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9-08-2015, 22:18

FROM THE RAJ TO INDEPENDENCE, 1947

To any schoolboy the Indian subcontinent appeared to form a natural unity. But, even under the glittering panoply of the viceroy, that unity was never really achieved. India remained a patchwork; some regions came under direct British rule while more than 360 princely states, a few – such as Hyderabad – large and others small, were allowed a substantial measure of internal selfgovernment. The princes occupied a special place. When aristocracy still mattered, the Indian maharajas – displaying their wealth ostentatiously and sending their sons to Eton and Harrow – became part of the British upper crust, or almost. So did the opposition to the Raj. The best-known Indian nationalists, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, were members of the English Bar. There was not only opposition to British rule but also Anglo-Indian cooperation. In the lower branches of administration, Indians and Anglo-Indians were providing efficient and loyal service. The best example of Indian unity was the Indian army. Racist yet loyal, it was for long exclusively officered by the British; not until the 1930s were Indians given commissions. Moreover, it incorporated all the divisive religious cultures of the Indian subcontinent: Nepalese Gurkhas, Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus were all imbued with a fierce loyalty to their regiments and to the Crown. What would happen to the patchwork of British India once the unifying Crown and the institutions that supported it disappeared with independence? That was the crucial question facing the British and the Indians in the 1940s. Gandhi’s vision was of an India where all its inhabitants would be brothers. It seemed only natural that British India should be replaced by the one Commonwealth of India. But during the century of British rule the deep divisions grew deeper. Only by force and bloodshed was it possible to create two states in 1947, and nationalism continued to threaten the cohesion of these two successor nations, India and Pakistan. In 1971, the eastern region of Pakistan fought for and gained independence as Bangladesh; now the subcontinent had divided into three political units. Religion has been a prime cause of division. Hinduism is the religion of the majority of Indians, but there are many different kinds. Hinduism professes, but does not always practise, broad tolerance, and it can embrace many different religious practices; Hindus are opposed to the assertions of exclusive truth made by many other religions. But it is precisely these all-embracing Hindu claims that are seen as a threat to those religions that base their faith on providing a specific path to salvation. Muslims are the largest of these minorities, numbering 120 million, a quarter of all the Indian population in 1947 of some 480 million. The next largest minority were 12 million Christians. The Christians of Kerala in southern India are poor and have supported the Communist Party. The principal challenges to Indian unity in the 1990s, however, came from the militant Sikhs of northern India and the peoples of Kashmir. In 1947 the main enemy of the Sikhs was the Muslims, from whom they derive some of their religious practices. But since independence the 7.5 million Sikhs have asserted rights of independence from India’s Hindus as well. The home of the Sikhs is the Punjab in northern India, while the majority of Muslims live in north-western India and in the east. They are divided by the large central Indian land mass, which is predominantly Hindu. But minority communities of Hindus and Muslims are to be found throughout India and Pakistan. Bengal in the east had mixed Muslim and Hindu communities; the Punjab in the north is also mixed religiously between Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Some twenty major languages divide India, as well as the 3,000 castes and sub-castes of Hinduism; the landlord is divided from the peasant; the wealthy merchant and factory owner from the worker, and the bureaucracy and government have their own grades of influence. The hundreds of princes great and small contributed further to this fragmentation. It was Britain’s imperial power that provided whatever unity India enjoyed before independence. Racial prejudice marred British India before independence as it marred South Africa. It was condemned by the more enlightened Englishmen, among whom was Lord Salisbury, prime minister in 1900. Replying to the governor of Bombay, he wrote: it interests me to find that you are struck with the damned nigger element in the British society at Bombay. It is bad enough in official and military circles here. I look upon it as not only offensive and unworthy but as representing what is now and will be . . . a serious political danger! A generation later, Nehru in his Discovery of India, which he wrote in 1943, expressed his own anger at the racial discrimination of notices placed in railway carriages, on the walls of waiting rooms and even attached to park benches, with the insulting message ‘For Europeans only’. Nehru comments: the idea of a master race is inherent in imperialism. There was no subterfuge about it; it was proclaimed in unambiguous