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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 37, New Delhi, August 28, 2021

Drawing parallels: British Partition Plans for India and Palestine | Komal Deol

Friday 27 August 2021


by Komal Deol*

The Independence Day celebrations on 15th August 1947 were tempered by the tragedy of partition that accompanied India’s midnight ‘tryst with destiny’. Less than a year after the dominions of India and Pakistan came into existence, another nation state — Israel — was born in 1948 under similar catastrophic conditions involving mass migration and communal violence. Both these events were rooted in the philosophy of ethnic homogenization, in the belief that it’s not possible for different groups — religious, racial, cultural or otherwise — to co-exist together. Another common factor was the role played by the Imperial British, as troublemakers as well as middlemen.

The Story of Palestine

Zionism is an ancient concept which stands for the creation of a home for the Jewish people in Palestine, their “promised” land and ancestral home. Politically, it gained popularity in late 19th century in Europe as a national movement and was seen as a solution to anti-Semitic attitudes resulting in consistent persecution of Jews there. Here it’s pertinent to note that not all Jews are Zionists, some actively oppose the idea. From the 1880s, following the Russian pogroms, waves of Jewish migrants started to arrive in Palestine. But there was a problem— Palestine, which was under the control of Ottoman empire, was not an empty piece of land waiting to be occupied. It was already inhabited by Arabs, and also had a few Christian and Jewish settlements.

The First World War was a transformative event in Palestinian history. In its desperation to win the war, Britain had made multitudinous arrangements with numerous groups to appease them and win their support for its war efforts. One such promise was made to the Zionist leaders in London — Balfour Declaration 1917 — to facilitate the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people in Palestine”. This declaration was made in a letter by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild, a prominent leader of British Jewish Community. [1] Soon, British forces were able to wrestle Jerusalem from the Ottoman Empire. Arabs watched these developments suspiciously and recognized the challenge that Zionism posed.

After the War, the question of colonies belonging to the defeated German and Turkish powers had to be decided. These could not be taken over directly by the victor allied nations, since the annexation of territory was against purported war aims. A compromise was devised in the form of the Mandate System. Under the system, the responsibility to govern these territories was handed over to the allied nations, till the time they were capable of self-determination. The Treaty of Versailles, produced at the end of the World War, stated that these regions were ‘inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world’ and ‘tutelage of such peoples should be entrusted to advanced nations who by reason of their resources, their experience or their geographical position can best undertake this responsibility’. [2] It was a way for Britain and France to continue their old fashioned imperialism, disguised as enlightened guidance.

Mandate or authorization of Palestine, part of the now vanquished Ottoman Empire, was given to the British and this handover was approved by League of Nations in 1922. Britain was now responsible for the establishment of the Jewish national home, development of self-governing institutions and safeguarding the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race and religion. [3] This system proved to be problematic because the British now had to manage the national demands of Jewish and Arab communities, which were mutually exclusive.

In 1920, out of the total 700,000 Palestinian inhabitants, approximately 10% were Jews and most had entered Palestine in the last 40 years. As Zionism received support from the British under Balfour Promises and anti-Semitic attitudes rose in Europe, especially in Germany and Poland, by 1936 their proportion had risen to 30%. [4] The ever-growing Jewish community in Palestine was well organized. Fertile land was bought by land purchasing agencies Jewish National Fund and leased exclusively to Jews.
Federation of Jewish Labour was formed to promote their employment in Jewish enterprises and it developed its own military force, for defense purposes. In all this, they had British backing.

Arab Nationalism grew as a reaction to these developments and demanded control over Zionist immigration and land purchases. Britain was seen as an enemy as too; Palestinian land was not theirs to promise. Local Arabs felt increasingly threatened in their own land and this antagonism resulted in the Western Wall Riots of 1929. This structure in the Old City of Jerusalem held sanctity for both communities. Tensions over access to the Wall galvanized communal hostilities and ended any real chance of Arab-Jewish peace in Palestine. [5]

In the 1930s, other mandate neighbours — Iraq, Egypt, Syria — had developed various forms of self-government and gained formal independence while Palestine was nowhere close to self-rule. It didn’t even have a representative legislative body. Under such circumstances, Arab nationalist sentiments became more radicalized and interlaced with religion and there were mass demonstrations in 1936. The British government followed the policy of carrot and stick by calling in the troops to put down the rebellion and then setting up an official commission of enquiry under Lord Peel, former Secretary of State for India. Its task was to find a way to fit two national movements into a single territory.

