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The real culprits behind India's Partition

By Mohammad Sajjad
May 24, 2018 14:03 IST
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AMU has once again been pulled into a crossfire of crass political opportunism.
In these post-truth times, that the university also had political stirrings not subscribing to the Muslim League is chosen to be forgotten, says Mohammad Sajjad.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

While asking the Aligarh Muslim University to take off an 80-year-old portrait of Mohammed Ali Jinnah from the Students Union Hall, the Bharatiya Janata Party and its affiliates went on to vilify AMU --- and, by implication, India's Muslims -- for having been singularly responsible for India's Partition.

A relatively greater blame has been put on both the Muslims and the AMU even by sections of liberal-secular historians in India; not to say of the historians of Pakistan who, along with India's Hindu supremacists, attribute it to the founder of the university, Sir Syed, who passed away in 1898, half a century before Partition.

Unfortunately, this is the way the history of Partition has been taught and popularised.

For long, people kept blaming India's Muslims for Partition. Muslims, despite having chosen to stay on in their homeland, were made to suffer from a feeling of guilt.

Suspicions against them remained, and their patriotism is often questioned. Gradually they have tried to overcome it, but time and again, on one or the other flimsy issues, they are put in the dock.

This oversimplified reductionism of a complex historical process therefore needs to be rectified.


The complexity of its factors and processes cannot be reduced to blaming specific individuals and religious groups.

Hindu communalism within the Congress and also pursued by the Hindu Mahasabha-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh as well as the role of the British in dividing India has been less popular.

That the Muslim League asked for it and got it, is the truth.

But there were more Muslims who resisted it. Maulana Sajjad (1880-1940) and his Imarat-e-Shariah (besides the Momin Conference), Maulana Hifzur Rahman Seohaarwi (1901-1962), Tufail Ahmad Manglori (1868-1946), an ace wicket-keeper of the cricket team of MAO College Aligarh and the founder of a school now affiliated with AMU, are hitherto lesser known names who wrote and aggressively campaigned against the Muslim League's separatist politics, besides better known organisations like the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-i-Hind (founded in 1919), Maulana Azad, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, and scores of others. Mangalori also wrote comprehensively against separate electorates.

More Muslims were outside the League.

The Muslim demand for adequate share in power structures, and the League slipping towards communal territorial separatism, are two distinct issues to be noted.

Hindu communalism within the lower units of the Congress and also articulated through the Hindu Mahasabha-RSS was no less responsible, which had become more strident after 1938 when V D Savarkar (1883-1966) expounded his own two-nation theory, not to say of such divisive and exclusionary utterances by Lala Lajpat Rai (1865-1928) in The Tribune, December 14, 1924, wherein he had offered as many as four 'Muslim states', meaning a 'clear partition of India into a Muslim India and a non-Muslim India'.

Interestingly, historians R C Majumdar and A K Majumdar say, '... One factor which was responsible to a very large extent for the emergence of the idea of Partition of India on communal lines, this was the Hindu Mahasabha...' (Struggle for Freedom, 1969, page 611)

Research in recent decades, however, has begun to rectify the problem, though these are yet to be popularised adequately.

India's Partition was caused by competitive communalisms, aided, abetted and prodded by the British colonial power.

India could have been divided only in British presence.

This article is an attempt at discussing some of the recent research on the subject as lucidly and briefly as possible.

Anita Inder Singh (1987) argues that although long-term strategic interests of Britain were against Partition, short-term tactics encouraged this major act of decolonisation after World War II. The power play of the British, however, needs to be articulated lucidly to underline and popularise their responsibility.

One of the earliest interventions towards 'rectification' in this direction came from Uma Kaura (1977). She argued that the all-party consensus built around the Motilal Nehru committee report (1929) which, among other provisions, proposed 33% reservation of seats for Muslims in the central assembly, collapsed when the Hindu Mahasabha reneged on its commitment to the report.

It pushed Jinnah towards his 14-point demand, from where he kept stepping up his demands with increasing intransigence.

