Essay On Partition Of Subcontinental

India was partitioned at Independence on 15th August 1947 into two distinct nations: a newly-established and principally Muslim state of Pakistan, and a Hindu-dominated India.  According to Howoritz, ‘if it is impossible for groups to live together in a homogeneous state, perhaps it is better for them to live apart in more than one homogeneous state, even if this necessitates population transfers. Separating the antagonists – partition – is an option increasingly recommended for consideration where groups are territorially concentrated’[1].

But such a statement inevitably makes one wonder what it is that made Muslims and Hindus unable to co-exist peacefully within a single state. This essay will attempt to put light on this issue by considering the role played by certain significant factors.  This essay will firstly discuss the role played by religion in making co-existence difficult between Hindus and Muslims. Then, attention will be given to the impact of British imperialism in worsening the already fragile relationship. Finally, this essay will discuss how the inability of Congress to satisfy the demands of the Muslim League helped to make partition the only viable solution for peace in the subcontinent.

First of all, the fact that such a division occurred on religious lines means that partition was the logical and inevitable outcome of the irreconcilable opposition between Hindus and Muslims.  Indeed, no account of the partition of India can be full without taking into consideration the unwillingness of Hindus to accommodate to Islam and the conflicting religious outlooks of Hindus and Muslims because these features made it extremely difficult for Muslims and Hindus to live together peacefully[2].  Hinduism is a closed society with a strict hierarchical structure separated into thousands of castes which are totally isolated units[3]. Each person’s caste is fixed by his/her birth and is supposed to remain loyal to it. Outsiders belong to the caste of the untouchables, the ‘polluted’ and are referred to as ‘Malechha’, barbarians[4].  Al-Beruni, a famous savant who visited India in A.D. 1001, made the following remark about Hindus:

‘All their fanaticism is directed against those who do not belong to them – against all foreigners. They call them Malechha, i.e. impure and forbid having any connection with them, be it by inter-marriage or by any other kind of relationship, or by sitting, eating or drinking with them, because thereby they would be polluted. They would consider as impure anything which touches the fire and water of a foreigner… They are not allowed to receive anybody who does not belong to them even if he wished it or is inclined to their religion. This renders connection between them quite impossible’[5].

Thus, the intolerance of Hinduism to other faiths logically led to the unwillingness of Hindus to assimilate Indian Muslims and this ensured that they were always divided. In fact, ever since Islam first penetrated the Indian subcontinent, Hindus and Muslims lived as two separate nations between which there was hardly any social communication or intermingling[6].  This was mainly due to racist Hindu regulations such as not letting a Muslim touch a Hindu’s glass or his utensils and strict punishments for taking a cup of tea at a beef-eater’s house[7]. But what made relations worse was the fact that Islamic practices were antithetic to Hindu ones. For instance, in Hinduism, the cow is sacred: it is believed to be a giver of life, food and sacrifice and thus, it cannot be eaten[8]. Moreover, it is looked after for the whole of its natural lifespan and only those of lower castes are allowed to practice butchery and related jobs[9].  In contrast, Muslims are allowed to slaughter and eat beef and once every year, during Eid Ul Zuha celebration, all Muslims are expected to make a sacrifice in homage to Prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his own son to Allah[10]. This Islamic practice has been and still is an issue of major dispute and directly led to the Cow Protection Committee of 1882 who would trial those accused of killing cows[11].

