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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 8, February 13, 2010

Politicising Historiography: True Story of Partition

Thursday 18 February 2010, by Subhakanta Behera

Even after sixty years of partition and independence of India, the historical writings about partition, both professional and amateurish historiography, prove that we are still obsessed with this watershed event of the Indian subcontinent. This is hardly surprising because of its colossal aftermath that still has resonance in individual as well as national life. But notwithstanding its passing under the rubric of history, partition is still discoursed and debated in terms of culpability, trying to fix responsibility as if this will reverse the whole process or mitigate its effects. Partition, good or bad, has taken place, and for our generation, it is a fait accompli.

So what is important, relevant and justifiable is to come to terms with partition, and analyse, in a futuristic perspective, if its residual effects have anything to do with the trajectory of developments in the region. This, of course, does not ‘liberate’ the history writing either in India or Pakistan from country-specific normative analysis of partition or stereotypical witch-hunt of the culpable person. Nevertheless, a past-present linkage, that is, linking partition with post-partition scenario, transforms, in the words of E.H. Carr, to ‘an unending dialogue between past and present’, thus forcing to shift the analysis of partition in the context which we ‘live and experience.’ It vindicates what Carr observes, the past is to be seen at best through the eyes of the ‘present’.

Now we have a plethora of literature on modern India, produced by Indian scholars and writers, which has more or less fixed the responsibility of the partition of India on Jinnah, and his Muslim League, and the British. Similarly, the works done by Pakistani scholars or sympathisers of Pakistan squarely blame the Congress and its leaders for the partition of India. Examples are that of Burke and Quraishi, Seervai, Bolitho and even of Ayesha Jalal. Even schoolchildren of both the countries grow up with this historical dose which purports to be a true, benign and nation-building booster. In most of the earlier discourses and even today in standard textbooks, partition is constructed in a dichotomous framework of hero versus villain, gainer versus loser, or even victor versus vanquished—a framework which neglects the interplay of prevalent trends, emerging scenarios and circumstantial compulsions, but exaggerates personality traits, biases and prejudices. Looking at partition through such a narrow prism is not only ahistorical but also encourages a genre of neo-nationalist historiography on both sides of the boarder. Undoubtedly, if we want to relate partition to the context and scenarios of our time and beyond, there has to be a historiographical shift to analyses of the context or circumstances with the aim of uncovering the ‘road’ that led to partition rather than undertaking a witch-hunt. Till today, narratives on the partition and freedom of India produced in India and Pakistan differ significantly in their approach, emphasis and analyses of the major events of the Indian freedom movement and the personalities involved like Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru, Patel etc. This has been brilliantly brought out by Krishna Kumar in his comparative study of history textbooks and other narratives of both the countries. (Kumar 2002) Despite having a common past, both the countries selectively pick up events, and construct them accordingly to suit their politico-ideological and cultural needs so that the story of the freedom struggle is reformulated and re-interpreted.

In the 19th century when Indian nationalism grew, it was essentially anti-colonial in tone and anti-British in texture, but not tinted with any religious fervour, howsoever predominant the Hindu voice in the all-India Congress. It was rightly monolithic, meaning that Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and all other communities were swept by anti-colonial nationalist feelings, the common platform being anti-colonialism and anti-British. Even when the All-India Muslim League was formed in 1906, there was no hint of religious animosity in its objectives though protection and advancement of political rights of Muslims in India was its one of the stated objectives. More importantly, the general dislike of the Congress leadership of communalisation of the nationalist politics could hardly be overstated. Similarly as Jinnah’s credibility as the ‘ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity’ or for that matter his secular credentials in personal approach and attitude may not be dismissed from any narrative on the subcontinent’s freedom struggle. This fact is clearly borne out even in the works of avowed Jinnah-supporters like Hector Bolitho, Ayesha Jalal and J.M. Burke and S.A. Quraishi. But over the years, the position of the League, Jinnah and even of the Congress underwent changes. It may be attributed to a host of factors like the British policy and uneven political reforms, shifts in mutual perception of the Congress and the League, communal riots, the 1937 elections, the rift over the interim government etc. which contributed to the hardening, and even ‘radicalising’, of the position of the political parties and major leaders as well.

