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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 43

Who Partitioned India?

Tuesday 16 October 2007, by K V S Rama Sarma


[(Book Review)]

The Shades of Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition by Narendra Singh Sarila; Harper Collins Publishers India, New Delhi; pp. 116; Rs 500.

How did India’s partition come about? This question has bothered many an Indian and political leader. The matter is so complex, the characters involved were so important and the forces at work were so diverse and powerful that so far no one has been able to answer this controversial question convincingly. Narendra Singh Sarila, who took upon himself this unenvia-ble task, has made a tremendous effort to fill this gap. As an ADC of Lord Mountbatten and later as a diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service, he utilised his postings at London and New York to study hitherto undisclosed documents and worked hard in the archives in New Delhi to rather conclusively establish that the partition was the result of a great game played by major powers, with Britain taking the lead. The undivided India with a strong desire for independence had become a pawn in the power-rivalry of the big powers. Britain comes out of this interesting volumes as a power that was on the verge of losing control in Asia of a big nation like India which proved to be a great and dependable source for revenue, the military and a strategic vantage point. Britain was determined by hook or by crook to retain some foothold in this region largely due to the fear of the Soviet thrust towards the south and the warm waters of Arabian Sea.

Another powerful factor that bothered the British—Tories and Labour Party alike—was their obsession with the oil resources, termed as the “wells of power” in West Asia. To pursue its objective, Britain spared no effort in exploiting Islam as a political tool and encouraged and supported to the hilt Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Britain and Jinnah had in fact used each other with full knowledge of each other’s objectives. If Jinnah’s megalomaniac nature and hunger for power led him to seek a separate Muslim country through partition, Britain took full advantage of his readiness to offer a land base to the Western powers in return for the help rendered to fulfil his dream. The main reason for Britain in general, and Churchill in particular, to pamper Jinnah was the British belief that a nationalist (Hindu-dominated) India would not play second fiddle to Britain’s political and military game. Britain and Jinnah succeeded also due to, as Sarila says, some ‘mistakes’ committed by the Congress leaders.

According to Sarila, Britain was led to seriously suspect the Soviet Union after the “the USSR’s powerful victory over Germany in 1945 had increased Joseph Stalin’s ambitions to extend his country’s influence into territories on its periphery; indeed he had already started to do so in Eastern Europe.” To the Soviet Union’s southern border lay the region of the Persian Gulf with its oilfields—the wells of power—that were of vital interest to the West. Under the circumstances, Britain could ill afford to lose control over the entire Indian sub-continent that had served as its military base in dominating the Indian Ocean area and the countries around the Persian Gulf for more than half a century; and this was the main source of manpower for the Imperial Army. Once the British realised that free India would not extend them military cooperation, they “settled for those willing to do so by using religion for the purpose”. The British found that if Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League party, succeeded in his plan to detach the northern borders of India abutting Iran, Afghanistan and Sinkiang (China) and establish a separate state, Pakistan, Western influence in the region would not suffer after India won freedom.

However, Britain had to fight a lone battle for a foothold in the subcontinent as the US was keen to wipe out British influence in Asia after India attained freedom. In fact the US pressurised Britain to ensure that India remained united while the British were keen on partition. Sarila says:
From 1949 onwards, Roosevelt’s objective was to evolve a post-war order for Asia free from European colonialism. Churchill trumped this pressure by playing the Muslim or the Pakistan card.

The Americans played a strong role in favour of India’s independence, though this is rarely recognised. This book also dispels the general belief in India that the British Labour Party was more friendly to the Indian freedom sentiment than the Tories. Sarila says that a week after the partition was announced on June 3, 1947, Ernest Bevan, the British Foreign Minister under Attlee, told the British Labour Party’s annual meeting in Margate that the division of India “would help to consolidate Britain in the Middle East”. Even Attlee comes out in the book as a person for whom the strategic concerns expressed by the Tories were more important than the spirit of the freedom of the colonies. Sarila also gives an insight into events like the recent Afghan turmoil. He quotes Sir Henry Rawlinson, President of the Royal Geographical and Asiatic Societies, in his book England and Russia, that if the “Czar’s officers acquire a foothold in Kabul the disquieting effect will be prodigious”.

Thanks to the Congress party’s movement under Gandhiji, it was widely known that the British would have to quit India sooner or later. As this idea sunk deeper, the British too had begun visualising conditions after India’s independence. This sentiment strengthened after the Congress party insisted on complete independence following the war as a condition for supporting the British war effort. No wonder, on May 5, 1945, when Germany surrendered, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the post-hostilities planning staff of the War Cabinet for an appraisal of the “long term policy required to safeguard the strategic interests of the British Empire in India and the Indian Ocean”. Sarila says:

the central point of this report was that Britain must retain its military connection with the subcontinent so as to ward off the Soviet Union’s threat to the area.

The report underlines the “strategic importance of India to Britain”. It also mentions the possibility of detaching Baluchistan from India. The policy of “divide and rule” was devised by the British after the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny not to divide India, but to control it.

It is, however, wrong to suggest that Britain wanted India to be weak, although it was strongly believed India may not remain united due to its heterogeneous character, the North-South divide and the Hindu-Muslim conflict. Though Britain had managed to have a “limb amputated”, as Sardar Patel had said, it played an important role in helping the Princes, whose territories constituted one-third of colonial India, to merge with free India. They also handed over Andaman and Nicobar and Laccadive Islands to India. In agreeing to Jinnah’s project, the British also managed to “whittle down Jinnah’s territorial demands to the minimum required for Britain to safeguard its defence requirements”. Sarila says that the plan for smaller Pakistan was not worked out by Mountbatten in 1947 as generally believed but by Lord Wavell in 1945.

Mountbatten implemented the plan by persuading the two parties to accept it.

Kashmir is another issue on which Britain takes the blame, according to Sarila. He says that

Britain’s pro-Pakistan policy on Kashmir was based on its desire to keep that part of its old Indian Empire which jutted into Central Asia and lay along Afghanistan, the Soviet Union and China in the hands of successor dominion that had promised cooperation in matters of defence.

While Britain had not accepted the accession of J&K to India, the US had, “unless proved otherwise in a plebiscite”. So much so, that in the UN Security Council, while Britain had opposed the withdrawal of the Pakistani troops from Pakistan occupied Kashmir, the US insisted that they should.

The author, Sarila, has quoted from official documents for every point he conveys and that makes this book a “must read” for political thinkers, writers as well as political leaders. Finally, he says that the awareness that it was global politics, Britain’s insecurity and the errors of judgment of the Indian leaders that resulted in the partition of India might help India and Pakistan in search for reconciliation.

Written in a lucid style and presented objec-tively, this book is indeed a historical document worth preserving.

The author is the Managing Editor of the Congress Sandesh. The views expressed in the article are his own.

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