language by those in authority. . . . generation after generation, and year after year, India as a nation and Indians as individuals were subjected to insult, humiliation, and contemptuous treatment. . . . The memory of it hurts, and what hurts still more is the fact that we submitted for so long to this degradation. Where did the balance lie between the harm done and the benefits brought by imperial rule? Economic arguments are finely balanced and what might have developed without British rule becomes a hypothetical judgement. Among the benefits can be enumerated the creation of a common language of government throughout India, the establishment of law and order, the building of a railway network spanning the continent, the beginnings of industry and its protection after the First World War, the development of higher education, the training of a civil service and an army, vast irrigation schemes, the better control of famines when the vagaries of the weather decimated agricultural production except on occasions like 1943, better health care and control of the killer diseases. But India was not a blank sheet that Britain ‘modernised’. British rule was imposed on an ancient civilisation whose intellectual elite had produced philosophers, poets, historians, writers, artists and scientists of world renown, men such as Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), poet, philosopher and early advocate of international understanding based on respect and knowledge of the different cultures of the world, and the physicist C. V. Raman, awarded the Nobel Prize in 1930. One failure of British rule, by way of contrast, was the illiteracy of the masses. That the resentment of British imperialism and the manipulation of India’s economic development to suit British interests should create a nationalist reaction was inevitable given the growth of an Indian elite and middle class in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Nevertheless, the British did not attempt to crush independent Indian political activities. With all their arrogance and prejudice there was also a genuine desire for reform, for involving Indians increasingly in the governing of the country, while reserving to the British Crown, that is the viceroy, only what were regarded as the powers necessary to preserve British rule. Parliamentary- type institutions and elections – at first confined to a small electorate and later widened – provided the basis for constitutional development after independence. The full scope of constitutional progress under British rule cannot be detailed here, but the salient measures were incorporated in the Indian Councils Act 1909, also known as the Morley–Minto reforms, which permitted Indians to be elected to the viceroy’s council and to provincial councils. Eight years later the growing demands of the Indian National Congress (founded in 1885) led Edwin Montague, secretary of state for India, to promise to increase the association of Indians ‘in every branch of the administration, (and to promote) the gradual development of self-governing institutions, with a view to the progressive realisation of responsible government in India as an integral part of the Empire’. It was not exactly independence, and self-government was gradual indeed – it was to take another thirty years before it became reality. Then came the Montague–Chelmsford report in 1918 which devolved more responsibilities upon the provincial assemblies when the reforms began to be implemented in 1921. The 1920s and 1930s under British rule were paved with good intentions. India would be led to independence gradually by means designed to prevent the radical Congress Party with its democratic and socialist aspirations from gaining dominant power. The princes, Britain’s loyal allies, would be given a prominent place and Muslim and Sikh fears of a Hindu majority would be appeased by the grant of considerable autonomy and separate electoral rolls. Long experience of imperial rule gave the British self-confidence in the exercise of their ‘trusteeship’. But some of India’s leaders wanted more rapid progress to independence than Britain was disposed to grant, among them Gandhi. The British vice-regal government in India and the Cabinet at home found it increasingly puzzling and difficult to know how best to deal with this small, skinny man in a loincloth, half saint, half shrewd politician, who moved the Indian masses as no one had done before, who defied the power of the Raj by encouraging civil disobedience to show that Britain’s rule lacked legitimacy, and who met the use of force by passive resistance. Gandhi, once a dapper lawyer, had spent many years in South Africa, where racial discrimination had first aroused his anger and where he had evolved the new methods of harnessing ‘people power’ to overcome the apparently unassailable might of imperial white rule. British rule in India was met by this powerful non-violent defiance of the masses, inspired by Gandhi’s example. The viceroys, responsible for upholding the imperial law, for security and order, tried to avoid violence, preferring to govern through cooperation. Gandhi was not satisfied with the promised pace of British reforms, nor with the nationalism of the elitist Congress Party, which had little