Who Is to Blame for Partition? Above All, Imperial Britain

Indian soldiers walking through the debris of a building in Amritsar, India, during the unrest following partition, in August 1947. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Seventy years ago this week, India and Pakistan became independent from the British Empire. The celebrations were cut short as the partition on religious lines ripped the subcontinent apart. Partition changed millions of lives, and the shape of the world, forever.

No one knows exactly how many were beaten, mutilated, tortured or raped in communal violence between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. The death toll has been estimated at 200,000 to two million. Between 10 million and 20 million people were displaced.

Who was to blame? Many in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh (which was East Pakistan until 1971) and Britain have asked that question. There are plenty of candidates. Among the principal players, almost everyone in this story made a decision or misjudgment that contributed to the eventual disaster.

Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy, was told by the British prime minister, Clement Attlee, in March 1947 to negotiate an exit deal with Indian leaders by October; if he could not, Britain would leave India with no deal by June 1948. The decision to speed this up and leave on Aug. 15 was Lord Mountbatten’s. The decision to grant this power to Lord Mountbatten, a naval officer nicknamed the “master of disaster” in the admiralty for his propensity to damage warships by precipitate action, was Mr. Attlee’s.

Neither Jawaharlal Nehru, the incoming prime minister of India, nor Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the first governor-general of Pakistan, foresaw the scale of the coming violence. Mr. Nehru had told a journalist in 1946 that “when the British go, there will be no more communal trouble in India.” Mr. Jinnah had pushed for the partition to create Pakistan, a homeland for Muslims, who would otherwise be a minority in a Hindu-dominated superstate. He was backed by British imperialists, notably Winston Churchill, who believed Pakistan would prove a faithful friend to the West and a bulwark between the Soviet Union and a socialist India.

In 1946, a British Cabinet Mission appointed by Mr. Attlee to negotiate the transfer of power had proposed a 10-year federation in India. This would have given the new Indian authorities a decade’s experience of governing before any partition and was probably the last real chance of avoiding it altogether. The plan was accepted by Mr. Jinnah but was wrecked by the revered Mahatma Gandhi.

Beyond the leaders, every ordinary person who picked up a weapon and used it against his neighbor bore responsibility for his own action. For every rape, there was a rapist; for every murder, there was a murderer.

Yet this catastrophe was caused not only by individuals, great or small, but also by the system that was failing around them: an unpopular and chaotic British Empire. Rived by political violence for its entire existence, the empire had long resisted democratization and had institutionalized differences based on identity between its subjects as a matter of policy.

The British presence in India was run by the East India Company from 1600 to 1858 and was subject directly to the British crown from 1858 until 1947 (the British Raj). British rule always faced fierce resistance. This was visible not only in its many wars and the major rebellion of 1857-8, but also in countless acts of revolt, sabotage and assassination. The British and their client princes frequently quelled dissent and imposed their will by force. Through Gandhi, India developed a tradition of political nonviolence — but the British authorities responded even to that with brutality and repression.

In the 20th century, there were efforts to reform imperial rule and introduce elements of democracy. Mr. Attlee was a member of a commission that reported on constitutional reform in 1930.

“Halifax, who was viceroy, believed that there was a good chance that we might have got it accepted and had an all-Indian government but for Churchill and his die-hards,” Mr. Attlee recalled. “That is one of the things one has to chalk down against the old boy.”

British politicians on all sides knew the imperial system was not working, but disagreed about what to change and how. While they argued among themselves, the situation became more fraught and more divided. Indian leaders like Mr. Nehru, who was repeatedly imprisoned for his political activities, learned to view any British initiative, however well intended, with suspicion.

The idea of Pakistan was first proposed by Indian Muslim students at Cambridge University as recently as 1930. Had India been granted home rule earlier, the question of partition might never have arisen.

“Strict supervision and play them off one against the other,” says a character in an 1888 Rudyard Kipling story, “The Education of Otis Yeere.”. “That,” he explains, “is the secret of our government.”

Divide and rule was a deliberate strategy. Though the caste system had its roots in thousands of years of Indian history, it was codified as never before by the British. Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, the British authorities partitioned Indians into categories, including “martial races” and “criminal tribes.” From the 1870s, a census attempted to record every Indian subject’s caste, religion and language.

This information had consequences. It defined, for instance, whether particular groups would be allowed to join prestigious army regiments. When the British introduced a Legislative Assembly in India after World War I, specific seats were reserved for Europeans, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, “depressed classes,” landholders, merchants and so on. Belonging to one group or another was crucial to an individual’s destiny. Identity politics were not merely endorsed; they were mandated.

By the time Lord Mountbatten was sent to India in March 1947, it was too late to undo these legacies of British rule. Communal division, mistrust of authority and violence were already mingling and combusting. In the week of Lord Mountbatten’s arrival alone, there was a police mutiny in Patna; at least 70 dead and 1,000 injured in riots and bomb blasts in Calcutta; 160 people killed in rioting in Amritsar; 14 policemen injured in riots in Mardan; and daily stabbings and brickbattings in Delhi that left at least two dead and dozens injured. That was not an unusual week.

Lord Mountbatten did not have the men or means at his disposal to restore order. The government in London, dealing with severe domestic hardship after World War II, had no intention of sending more troops or resources to India. Indian leaders and ordinary people on all sides resisted Lord Mountbatten’s initiative to set up a peacekeeping Boundary Force to combat communal violence, viewing it as an extension of imperialism. What remained of British authority had lost both control and trust. All the last viceroy could hope to achieve — by hastening the end of imperial rule — was to save face for the empire. The fact that this was his priority was reflected in his decision to delay announcement of the new borders between India and Pakistan until the day after independence, Aug. 16.

“It had been obvious all along,” Lord Mountbatten reported, “that the later we postponed publication, the less would the inevitable odium react upon the British.”

Lord Mountbatten’s high-speed exit thus enabled a myth of “après nous, le déluge”: the notion that Britain’s rule of India was relatively functional and things fell apart only once the British left. But the blame for a disaster of this magnitude does not come down to a single man. While everyone involved bears some responsibility, they were all acting in a context of decades, even centuries, of chaotic, violent, unresponsive and willfully divisive rule. The truth is that the way the Raj ended was not so very different from the way it had existed.

Alex von Tunzelmann is a historian and the author of Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire.

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