Another issue of conflict is the playing of music: in Islam, music is forbidden and thus, musical activities are not permitted. This also means that music should not be played near mosques at any time because someone could be attempting to pray. However, Hindu festivals are often celebrated by people marching through the streets and an integral part of the processions is music which is a particular aspect of Hindu tradition[12]. This difference eventually led to violent clashes as Muslims could not tolerate the beating of drums and the playing of other instruments in front of mosques and demanded that the parades amend their routes so that they did not disrupt the prayers[13].  Thus, the religious differences which separated Muslims and Hindus were fundamental and this created a basic hostility between Hindus and Muslims which on the long-term constrained the possibilities of cooperation between these two groups.  This was exacerbated by the fact that Muslims shared a sense of belonging to a universal ‘community of believers’ called the Umma with their co-religionists which overrode the regional and ethnic ties that connected them to their Hindu neighbours[14].  Yet, Muslims represented a small minority in a population that was Hindu and polytheistic. After the British left, there was the fear that Muslims would be ruled by kafirs, non-believers which would pose great problems since Muslims had to be governed according to the Shari’ a, the Islamic Law[15].  This fear led Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, a Muslim poet, to advocate in 1930 a separate Muslim state given the fact that Indian society was ‘inhabited by two different nations’ there would necessarily be a struggle of power between them if Britain were to leave India[16].

However, it should be noted that there would not have been a struggle for power between these two groups and hence no urge for Muslims to demand a separate state had Britain not colonised India. Imperialism was based on the policy of divide and rule: a divided country was a weak country which could not pose a challenge to the colonising nation[17]. Gandhi summed it up well in 1940 when he observed that:

‘The British can retain their hold on India only by a policy of ‘divide and rule’. A living unity between the Muslims and Hindus is fraught with danger to their rule. It would mean an end to it.’[18]

This approach can be confirmed by the partition of Bengal in 1905 which H. Risley, the Home Secretary to the government of India, said was done because:

‘Bengal united is a power; Bengal divided will pull in several different ways… One of our main objects is to split up and thereby weaken a solid body of opponents to our rule…”[19]

This strategy was a direct response to the Mutiny of 1857 whereby Indians overcame their religious differences to revolt against the British administration[20]. The British were also fearful of the potential threat from the Muslims, who were the former rulers of the subcontinent for several hundred years under the Mughal Empire[21] and thus, their policies were aimed at weakening them. For example, in 1765, Lord Clive removed the Emperor Shah Alam from his position and this led Muslims, who held a majority of the posts in the revenue and judicial systems as well as in the military, to lose their jobs[22]. Additionally, Muslim zamindars who were powerful, were removed and reduced to poverty and in 1837, Persian was replaced by English in official jobs thereby diminishing the employment prospects of Muslims[23]. The British policy was to raise the position of the Hindus to ensure the Muslims would never pose a threat. This can be demonstrated by the permanent settlement of Bengal in 1793 which ‘elevated the Hindu collectors, who up to that time had but unimportant posts, to the position of landlords, gave them a propriety right in the soil and allowed them to accumulate wealth which would have gone to the Muslims’[24].  Another significant point was the introduction of democracy in India because it meant that the country would be governed by the majority party[25]. However, while in Britain and other democratic countries, majorities are alterable, in India, it meant the rule of a permanent and unalterable Hindu majority. This meant that the Muslims, who constituted about 25 per cent of the population, could never expect to become a majority or to have effective share in the government of the country[26].

Another important impact of British rule was the revival of Hinduism and the subsequent Hindu ambition of establishing their hegemony over the entire subcontinent. Many Hindus became convinced of the moral, material and intellectual superiority of Britain to such an extent that they began imitating British culture and civilization[27]. Some went as far as abandoning their religion and embracing Christianity and it was not uncommon for Hindu youths to deride his religion and ridicule the ways of his ancestors[28].  The Hindu revivalists tried to stop this swing towards ‘anglicisation’ and attempted to transform Hinduism from a passve way of life to an aggressive missionary religion[29]. Some of the reforms introduced by them were the replacement of Urdu by Hindi in government offices and law courts; the Suddhi movement which was designed for the reconversion of converts to Islam and Christianity back to Hinduism and the establishment of societies which sought to inhibit Muslims from killing cows[30].

