by Tanjil Rashid
Monday, 15
August 2022
Anniversary
16:48

Partition was not an imperialist plot

Ahistorical narratives dominate our understanding of the event
by Tanjil Rashid
The road to partition.

It’s recently become a trope to claim that British-Asians have been kept ignorant of their history, because of some neo-colonial plot to suppress it across society. This is being claimed of partition now, on its 75th anniversary, just as it was claimed of Bangladeshi independence on its 50th anniversary earlier this year. 

It reflects what seems to me a very white misapprehension, an anxiety about being unmoored from history, when, if anything, we remember too well, so mired are we in the quagmire of the past. Many activists nevertheless aim to rectify this supposed historical ignorance. They include the Partition Education Group, which lobbies for reforms to the National Curriculum — in which “Indian Independence” is already a listed topic with the same status as the two world wars.

The real motivation behind this trend is not so much historical understanding as historical revisionism. The desire is not merely to raise awareness, but to flip the narrative. There’s an attempt to entrench partition, and its sequel, the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 (decades after the British had left) in the now ubiquitous discourse around the evils of the British Empire. The idea can be summed up by the headline of the Guardian’s double-page spread on partition a few days ago: “The British Raj caused the bloodshed”. 

I am the last person to defend an empire which inflicted such spiritual degradation on my forebears. But there is a moral evasion involved which must be called out.

The narrative now being peddled — that partition was a colonial imposition — is a sham. India’s representatives themselves decided to partition the land. A ruthless campaign by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, champion of India’s Muslims, had demonstrated that his co-religionists would not risk living as a minority in a Hindu-majority state. The leaders of the Hindu-dominated Indian National Congress, of the Sikh community and of the ‘untouchable’ Dalit community all agreed an undivided India was no longer viable. In creating two independent states to replace its former colony, all Britain did was assent — in reprehensible haste — to the will of the subcontinent’s own anointed ones. 

The canonisation in popular culture of this counterfactual narrative of colonial guilt was reflected recently in the television series Ms. Marvel, about a Pakistani-American superhero. Partition is described in the show as “a consequence of a century-long British strategy of divide and rule.” It is in fact a matter of record that the then Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s instruction to Lord Mountbatten was to keep India united. The classicists who earlier governed India were known to invoke the Roman principle of divide et impera, but the truth is that the British Raj paradoxically united Hindus and Muslims — as never before in history — in opposition to it. It was only when the post-British future loomed, that the older enmities reasserted themselves and Gandhi’s harmonious vision began to collapse.

The low-point in Ms. Marvel comes when a supposedly Pakistani grandmother claims of the causes of partition: “People are claiming their identity based on an idea some Englishman had.” Unless she is deriding Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s Anglophile founder, for his Savile Row suits, this view writes out the leaders of the national aspirations of 70 million Muslims, a perversion of history that is now taught in schools. A Partition Education Group teaching resource, answering the question “What were the causes of Partition?”, astonishingly, makes no reference to Jinnah or the Pakistan movement.

So partition is interpreted as a British plot. What concerns me about this rewriting of partition is the moral evasion involved. South Asians who pin the blame on the white man shirk responsibility for their communities’ own role in partition. Those who actually murdered, raped and rampaged in 1947 are miraculously absolved by the colonial bogey-man. Their descendants in the Western diaspora are meanwhile encouraged to retreat into the sentimental nostalgia of pre-partition co-existence and viral stories of long-lost siblings recently reunited (that old Bollywood trope). In this subtle form of denialism, they are much like white Americans who wax lyrical about how well slaves were treated in the ante-bellum South.

Partition was our decision; we must face up to it, both the good and the bad, and not indulge in childish fantasies of inagency, in the moral cowardice of pretending the history that we ourselves wrought was wrought by others. It’s this latter idea, that places the nefarious white man at the heart of history, and which is pushed in the media, in popular culture and even in education, that seems to me the real colonial imposition.  

The white liberals who go along with this should ask themselves the question posed in Salman Rushdie’s great novel of partition, Midnight’s Children: “Am I so far gone, in my desperate need for meaning, that I’m prepared to distort everything — to re-write the whole history of my times purely in order to place myself in the central role?”

