How a nationalist movement turned communal | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 25, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 05:08 AM, August 25, 2017

How a nationalist movement turned communal

Who is to blame for the 1947 Partition of India and the large-scale violence that it triggered? There are accusations and recriminations. The Indian National Congress blamed the Muslim League, while the Muslim League blamed the Congress. It can't be said that there is no truth in these conflicting claims as both parties were responsible to some extent. Both had refused to compromise, obstinately clinging to their demands, which raised the prospect of a civil war avoidable only by partition, but the main culprit—'the third party' as Gandhi called them—were the British. The Partition was their doing. It was their constant provocations that raised tensions between the two parties, and the inevitable happened.

" It's true that British rule united India, but uniting the people of this subcontinent was never the intention of the British. 

That notorious imperialist strategy—'divide and rule'—was once again in action. The British, as part of that strategy, appeared to favour the Hindus sometimes, while other times they appeared to favour the Muslims. But in reality, they only ever cared about their own interests. So they gave them dominions through partition, instead of independence, with the power left in the hands of puppet governments that would safeguard their interests. Congress had for a while considered total independence but eventually settled for an arrangement based on the amendment of the Government of India Act, 1935, meaning India would still be a part of the British Commonwealth. The Muslim League, on the other hand, didn't care about independence. All it wanted was Pakistan, so it had no problem whatsoever with a dominion status. So these archrivals, who had never seen eye to eye about anything, finally found a common cause: India-Pakistan split, although just two days into 'independence,' both parties were shocked to see the Radcliffe Line, the boundary that demarcated India and Pakistan. But by then it was too late. The subcontinent could never really recover from the bloody aftermath of the Partition.

Many British individuals, however, were against the Partition of India. Lord Mountbatten, for example, at one point seemed to regret the decision to divide India. In his words, he had to give in to the demands of the 'crazy' and 'foolish' Pakistan. But the Partition was not brought forth by one man. Maybe Mountbatten wanted to bolster his credentials, which included his 'gallantry' during the Second World War, by keeping India intact as well as a part of the British Commonwealth—although for the British, an undivided India would have meant greater leverage. The Partition was a political affair and it happened as a direct result of state intervention. Congress and League were mere tools in this game although they didn't know it. That said, their interests were in many ways linked to that of the British, and their activities more in keeping with the British tradition than that of their own people. Both nursed an ambition to rule. For the general public, all three parties were essentially the same.

A young boy sits on the walls of Purana Qila in New Delhi. The 16th century fortress turned into one of Delhi's biggest refugee camps as the capital struggled with a refugee crisis amid spurts of communal rioting. (Photo by Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection)

According to philosopher Friedrich Hegel, there is no history without state. There is little truth in that. But that state can wield enormous influence in political decisions, especially if that state happens to be a colony of the British Empire, was obvious in the way the Indian Partition took place.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad argued that the idea of Partition was first conceived in 1923 when the Bengal Pact—the Chittaranjan Das-led agreement on equal power sharing between Bengal's Hindus and Muslims—was rejected by the central leadership of Congress. Azad further said, quite correctly, that had Chittaranjan Das not died prematurely, there would have been a new dimension in communal harmony in India. At that time, there was no one in Congress but Das to challenge Gandhi's authority, and had he been alive, he would have tried to keep Bengal's politics away from the influence of the centre. But whether he would have succeeded to do that is difficult to say. He would have faced opposition from not only Congress and League, but also the government of British India, because all three parties were in favour of a centralised political system, and they would have resisted any attempt at keeping Bengal's politics separate.

It's true that British rule united India, but uniting the people of this subcontinent was never the intention of the British. After the First World War, Rabindranath Tagore talked about imperialism being 'the python's unification policy'—a python that, he said, 'promotes devouring as unifying.' This is exactly what the British did in India. They didn't want to make India united; they wanted to devour whatever they could squeeze out of it. But they knew from the beginning that turning its people into slaves would be impossible, so they followed the more practical strategy, that of creating divisions among the Indians. First they favoured the Hindus, which was only natural. The East India Company had grabbed power not from the Hindu rulers, but from the Muslim. The Hindus were also the largest community in India. They were ahead of Muslims in terms of business and education. So almost everyone the British initially had come in contact with were Hindus—the merchants, zamindars, clerks and other professionals—some ready to serve, others made ready over time. The Muslims, on the other hand, were at a relative disadvantage. It's true that members of both Hindu and Muslim communities took part in the 1857 Indian Rebellion (Sepoy Mutiny), but the Muslims were deemed particularly hostile because of the sepoys' symbolic, and eventually unsuccessful, reinstatement of Mughal ruler Bahadur Shah Zafar.

