The Ghost of Partition Still Haunts India
Weekly Pulse
Aug 28-Sept 3, 2009
Strobe Talbott in his book Engaging India praised him for extraordinary negotiating skills. Jaswant Singh, who served as India’s External Affairs Minister in the BJP-led government and had met fourteen times the former US Deputy Secretary of State in the aftermath of India’s 1998 nuclear tests, has now created a storm in India by praising Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah in his book Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence (New Dehli, Rupa Publishers, 669 pages), released on August 17. The Bharatiya Janata Party reacted the very next day by expelling him from the party, and the ruling Congress Party condemned the book for holding the two leaders of Indian National Congress, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel responsible for Partition and the creation of Pakistan. Such across-the-party-lines condemnatory and victimizing response to the book and its author is a reaffirmation of the widely-held perception in Pakistan that India’s ruling elites are still haunted by the ghost of Partition, and that they have not reconciled with the idea of Pakistan sixty-two years since independence.

As an author, Jaswant Singh has written nothing new. Before him, Stanley Wolpert and Ayesha Jalal had also absolved Jinnah and the party he led, All-India Muslim League, of the responsibility for dividing Indian Subcontinent on religious lines, and, instead, held the Indian National Congress and its leadership, particularly Nehru and Patel, responsible for Partition. However, the difference in Jaswant Singh’s case is that he has been an important leader of India’s mainstream Hindu nationalist party, and yet he has the courage to revisit India’s pre-partition history and pinpoint Nehru and Patel as the chief culprits of the traumatic events leading up to Partition and the subsequent creation of Pakistan.

“Jinnah did not win Pakistan, as the Congress leaders - Nehru and Patel- finally conceded Pakistan to Jinnah, with the British acting as an ever helpful midwife,” Jaswant Singh writes.

He praises Jinnah, recalling his “epic journey…from being the ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity, the liberal constitutionalist and Indian nationalist to the Quaid-e-Azam of Pakistan.”

Jaswant Singh raises several questions on partition, which Jaswant Singh describes as the “defining event of the 20th century for the entire subcontinent”: “How did you divide a geographic (also geo-political) unity? Through a ‘surgical operation’, Mountbatten (the last British viceroy) had said, and tragically Nehru and Patel and the Congress party had assented, Jinnah, in any event having demanded adopting to just a recourse.”

Revisiting History

Stanley Wolpert’s Jinnah of Pakistan and Ayesha Jalal’s The Sole Spokesman are a couple of other credible accounts of the events leading up to Indian Subcontinent’s Partition in 1947 and the role of Jinnah in it. These and many other lesser known works on the subject also seem to establish that Jinnah’s decision to abandon the cause of Hindu-Muslim unity and his demand for an independent country for Indian Muslims separate was caused primarily by Nehru’s and Patel’s ambition to replace British colonialism with Hindu imperialism in a united India after independence.

Even though Allama Muhammad Iqbal had conceded the concept of a separate homeland for Muslims as far back as 1930, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah had articulated his Two-Nation Theory a decade later, it is a historical fact that Pakistan’s Founding Father remained committed to the idea of united India until a year before partition. Jinnah remained the chief exponent of Hindu-Muslim unity for a long time before quitting Indian National Congress. His decision to lead the Muslims of India from 1920s onwards and to demand a separate homeland in the 1940s was essentially an outcome of the intransigence of the Indian National Congress leadership.

In 1942, the British had sent Sir Stafford Cripps to India with an offer of independence. The offer, however, provided the provinces an opportunity to secede from federation, either separately or in groups. The Indian National Congress rejected the Cripps offer and launched the Quit India movement. Then, in 1946, a mission of the British Cabinet visited India, and proposed what is called the Cabinet Mission Plan. The Plan sought to preserve a united India and to allay Muslim fears of Hindu domination through the proposal of a loose federation between two federated states, sharing foreign, defense and communication affairs at the centre. One of the federated states consisted of Muslim majority provinces in northeastern and northwestern India, and the other consisted of the Hindu majority provinces in the rest of India.

The Muslim League accepted the Plan, while the Congress rejected it. Both British offers contained features of a confederation, and the Muslim leadership was flexibly enough to accept them despite the fact that the Lahore session of the Muslim League in 1940 had resolved to create Pakistan.

As an ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity, Jinnah retained the dual membership of the Muslim League and the Congress party for many years. He left the Congress, created in 1885 as a representative body of all Indian people, only after realizing that it had virtually become a Hindu organization. Jinnah was instrumental in bringing the two parties to a single platform in 1916 to conclude the Lucknow Pact, in which the Congress accepted the Muslim demand for separate electorates.