It is not that historians like Jalal, Wolpert or for that matter Indian historians and commentators have not taken this fact into consideration. Even a hardcore apologist of Jinnah and the Muslim League, H.M. Seervai, agrees that only after 1937, Jinnah started harping on unity among Muslims of India, and their economic, social, cultural development so that the Muslim community could “stand on its feet”. (Seervai 1989: 54) Jalal almost agrees to the ‘circumstantial weight’ resulting in Jinnah’s advocacy for Pakistan, and the Congress leaders’ acquiescence in partition, when she writes in the preface to her well-known monograph on Pakistan and Jinnah that “the uncertainties, ambiguities and indeterminacies of politics in the late colonial era proves the cardinal historiographical error of treating the end result of 1947 partition as the ultimate goal of not only of Muslim politics but also of communalist trends, as an unacceptable and flawed teleology”. (Jalal 1994: preface)

But does this mean that the players of politics of the time were just helpless, powerless spectators to the unfolding drama? In reality, they facilitated the unfolding of this drama which was irreversible. Then the question arises of their share of responsibility. A sweeping glance of historical writings on partition and independence, and a modicum of knowledge of the facts of the last decade preceding 1947, confirm that the British, Jinnah, his Muslim League, Nehru, Patel, Gandhi and the Congress—all have to share this responsibility. This is tacitly borne out in the historiography of both Pakistan and India even though each side suffers from a certain degree of ‘myopic nationalism’ in holding the own leaders as lesser evils than others.

This nationalist prejudice has so far operated for an apparent division in historiography on partition, whereby on one side, Jinnah and the League, and on the other, the Congress and its leaders including Gandhi, ‘vie’ with each other for culpability. But the British figure on both sides. Still than, no historian or writer can afford to write about partition without bringing out the interplay of both the sides. In the process, though one side is pre-eminently blamed for partition, the other side is not absolved of its responsibility, but the latter is construed as a lesser evil, facilitating the entire process of partition either directly or indirectly. Take, for example, the first official biography (1954) of Jinnah by Hector Bolitho who has shown how Jinnah made reactionary pronouncements and hardened his attitude towards the Congress, in defence of the rights of the Muslim ‘minority’. (Bolitho 1956) Of course, Bolitho was an apologist of Jinnah who, according to him, advocated for a separate state for his fellow Muslims, as a reaction to the Congress policy, and the attitude of Gandhi and Nehru. Ayesha Jalal has also shown how Jinnah championed the cause of Pakistan, albeit reluctantly, when the Congress refused to cede more power to the provinces and give an adequate share of power to the Muslim League at the federal structure. Going by Jalal’s logic, because of such compulsions, Jinnah, once an avid nationalist and the ambassador of the Hindu-Muslim unity, had to insist on partition. In Jalal’s admission, “there was a disjunction between Jinnah’s aims and the final outcome of Partition in August 1947”. (India Today, August 31, 2009, p. 34) Thus, both Bolitho and Jalal tacitly agree that Jinnah and the League are also to share responsibility for partition by way of their reactionary policies to the Congress politics.


Now let us turn to some of the well-known historical works on the partition and freedom movement, produced by Indian scholars, to show how the responsibilities of partition have been really apportioned-an inescapable fact to be recognised. The official historian of Indian freedom movement, Tara Chand, in the epilogue of his famous volume (first published in 1972), holds the British, the League and the Congress responsible although the British share the major chunk. “In the tripartite essay, the most powerful party (meaning the British) consistently exerted its full force in one direction; in consequence, the two other parties failed to combine and neutralise that force.” (Chand 1990: 573) He is even very critical of the Congress’ role in the whole partition drama when he says that the Congress either underestimated and undervalued the Muslim League and Jinnah at times, or over-considerately treated them sometimes, thus without judging their potentials and aspirations in the right spirit. It is important to note here that even the official historiography on the India’s partition and independence has not absolved the Congress leadership from the responsibility of partition.