The Commission recommended that Palestine be partitioned into an Arab state and a Jewish state. The proposed Jewish state would still contain a very large Arab minority and to make the partition ‘clean and final’, Peel called for a population exchange. That meant transferring almost 200,000 Arabs to make room for a Jewish state. The idea that thousands of them would have to move from the lands of their ancestors didn’t go down well with the Arabs and led to the eruption of significant anti-colonial revolts in 1939. [6] It was during this time that keffiyeh, a traditional headcloth worn by the peasants, became a symbol of Palestinian resistance. [7] The revolt was again crushed cruelly by the imperial authorities.

At the diplomatic level, the intensity of the revolt and the high costs of quelling it brought a change in British plans for Palestine. Also, the war clouds were hovering over Europe and the British needed to secure communications and supply lines in the face of a prospective war. Consequently, a White Paper was issued in 1939 and it announced the cancellation of the idea of partition, placed restrictions on the continued purchase of land by Zionist authorities and laid down limits on Jewish immigration — 75000 persons would be allowed to enter over a period of 5 years and then the process would stop. It also envisaged the establishment of a unitary Palestinian state in which Arabs and Jews would wield the authority mutually. This paper in essence repudiated the Balfour Declaration and reversed British policy in Palestine of the previous twenty years. [8]

A major shift in this policy was around the corner. The Second World War left Britain so worn out that it lacked any resolve or capacity to determine for itself Palestine’s future. Also, many western countries, specifically the USA, declared their full support for an independent Jewish state as a home for Jewish refugees who had survived the holocaust. Overwhelming sympathies lay with the Jewish community and in this light, British policy restricting Jewish immigration was bitterly criticized. Under such circumstances, Britain turned to United Nations and handed over the problem of Palestine; washing its hands of an impossible mess which was its own creation. [9]

UN set up a special committee on Palestine and it revived the idea of partitioning Palestine, raised ten years earlier by the Peel Commission. The proposed Jewish state comprised 55% of Palestine’s territory, with Jewish settlements and Arab villages thoroughly intermingled. Needless to say, this angered the Arab population who rejected the award and a civil war broke out, followed by a regional war between the newly formed state of Israel and its Arab neighbours.

During the fighting, Israel occupied 78% of the mandate Palestine and lakhs of Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes. The British, meanwhile, had left for good and the rest, as they say, is history. Multiple Arab-Israel wars followed over the decades and a solution is still nowhere in sight.

British venture to settle a European population among indigenous inhabitants with whom there could be no accommodation was a problematic piece of work. Also, the absence of any durable prudent policy complicated an already impossible situation. Plans were declared and altered as and when it suited British geopolitical exigencies.

The Story of India

One question that often comes to mind, especially that of the generations relativity removed from the horrors of partition and communal violence, is that why did the Partition of India happen at all? Why couldn’t the subcontinent remain a single unit? Ramchandra Guha in his seminal work India After Gandhi, writes, “There have been three rather different answers on offer. The first blames the congress leadership for underestimating Jinnah and the Muslims. The second blames Jinnah for pursuing his goal of a separate country regardless of human consequences. The third holds the British responsible, claiming that they promoted a divide between Hindus and Muslims to perpetuate their rule”. [10] The answer is a complex patchwork of all three.

The idea that Muslims of South Asia needed a nation of their own was long in the making. It evolved during the first half of the 20th century and by the time world war two ended and it became clear that the British would be handing back the empire to Indians soon, the idea of Pakistan had gained an exigent position.

In the run-up to 1946 elections — held to form provincial governments and create a central body to design constitution—politicization of religion was being employed by all political parties. Muslim League used the idea of Pakistan strategically to rally supporters. Their campaign was based on the proposal that every vote in favour of the League was a vote in favour of Pakistan. The exact meaning of ‘Pakistan’ was however kept vague. [11]

Today we are accustomed to fixed boundaries that the state of Pakistan has, but at that time many didn’t think of Pakistan in such certain territorial terms. Would there be a federation consisting of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ units? Would there be ‘Pakistan pockets’ all over India, encompassing Muslim majority regions? Would it be a territorially separate nation-state? Then what about cities like Delhi, Aligarh, Hyderabad? No one had an answer and one thing was clear - people were not contemplating mass migration

After provincial governments were in place, an attempt was made to forge a compromise and create a single constitutional plan for a united India. Cabinet Mission was sent for the purpose and it suggested a three-layered federation with the central government in charge of defence and foreign affairs and autonomous province organized into three groups. The plan was eventually rejected as it wasn’t good enough either for those who wanted a strong centralized India on one hand or for those who endorsed partition. Subsequently, communal violence ensued in Calcutta after League’s call for ‘Direct Action Day’ in August 1946 and it spread to Bihar, United Provinces and eventually Punjab, which descended into a civil war in March 1947 with unprecedented levels of killings, rioting and mayhem. In these circumstances of fear and anxiety, partition or division of Punjab and Bengal looked like a solution. It appeared that the price of a strong central government was the division of the country. The idea of Pakistan merged with the state of Pakistan.

