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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 41, September 26, 2009

Military Balance and Partition

Saturday 26 September 2009, by P.K. Nigam


A small number of Englishmen (about two lacs) ruled India, a vast country with a population of 400 million. How could they do it? Their strategy was military control and creation of vested interests bound up with British rule. The princes and zamindars were given privileges and they wanted the British to rule India. After a few decades of the Great Revolt of 1857, the British became pro-Muslim to convert them to support British rule. Wavell considered Muslims loyalist like princes.

According to Lord Roberts, the Commander-in-Chief in the beginning of the 20th century, “Respect based on fear was key to rule in India. Remove the fear and respect will soon disappear.” British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury added that British rule depended on resort to force enormously enhanced by the reputation of invincibility. The British kept aloof from Indians. But the racial superiority shown by the English Sahibs created revulsion among Indians gradually. Gandhiji’s non-cooperation movements restored self-respect to Indians. They did not feel inferior to Englishmen as they did earlier. The easy Japanese victories in South-East Asia and Burma during December 1941 to May 1942 destroyed the myth of European invincibility. The record of the British in Malaya and Burma was extremely poor, though the British propaganda kept the truth hidden from most of the world.

During the pre-war period, the British had a strategy to suppress the mutiny of Indian soldiers should it occur. The proportion of British soldiers to Indian soldiers was one to two. The British troops were kept inside the country to serve as internal security troops. The greater part of Indian troops was part of field army for service abroad and on the frontier. The more effective weapons were with the British and not given to Indians. Commissioned Officers, the brain of the army, were mostly British. All this changed due to the exigencies of war and the British desire to save their own blood. To fight against the Japanese, the British created an Indian Army of two-and-a-half million men. The Indians had to be given modern arms: the number of Indian officers greatly increased, the proportion of Muslims to Hindus changed. Before the war, more than 50 per cent of Indian troops were Muslims. The figure fell to 25 per cent at the war end. The British had become too confident due to their experience in WW I. In the prewar period the British had kept a fair number of Sikhs in the group of non-Muslim soldiers, as Hindus mainly were asking for freedom. Thus the British could not militarily control India, even if the Muslims joined them. The number of British soldiers in India was still 70,000. When General Wavell travelled with Churchill in 1943 on the way to the US, he rebuked Wavell for creating a Frankenstien by putting modern weapons in the hands of Sepoys. Wavell still believed in the loyalty of Indian Sepoys and disagreed. He thought that Churchill had a 19th century mind. Churchill, the politician, was correct.


Many events happened during WW II and immediately after the war end. The ‘Quit India’ movement was very widespread and stronger than the 1857 Revolt. This fact was suppressed during the war period by the British. Subhash Chandra Bose raised the Indian National Army in 1943. Though the INA could not free India by invasion, the British began to have doubts about the loyalty of the Indian Army. To teach a lesson to the Indians, the British put on trial three Indian National Army officers. This boomeranged and affected the Indian soldiers. Britain, France and Holland had to give up their rule in South-East Asia during the war. To justify their own desire for rule, the British wanted their rule restored in South-East Asia. They had become too weak to fulfill their wish to rule again Indo China and Indonesia. They could not take surrender from the Japanese at the war end. Britain sent Indian troops there to take surrender from Japanese. After taking surrender from the Japanese, the British commander used them to suppress the freedom movements there. The Congress said that Indian troops were not mercenaries and should not be used to restore colonial rule there. Commander-in-chief Auchinleck feared that Indian troops might not obey orders to fire on the natives. It is important to note that it was Atlee and his Labour Government, which sent Indian troops to Indo-China and Indonesia to suppress the independence in these countries. This proves that Atlee and Labour Party were imperialist and not in favour of giving independence to India. The contrary is wrongly believed by millions in India even now. Realising that Indian troops were no more loyal to Britain, Wavell wrote in December 1945 to the Home Government in a top-secret letter a blueprint of partition and Pakistan, which was needed in the interest of the worldwide British Empire. The aim was to protect West Asia from Soviet expansion to the Indian Ocean and the oilwells there.

When theCabinet delegation came to India on March 23, 1946 with the partition plan based on Wavell’s letter, Wavell wrote to them on March 29 a military appreciation about the situation in India, pointing out the weak British position, and the trump card of ability to blockade India to prevent essential supplies like petrol, kerosene etc. The appreciation was correct. At the same time he started making ‘Break-Down’ plans in case the Indian Army revolted. Wavell wanted to use military force to impose his partition plan if the Congress did not agree. The British Government rejected Wavell’s Break-Down plans, as use of military to partition India, in their opinion, would have created deep enmity feeling against Britain. It wanted to show that partition was due to disagreement between the Congress and Muslim League. Hence, Atlee decided to replace Wavell with Mountbatten in December 1946. He fired Wavell in March 1947 for repeatedly insisting on adoption of his Break-Down plans (though Azad had incorrectly said that Wavell resigned due to disagreement with the British Government).

In the meantime, Patel had decided in December 1946 to agree to partition to save India. In January 1947, he and V.P. Menon made a partition plan, which was in the hands of Mountbatten before coming to India in March 1947. On February 17, 1947, Patel told Wavell that he was prepared to let Muslims have Pakistan in Western Punjab, Sindh and NWFP, if they desired it and East Bengal. The final partition was carried out almost according to Patel’s plan. Mountbatten was able to show that partition was due to agreement between Jinnah and the Congress, though the British were opposed to partition.

The author has penned a recently published book, entitled Reflections on the History of World in 20th Century; is his website.

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