At the creation of modern India and Pakistan in 1947, millions of former subjects of the Crown died during an orgy of mutual religious slaughter. Unsurprisingly, a recurring theme of the recent BBC series on partition is that the blame lies squarely at the door of Britain.
This was a truly horrific event with between 10 and 12 million people being forced from the areas where their families had lived for generations because their neighbours had become intent on slaughtering them. Villages, towns and cities, especially in the West, became battlegrounds as rioters hunting people of the ‘wrong’ religion, killed, raped, looted and burned houses and neighbourhoods.
No one knows how many died. Estimates for the number of dead rise as high as 2 million, there were rapes beyond number, looting and the despoiling of property was beyond computation.
As the departing colonial power, Britain had wanted the newly independent state to be one united country. Nehru’s mainly Hindu Congress Party agreed. The Muslim League led by Jinnah utterly rejected unity and demanded a separate Muslim state.
The two state solution emerged because everyone understood that the attempted creation of a united India would result in all-out civil war. The Muslim League’s demands for separation were granted whilst the Congress Party’s insistence on unity led to efforts to make the future Pakistan as small as possible.
The BBC series blamed Britain for the hideous events surrounding partition. Participants repeated the accusation that the Raj pursued a policy of divide and rule resulting in inevitable violence when Britain left. This view requires the rewriting of history from a radically anti-Western perspective. It was Britain which held India together. The subcontinent consisted of a multiplicity of competing states and fiefdoms held together only by the Raj.
Islam dreamed of empire centuries before Britain moved outward. From the inception of Islam, Arab Muslims mounted raids on the subcontinent. Enclaves were established which gradually expanded their influence by military means. The subsequent major Islamic invasions and conflicts left a lasting legacy of suspicion, bitterness and hatred between Muslims and Hindus for which the British bear no responsibility. In the Raj, Britain established a rule which for the most part kept the peace between the antagonistic factions.
The BBC series laid responsibility for creating the conditions for violence to break out on the Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten. The BBC homepage tells us that: ‘One explanation for the chaotic manner in which the two independent nations came into being is the hurried nature of the British withdrawal’.
Arriving in India with a remit to prepare for Indian independence in June 1948, Mountbatten, to great surprise but with Labour Cabinet approval, announced on 3rd June 1947 that partition would take place on 15th August 1947.
This left a five week gap in which to draw up the boundaries and prepare the civil and military structures necessary for the implementation of partition. Horrific disaster followed. The new governments were totally unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with the mass migration and communal violence resulting from partition.
Context is everything. At the time of partition Britain had emerged from six years of devastating war. The country may have been victorious but it was broke and exhausted. Facing vast problems of reconstruction at home, Britain had neither the wherewithal or the inclination to run a vast empire; it certainly did not have the resources to be involved in the potential civil war brewing in India.
There had been numerous instances of law and order breaking down before partition. This continued after the war. The leadership of both main religious groups were clearly losing control of their people and violent chaos was looming whoever was in charge.
Gandhi urged the Indian people to unite in peaceful opposition to fading British rule, the Muslim League instead sponsored a ‘Direct Action Day’. This resulted in the ‘Great Calcutta Killings’ of 16 August 1946, with more than 4,000 Hindus and Sikhs in Calcutta murdered and more than 100,000 rendered homeless.
The reaction to this massacre was inevitable. In the ‘Week of the Long Knives’, an orgy of sectarian violence spread to various cities throughout the country resulting in hundreds of deaths on all sides. Before partition and British departure, the communities were already at each other’s throats.
When warned of the likelihood of inter-communal violence, Mountbatten made an empty promise: ‘I shall give you complete assurance. I shall see to it that there is no bloodshed and riot… I shall issue orders to see that there are no communal disturbances anywhere in the country. If there should be the slightest agitation, I shall adopt the sternest measures to nip the trouble in the bud’.
The assurance should never have been given. The authority of the Raj had been waning since before WWII, and the small number of British troops stationed in India subsequent to the war had no possibility of keeping the opposing factions apart.
It is asserted that Mountbatten pushed partition too quickly, but Britain had no alternative but to leave as soon as possible. What was achieved was the best that could be done under impossible circumstances.
When empires depart, they rarely go quietly. Britain’s record in forsaking its empire is for the most part remarkably peaceful. The one glaring exception, the partition of India and the violence which followed was inevitable. If Britain had stayed any longer, there would still have been horrendous, and possibly worse, violence which Britain would have been unable to quell.
To blame Britain for the mass murders after partition is to simplistically ignore the reality of a situation from which no one emerges with clean hands.