The Muslims and Partition

By Robinson, Francis | History Today, September 1997 | Go to article overview

The Muslims and Partition


Robinson, Francis, History Today


The partition of india at independence in 1947 into the sovereign states of India and Pakistan is one of the more important events of twentieth-century world history. It was a shameful end to the most important project in Britain's imperial enterprise. More important it was a tragic experience for the hundreds of thousands of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims who were killed in the communal slaughter which accompanied the process and for the nearly 15 million who were made refugees. Over the past fifty years India and Pakistan have been in a state of constant hostility, fighting three wars in 1947-48, 1963 and 1971, and during the last decade fighting low-intensity wars over Kashmir and the drawing of boundaries in the high Himalayas.

Approaches to partition depend very much on where the individual is situated. For Indians, in the classic nationalist interpretation, partition was the logical outcome of Britain's policies of dividing and ruling. For Pakistanis it was their founding moment, the glorious outcome of the struggle of Muslims to have their separate identity recognised by both the British and the Indian nationalist movement. For the Bangladeshis, it was a false dawn, but arguably a necessary prelude to their achievement of their own nation state in 1971. For the British it was a regrettable necessity. They did not have the power to impose a solution on their Indian empire which left it unified; partition came to be the only way in which they could extract themselves from a commitment which they could no longer afford.

When an event is bound up with the founding narratives of three of the world's more populous states and the pride in achievement of a fourth, historiographical positions are likely to be hard fought. That said, any explanation of partition must address two issues: (1) why many Muslims were reluctant to join the Congress, the party of the Indian nationalist movement, and (2) why this fact led to a surgical division of the land.

Before addressing these issues some basic points about India's Muslims should be established. Roughly a quarter of the population, they were in no way a united group. Some were descended from, or liked to claim descent from, those who had come to India over the ages to conquer, to trade or seek their fortunes - Arabs, Persians, Turks, Afghans. But the vast majority were Indian converts to Islam. In the north-east and northwest of the subcontinent they formed majorities of the population, in Bengal being largely peasants, and in the Punjab, Sind and the Northwest Frontier Province landowners, yeoman farmers and tribesmen. In the central and southern regions Muslims were rarely more than 5 per cent of the population and often traders by occupation.

In the Gangetic plain in the north, however, especially in a region called the United Provinces (henceforth UP), matters were somewhat different. In this area, comprising many of the old centres of Muslim power -- Delhi, Agra, Allahabad, Lucknow, Jaunpur -- Muslims were only about 14 per cent of the population but a good half of these claimed descent from those who had come from outside India to rule. These Muslims, with their memories of power, were to play the leading role in insisting that Muslims remain separate from the mainstream of Indian nationalism.

In any explanation of 'Muslim separatism' following elements should play a part. Some weight should be given to Islamic values. There is a tendency for some Muslims to organise on a community basis whenever they go into politics. At the level of religious belief there are powerful drives for communal action. God told Muslims through the Prophet Mohammad that they were the 'best community raised up for mankind'. God revealed to Muslims the best way to live if they hoped for salvation, and that involved living within the community and being subject to its law. The idea of community action for community ends has a seductive resonance. However, for a good number of Muslims the idea of community was more a rhetorical flourish than a psychological fact. …

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