The Prophet Betrayed: Gandhi and Partition

Salil Misra

Salil Misra

How is one to understand the attitude of Gandhi to the partition of India in 1947? Much like other facets of Gandhi’s politics, this too is nothing short of an enigma. Gandhi was the first to concede the idea of Pakistan in principle, soon after the demand was made by Mohammed Ali Jinnah. It was in March 1940 that Jinnah declared that Indian Muslims were not simply a religious community but a nation and therefore entitled to their own separate, representative, sovereign nation-state. Most Indian leaders responded to this demanded with disbelief. Some were dismissive. Gandhi too called the Pakistan idea a “basic untruth”, perhaps the strongest term in his dictionary. Yet he added that he could not think of a non-violent method of “compelling the obedience of eight crore Muslims to the will of rest of India . . . The Muslims must have the same right to self-determination that the rest of India has. We are at present a joint family. Any member may claim a division.”

Interestingly Gandhi was also the last of the nationalist leaders to finally accept the reality of Pakistan. He kept denying it till the very end and tried everything possible to prevent the partition. In between the early acceptance of the principle in 1940 and the late reconciliation with the reality of Pakistan in 1947, Gandhi kept exploring a whole range of political options to preserve and maintain national unity. So what was partition all about and why did national unity prove to be so fragile and elusive?

India was a large country, one of the largest in the world. India was also an old civilisational society, marked by a remarkable continuity of its social traditions through many centuries. It was also one of the most plural societies in the world. Multiple cultures, languages and religious communities had flourished on the land without any great conflict or friction. All these features put together—large society, old civilisation, continuity of traditions and remarkable plurality—really constituted the essence of Indian society. Since around the middle of the 19th century, a new process began in which diverse Indian people began to coalesce together on a common platform. In other words, the old civilisational society began to be gradually transformed into a modern Indian nation. Diverse groups and people began to be connected with one another at the level of thought and consciousness.

One important feature of this nationalisation process was that it encouraged diversity and enabled people to retain their culture and language while joining the national platform. Unlike in Europe, national homogenisation did not amount to cultural or linguistic homogenisation also. The new and nascent Indian nation remained remarkably plural. In fact plurality was the very essence of the new nation. Indian nationalists celebrated this diversity. Jawaharlal Nehru in his epic Discovery of India, written in jail in 1944, gave it an evocative name—Unity in Diversity.

Gandhi was convinced that it was absolutely essential for the Indian nation to retain these features, inherited from the past, in its journey towards the future. He realised the enormous complexities in achieving national unity for a diverse society such as India. In a statement made in 1940, Gandhi said: “India is a big country, a big nation, composed of different cultures which are tending to blend with one another, each complementing the rest. If I must wait for the completion of this process, I must wait. It may not be completed in my day. I shall love to die in the faith that it must come in the fullness of time.” India had started its transformation from a civilisational society to a full-fledged nation. This journey was bound to be long, uneven, complex and tortuous. What challenges and predicament were to be confronted by India during this transition?

The process went reasonably smoothly till the 1930s when the onward journey of the emergent Indian nation met a major collision. It was almost as if the big ship, which had weathered the storm very well, hit upon a huge rock which blocked its march forward.

The rock that blocked the march of the Indian nation was a claim, a novel political claim, made by Jinnah. He denied the possibility, even the very existence, of a single Indian nation. Instead, he claimed, there were two separate nations in India—Muslim and Hindu. In complete contrast to the imagination of the Indian nation that was inclusive, territorial and plural, Jinnah defined the new ‘breakaway’ nation in religious terms. He declared: “The difference between Hindus and Muslims is deep-rooted and ineradicable. We are a nation with our own distinctive culture and civilisation, language and literature, art and architecture, names and nomenclature, sense of value and proportion, legal laws and moral codes, customs and calendar, history and traditions, attitudes and ambitions, in short, we have our own distinctive outlook on life and of life. By all canons of international law, we are a nation.” Gandhi could not have disagreed more.