contact with the masses. He achieved the contact by arranging a protest against British laws designed to combat terrorism and to raise taxes (for it was the Indians themselves who had to pay for the admin- istration and the soldiers of the Raj). In April 1919 a large crowd gathered in Amritsar in the Punjab. The demonstrators were not armed, but in an atmosphere in which rebellion seemed possible the British commanding officer in Amritsar overreacted, committing an atrocity by ordering his troops to fire on the crowd, killing more than 300 and wounding another thousand. For Gandhi this act of bloody violence changed his outlook: there could no longer be cooperation with the British Raj. By a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience India would be made ungovernable. Gandhi was imprisoned for a time, the first of several arrests. In 1930 he led the famous salt march 240 miles to the coast in defiance of the government’s salt tax. Picking up a handful of sand on the seashore, he boiled it to extract the salt. By this simple act he demonstrated that salt could be obtained from nature with no need to pay the British Raj for it. His defiance reverberated throughout India. He was arrested again, only to be released later and sympathetically received by the viceroy. He created a sensation when attending, in his loincloth, a conference on reforms in London in 1931. A renewal of civil disobedience in India led to another spell in prison. The popular British press might derisively refer to Gandhi as the Indian ‘fakir’, but in official London and Delhi he was regarded with a mixture of irritation and admiration for the power he wielded by his simple example; the Indians called him Mahatma, ‘great soul’. In the 1930s Britain tried again to advance Indian representation. The Government of India Act was passed in 1935. The Raj, after the civil disobedience campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s, had become convinced that preparation for Indian independence had to be taken seriously. The Act of 1935 set up eleven British Indian provinces with their own elected parliaments and limited control over their affairs. The religious communal groups would be placed on different electoral registers. A federal Indian state was the goal, with the princely states free to join or not. Meanwhile the viceroy reserved crucial powers to himself and, at the centre, the nationalist Indian politicians would have only limited influence. It looked like a workable compromise from the British point of view, but to the leaders of the Indian National Congress the centre would be too weak, the viceroy’s powers negated the demand for Indian independence and the veto the conservative princes were to be allowed would condemn India to a patchwork of federated and independent states. Indian nationalists suspected that the British, acting on the ageold principle of ‘divide and rule’, were deliberately encouraging religious and princely separation. Only the provincial assemblies were elected in 1937 and only that part of the Act came into force. This was nevertheless the start of the democratic parliamentary process in India and the restricted electorate of some 35 million voters overwhelmingly returned Congress members to the provincial assemblies; local administrations were then formed. But how little genuine power had been devolved soon became evident. When the viceroy in 1939 simply declared India to be at war after Britain’s own declaration of war on Germany, Indian national leaders were not even consulted. The provincial ministries resigned. But Congress had meanwhile grown in power, with a legitimate electoral base – and so had the Muslim League, of which Jinnah was president. After the outbreak of war in 1939 the viceroy of India had to revert to direct rule, since Congress led by Gandhi and Nehru had refused their cooperation and had brought the constitutional advances of the Government of India Act, which they hated, to an end. India’s reaction to the outbreak of war in Europe and the Middle East, a fight for survival for the mother country, was split. On the one hand, the nationalist politicians were uncooperative; on the other, the Indian army fought with bravery and distinction under British and Indian officers far away from home, in the Middle East, in North Africa and later in Italy. Their loyalty was never in doubt. With the sudden Japanese attack on Malaya in December 1941, British, Commonwealth and Indian troops fought together; tens of thousands were inhumanely treated in Japanese prison camps, beaten, starved and killed. For the Indian soldiers the Japanese offered an escape, to join an Indian liberation army sponsored by the Japanese. Even when the only major Indian nationalist who had thrown in his lot with Germany and Japan, Subhas Chandra Bose, attempted to win recruits, the majority of Indian prisoners preferred to share the appalling hardships with their British comrades, rather than gain their liberty and tolerable living conditions by reneging. It is remarkable evidence of the loyalty and pride that ordinary Indians felt for their regiment and flag. The Indian nationalist politicians reacted differently and saw an opportunity to push forward independence at a time when the British Empire was hard