of action was to demand the creation of a separate Islamic nation.

It was with the introduction of political differences that the building rivalry of Indiaís Muslim and Hindu communities exploded into violence.

The Muslim League declared August 16, 1946 to be "Direct Action Day". The purpose of the day was to demonstrate to Britain and the Congress Party that Indiaís Muslims were prepared to achieve the goal of their own nation by "Direct Action" if necessary. Muslim mobs, agitated by hired criminal elements and fueled by their mistrust of Hindus, answered the call of their party by storming through the streets of Calcutta attacking Hindus. This action in turn saw retaliatory strikes by Hindu mobs intent on slaughtering Muslims. In a period of twenty-four hours, six thousand people lay dead (Mosley 35-37). Horrifying, and without precedent, this episode was but an inkling of events to come.

Religious, social, economic and political differences that had developed over the course of history now threatened to engulf the nation in violence. By September 1946, fueled by the recent events in Calcutta, India was precariously close to nation-wide riots. The country desperately required leadership from a body impartial to both Hindu and Muslim callings. India needed Britain to provide the wisdom and statesmanship to guide the country through this period of uncertainty and onto a new era as an independent nation. Unfortunately, Britain at so crucial a moment in history demonstrated neither wisdom nor statesmanship.

Clement Atleeís announcement of February 1947 to grant India independence by June 1948 was in actuality made at Mountbattenís insistence. Mountbatten, a legendary naval officer, was reluctant to assume the position of Viceroy because it would hinder his naval career objectives. However, Mountbattenís sense of duty to Britain made him painfully aware that he did not have a choice in the matter. He would therefore accept the role but under certain conditions, the most important of which was the announcement of an independence date. Mountbatten believed that the announcement of this date would ensure that all parties involved would be forced to resolve any issues that lay on the road to independence, thereby, allowing his return to the British Navy (Campbell-Johnson 19). This condition was but the first of several mistakes by Britain that helped fuel the communal violence.

Following Atleeís announcement, the Muslim League, informed that independence for India was just over a year away, decided the time had come to step up their demands for an Islamic nation. Their calls were answered by the party faithful in the form of demonstrations. However, more often than not, the demonstrations would lead to clashes with Hindu party activists determined to maintain a united India. With each confrontation, the mutual feelings of distrust between Hindus and Muslims were embedded deeper in their social psyche.

Though Mountbattenís decision to impose an independence date provided a definitive goal to work toward, it was based entirely on personal preferences. The decision was cast without Mountbatten meeting any of the Indian political leaders and hearing first hand their political objectives. This was but the first of many decisions Mountbatten would make that failed to take into consideration its consequences.

Within days of his arrival in India, Mountbatten was receiving reports of scattered violence. The rising tension between Hindus and Muslims were frequently erupting into violence. Mountbatten further discovered that the government with which he was supposed to govern India, a coalition of the Congress Party and the Muslim League, was in fact an assembly of enemies so bitterly divided that its members barely spoke to one another. Confronted by a divided government and daily reports of increasing violence, Mountbatten in a letter to Atlee on April 2, 1947 wrote "the only conclusion I have been able to come to is that unless I act quickly, I will find the beginnings of a civil war on my hands" (Collins and Lapierre 96). In accordance with his beliefs, Mountbatten brought forward the date of independence to August 1947.

Mountbatten was essentially stating that since Britain would soon lose control of events, it would be in the best interest of the British Government to depart from India. Mountbatten had decided on only his tenth day in India that the British Government, after ruling the subcontinent for over a century, should accelerate its plans to return to Britain. Whatever may occur in India after that time would be the responsibility of the Indians. This was not the level of statesmanship India so desperately needed from Britain. It was in fact another example of Mountbatten failing to take into consideration the consequences of his decisions.

Over the course of the next few weeks, reports of violence continued to arrive at the Viceroyís office. The civil police had ceased to function effectively. Meanwhile, the local political leaders who ought to have been working to restore calm were often taking the lead in whipping up popular frenzy. Mountbatten and the leaders of the Congress Party all felt a catastrophe awaited India. Partition, however painful it might be, was the only way to save the country. Accordingly, on June 2, 1947 Mountbatten announced the plan to create two nations ñ India and the Islamic nation of Pakistan.

Was Partition really necessary? The previous Viceroy of India, Lord Wavell, had argued that Mountbatten should not have agreed to Partition and should not have set a date for departing India. According to Wavell, it was entirely feasible that the Muslim League in a year or two would have gotten tired of its opposition to a united India. Even if the League had not taken a more positive attitude, the Muslim masses of India would probably have grown to reject the Leagueís negative attitudes.

With the decision to partition the subcontinent, the logical issue to be addressed was the location of the boundary lines. The British government, aware that the geographical boundaries for India and Pakistan could not be left to Indian politicians, assigned the task to an English lawyer - Sir Cyril Radcliffe. Though highly regarded in legal circles, Radcliffe was neither a cartographer nor an expert on India. Yet, he was assigned the responsibility of carrying out the most complex task involved in Indiaís partition. Compounding his inexperience in Indian matters, was the allotted time in which to complete his task. Christopher Beaumont, Radcliffeís secretary, remarked "Radcliffe had never been east of Gibraltar in his life, and he was a bit flummoxed by the whole thing. It was a rather impossible assignment, really. To partition that subcontinent in six weeks was absurd" (McGirck Screen 2). Mountbattenís wish to abide by the original date set for independence was the reason Radcliffe was allotted such little time.