Bipan Chandra and Others in their India’s Struggle for Independence—a project of the Indian Council of Social Science Research—while raising the question of ‘why’ and ‘how’ the Congress accepted partition, answered it in terms of the Congress’ failure to reconcile with the Indian Muslims. According to them, Nehru, Patel and Gandhi in 1947 were only accepting what had become inevitable because of the long-term failure of the Congress to draw in the Muslim masses into the national movement and stem the surging waves of Muslim communalism which, especially since 1937, had been beating with increasing fury. (Chandra and Others 1989: 500) So what does one deduce from it? The failure of the Congress not only in forging a strategic partnership with the League but also in checking the rising Muslim communalism made the Congress itself so helpless that it ultimately acquiesced in the partition of the country. Bipan Chandra concludes that the acceptance of Partition in 1947 was thus only the final act of a process of step by step concession to the League’s intransigent championing of a sovereign Muslim state. (Ibid. 501) This sort of judgment naturally raises the doubt about the intentions and measures of the Congress leadership vis-à-vis the League. But at the same time, the major chunk of responsibility lies with the League, meaning Jinnah who insisted on a separate sovereign Muslim state uncompromisingly.

In subsequent writings like that of Wolpert, we find an apology for Jinnah’s abandoning any reconciliation with the Congress. He says that no single incident perhaps, but the cumulative weight of countless petty insults, slights, stupidity, venality, genuine and imagined anti-Muslim feelings, fatigue, frustration, fears, doubts, hopes, shattered dreams, passions to ashes, pride—all contributed to the change in Jinnah. (Wolpert 2005: 162)

On the other hand, Rajmohan Gandhi has tried to theorise the ‘answer’ to the partition question in terms of trust/mistrust dichotomy. The question of religion gets de-emphasised in his contention, and he says, not Ram and Rahim but a failure of trust and the resultant fear and hate, produced partition, and its carnage. (Gandhi 1999: 267) By this, he means, the mistrust between the Congress and the League, between their leaders, and perhaps between the British on the one hand, and the Congress and the League on the other. This is again indicative of holding responsible all parties that were engaged in the colonial politics. Of course, Rajmohan Gandhi has been apologetic of Gandhiji on all accounts, though at many a place his contention can be challenged. For example, Rajmohan’s contention that Gandhiji employed his Hinduness for the goal of pluralism is really belied by the Muslim reaction to his use of Hindu vocabulary, and his failure to solve the Hindu-Muslim problem in the 1930s and 1940s.

For any serious student of the Indian subcontinent’s history during the last few decades of the India’s freedom movement, it is a well-known fact that Jinnah underwent transformation from being a champion of the Hindu-Muslim unity to an uncompromising advocate of a sovereign Muslim state. But the ‘decisive moments’ at which such transformation took place are really the choice of historian/writer from an array of such moments, spread over the canvas of the history of the time. However, these moments were ‘created’ by the interplay of the British policy, the Congress politics and the League’s reactionary policies.

Against this backdrop, it is really not understandable what Jaswant Singh’s recent book, Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence, has to offer in terms of new insight into the whole drama of partition. (Singh 2009) The culpability has already been apportioned. The witch-hunt was over. Even a prominent Congress leader like Maulana Azad had long before held the Congress stalwarts Patel and Nehru responsible for partition. Maulan Azad’s autobiography, India Wins Freedom, of the 1988 edition that contains missing 30 pages (from the 1959 edition), clearly and categorically states that Patel and Nehru were responsible for the partition of the country. He observes that “it would not perhaps be unfair to say that Vallabhbhai Patel was the founder of Indian partition.” (Azad 1988: 198) But at the same time, Azad confesses that Patel agreed for partition because the Muslim League and Jinnah made the working of the interim government almost impossible. He (Patel) was convinced that he could not work with the League, and openly said that he was prepared to have a part of India if only he could get rid of the Muslim League. (Ibid. 198) Of course, Azad has not minimised the role of the League and Jinnah nor the British in the partition drama while holding Patel as immediately responsible. Thus, we have to live with the truth that the partition of India was not a single individual’s or political party’s idea or design, and the final accomplishment thereof, but the culmination of a process in which many players had to make tactical moves with considerations ranging from power-politics to protection of communitarian rights and interests.

The Way Ahead

In the midst of recent debate and discourse on partition and freedom of the Indian subcontinent, a very important historical work, Partition and Independence of India by M.N. Das, seems to have been almost lost. Primarily based on the Mountbatten Papers, pertaining to the last Viceroy’s Indian mission, Das in the epilogue of the book, mentions of his discussion with the former Vice-Chancellor of London University, Sir Cyril Henry Philips. Das confided to Philips that ”the partition of India has proved a boon for the Indian people over the long run”.