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Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 month ago

Mr Rashid’s comment about white liberals putting themselve at the centre by carping on about how evil white are puts me in mind of the short poem by the Scottish poet James Thomson:
Once in a saintly passion
I cried with desperate grief
‘Oh Lord, my heart is black with guile,
of sinners I am chief’
Then stooped my guardian angel
and whispered from behind
‘Vanity my little man,you’re nothing of the kind’

This attitude takes away the agency of others, and is, in fact, a racist attitude; it implies that the white man alone can act either for the benefit or detriment of the “coloured” man.

Last edited 1 month ago by Linda Hutchinson
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 month ago

Excellent comment. It always surprises me that those pedalling such narratives can’t see how profoundly insulting it is to Indian’s and Pakistani’s that their leaders should have apparently been so guileless and stupid as to have allowed themselves to be divided if they wished to maintain a united India. It is a fundamentally racist narrative to boast of the superior states-craft of the British against all the historic evidence quoted in the article and available elsewhere. No wonder the author is exasperated with this distortion of history.
In any case, although India had been conquered by Muslim incomers, by the time of the expansion of the East India Company it was a collection of mutually antagonistic principalities.

Kate Heusser
Kate Heusser
1 month ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Narratives that blame the British are indicators of a ‘fundamentally racist narrative to boast of the superior states-craft of the British’, Mr. Bray? How strange. I had been reading such claims as evidence of a fundamental narrative that the British are to blame. However, I am British, so perhaps that is just proof of my white (or British) fragility?

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
1 month ago

Ah, so we are supposed to be guilty of that one as well? I did not know. But then, I guess we are guilty of everything.

Very good article. Particularly the comment

A ruthless campaign by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, champion of India’s Muslims, had demonstrated that his co-religionists would not risk living as a minority in a Hindu-majority state.

That phenomenon has been seen again and again when an empire (or here a colony) is converted into one or more nation states. German speakers in 1848 Denmark (!), Armenians and Greeks in post-WWI Turkey, everybody in ex-Jugoslavia, Sunnis and Shias in post-Saddam Iraq, Alawites in modern Syria. People can accept with more or less good grace to be subjects under imperial rule and trust the ruler to give them some protection. But being a minority in a democratic nation state is intolerable for anyone who has a choice, whether the fate you fear is cultural and political marginalisation, or pogroms and genocide.

Last edited 1 month ago by Rasmus Fogh
Shekhar Das
Shekhar Das
1 month ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

That’s why imperial rule is generally better that national sovereignty. Had it been possible, both India and Ireland would have been better off had they secured home rule instead of independence.

Deborah H
Deborah H
1 month ago
Reply to  Shekhar Das

one wonders what will happen in America soon. I can see the US being split into 2 states (liberal and conservative). “But being a minority in a democratic nation state is intolerable for anyone who has a choice”.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
1 month ago
Reply to  Deborah H

No minority between liberal-conservative. Each about half and nothing static.

Niall Cusack
Niall Cusack
1 month ago
Reply to  Shekhar Das

If Ireland had contented itself with home rule within the Empire with the King as head of state it would have been necessarily embroiled in the war that Britain declared on Germany. Instead, the Fianna Fail party under Eamonn de Valera preserved Ireland’s neutrality throughout the Second World War. De Valera’s experience in the League of Nations left him in no doubt as to the real nature of Britain’s realpolitik. It is no wonder that Dev was and still is a hero to those who fought (and they had to fight) for Indian independence. Churchill thought long and hard about re-occupying Ireland. He was dissuaded by the reports of two remarkable spies: John Betjeman and Elizabeth Bowen. They both warned him he’d have one hell of a fight on his hands!
Thousands of Irishmen, Protestant and Catholic, died in the First World War in the belief that……what? we all know that they thought they were fighting for: the freedom of small nations and the British Empire…..
Shekhar Das is wrong. Ireland should be very proud of its neutrality in the the World War started by Britain. It saved a lot of lives.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago
Reply to  Niall Cusack

And let’s gloss over the fact, commented before, that thousands of Irish queued to sign the book of condolence for Hitler when he killed himself, along with your hero DV. Yes Ireland picked apparent neutrality but practically supported the Germans – my Irish relatives told me how the IRA used to guide the bombers into Belfast – and it’s a permanent stain on the morality of Ireland that will be documented by historians for centuries.