pressed. Congress leaders had come to the conclusion that the moment was ripe to force the British Raj to give up its control of India, but they had no intention of exchanging their British overlords for Japanese conquerors. If Japan attacked from Burma, Congress leaders would organise the resistance of free India with its allies in the United Nations military coalition, including of course the Commonwealth. The Japanese in Burma were checked and remained on the defensive until 1944. Gandhi and Nehru and Congress were anxious to prevent a British transfer of power which would allow the conservative princes and the Muslim League separate powers. This would, they believed, only lead to a feudal, federal India in which religious fanaticism would open the way to communal strife and violence. Jinnah had already declared that the aim of the Muslim League was an independent Pakistan. The princes would attempt to hang on to their power and so frustrate Nehru’s and Gandhi’s vision of an India united, a progressive India socially reformed, caste discrimination gone, a secular India striving for religious harmony, a democratic India accepting elected representative forms of government. With Japan at the gates, the British were deeply worried that Indian loyalty could not be counted on. In the spring of 1942 Sir Stafford Cripps was sent to offer India independence after the war was over, but to appease Islamic aspirations the Muslims would be given the option of secession if they wished. This condition made certain the rejection of the offer by the Congress leadership, who would in turn have had to promise support for the war. The Congress leaders were not to be cajoled into a government powerless under the viceroy, thus indicating that they accepted imperial rule. For Congress another vital objection was that acceptance would encourage the Muslims after the war to divide India and set up their own state. They suspected that Britain wished to divide and rule. The British appeared to be more concerned with retaining the loyalty of the Muslims during the war. In August 1942 Congress launched the ‘Quit India’ campaign. The viceroy then put an end to all debate. He decided that the only safe thing to do was to intern the political leaders of the Congress Party, including Gandhi, to prevent them from continuing to spread disaffection throughout India. The silencing of the Congress politicians enabled Jinnah’s Muslim League greatly to strengthen its position. The momentum for the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan was henceforth not to be halted. By August 1945 with the defeat of both Germany and Japan, the curtain was about to fall on the final act. Churchill, who was reluctant to ‘scuttle’ out of empire, had been replaced by Attlee and a Labour government. Labour shared none of Churchill’s historical sentimentality. The viceroy, Viscount Wavell, was soon to discover this. During 1943 and 1944 his hands had been tied by London, who were afraid that talks with Indian nationalists would sow disaffection. At this very time, masked by government suppression of news, the worst human disaster to befall India in the twentieth century occurred. The Bengal Famine claimed 3 million victims. There was bureaucratic mismanagement, a failure to transport food hoarded to feed the army; Burmese supplies were cut. This disaster further fuelled demands for independence. In 1946, Field Marshal Lord Wavell told London either to strengthen the army to keep peace until all Indian parties had agreed to an independent government of India in which they would share power, or for Britain to withdraw from India province by province, disclaiming responsibility for the bloody consequences of communal strife which was bound to follow its departure. This was truly Hobson’s choice. What had led the viceroy to such bleak conclusions? Wavell’s attempts to arrive at compromises among Indian political leaders promised no early success, especially after the breakdown of talks between them at the Simla Conference of June 1945; a British Cabinet mission to India in March 1946 came no nearer to success. But this time it was not just a question of a conference of squabbling politicians in India. To show the strength of Muslim feelings and to protest at the tactics of Congress, Jinnah called for a Direct Action Day on 16 August. Fanatics stoked up communal violence and in Calcutta alone there were 20,000 casualties of the riots. So ended the last prospects of a ‘united India’; it was the end too of the Wavell plan as far as the Labour government was concerned. It was willing neither to take the blame for leaving India in a state of chaos nor to pour the resources into India that were necessary if time for a solution was to be won. If Britain could no longer guarantee life and order from outbreaks of massive communal violence, something drastic had become necessary. In February 1947 Wavell was recalled. He was replaced by a ‘royal’, a soldier of even greater fame, Viscount Mountbatten, until then the charismatic and successful supreme commander in south-east Asia; in an attempt to make the Indians accept responsibility for the consequences of their disputes, a definite date, June 1948, was fixed for the transfer of power. The Mountbattens arrived in Delhi