Das’ argument was that had India not been partitioned, the Muslim majority areas in the north-west, being adjacent to the greater part of the Islamic world extending from the Atlantic to the Arabian Sea, were very likely to have been influenced by its religious fundamentalism. (Das 1982: 309) ‘This would have come in the way of democratic progress in India.’ It was therefore better, said Das, that the area now constituting Pakistan had gone out of India leaving the rest of the country to develop its own indigenous traits and norms. (Ibid. 309) He further elaborated that in the east, the former East Pakistan and now Bangladesh, represents areas which hardly ever felt any affinity with the heartland of India in their political existence, and economically too, they would have been more of a liability than an asset. (Ibid. 309) This sort of contention by an eminent historian and academic like M.N. Das is not only bold and challenging but also an exercise in historicist assumption that India’s trajectory of democratic progress has come to assume the present shape because the Muslim majority areas in the north-west went out of India. Perhaps, Das is the first historian to look beyond partition in a time gap, and deliberate upon its effects on the growth of the Indian nation state.

Recently, Santosh Desai has suggested to look beyond the circumstances that led to partition and stop agonizing about the several what-if scenarios. He resonates Das when he says that the idea of a larger entity which encompasses what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh would make the inherent contradictions in the conception of India even more pronounced than they are today. (Desai, September 7. 2009)

All this does not mean that partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 was seen as a desirable political event or was welcomed. It was rather mourned or seen as an act of sacrilege of Akhanda Bharatavarsha, the Mother India. Only in retrospect, while faced with the upsurge of Islamic extremism in the Islamic world on our north-west, one is tempted to consider partition as good for India. But this is also assumptive as we are not sure what trajectory of development the Indian nation-state would have followed in case of an undivided India. Yet, it is a fact that we, Indians are a success story of parliamentary democracy with a vibrant civil society and a virtual economic superpower-in-the-making. Pakistan, on the other hand is in chronic turmoil with Islamic extremism, military regime and fissiparous forces dogging the country throughout its chequered history of sixty years.

Secondly, in the post-partition Indian subcontinent, we are now in a ‘context’ arising out of the ‘past-present dialogue’ which really forces us to stop witch-hunt on either side of the border and concentrate on the issues that arose from partition, but still influence the entire subcontinent. One such major issue is migration which involves not only trapped migrants (there are around 3.5 lakh Pakistani Hindu migrants living in India), but also their broken families. Their rehabilitation and national mainstreaming is certainly a priority, if the psychology of fear and hatred has to be warded off.

Partition is irreversible, and shared responsibility for this tragic vivisection of India is indisputable. But life has to go on by adjusting with the changing realities. It is important that we come to terms with the post-partition scenario, and deal with the new challenges to the best advantage of South Asia as a whole.


Azad, M.A. (1988), India Wins Freedom (Madras, Orient Longman).

Bolitho, Hector (1956), Jinnah. Creator of Pakistan (London: Murray Publisher Ltd.).

Burke, S.A. and Quraishi, AS.M. (1997), Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah: His Personality and his Policies (Karaci: OUP)

Chand, Tara (1990), History of the Freedom Movement in India, IV (New Delhi: Government of India).

Chandra, Bipan and Others (1989), India’s Struggle for Independence (New Delhi: Penguin).

Das, M.N. (1982), Partition and Independence of India. Inside Story of the Mountbatten Days (New Delhi: Vikas).

Desai, Santosh (2009), “Two-nation dilemma continues”, The Times of India, September 7, New Delhi.

Gandhi, Rajmohan (1999): Revenge and Reconciliation. Understanding South Asian History (New Delhi: Penguin).

Jalal, Ayesha (1994), The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan (New York: Cambridge University Press)

Kumar, Krishna (2002), Prejudice and Pride: School histories of the freedom struggle in India and Pakistan (New Delhi: Penguin).

Seervai, H.M. (1989), Partition of India: Legend and Reality (Bombay: Emmenem Publications).

Singh, Jaswant (2009), Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence (New Delhi: Rupa Publications).

Wolpert, Stanley (2005), Jinnah of Pakistan (Delhi: OUP).

Dr Behera is a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi. The views expressed here are personal.

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