Prelude to Partition

In 1928, the Muslim League under Jinnah's leadership participated alongside Congress in an All-Parties Conference to prepare the Constitution for an independent India—only to find Congress leader Motilal Nehru issuing what is called the Nehru Report, which rejected the Muslim demand for separate electorates and other constitutional safeguards. Jinnah responded by announcing the Fourteen Points, which demanded constitutional arrangements guaranteeing electoral majorities in the five provinces with Muslim-majority populations, a weak federal system in which the central government would have little power over the provinces, as well as one-third of the seats in the central legislature and a 75 percent majority requirement for action by the legislature.

However, in 1929, the Congress declared sawarajor independence as a goal. Still Jinnah did not lose hope. The League participated in the 1937 elections for provincial ministries held under the Constitutional Act of India, 1935. The Congress swept the provincial elections for Hindu seats and formed ministries in seven of the eleven provinces. Jinnah offered to form coalition ministries with the Congress in each province, but the Congress refused to recognize the League as representative of India's 90 million Muslims. “There are,” Nehru remarked, “only two forces in India today, British imperialism and Indian nationalism.” History, however, bore out Jinnah's response: “No, there is a third party, the Mussulmans.”

Writes Jaswant Singh on page 232 of his book:

When the Congress formed a government with almost al the Muslim MLAs sitting on the Opposition benches, non-Congress Muslims were suddenly faced with this stark reality of near total political powerlessness. It was brought home to them, like a bolt of lightening, that even if the Congress did not win a single Muslim seat, as had happened now, (in the 1937 elections) so long as it won an absolute majority in the House on the strength of the general (Hindu) seats, it could and would form a government entirely on its own, unless Muslim politicians altogether surrendered their separate political identity, in which case they would hardly be elected in the first place. Yet again this carried a very serious and damaging message for the future of a united India: that in a majoritarian minded, Congress ruled India there was no place for Muslims, indeed, for any political minority, unless the Congress found itself in a corner, then it would ally with anyone.
Thus, partition could have been avoided, if Congress leaders Nehru and Patel had accommodated Muslim representation in provincial governments following the 1937 elections. Likewise, Pakistan might not have been created, had the Congress, unlike the Muslim League, accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946, which proposed the establishment of a loose federation in post-British united India.

It was principally the fear of majority Hindu domination of minority Muslim population of India after the withdrawal of the British from the Subcontinent that forced Jinnah and other Muslim League leaders to insist on “separate electorates” or other autonomous rights from Muslims in the Muslim-majority areas of the Subcontinent. And this fear among Indian Muslims was created not just by racist ambitions of Hindu fundamentalist groups like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Singh but also, and more importantly, by the high-handed, power-hungry and uncompromising attitude of both Nehru and Patel, who cloaked their imperialist ambitions in the façade of secularism.

Here are some other thought-provoking excerpts from Jinnah: India, Partition, Independence:

His [Jinnah’s] opposition was not against the Hindus or Hinduism, it was the Congress that he considered as the true political rival of the Muslim League, and the League he considered as being just an 'extension of himself'. He, of course, made much of the Hindu-Muslim riots (1946; Bengal, Bihar, etc.) to 'prove the incapacity of Congress Governments to protect Muslims; and also expressed fear of "Hindu raj" to frighten Muslims into joining the League, but during innumerable conversations with him I can rarely recall him attacking Hindus or Hinduism as such. His opposition, which later developed into almost hatred, remained focused upon the Congress leadership' (M.R.A. Baig, Jinnah's secretary).

However, it has to be said, and with great sadness, that despite some early indications to the contrary, the leaders of the Indian National Congress, in the period between the outbreak of war in 1939 and the country's partition in 1947, showed in general, a sad lack of realism, of foresight, of purpose and of will.

As (Maulana Azad) wrote in his memoirs, he had come to the conclusion that Indian federation should deal with just three subjects: defence, foreign affairs and communications; thus granting the maximum possible autonomy to the provinces. According to the Maulana, Gandhi accepted this suggestion, while Sardar Patel did not.

Agonizing Consequences

On the agonizing consequences of Partition, especially for India’s minorities, Jaswant Singh writes:

The cruel truth is that this partitioning of India has actually resulted in achieving the very reverse of the originally intended purpose; partition, instead of settling contention between communities has left us a legacy of markedly enhanced Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or other such denominational identities, hence differences...