The claim that Indian Muslims constituted a separate nation was indeed novel, almost bizarre. There had been no compelling evidence of the existence of anything even remotely resembling a ‘Muslim nation’ in Indian history. Muslims constituted nearly 25% of the population and were scattered throughout the country. In some pockets, such as Sind, Baluchistan and North-West Frontier Provinces, they constituted an overwhelming majority. In Punjab and Bengal, they had a slender majority of a little over 50% with numerically large minorities of Hindus and Sikhs. In the rest of the country, they were in a minority ranging from 5% to 14%. Muslims had a presence in nearly every district of the country. Instances of Hindu–Muslim violence, so characteristic of our times, were rare prior to 19th century. Many of the rituals and religious practices of Muslims resembled the rituals perfumed by Hindus and other. Indian Muslims were internally divided—just as Hindis were—by region, culture and language. There was hardly anything in common between a Muslim from Malabar and one from Punjab or Bengal. Could such a diverse and scattered religious community be considered a nation? If at all this ‘nation’ was to have its own separate nation-state, what territory would be controlled by such a state? Given the entangled nature of cultural lives, it was simply not possible to physically segregate Muslims from non-Muslims, so as to carve out a separate Muslim territory within India. It was clear that such a project, if it was undertaken with seriousness, was fraught with the most dangerous repercussions.

The Pakistan proposal confronted Gandhi with the strongest political challenge of his life. How was he to meet it? Non-violence and non-coercion was a creed with Gandhi. So was national unity. Could a national unity be imposed from the top? If not, should Indian nationalists sit quietly and be mere spectators to the prospect of a physical division of the country? Both national unity and non-violence were important creeds with Gandhi. The dilemma was: if it was not possible to achieve national unity through consensus and non-violence, which of the two major values—unity or non-violence—was to be sacrificed?

The dilemma was all the more acute, given the role of the British colonial state. The British government always treated religious differences, particularly the ones between Hindus and Muslims, as natural and did everything possible to perpetuate this division. They introduced modern electoral politics in India but completely segregated it along religious lines. They created separate Muslims voters, Muslim constituencies and also Muslim candidates. Thus India’s experiment with democracy began by perpetuating Hindu–Muslim divide. The British also encouraged communalism and used it as an instrument to discredit the Indian national movement.

Indian nationalist movement, under Gandhi’s leadership, pursued a very different agenda. At a time when the British were perpetuating and legitimising Hindu–Muslim divide as part of their strategy of combating the national movement, Gandhi was trying to achieve national unity in the process of the struggle against the alien state. A political unity of Hindus and Muslims was an integral component of national unity. The British and Congress were thus involved in projects that ran contrary to each other. The success of one necessarily meant the failure of the other.

The contest between the two went on during the first four decades of the 20th century without any definite signs of which project was likely to succeed in the end. However, by around 1940, after the Pakistan resolution, there were definite signals that Gandhi’s project of national unity had run into a serious roadblock. The national movement had scored crucial victories against British imperialism and damaged it considerably. It was becoming increasingly clearer since the early 1940s that the British might not be able to hold out for long, and would have to leave sooner or later. But it was also becoming clear that Gandhi’s dream of national unity had entered a rough terrain.

In 1942, Congress formally recognised the possibility of a partition of Indian territory. Around 1944, when Gandhi came out of jail, he began to openly concede the prospect of Pakistan. He tried to make sense of the Pakistan proposal through the traditional metaphor of a family or a clan. He likened the Indian nation to a large family. In a prolonged correspondence with Jinnah, Gandhi virtually conceded Pakistan but refused to concede that Hindu and Muslims were two separate nations. Indian people were one nation, but they might, through agreement and accommodation, divide themselves into different territories, Gandhi argued.