But added to the problem of British rule was that of the Indian National Congress whose failure to meet the modest demands of the Muslims ultimately led to the latter group’s advocacy of a separate state.  Jinnah, the Muslim League leader, put forward the Delhi proposal to Congress for a Hindu-Muslim settlement which demanded the introduction of reforms in the North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan, the reservation of seats for Muslims on a population basis in the Punjab and Bengal and the allocation of one third of the seats in the central legislature for the Muslims[31]. If these demands were met, Muslims were prepared to give up their right of separate electorates in favour of a joint electorate[32].  Yet although Congress refused, another opportunity arose for a Muslim-Hindu settlement at the Round Table conference in London in 1930 and in 1931 but once again, the Hindus refused[33]. This refusal to grant Muslims alarmed Jinnah and made him believe that the best course of action to take was to demand a separate state because according to him:

‘the chief reason why the domestic political situation in India has deteriorated to a point which would have seemed almost inconceivable a few years earlier was the manifest purpose of the Congress to take over the heritage of the British Raj’[34].

In conclusion India was partitioned at Independence because of three main reasons. The frst one was the very old and incurable religious and cultural division between the Hindus and the Muslims. As Jinnah once stated

‘The Hindus and the Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs, and literature. They neither intermarry, nor interdine together, and indeed they belong to two different civilizations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions. […] To yoke together two such nations under a single State, one as a numerical minority and the other as a majority, must lead to growing discontent…’[35]

But these differences were exacerbated by the British policy in India. British rule had several effects on the Hindu-Muslim relationship.  Firstly, the fact that Britain worked hard to maintain and worsen the divisions between both groups meant that hostilities would persist so as to prevent steps towards communal unity. Furthermore, the revival of Hinduism meant that the Hindu hatred towards Muslims grew in intensity with the resulting consequence of confirming the Muslims’ view that under a Hindu-dominated government, they would not live in peace.   Lastly, by weakening the position of Muslims and improving that of the Hindus, it led to power disparities in the economic and political fields. This ensured that Muslims would remain discontent. But this dissatisfaction could have been remediated if Congress had agreed to the demands of the Muslims to grant them more power. But since no agreement was reached between the two parties, the only viable solution to preserve the peace in the subcontinent was to partition it into a Muslim-dominated area and a Hindu-dominated one.

Bibliography:

Journal articles and books:

  • D.L. Horowitz, ‘Ethnic groups in conflicts’, (Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 1985)
  • M. Hasan, ‘The background of Pakistan’ in C.H. Philips and M.D. Wainwright, ‘The partition of India: policies and perspectives 1935 -1947’ (London: George Allen and Unwin  Ltd, 1970)
  • C.M. Ali, ‘The emergence of Pakistan’, (New York & London: Columbia University Press, 1967)
  • M.A.H Ispahani, ‘Factors leading to the partition of British India’ in C.H. Philips and M.D. Wainwright, ‘The partition of India: policies and perspectives 1935 -1947’ (London: George Allen and Unwin  Ltd, 1970)
  • R. Jones, ‘Sacred cows and thumping drums: claiming territory as ‘zones of tradition’ in British India’, 2005 p. 13 (accessed on 20/11/09 through Florida State University website http://mailer.fsu.edu/~psteinbe/pgsg/Reece%20Jones.pdf)
  • S. Giorgio, ‘Two nations: the religious and secular dimensions of Muslim nationalism in colonial India’, Ritsumeikan International Affairs, Vol. 5, 2007
  • P. Moon, ‘Divide and Quit’, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962)
    • S.R. Mehrotra, ‘The Congress and the partition of India’ in C.H. Philips and M.D. Wainwright, ‘The partition of India: policies and perspectives 1935 -1947’ (London: George Allen and Unwin  Ltd, 1970)
    • S. Bose and A. Jalal, ‘Modern South Asia’, (Lahore: Sang-e-meel Publications, 1998)
    • F. Robinson, ‘Separatism among Indian Muslims’, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974)
    • Q. Khan, ‘Reflections on some the causes of the partition of the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent, in C.H. Philips and M.D. Wainwright, ‘The partition of India: policies and perspectives 1935 -1947’ (London: George Allen and Unwin  Ltd, 1970)
    • M. Hasan, ‘India’s partition: process, strategy and mobilization’, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001)

Other sources:


[1] D.L. Horowitz, ‘Ethnic groups in conflicts’, (Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 1985), p. 588-89

[2] M. Hasan, ‘The background of Pakistan’ in C.H. Philips and M.D. Wainwright, ‘The partition of India: policies and perspectives 1935 -1947’ (London: George Allen and Unwin  Ltd, 1970) p. 329

[3] C.M. Ali, ‘The emergence of Pakistan’, (New York & London: Columbia University Press, 1967) p. 2

[5] M.A.H Ispahani, ‘Factors leading to the partition of British India’ in C.H. Philips and M.D. Wainwright, ‘The partition of India: policies and perspectives 1935 -1947’ (London: George Allen and Unwin  Ltd, 1970) p. 331

[7] B.N. Pandey, ‘The break-up of British India’ p.36 and M. Hasan, ‘The background of Pakistan’ p. 328

[14] S. Giorgio, ‘Two nations: the religious and secular dimensions of Muslim nationalism in colonial India’, Ritsumeikan International Affairs, Vol. 5, 2007, p. 75

[16] P. Moon, ‘Divide and Quit’, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962) p. 11

[18] S.R. Mehrotra, ‘The Congress and the partition of India’ in C.H. Philips and M.D. Wainwright, ‘The partition of India: policies and perspectives 1935 -1947’ (London: George Allen and Unwin  Ltd, 1970) p. 211

[19] S. Bose and A. Jalal, ‘Modern South Asia’, (Lahore: Sang-e-meel Publications, 1998), p. 117

[21] F. Robinson, ‘Separatism among Indian Muslims’, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), p. 99

[22] M. Hasan, ‘The background of Pakistan’ p. 324

[25] .Q. Khan, ‘Reflections on some the causes of the partition of the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent, in C.H. Philips and M.D. Wainwright, ‘The partition of India: policies and perspectives 1935 -1947’ (London: George Allen and Unwin  Ltd, 1970) p. 375

[27] B.N. Pandey, ‘The break-up of British India’ p 28

[30] M.A.H Ispahani, ‘Factors leading to the partition of British India’ p. 334 andB.N. Pandey, ‘The break-up of British India’ p.32

[31] M.A.H Ispahani, ‘Factors leading to the partition of British India’ p. 339

[35] M. Hasan, ‘India’s partition: process, strategy and mobilization’, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 57

Written by: Asma Ali Farah
Written at: Royal Holloway, University of London
Written for: Dr Waipin Tsai
Date written: December 2009

1217 words essay on the partition of India. August 14th, 1947 saw the birth of the new Islamic Republic known as Pakistan. At midnight the next day India won its freedom from colonial rule, ending nearly 350 years of British presence in India, the British left India divided, into two nations.

The two countries were founded on religion, with Pakistan as an Islamic state and India as a secular one. Whether the partition of these countries was wise and whether it was done too soon is still under debate. Even the imposition of an official boundary has not stopped conflict between them. Boundary issues, left unresolved by the British, have caused two wars and continuing strife between India and Pakistan.

The partition of India and its freedom from colonial rule set a precedent for nations such as Israel, which demanded a separate homeland because of the irreconcilable differences between the Arabs and the Jews. The British left Israel inMay 1948, handing the question of division over to theUN.

Un-enforced UN Resolutions to map out boundaries between Israel and Palestine has led to several Arab-Israeli wars and the conflict still continues.

Image Source: columbia.edu

Reasons for partition

By the end of the 19th century, several nationalistic movements had started in India. Indian nationalism had grown largely since British policies of education and the advances made by the British in India in the fields of transportation and communication. However, their complete insensitivity to and distance from the peoples of India and their customs created such disillusionment with them in their subjects that the end of British rule became necessary and inevitable.

However, while the Indian National Congress was calling for Britain to Quit India, the Muslim League, in 1943, passed a resolution for them to Divide and Quit. There were several reasons for the birth of a separate Muslim homeland in the subcontinent, and all three parties-the British, the Congress and the Muslim League-were responsible.