Niall Cusack
Niall Cusack
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

How exactly could Ireland “practically support the Germans” during the Second World War? The Army of the Irish Free State had been kept purposefully small by the terms of the so-called Treaty of 1922. In the 1930s the Irish Government sent Irish Army officers to Washington to purchase equipment for the Irish Army from American arms dealers. The British Embassy intervened, and mysteriously, the contracts (already agreed) were abrogated.
If the independent, sovereign government of Ireland had agreed to participate in the war launched by Britain against Germany in September 1939, how – in Ian Stewart’s terms – could Ireland have “practically supported” the British? Not from their own resources! The Irish Army could not have contributed a single bomber or fighter or destroyer or battleship or indeed artillery to the War Effort!
It would have had to welcome the British Army back into Ireland to provide – what is it? – materiel? But it didn’t.
Instead, as the spies reported, there was another army capable of resistance to a British re-invasion.
Churchill was furious that the Treaty Ports had been relinquished by Chamberlain, depriving Britain of naval bases in the Irish Free State. He commissioned the novelist Elizabeth Bowen to engage in espionage. She was provided with introductions to everyone who mattered and she reported directly to Churchill. Her espionage reports are now freely available in the Public Record Office. (They have also been published by Athol Books.)
She reported that any attempt to invade Ireland would be robustly contested.
The Republican Army had been established in 1918 in response to the British Government’s refusal to accept the democratic decision of the Irish electorate in the 1918 Election to leave the United Kingdom and set up an independent Republic. That’s what they voted for – about 75%. The British response was terrorism. The Irish response was the Republican Army which fought the British to a Truce (not quite an Armistice).
Fast forward to 1939. De Valera interned IRA men during the Second World War. A few were executed.
He took neutrality seriously.
I feel particular contempt for Ian Stewart’s spectacularly stupid comment that “the IRA used to guide the bombers into Belfast”.
The Luftwaffe needed guidance to find Belfast?
I am reminded of Brian Moore’s superb early novel “The Emperor of Ice Cream”, a Bildungsroman set in Belfast during the Blitz. ARP Wardens: there is a dour, very Catholic, very Nationalist character who sits upstairs in the attic with a torch, signalling to the Luftwaffe (presumably in Morse code). In the morning, having listened to the wireless, he comes down to breakfast in floods of tears: “The bastards! The bastards! They bombed the Falls!” He thought the Catholic Falls Road would be spared! He is a figure of fun in the novel..
My parents lived through the Blitz in Belfast and told me about it.It wasn’t much fun.
I wish someone would listen to my main point: neutrality saved a lot of lives.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 month ago
Reply to  Niall Cusack

You’re being ironic, arn’t you?

Niall Cusack
Niall Cusack
1 month ago
  1. Not in the least. Which of my remarks do you find especially ironical? And which of my assertions can you actually refute – I don’t mean deny, I mean prove false?
Kate Heusser
Kate Heusser
1 month ago
Reply to  Niall Cusack

‘The World War started by Britain’? Please explain how Britain started WWII? And why so many courageous Irish people volunteered to fight with Britain and the Commonwealth countries against Hitler’s insane ambition to conquer all the independent peoples of Europe?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Jeez how could you not know about this one – it’s dragged up repeatedly as one of our greatest colonial sins along with slavery. And no one blames the locals, as usual.

Last edited 1 month ago by Ian Stewart
N Forster
N Forster
1 month ago

I read recently that the British were also apparently responsible for the Caste system. There seems no end to this buffoonery.

R Wright
R Wright
1 month ago
Reply to  N Forster

Some Asian intellectuals seem to implicitly be in favour witchcraft, wife-burning and the Thugs over the Raj.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
1 month ago

I often hear this ‘divide and rule’ thing. When the British (and French, Dutch and Portuguese) became involved with Indian sub-continent, it consisted of the decaying Mughal empire, but also a large number of states. Initially, the East India Company itself was in three parts.
As time wore on, the British interfered, but if anything, there was a move towards integration. One of my grandfathers was a policeman, and most of his colleagues were Hindu and Moslem, and there was no professional distinction between. (And most of the communication in his area was in Bengali. He also had to speak Hindi/Urdu and Persian before he could even join.)
Much the same goes for military units. Indeed, much of the tragedy at partition was caused because viable units became paralysed because they were mixed (and security always depended overwhelmingly on Indian units).
It is arguable that independence was pursued too quickly, by order of Attlee, and maybe errors were made on the dividing line (was it possible to get it ‘right’?), but my understanding is that Nehru insisted on haste, even if it came with some risk to public order.
I’m sure that the British government wanted its armed forces evacuated in good time. I have no idea if that was a good thing or bad, but it was understandable, and one must remember how small the British Army presence within India always was (as opposed to the Indian Army).
And by the by, both Indian and Pakistain governments continued to employ British after independence. It is difficult for the people of the UK today who are constantly fed with hate-inspired propaganda to realise how all worked together in the India of those times.
My grandfather died young (and poor), so I’m glad to say that he never saw partition. He would have been enormously sad at the suffering, and also of the distortions of the service of such as he, who put duty above comfort and health.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 month ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