" The British knew better than to ignore such a possibility, especially after the French Revolution, so they devised a plan to isolate the educated middle-class from the working people. In 1885, about 28 years from the Indian Rebellion, the retired Imperial Civil Service member Allan Octavian Hume (1829-1912) led efforts to found the Indian National Congress, and one of its principal objectives was to cut off the middle-class from the labouring class.

The Company was also quite distrustful of the emerging class of associates. These people were clever, skilled and the prime recipients of English education. The British knew well that they were assisting them for their own benefit. The ancestors of these people had once helped the Company in its expansion of power, which basically meant betraying their own country. The Company knew that they could betray again if they had a chance. This emerging class had the characteristics of an educated middle-class, and from their own experience the British knew that however loyal they appeared to be, somewhere in their mind they would harbour a grudge against them for their subjection and a latent ambition to be free again.

This, in fact, was their biggest worry. The Sepoy Munity made it clear that the peasants were not happy at all. They were facing famine and were subjected to torture and coercion by the British-backed zamindars and indigo planters. The British rule was proving to be very unpopular. It caused widespread dissatisfaction among the weavers who lost everything, and the brutal clampdown that followed the mutiny made the sepoys, their relatives and neighbours particularly angry. The middle-class refrained from joining the uprising. A section of them even worked against the rebels considering it to be in their best interests. But there was no guarantee that they wouldn't have a change of heart in the event of a future uprising. There had been sporadic agrarian riots and armed conflicts here and there, led by monks, fakirs, members of faraizi and santal communities, and indigo growers, so the recurrence of a large-scale uprising could not be completely ruled out. And if that indeed happened, and the middle-class youth got involved in it, things could get real messy. The British knew better than to ignore such a possibility, especially after the French Revolution, so they devised a plan to isolate the educated middle-class from the working people. In 1885, about 28 years from the Indian Rebellion, the retired Imperial Civil Service member Allan Octavian Hume (1829-1912) led efforts to found the Indian National Congress, and one of its principal objectives was to cut off the middle-class from the labouring class. The initiative drew support from Lord Dufferin, and quite naturally so.

It is no coincidence that the Congress was primarily made up of university graduates and their support was vital. In an open letter to these graduates, Hume, quite dramatically, expressed his concern that there could be a French Revolution-like upheaval in India too, led by the peasants, and if it really occurred, neither the British nor the new middle-class would be spared.

A young boy sits on the walls of Purana Qila in New Delhi. The 16th century fortress turned into one of Delhi's biggest refugee camps as the capital struggled with a refugee crisis amid spurts of communal rioting. (Photo by Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection)

That the Indian Rebellion had a lasting impact on the British could be understood from the accounts of local administrators of the time. Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) rightly assumed from information sourced from British officials that the mutiny was a spontaneous expression of the growing discontent and grievances among the Indians. Engels pointed out that despite feudal elements and medieval values being firmly in place, the revolt had a jarring effect on India's age-old social traditions and relationships, and people were slowly waking up from their hibernation, figuratively speaking. For the British, however, being able to suppress the mutiny was like taking over India all over again, and it didn't improve their status in the slightest.

Introduction of English education was promoted to widen the class divide. Not that everyone waited for state incentive; the emerging middle-class started learning the English language on their own initiative. In 1817, Hindu College started its journey in Kolkata as a private enterprise, and about 40 years down the line, it was turned into a public institution and renamed Presidency College. That was in 1855, two years before the Indian Rebellion. In the year of the rebellion, three universities were established in three major cities of India— Calcutta (now Kolkata), Bombay (now Mumbai), and Madras (now Chennai). These initiatives enabled the middle-class to further consolidate their position, and with the formation of the Indian National Congress, the British now looked to give the class divide a firm foundation.

Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59), who came to India as a law adviser for the East India Company, played an important role in this process as he advocated for state support for English education. During his stay in Kolkata between 1834 and 1838, Macaulay served as chairman of the First Law Commission that prepared the draft of the Indian Penal Code which, despite a number of revisions in later years, is still followed in India. There is no denying that this penal code was designed more to safeguard the interests of the British and affluent Indians than to protect people's right to justice. Macaulay, among other reasons, came to India to give legal assistance to this middle-class which was made up of British loyalists with self-serving interests, mostly cut off from the common people, but then he sought to extend educational support to them through his 1835 proposal for state-sponsored English education—a proposal eagerly accepted and executed. Explaining his proposal, Macaulay had famously said that the singular objective of English education was to create a class that would serve as 'interpreters' between the British and the millions of common people. 'Interpreter' was euphemism for agents and lackeys. As expected, English education played a seminal role in dividing the society. Never before had education played such a role in the social history of India. Of course, there had always been divisions among the educated and the non-educated in some form or another, but the idea of using education as a tool of division was a unique one. And it worked.

Manan Morshed, from the series 'Leftover Series', 2016.

But why were the British so resolute to keep India under their thumb? Britain's imperial history is replete with corrupt politicians and businessmen but even most liberals like Macaulay, those supporting the Whigs against the conservative Tories, would also denigrate India's culture and tradition. For them, too, India was a fertile ground for quick bucks. Rajani Palme Dutt (1896-1974) in his book India Today quoted an 1833 letter by Thomas Babington Macaulay to his sister, written before his arrival in India, in which Macaulay expressed his frustration that in his writing career he could never earn more than GBP 200 a year, although he needed to earn at least GBP 500 to fulfil his needs. The Indian job offer came as a great relief, with an annual salary package of GBP 10,000. He also said that he had learnt from people maintaining high social standards in Calcutta that he could save at least GBP 5,000 each year even after covering the cost of a luxurious lifestyle, meaning he would have a saving of GBP 30,000 in cash after the end of his tenure in India. Nothing could be more gratifying for him, he concluded.

The British couldn't use the Congress the way they wanted to. Soon after its formation, there were whispers of dissent. During Robert Bulwer-Lytton's tenure as Viceroy of India, a number of regressive laws were put into effect, including the Dramatic Performances Act (1876), Vernacular Press Act (1878) and Indian Arms Act (1878). Demands were raised from Congress sessions to repeal these laws. Irritated by its activities, Lord Curzon, who was appointed Viceroy of India in 1899, said that Congress had probably lost its way. So one of his noble ambitions, he said, was to 'help Congress have a peaceful death.' The Partition of Bengal was orchestrated in part to discredit Congress.

Bengal's Partition, however, was met with stiff resistance. Lord Minto, who succeeded Curzon in 1905, also sought to erode Congress' power but his strategy was different from Curzon's, and quite novel at that. Instead of breaking Congress from within, he thought it would be more effective to put it up against a rival political party, leading to the creation of the All-India Muslim League with the help of Muslim leaders. If Congress was established to cut off the middle class from the common people, Muslim League was created to further widen that division. It also served to inflame and institutionalise the hitherto latent communal tension between the Hindus and the Muslims.

To supplement the creation of Muslim League, separate electoral systems were adopted for the Muslim and Hindu voters. Of course, the right to vote was limited. During the very crucial elections of 1937, only four crore people were enfranchised even though a total of 35 crore could join the electoral roll. It could be said that the stage for India's Partition was being set with the creation of two separate parties along religious lines and two separate electoral systems for the people of the Hindu and Islamic faiths. What once promised to be a large-scale nationalist movement slowly turned into a communal standoff used to the advantage of a few politicians. The politicians played this communalism card for their own benefit and their manoeuvres succeeded, though at a dreadful cost.

On the face of it, the Partition of India was a war fought between Hindus and Muslims but it was the British who had masterminded it, partly in revenge for their cataclysmic failure to separate Bengal. Hindu community leaders should also share part of the blame because of their communal role during their resistance movement against the 1905 Partition of Bengal, which served to sow the first seeds of communal politics in India and eventually led to the breaking apart of a once-glorious nation.


Serajul Islam Choudhury is a Bangladeshi public intellectual, and professor emeritus at the University of Dhaka.

Excerpt from the original Bengali, titled
Deshbhangar Totporota o Dayitto.


See States of being divided for the full list of articles on this special issue of the Star Weekend.

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