According to him, the Indian Muslims feel “abandoned”, “bereft” and are suffering from psychological insecurity. Jaswant Singh, despite being a leader of a Hindu nationalist party linked to the RSS and its racist Hindutva ideology, has had the guts to use expressions like "look into the eyes of Muslims and feel the pain", "Muslims paid the price for partition", Muslims’ "psychological nervousness" and India treated them as "aliens."

Right at the start, he underlines the reason for writing the book, an outcome of his five-year long research, which is to revisit history, review Partition and the role of leaders in it, so that lessons could be learnt for a better and more prosperous future in the subcontinent. Jaswant Singh writes:

The searing agony of it [partition] torments still, the whys and what-fors of it, too. We relieve the partition because we persist without attempts to find answers to the great errors of those years so that we may never, ever repeat them. Also, perhaps by recounting them we attempt to assuage some of our pain.

Just as Jaswant Singh is not the first author to come up with a different, much fairer account of Indian history—especially from the point of view of the sort of history the Indians are exposed to in schools and at public platforms—he is not the first Hindu nationalist leader to praise Jinnah or reconcile with the idea of Pakistan. Back in 2005, during his visit to Karachi, BJP President L K Advani had described Jinnah as among the “very few who actually create history.” Advani’s praise for Jinnah created a storm in the BJP ranks, forcing him to resign—a decision he reverted later. Before him, former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayees had visited Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore in February 1999, for which he was bitterly criticized by the Hindu nationalist party.

However, in neither of the two instances, the consequences were as grave as is the case with Jaswant Singh. His expulsion from the BJP aside, Jinnah: India, Partition, Independenceis being equally condemned by Hindu nationalists and secular nationalists within India. One can understand Congress’s criticism, for the party’s entire political discourse is grounded in the exceptional sacrifices made by Nehru and Patel, a factor that enabled it to dominate India’s post-partition politics.

Unusual Reaction

As to why the BJP took the harsh step of expelling Jaswant Singh, who served on three top positions as Minister for External Affairs, Defense and Finance under three successive BJP-led governments, the reason offered by BJP spokesmen is that his book glorifies Jinnah and criticizes Patel for the partition, which goes against its Hindutva tradition, whereby all those leaders who attempted to secure Hindu majoritarianism are hailed as national heroes. Leaders and supporters of BJP and its parent organization, the RSS, have no love lost for Nehru, but when it comes to Patel, who is considered as an icon figure in the Hindu nationalist discourse on in the Indian “freedom struggle,” there is no compromise. Even the broader Indian discourse on Partition is grounded in the vilification of Jinnah, holding him solely responsible for the division of subcontinent in collusion with the British. Now anyone who beaks such long-held myths about Partition, how it came about and what role leaders played in it will most certainly be vilified—which is exactly what has happened in Jaswant Singh’s case.

“I have committed no sin...none whatsoever...against India,” he said at a press conference after learning about BJP’s decision to expel him. After this, Jaswant Singh broke down in tears. In Gujrat, from where Sardar Patel hailed, the book was officially banned by BJP’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who is alleged to be complicit in an anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002.

Jaswant Singh plans to visit Pakistan to promote his book, which is being widely aclaimed by the country's learned community—not simply because the ex-BJP leader has praised Jinnah but, more importantly, because he has attempted to present a factual narration of pre-partition history and the role of leaders in it, a history that has been frequently distorted in both Pakistan and India by their respective political elites to manipulate political power.


There is no doubt that India is an established democracy, lived by a vibrant middle class making a huge difference through its unique skills and creativity in the world of modernity today. However, there is also a corresponding sad reality that the political elites of India are still stuck up with the same domineering and racist mindset represented by Nehru and Patel that forced Jinnah to abandon the ideal of Hindu-Muslim unity and demand Pakistan for Muslims. It is the same mindset that is continuingly reflected in India’s knee-jerk reaction to terrorist instances such as the Mumbai attacks last year and its rulers’ unwillingness to comprehend the commonality of terrorist danger in the region and cooperate with Pakistan to jointly combat this danger.

Living in a separate homeland, Pakistanis may be facing enormous challenges of their own but, unlike Indians, they are at least not being haunted by the ghost of Partition sixty-two years down the lane. Each time the Indians react on the basis of a mythological explanation about the causes of partition, destroying Babri Mosque, massacring Muslims in Gujrat or victimsing authors such as Jaswant Singh who attempt to revist history indiferently, they only reconfirm that partition, however horrific its consequences were, was the right thing to happen, and that the Muslims who reside in Pakistan and Bangladesh today freely would have suffered the worst of subjugation in a united India post-British under a majoritarian Congress or BJP-led rule.

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