It was around 1945–46 that the partition plan got a big boost, much to Gandhi’s consternation. He realised it and became even more helpless. Partition began to look imminent for many reasons. The British had accepted the idea and supported it. At the general elections held in March 1946, the Muslim League received an overwhelming support for the idea of Pakistan from the Muslim voters. Jinnah had succeeded in weaving his magic and mobilised a large number of Muslims around Pakistan. It was some kind of a collective hallucination engendered by the leader and indulged in by the followers. Yet another factor which would certainly have tormented Gandhi was Jinnah’s readiness to use violence as a political weapon in his crusade for Pakistan. When in August 1946, both British and Congress decided to go ahead with the Cabinet Mission plan without conceding Jinnah’s demands, he gave a call for Direct Action and made it clear that this was a call for violence. He made a public statement: “Today we have forged a pistol and are in a position to use it.” For the next few days Calcutta witnessed the worst form of communal violence in which over 5,000 people died within four days. The Calcutta violence was followed by a chain of communal frenzy. Soon communal violence erupted in Noakhali, Bihar, UP, Bombay and eventually reached Punjab. Never before, and certainly never after, had the country come so close to a civil war-like situation. For Gandhi, it was a situation of “India temporarily gone mad.” He now realised that it would be very difficult, if not altogether impossible, to prevent partition. Communal hatred had penetrated deep down to the psyche of the Indian people, both Muslims and Hindus. Jinnah had cast a spell on Indian Muslims and had temporarily hypnotised them. At this point, his popularity among Muslims easily matched that of Gandhi among the Indian people. And Jinnah was absolutely determined to have his Pakistan at all costs. Once asked if his appeal to Muslims for action would be violent or non-violent, Jinnah replied: “I am not going to discuss ethics.” Gandhi understood that his only weapon of political struggle—a non-violent Satyagraha with peoples’ support—will not work against the forces that were demanding partition. He also knew that the British—already in a mood to retreat—might not be very interested in preserving national unity.

There was only one way in which the partition could be prevented. Only Jinnah could do it. Gandhi therefore favoured reaching out to Jinnah with an offer that would give him the substance of Pakistan without entailing the risk of partition. Any form of Pakistan without partition seemed to be Gandhi’s formula. So convinced was he about the disastrous nature of the Pakistan scheme, that he was ready to support any proposal which could avoid the catastrophe of partition. Gandhi proposed to Mountbatten, the new Viceroy, that he should form a new national government at the Centre, headed by Jinnah. Gandhi hoped that the responsibility of national power would restrain Jinnah and make him look at the entire country as his own. His followers would do likewise.

The proposal could not be tried out. Too many people were opposed to it. Jinnah himself did not seem to be inclined. Between partial control over a large India and a total control over a small Pakistan, he obviously wanted latter. He also knew that his politics and ideology had alienated non-Muslims to such an extent that they would not accept him as their leader even for a day. The only alternative left was the partition of India. Given the presence of substantial non-Muslim minorities in Punjab and Bengal, these two provinces too had to be partitioned. Earlier, in a meeting with Mountbatten, Jinnah had made it clear that he did not mind a Pakistan smaller than originally proposed, so long as he got it completely.

It was under these circumstances that Gandhi gave in and decided to accept the partition of India, even though he was the last to accept it. It shattered his dream of national unity. The partition was also nothing short of a catastrophe for Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs alike. Gandhi understood it better than anyone else. Almost immediately after the decision to partition India was taken, he gave vent to his feelings: “We may not feel the full effect immediately, but I can see clearly that the future of independence gained at this price is going to be dark. I shall, perhaps, not be alive to witness it, but should the evil I apprehend overtake India and her independence be imperilled, let posterity know what agony this old soul went through thinking of it. Let it not be said that Gandhi was a party to India’s vivisection.”

Some leaders, including Jinnah, had hoped that after partition India and Pakistan would live as friendly neighbours. Gandhi thought otherwise. In a statement that should be remembered for its prophetic quality, he said in July 1947: “The Pakistanis will say that they must increase their armed forces to defend themselves against India. India will repeat the argument. The result will be war. . . . [Shall] we spend our resources on the education of our children or on gunpowder and guns?”

The statement reflected the predicament the two independent nation states found themselves in. The partition happened in 1947 but its legacy is far from over. It continues to be a big factor in governing the relations between the two countries as was predicted by Gandhi. Both India and Pakistan are still living in the dark shadows that were cast upon the land of South Asia by the partition in 1947.

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