on 22 March 1947 with all the pomp due to a viceroy and consort. No viceroy’s wife had ever made so deep an impression on Indians as Edwina Mountbatten, who threw herself into support for welfare and health programmes at a time of turbulence and misery for so many. Mountbatten began a weary process of talks with Pandit Nehru and the other leaders of Congress and with Mohammed Jinnah, representing the Muslim League. Gandhi was little involved. He used his remaining strength – he was now an old and frail man in his mid-seventies – to try to halt the mounting religious conflicts between Hindu and Muslims. The last two years of his life, devoted to humanity, were the most genuinely saintly. Mountbatten got on well with the urbane and warm Nehru; Jinnah he found negative and forbidding. The Muslim leader fought for the underdog, the numerically weaker and dispersed 100 million Muslims outnumbered by Hindus three to one; and his intransigence would finally convince the British and the Congress leaders to abandon their cherished hopes for a united India and compel them to accept an independent Pakistan. Even then they would seek to weaken and confine a ‘moth-eaten’ Pakistan to such frontiers as would make its viability and continued independence highly questionable after the transfer of power. Jinnah reflected Muslim suspicions of the good intentions of the Hindu majority, influenced by bitter memories of discrimination culturally, politically and economically; a unified, secular, centralised India, he feared, would simply perpetuate the tyranny of the majority over the minority. But an India without strong central authority accommodating autonomy for Muslim-dominant regions was anathema to Nehru and the Congress leaders, who believed it would be ungovernable. Well aware of mounting tensions, Mountbatten calculated that the best chance of a peaceful transfer and agreement between the leaders lay in making them face a short deadline. He announced that the transfer would take place not in over a year, but in just six months on 15 August 1947. Nehru and Jinnah, Congress and the Muslim League would have to reach a practical solution for partition or they would be responsible for chaos on the date of transfer. Brought to the edge of catastrophe the Indian leaders were forced to accept the implications of Mountbatten’s timetable and the plan he now put on the table. This involved partition but with the mixed Muslim–Hindu Punjab and Bengal provinces being allowed to choose which way they wished to go. They too voted for partition. A British jurist headed a commission which was given the task of demarcating the frontiers of India and Pakistan. The princes of the 562 states in 1947 were left to make the best terms they could with one or the other of the successor states to the British Raj. Even if Muslim and Congress leaders had accepted the demarcation between the two states arrived at by the commission, immense practical problems would still have had to be overcome. The unified administration, police force, army and treasury would all need to be split up. Most of industry was located within those parts of India where Hindus were in a majority; the economy and communications would be dislocated. Would the break-up into two nations heighten tensions between Hindus and Muslims and lead to renewed violence and strife? It was clear from the outset that the creation of Pakistan was bound to entail the division of Bengal in the east and the Punjab in the north with one predominantly Muslim part being incorporated in Pakistan and the Hindu-majority districts going to India. Yet the Muslim and Hindu populations were mixed throughout the subcontinent, with millions living on the ‘wrong’ side of any partition line that could be devised. The Punjab was a powder-keg of conflict, for here another minority of militant Sikhs saw an opportunity as a result of partition of becoming a majority and even gaining their own state of Khalistan. Communal suspicions, resentments and hatreds would not need much provocation to set the subcontinent alight. Bengal, the Punjab, Delhi and Calcutta were particular areas of danger at a time when the loyalty of the army and the police would be gravely weakened by the transfer of power. Gandhi could not permanently put out the flames of religious and ethnic hatred and himself fell victim to the bullets of a Hindu extremist, who shot him at a prayer meeting on 30 January 1948. Ethnic and religious strife and bloodshed not only in India and Pakistan but throughout the world has proved the hardest to halt, the most resistant to the supposed progress of civilisation. Bloody communal violence had also erupted in the Punjab. Jinnah, Nehru, Gandhi and the leaders of Congress had been aware of the dangers ahead and were determined to avoid them or at least to contain violence. Reports from the Punjab before partition clearly warned of the likelihood of conflict, and preventive plans were drawn up. A British officered force (which included Gurkhas) of some 55,000 men was available to preserve law and order in the Punjab. But the scale of the violence that would follow on partition was not fully anticipated in Delhi and was to stain the transfer of power with the blood of many hundreds of thousands of innocent