Posted by: Singh Is King | Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A lousy decision that haunts the world 60 years later .

ALMOST one and a half billion people mark an important anniversary this week, but it will not be all marching bands and carefree celebrations. On the contrary – it will be a time to recall untold strife, bitterness and the loss of millions of lives in six decades of almost continuous religious and ethnic clashes. It was on August 15, 1947, that the then British colony of India gained independence and at the same time, was partitioned into two countries purely on religious lines.The Indian subcontinent has been inhabited since very early in human history, beginning with a set of people known as Dravidians. From as far back as 2500 BC, the area had one of the earliest urban settlements, which rose and fell over time, and also saw the evolution of distinctive cultures, dominated by Hinduism. Islam was introduced during waves of invasion from central Asia between the 11th and 16th centuries AD, reaching a peak with rule by the Moguls from the early 16th century until the mid-1800s. Then it was the turn of the European powers, which had been on an energetic expansion drive of their own. France, Portugal and Britain set up shop on the subcontinent, with the British eventually squeezing out all the others. But the people of greater India, Burma and Ceylon chafed under the deadweight of the British Raj, and agitated continually for the occupiers to go home. Those efforts met with limited success when Britain granted partial self-government in 1937.

When World War II came along, nationalist pressures increased, with the Congress Party, which was launched at the end of the 19th century, in the forefront. The party, led by Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and other strong nationalists, refused to take part in the war because, it said, it had not been consulted about the declaration of war against Germany. It embarked on a campaign calling on Britain to “quit India”, which led to the arrest and imprisonment of many.

By the time the global conflict was over it was clear that Britain could not pick up where it had left off. But the pressures in London against independence were very strong. Winston Churchill may have been a great wartime leader, but he was also an oldline colonialist and a racist to boot. In response to the rumbles about independence he remarked that he did not become First Lord of the Admiralty “to preside over the dissolution of His Majesty’s Empire”. He especially despised the Indians, whom he described as “a beastly people with a beastly religion”. Gandhi, who had adopted many extreme habits in his years of opposition to British rule, including wearing minimal clothing, earned Churchill’s venom when he described the Indian father-figure as “a naked little Fakir”.

Indians were united in their determination to get the British out, but had no clear idea what the country should look like when they were gone. While Gandhi believed that all religions should coexist in one state, his behaviour had quite the opposite effect. The Congress Party he fostered and nurtured had a decided Hindu flavour and alienated many Muslims.

A broad Muslim movement emerged, backed by a resolution the League of Nations adopted in 1940 calling for a separate Islamic state for India’s Muslim population.
The country became a cauldron of desires for self-determination, self-rule, independence, partisan dominance, regional recognition and religious supremacy. These things tend to take on a life of their own, and many otherwise clearheaded people were swept up in the currents.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah, for instance, was a secular Muslim – he appreciated whisky and ate pork, and spent most of his life fighting for a fair share for Muslims in running things. He founded the Muslim League to try to secure that fair share, but when events overtook him ended up as the first governor general of Pakistan.

As the pressure mounted and the last British viceroy, Louis Mountbatten, wrestled with how to disengage, the colonial office sent out Cyril Radcliffe, a prominent lawyer who during the war ran the Ministry of Information. His job was to decide how to cut up the Raj so that the Muslims could have their own country and the others, predominantly Hindu, could have theirs. He spent a mere three weeks on the task, looking at areas which were just over 50 per cent Muslim as opposed to those where the majority was predominantly Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and so forth. In the end he drew two lines, chopping off chunks of land on the eastern and western flanks and assigning them to the Muslims.

This opened one of the most destructive cans of worms the world has ever seen. The immediate effect was the monumental dislocation of people – some 15 million went this way and that, and the dislocation fostered resentment among the various groups, a resentment which continues to this day. Perhaps a million died in bitter sectarian clashes. Before partition, most people didn’t think of themselves as overwhelmingly Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain or whatever. But the arbitrary decision elevated the religious dimension to a new prominence and created friction and volatility of its own. The national frontiers were also not properly thought out, and that, too, has exacted an exorbitant price.

India and Pakistan went to war on two occasions over one of the disputed areas, Kashmir, and when not fighting reverted to a state of wary truce. Pakistan went to war with itself in 1971 because the people of the eastern part, separated from the much larger west by more than 1500 kilometres of India, felt they were getting the short end of the stick. India agreed with their complaint, and helped them in their struggle, which culminated in the new country of Bangladesh.

There is a very instructive lesson here, and in Palestine, which was similarly partitioned that very same year. In the same way as you can’t unmake an omelette, you can’t un-partition a country. Those who are looking at partition as a solution for the mess in Iraq had better examine the Indian experience very, very closely.

– By Keeble McFarlane


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