Very good comment, the people who criticise the Raj and/or East India Company often have no conception of how things were organised, nor the divisions that where already in Indian society before Europeans arrive in large numbers. In fact, could one even speak of “Indian society” as it was more a collection of princedoms, at least in the areas not under Mughal rule.

Last edited 1 month ago by Linda Hutchinson
hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
1 month ago

This is an apt article. My observation with people is that they first cast themselves as heroes, then when this does not work, they take on the role of anti-hero. Finally, when all else fails, they accept that they are not the central protagonist in the story of other peoples’ lives.

I would say that Western liberals are largely stuck imagining themselves to be anti-heroes, for nothing is worse than a world in which they are not the central arc of the story.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 month ago

Less anti-hero and more villain, I think.

Arjun D
Arjun D
1 month ago

This again.

There’s sh*t and then there’s bullsh*t. Just stop.

The article makes a number of good points but misses a critical one.

The British government and elites were/are not to blame for the violence but were/are responsible for partition.

It’s lazy and inaccurate to say that people of the British Raj chose it. They didn’t. Only a minority were asked what they wanted.

Partition lines were drawn by the British, the partition was overseen by the British and a puppet state was created by the British. Hell, the 1948 invasion of a previously neutral, non aligned Kashmir under its dithering ruler was carried out by a Pakistani army which boasted British Officers.

Yes, the violence was carried out by people of the subcontinent and no amount of stupid liberal historical revisionism can change that. However the British desire for military bases to keep an eye on Afghanistan, is what drove them to craft partition, retain control of Pakistan (Elizabeth was Queen of Pakistan for a bit) and for the British elites to claim that they had no control and didn’t realize that the violence could happen, is mendacious.

In any case, 4 generations later there is little excuse for any Indian, liberal or otherwise, to use this as some excuse for victimhood. In fact, over the last several years, it’s quite clear which dynamic direction India is charting.

The white man has no say in the destiny of the brown man. White elites have screwed over their own kind as much as they have screwed over others.

Last edited 1 month ago by Arjun D
Hilary Papworth
Hilary Papworth
1 month ago
Reply to  Arjun D

Thank you for this; a more balanced view than the BBC anniversary documentary.

Joseph Allchin
Joseph Allchin
1 month ago
Reply to  Arjun D

A lot of nonsense here. The King of England was monarch of both the newly independent Pakistani and Indian states, and British officers/administrators continued to have senior roles in the Indian and Pakistani governments/armies etc. It’s proven that the UK government and Viceroy tried its best to avoid partition. But it was the only viable solution that India’s own leaders, from Jinnah to Nehru, could agree upon.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 month ago
Reply to  Joseph Allchin

Sorry to be Pedantic, but it’s king of Great Britain (and Northern Ireland), not just England.

Last edited 1 month ago by Linda Hutchinson
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago
Reply to  Arjun D

“The British government and elites were/are not to blame for the violence but were/are responsible for partition.”
The bull excretion is coming from you, Arjun D. The British were responsible for implementing partition, but not for agreeing the requirement for partition.
Big difference.

jane baker
jane baker
1 month ago

An old British film called “North West Frontier starring Kenneth More (the best sort of Englishman) is one of my favourite films of all time. Its an action-adventure movie,and it’s a bit Hillywoodised,and I don’t think it was ever promoted as philosophical but it’s set at that time,and it asks some questions that are still relevant now. It doesn’t answer them because no one can. And all in a charming and elegant way. At one point in the movie More,as the patient,stoic and modest army captain says,”of course its all our fault,that’s what history will say,it’s always our fault”. I’ve been listening recently to the incredible podcasts of India Hicks interviewing her Mum who is Lord Mountbattens daughter and was involved in a lot of it in a hostess/diplomacy capacity and I’m more and more thinking that we,the Brits then,got fed up with all the two + eights between all the factions and just drew up a plan on the back of a envelope and got the hell out of there. In fact that’s more or less confirmed by what Indias Mum says. I think its wrong that we,the Brits,took over India in the first place. We only wanted to buy their silks,cottons and tea through our Trading Company but,what do you know,they expected us to pay MONEY.
Outrageous
!