The British had followed a divide-and-rule policy in Even in the census they categorised people according to religion, and viewed and treated them as separate from each other. They had based their knowledge of the peoples of India on the basic religious texts and the intrinsic differences they found in diem instead of on the way they coexisted in the present. The British were also still fearful of the potential threat from the Muslims, who were the former rulers of the subcontinent, ruling India for over 300 years under the Mughal Empire. In order to win them over to their side, the British helped establish the M.A.O College at Aligarh and supported the All-India Muslim Conference, both of which were institutions from which leaders of the Muslim League and the ideology of Pakistan emerged. As soon as the League was formed, they were placed on a separate electorate. Thus, the idea of the separateness of Muslims in India was built into the electoral process of India.

There was also an ideological division between the Muslims and the Hindus of India. While there were strong feelings of nationalism in India, by the late 19th century there were also communal conflicts and movements in the country that were based on religious communities rather than class or regional ones. Some people felt that the very nature of Islam called for a communal Muslim society. Added to this were the memories of power over the Indian subcontinent that the Muslims held on to, especially those in the old centres of Mughal rule. These memories might have made it exceptionally difficult for Muslims to accept the imposition of colonial power and culture. They refused to learn English and to associate with the British.

This was a severe drawback for them as they found that the Hindus were now in better positions in government than they were and thus felt that the British favoured Hindus. The social reformer and educator, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who founded M.A.O. College, taught the Muslims that cooperation with the British was vital for their survival in the society. Tied to all the movements of Muslim revival was the opposition to assimilation and submergence in Hindu society. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was also the first to conceive of a separate Muslim homeland.

Hindu rivals also deepened the chasm between the two nations. They resented the Muslims for their former rule over India. Hindu revivalists rallied for a ban on the slaughter of cows, a cheap source of meat for the Muslims. They also wanted to change the official script form the Persian to the Hindu Devanagri script, effectively making Hindi rather than Urdu the main language for the nation.

Congress made several mistakes in their policies that further convinced the League that it was impossible to live in an undivided India after freedom from colonial rule because their interests would be completely suppressed. One such policy was the institution of the’ Vande Matram,’ as national anthem that expressed anti-Muslim sentiments, in the schools of India where Muslim children were forced to sing it- the Partition of India .

The Muslim League gained power also due to the Congress. The Congress banned any support for the British during the Second World War. However the Muslim League pledged its full support, which found favour from the British, who also needed the help of the largely Muslim army. The Civil Disobedience Movement and the consequent withdrawal of the Congress party from politics also helped the league gain power, as they formed strong ministries in the provinces that had large Muslim populations. At the same time, the League actively campaigned to gain more support from the Muslims in India, especially under the guidance of dynamic leaders like Jinnah.

There had been some hope of an undivided India, with a government consisting of three tiers along basically the same lines as the borders of India and Pakistan at the time of Partition. However, Congress’ rejection of the interim government set up under this Cabinet Mission Plan in 1942 convinced the leaders of the Muslim League that compromise was impossible and partition was the only course to take.

Impact and aftermath of partition

The partition of India left both India and Pakistan devastated. The process of partition had claimed many lives in the riots.15 million refugees poured across the borders, to the regions completely foreign to them, for though they were Hindu or Muslim, their identity had been embedded in the regions where their ancestors were from. Not only was the country divided, but also were the provinces of Punjab and Bengal divisions that caused catastrophic riots and claimed the lives of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs alike.

Many years after the partition, the two nations are still trying to heal the wounds left behind. Many are still in search of an identity and a history left behind beyond an impenetrable boundary. The two countries started of with ruined economies and lands, without an established and experienced system of government. They lost many of their most dynamic leaders, such as Gandhi, Jinnah and Allama Iqbal, soon after the partition. Pakistan had to face the separation of Bangladesh in 1971. India and Pakistan have been to war twice since the partition and they are still deadlocked over the issue of possession of Kashmir. The same issues of boundaries and divisions, Hindu and Muslim majorities and differences, still persist in Kashmir.

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