The remorseless demand for speed had given him no alternative but to work in the solitude of his residence. Cut off from any human contact with the nation he was dividing, Radcliffe was forced to visualize the impact of his work with only maps, dated population tables and statistics to guide him. The land to be divided covered 175,000 square miles and was home to eighty-eight million people. The result of his work separated farmers from their fields, canals from their headwaters and families from their next of kin and thus opened a Pandoraís box of communal horror.

Could a better means by which to determine the boundaries have been devised? The essential factor in Radcliffeís situation was time: he had to complete the award in little more than one month. Given a few months, a committee could have been organized to compile a detailed survey of human and economic patterns in the area to be partitioned. This would have provided accurate logistical data upon which to draw up the boundary lines. The right course would have been to present the boundary award well ahead of the transfer date, thereby allowing time to make the necessary adjustments, in movement of the population, if necessary, and in the negotiation of mutual arrangements for access to facilities in the neighboring country. The only forward planning in response to the boundary awards took the form of a special military force created to confront civil unrest. Tragically, this force was ill prepared to deal with the horror that lay before them.

The Punjab Boundary Force was created with the purpose of containing any strife that would arise in the partitioned areas. However, the size and composition of the force proved to be inadequate for the task.

The force consisted of three divisions and totaled fifty thousand men. Of the twenty-nine districts affected by the partition, the two largest would each require one division, thereby leaving only one third of the Boundary Force to guard the remaining twenty-seven districts (Moon 95). Complicating the situation was the composition of the Boundary Force. A large component of the Boundary Force, as well as that of the entire army, was drafted from the areas now affected by partition. Thus, upon witnessing the communal strife, a large portion of the troops would be infected by the communal virus and hence prove unreliable (Moon 278). The failure of the Boundary Force provided further evidence of gross miscalculations by Mountbatten in failing to foresee events.

The only alternative would have been to use the British Army to maintain order. However, there does not exist any evidence that this option was ever considered by Mountbatten or the British Government.

Accentuating the civil unrest was the lack of government infrastructure in the partitioned areas. The frantic pace set by Mountbatten left little time to separate all the Muslim and non-Muslim police, magistracy and other civil officials and settle them in their appropriate stations in the new nations. The reshuffling of civilian officials took place during the Partition itself. So during this crucial period engulfed in strife, many civil officials were still in transit to their posts or had just reached them only to find the populace in a state of turmoil.

Instead of rushing through partition in two and a half months, while the areas affected by partition were still seething with passion, Mountbatten should have stuck to the timetable originally laid down by the British Government. This would have enabled the areas to be brought under control before independence took place. If this had been done, the withdrawal of British authority and setting up of the two new governments could have been effected in a more organized manner and in a calmer atmosphere.

The communal violence of 1947 finally ended. However, it was not the force of a military unit or the political parties of India or Pakistan that bought about an end to the hostilities. Rather it was the efforts of one man ñ Mohandas Gandhi. In an effort to halt the senseless violence, Gandhi began a fast that he vowed to stop only when the bloodshed ceased. The willingness of a frail seventy-eight year old man to sacrifice his life captured the attention of the entire subcontinent and in turn ended the carnage.

Mountbatten during his tenure as the last Viceroy, set about on a frantic pace to resolve the issue of independence. Thus executing decisions commonly defined by their lack of consideration for their consequences.

Did this policy simply lack sound judgement, or, was it indicative of a hidden agenda of malicious intent?

Though evidence has not been discovered to indicate malicious intent, interpretation of Mountbattenís actions would lead one to conclude that his personal interests and those of Great Britain took precedence in his decisions. Mountbatten had inherited a situation, which in his opinion was beyond his control. Therefore, his only course of action was for Britain, in an expedient manner, to be rid of the escalating problems of India. Truly, a sad end to an empire in which India had been its most valued possession.

The legacy of Partition continues to surface today in the disputed area of Kashmir. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over the predominantly Muslim state in northern India and continue to report almost daily skirmishes. To this day each side interprets, to its own benefit, the border of their nation as it passes through Kashmir, a boundary drawn up by Sir Cyril Radcliffe over fifty years ago.

One million people died and twelve million people lost their homes. The storm that accompanied Indiaís independence left a path of destruction across the Indo-Pakistan frontier.

It need not have happened. It would not have happened had the leaders of Indiaís political parties soothed the religious differences of their people rather than exploit them for political gain. It would not have happened on such a horrific scale had Britain given consideration to the consequences of its actions rather than execute policy at such a frantic rate.

Avoidable blunders cost the lives of so many people.

History is filled with mistakes. The most tragic of which are those from which we do not learn. This is why Britain must acknowledge its responsibility for the outcome of events in India. The late twentieth century has witnessed many examples of nations admitting their role during the darker periods of mankind. The United States acknowledged its role in the slavery of Africans; the Swiss admitted their responsibility as bankers for Germanyís Nazi regime and more recently Japan has begun to acknowledge its tyrannical actions during World War II. Britain would be wise to follow these examples, for unless you admit your mistakes, you cannot cite them as examples of wrongdoing and hence, cannot consider them lessons for the future.

In the course of researching this paper, I examined a large volume of work on Indian independence, the majority of which was prepared by Indian, Pakistani and British authors. Reflected in their work was the emotion that they undoubtedly felt toward this subject. It was this same emotional reasoning that led to my investigating this topic. The facts have revealed that the Indian and Pakistani leaders were just as responsible for the outcome of events as were the British. However, only one entity was responsible for governing the subcontinent at the time - Britain. Fifty years have passed since millions of people lost their lives, loved ones or at the very least their possessions. Another fifty years should not have to pass before the leaders of Britain, India and Pakistan admit that their political objectives cost the lives of so many of my countrymen.

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