Last edited 1 month ago by jane baker
Nicholas Taylor
Nicholas Taylor
1 month ago

Yes, well worth reading Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire, somewhat heavy going as it is, and shrinking at his description of how the British undermined the Indian economy. Doubtless much of the wealth and comfort we enjoy in our island (despite Brexit) was extracted from other peoples around the world. I think this was acknowledged well before this 75th anniversary of Partition. But what empire has ever behaved differently? What empire today (there may be only one left) is behaving differently? And look what Britain and other colonising European nations did to themselves and each other. It will not help the world if Britain and Europe sink into a mire of self-recrimination, blaming themselves for everything that is wrong in it. As one commentor points out, the divisions in greater India were there before the British came. Looking further back, so were waves of conquest and mass slaughter, which gradually mutated into more subtle forms of collective or oligarchic theft. So the colonisers, through ignorance or preoccupation with self-interest, failed to stop repressed forces from re-emerging. But apart from simply staying out of it, what could they have done? Would the UN have done any better?

Last edited 1 month ago by Nicholas Taylor
Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 month ago

There’s an interesting article in The Spectator today that gives a rather more charitable interpretation of Jinnah’s role and places responsibility (I won’t say blame) with Nehru and Mountbatten.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 month ago

I think Nehru has a lot to answer for, not just the partition, but also the pig’s ear he made of the Indian economy after independance.

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
1 month ago

Lots of analogies to the partition of Palestine. At least the Palestinians no longer primarily blame the British!

Last edited 1 month ago by Noel Chiappa
Harinder Jadwani
Harinder Jadwani
1 month ago

A rather simplistic OPINION – for that’s all this article is – that somehow the Indians who lay crushed beneath British imperialism and plunder of an estimated $45 trillion over 200 years – which reduced the second richest country on earth to one of its poorest – were masters of their own destiny.
The Jinnah gang were given plenty of ammunition by the British, part of the ‘divide and rule’, and a way of keeping the dominant Congress Party in check. A most HISTORICAL fact this article does not mention is that Jinnah got his Pakistan because he agreed to let the British (and later American) government to spy on the Soviet Union from Pakistani territory; something the Congress was not willing to allow.
And the ‘Radcliffe line’ was not really decided by Cyril Radcliffe – he was merely following the pre-determined line decided by Winston Churchill.
The post WW2 Attlee government – dealing with the harsher realities of an empire severely weakened and impoverished, and its global replacement by the Americans – who controlled one half of the planet’s wealth and manufacturing – may have demanded the abandonment of a now expensive colony, on whatever expedient terms were available.
But that great colonizer/plunderer/racist and genocidal murderer of at least 4 million Bengalis from starvation caused by his theft of millions of tonnes of grain (including grain sent to India by FDR) – Winston Churchill – played a major hand in partition.
Britain and America continued to spy on the Soviets using Pakistani territory for decades, something they would never have been allowed by India.
Even today, this partition CONTINUES to serve US-UK neo-imperial interests.
After their long plotted proxy war against Russia using Ukraine as ‘pawn’ on Breszinski’s Grand Chessboard – (expansion of NATO right upto Russia’s borders, the US-orchestrated 2014 coup in Kyiv and slaughter of 15,000 Russians in Donbass, rejection of Minsk agreements etc) when the vassals in Canada, Britain and EU followed suit stealing Russian foreign reserves, and Biden boasted on the second day of the invasion that he had destroyed Russia’s economy and currency (a boast he has had to swallow as they are back to pre-invasion levels) – the US was unable to pressure India to condemn Russia.
But the CIA was able to oust Pakistani PM Imran Khan from power, for his refusal to do so….. A compliant Pakistani military routinely supplied with $2 billion annual aid and secondish-class weapons still serves the US-UK interest.
Certainly religious divisions and hatreds may have long existed in pre-colonial India. But as Shashi Tharoor has written in Inglorious Empire – they remained relatively docile, held together by a wealthy and industrious economy. But those divisions were highly aggravated by the ruin, despair and terrible poverty the British destruction of India’s cotton economy.

Last edited 1 month ago by Harinder Jadwani
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 month ago

I suggest you read Tirthankar Roy’s book An Economic History of India: 1707-1857 for a more scholarly and less agitated examination of India’s economy during the first part of Britain’s involvement in India.