Ayesha Jalal (1985) extends her arguments much in defence of Jinnah who, according to her, emerged as the 'sole spokesman' of Muslims for India after 1938, and tried his best for a strong federalism.

Charu Gupta (2001) says that the very metaphors of nationalism -- Bharat Mata, Matri Bhasha, Gau Mata -- were majoritarian, exclusionary and divisive.

Tanika Sarkar echoes this view and says that nationalism has had many facets. Those complicit with British power, rather than confronting them, and intending to dominate the other groups, were important contributors towards Partition. This is better explained by the following historians.

T C A Raghavan (1983) explored that after 1919, franchise was extended to affluent sections of rural Punjab and western India. This threatened the hegemony of the dominant urban Hindus in education, bureaucracy and legal profession.

Miyan Fazl-i-Husain's Unionist Party formed a ministry in 1937, enacted a number of bills which went against the commercial interests of affluent Hindus, who together drew towards a number of organisations. This idea about Punjab is endorsed and elaborated by Neeti Nair (Changing Homelands, 2011).

Similarly, in western India, says Raghavan, non-Brahmin Kunbi peasants got reserved seats in the council and started a sustained attack on the privileges of the predominantly Brahmin elites who were drawn towards ideas like 'Hindutva' and 'Sangathan'.

This was further fuelled after the Gandhi-Ambedkar Poona Pact (1932), which enhanced the share of 'Harijans' in the legislature.

Joya Chatterjee (Bengal Divided, 1995) asserts that in Bengal, after 1932, Hindu communalism pushed India towards partition and during 1945-1947, Hindus asked for partition.

Its seeds were sown by the British in partitioning the province in 1905 along religious lines. She says the economic depression of the 1930s reduced the rent and debt collection of the Bhadralok.

It went in favour of tenants (in Bengal, the Muslim proportion among tenants was high) who turned affluent, and due to property franchise, enhanced their share in the legislative arena, with Fazlul Haq's Krishak Praja Party.

The Poona Pact (1932) enhanced 'Harijan' share. Both factors 'reduced high caste Hindus to a small minority in a House which they had always expected to dominate'.

It drove the Bhadralok from anti-British to an anti-Muslim posture.

It enhanced right-wing influence within the Bengal Congress which deployed the Hindu Mahasabha to organise a campaign for the partition of Bengal in 1947.

William Gould (2005) identifies the tallest leaders of the Congress in UP, Purushottam Das Tandon (1882-1962), Sampurnanand (1891-1969) and Gobind Ballabh Pant (1887-1961), more with Hindu militancy, and thereby alienating Muslims, whereas Francis Robinson (1974) and Venkat Dhulipala (2015) find Muslim communal separatism in UP as an important factor in India's Partition, wherein the landed aristocracy and service elite among Muslims wanted to preserve their pre-eminent positions.

Likewise, Mushirul Hasan, Papiya Ghosh (2008), Vinita Damodaran (Broken Promises, 1992), and a few others also argue that after the Congress ministry was formed in 1937, Hindu communalism and Muslim communalism competed with each other post-1938, and even more stridently after 1940.

Muslims felt alienated and discriminated against by the Congress ministries. Muslim League played upon this to bolster its own politics.

Under colonial patronage, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League grew in leaps and bounds, more after the Congressmen were imprisoned during the Quit India Movement (1942); the two apparently rival parties, also aligned to form ministries in Bengal, NWFP, Sindh, thus consolidated their respective base, and weakened the national movement, pushing India towards partition.

Ram Manohar Lohia (1910-1967) in his book, Guilty Men of India's Partition (1960) blamed some of the major Congress leaders, mainly Jawaharlal Nehru, for being too hungry for power.

A textbook by Bipan Chandra et al (1989) and his students, like Sucheta Mahajan (Independence and Partition, 2000) blame it on the 'surging waves of Muslim communalism' after 1937, and the long-term failure of the Congress in drawing Muslim masses into the national movement.