Now London aimed to leave India as soon as possible, united or divided. Prime Minister Attlee declared in February 1947 that Britain intended to pull out from the subcontinent no later than June 1948. Mountbatten was sent as the new viceroy to complete the transfer of power. A paper plan was prepared to partition Punjab and Bengal based on territorial and statistical maps, indifferent to human safety and popular protection. This plan, also known as the Mountbatten Plan, was announced on 3rd June to a nervous and expectant population. It became clear that the country was to be divided, but would people be asked to move? Where would the boundaries lie? These vital questions remained unanswered. Along with this shock and confusion, the date of freedom was advanced to 15th August 1947. The most astound and frightened reactions from Punjab as regions around Lahore, Multan and Rawalpindi were numerically dominated by Muslims, but home to over half a million Sikhs and their holiest pilgrimage places.

Punjab and Bengal boundary commission was set up under the chairmanship of Cyril Radcliffe- on 30th June. The commission worked behind closed doors and had an incredibly complex job of dividing land, assets and army, based on outdated data. It received numerous petitions and memos from various groups making labyrinth demands and over half the districts in Punjab were contested. Radcliffe had a thankless job.

 Meanwhile, violence continued outside and the trickle of refugees already started amid rumours and guesses about where the boundary would lie.

The partition plans were ready by 12th August but held back deliberately for 5 days.

Radcliffe line was finally revealed to the public on 17th Aug, the same day that the first regiment of British troops departed from Bombay. [12] British-commanded Indian boundary force, which was supposed to control communal violence in Punjab, numbering 50,000, was under-prepared and far too small to oversee what was about to befall.

 The violence which had preceded the partition was grave, but after 15th august 1947, it took on a new fury and brutality. Ethnic cleansing was accompanied by a massive population exchange. Nascent provincial governments — understaffed and under-resourced — were in no way ready for new responsibilities. As a result, hundreds of thousands of lives were lost.

Obscure thinking was the fatal flaw of the partition plan. There was an urgent necessity to give solid reassurances to minority groups and guarantee citizenship, property and security rights for all religious groups, irrespective of where they lived. Colonial masters should have retained the well trained troops and bureaucrats for another few months to maintain law and order and oversee peaceful transfer of population. Tragically, this was not done. In their hurry to leave India, the duty to protect the lives of south Asians already ended in the minds of colonial masters. The jewel in the crown had become a major inconvenience and was recklessly tossed away.

The war-weary British left India for good in 1947 and decided to relinquish their mandate over Palestine in the same year. The inexcusable incompetence shown by them in both the situations is a far cry from their purported white man’s burden of spreading civilization. There are too many moving parts in any instance of violence accompanying decolonization to squarely blame anyone. However, it is clear that the departing colonizers, knowingly or unknowingly, left behind a trail of devastation and created problems that persist to the present day — disputed borders and disgruntled communities. This is a story of every decolonized region, be it South East Asia, South America or Africa. Partitions, redrawing of borders and mass migration may have become inevitable in some cases but the rape, murder and looting that followed, was not. The white man must also carry the burden of blame.

* (Author: Komal Deol, Researcher at History Department, Panjab University, Chandigarh)

[1Martin Bunton, The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict (Oxford University Press: New York, 2013), p.37-38.

[2Article 22, Treaty of Peace (1919).
Available at
(accessed on August 12, 2021)

[3Mandate for Palestine, League of Nations (1922). Available at
(accessed on August 12, 2021)

[4Martin Bunton, The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict (Oxford University Press: New York, 2013), p.45.

[5ibid. p-95.

[6Rashid Khalidi, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine (Henry Holt and Co.: New York, 2020), p. 85.

[7Martin Bunton, The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict (Oxford University Press: New York, 2013), p. 115.

[8Ian J. Bickerton and Carla L. Klausner, A History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Routledge: New York, 2015), p. 277.

[9Rashid Khalidi, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine (Henry Holt and Co.: New York, 2020), p. 139.

[10Ramchandra Guha, India After Gandhi (Pac Macmillan: London, 2008), p. 26.

[11Yasmin Khan, The Great Partition: Making of India and Pakistan (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2017) p. 33.

[12ibid. p. 125.

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