victims. Independence Day in Pakistan on 14 August and in India on 15 August passed off with celebrations and praise for Mountbatten and the British. Jinnah publicly acknowledged that ‘such voluntary and absolute transfer of power and rule by one nation over others is unknown in the whole history of the world’. He wished to live in amity with his neighbour. Yet the celebrations were hardly over before the tragedy of the transfer became manifest and relations between India and Pakistan were deeply scarred and damaged for decades to come. The demarcation of the frontier had been announced on 16 August. The militant section of the Sikhs then set upon the Muslims, killing and raping and destroying their homes. How great the loss of life was has never been even roughly established; it was on a huge scale. During August and September, between 200,000 and half a million Muslims fleeing the Indian half of east Punjab lost their lives. No mercy was shown to unarmed men, women and children. Even trains overcrowded with refugees were halted and the passengers murdered in cold blood. The local authorities either looked on or were powerless to stop the massacres. Pakistan never forgave. It was evident that the onslaught had been planned, the Pakistanis believed, with the foreknowledge of Delhi. Gandhi and Nehru, now India’s prime minister, were horrified. There were killings too on the Pakistan side on a smaller scale. Certainly the Muslim League was also anxious to drive out the Sikhs and Hindus from what became Pakistan by organising riots. Millions of refugees crossed the frontier in opposite directions to India and Pakistan with nothing but what they stood up in. Communal riots spread to Delhi, where more killings of the Muslim minority occurred. Gandhi hastened to Calcutta to stop the riots in Bengal. There he announced a fast to the death, and so great was his moral stature that large-scale killings did cease. But in the Punjab the Sikhs were deliberately expelling their Muslim neighbours so that they might at last gain power. It is obvious that force and organised terror were required to drive people despairingly from their homes, their farms and their plots of land where they had lived for generations. They did not move willingly before the Independence Days. In West Pakistan only a small minority of Hindus remained. In East Pakistan (Bengal) a substantial number of the 30 million Hindus stayed. From India some 9 to 10 million Muslim refugees had crossed over to West or East Pakistan, yet millions of Muslims stayed, remaining the largest minority among 340 million Indians. Communal rioting and killings recurred in later years, but never again on the horrific scale of 1947. Nor did Sikhs and Hindus in the eastern Punjab peacefully coexist. While Sikh hatred of Pakistan secured the Indian frontier from any danger of internal subversion in any conflict with Pakistan, Sikh militants – because they constituted only a minority of some 10 million – have stridently and at times violently sought autonomy and independence. This stems from their fears of losing their identity, their way of life. In an atmosphere of bitterness Pakistan and India only a few weeks after independence became embroiled in conflict over the future of a princely state bordering on both northern India and Pakistan – Kashmir and Jammu. The ruling Maharaja vacillated, refusing to opt for either Pakistan or India. He was a Hindu, though the majority of the population was Muslim. The key figure in Kashmir was not the Maharaja but Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, the leader of a party not divided on religious lines and in agreement with the Congress leaders in India. Pakistan attempted to force the issue and encouraged Pathan tribesmen to invade Kashmir, which they almost succeeded in occupying. The Maharaja fled to India, where in return for a promise of Indian military assistance he agreed, without consulting his people or the political leaders, that his state should accede to India. Nehru sent in troops and promised to allow the people to choose their own future in a referendum. In Kashmir both Hindus and Muslims looking to Sheikh Abdullah resisted the Pathans and the idea of absorption by Pakistan, which claimed Kashmir on the ground that it had a Muslim majority. Abdullah was after all a close friend and admirer of Nehru, sharing with him the Indian ideal of a secular state in which Muslim and Hindu could live peaceably together. The Indians and Kashmiris now pushed the Pathans back, only for Pakistan to intervene with its own regular troops. Nehru, meanwhile, weakened his case by not implementing his promise to hold a plebiscite. With the two new states on the brink of war, the United Nations intervened, and on 1 January 1949 a truce line was established which left two-thirds of Kashmir in Indian hands and one-third with Pakistan. Nehru was deeply disappointed by this injustice. It was not the end of the Kashmir problem, nor did it settle Indian–Pakistani hostilities. Basic to these was the suspicion for decades of the Islamic Pakistani leadership that secular India would, one day, seek to reunite the subcontinent and destroy Pakistan’s hard-won independence and religious culture.

 

 

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