They argue that the orgy of communal violence in 1946 left the Congress with no option but to accept Partition to avoid civil war and balkanisation which was the British intention.

Thus, they argue, the Congress should be credited for having succeeded in bargaining for the largest possible India.

Sumit Sarkar's textbook (1983) argues that the peasant and working class upsurges along with the Royal Indian Navy mutiny in 1946, supported by the civilians, held a promise of mass movement, rather than going over to the negotiation table.

This mass movement could have helped containing communal violence and thereby avoiding Partition.

Gandhiji, however, said 'the masses, upon whom the movement could have been built, had gotten so thoroughly communalised, that this was possibly not an option at that moment.' He wished that people will not accept this in their heart after some time.

The roles of Lord Mountbatten and Sir Cyril Radcliffe, advancement of the date of independence from June 1948 to August 1947, the British haste in quitting India after it had become weaker after World War II, and Anglo-American imperial interests in dividing India are the factors still awaiting more detailed and nuanced explorations to let us comprehend the issue with further clarity. Yasmin Khan's book (The Great Partition, 2007) is an effort in this direction.

Gyanendra Pandey (Remembering Partition, 2001) insists on reading about the violence and its bitter memories and experiences which will provide meanings; it would make us more humane and will ensure greater harmony among the people.

Pandey says that looking into the causes of Partition inevitably pushes us towards blaming one or the other, identifying which community was the aggrieved and which one was aggressor or culprit, and thereby perpetuating bitterness.

Politicians of our times, in sheer opportunism, play upon this very blame game.

AMU has once again been pulled into this crossfire of crass political opportunism. That AMU also had political stirrings not subscribing to the Muslim League is chosen to be forgotten.

Writers and historians like Rashid Ahmad Siddiqi (1892-1977) and Mohammad Habib (1895-1971) adhered to the notion of composite Indian nationality, and favoured a political solution to the communal tangle within united India.

Likewise, the two-nation theory was anathema to the Congress, Socialists and Communists within the campus of Aligarh, says Mushirul Hasan's essay (IESHR, 1985).

Hasan's explorations further inform us that K G Saiyadain and his fellow students in 1926 had endorsed the policy of united nationalism, and said that Indian Muslims should not organise themselves along communal lines, but should work with the nationalist forces for freedom and progress of the country. This was reiterated by the vice president of the students union in 1930.

Those accusing AMU have chosen to forget the fact that Syed Mahmud (1889-1971) and T A K Sherwani had launched a powerful agitation against the British in 1907-1908, and in the 1930s, the office-bearers of the students union were anti-British and pro-Congress, as was Aligarh Magazine.

S M Tonki, Hasrat Mohani (1875-1951), K M Ashraf (1903-1962) championed the cause of socialism within the Congress.

The Aftab Hall of AMU was the focal point of nationalist revolutionary activities with Asrarul Haq Majaz (1911-1955), and Abu Bakr Shish, chairman of Sunni Theology, presiding over a Congress meeting in Jaunpur.

The Leftist AISF, in Calcutta, December 1937, noted that the Aligarh students were with it. Khwaja Ahmad Abbas (1914-1987) and A M Khwaja (1885-1962) were among those who adhered to nationalism and socialism and subjected the idea of Pakistan to scathing criticism.

Sadly, in this post-truth era, people choose to forget all these credentials of AMU.

The intelligence of the university in not destroying history, howsoever bitter, is questioned so menacingly, frighteningly, and intimidatingly by the politically motivated who have been injected a dangerous certitude that a particular community has already been held to be guilty of harbouring seditious intent.

Undoubtedly, these are signs of self-destruction. Can we make our people really see through these nasty games of the venal politicians?

That is the challenge today.

Professor Mohammad Sajjad is at the Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University.
He has published two books: Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours (Routledge, 2014/2018 reprint). and Contesting Colonialism and Separatism: Muslims of Muzaffarpur since 1857 (Primus, 2014).

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Mohammad Sajjad