In V. D. Savarkar’s Hindudom, Muslims and Christians were unwelcome, as were the Jews in Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Even though Buddhists and Sikhs were no longer as pure as Hindus, they were still acceptable because their religions originated in Hindustan. Savarkar disliked Muslims and Christians because of their allegiance to Mecca and Rome; they worshiped foreign gods and had no cultural affinity with Hindustan.
By B. Z. Khasru
The partition of India in 1947 by Britain to create two independent countries wrecked a havoc in human lives and miseries. It killed two million people, according to various estimates, and displaced 14 million. Its legacy, the two siblings of the midnight — nuclear-armed Pakistan and India, which have fought two major wars since the separation — are still at loggerheads. Was this inevitable?
This question assumes greater relevance today in light of India’s recent decision to annex the Muslim-majority Kashmir state. In August, keeping Kashmiri Muslim leaders under house arrest and deploying tens of thousands of soldiers in heavily fortified Kashmir, Delhi snatched away their special rights —their own flag, own law and property rights, which were granted to Kashmir by India’s constitution —in a blitzkrieg exercise in a matter of hours.
By scraping Kashmir’s special status and dividing the state into two, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken a dangerous step toward making India an ultra-nationalist Hindu nation. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has threatened war again — even nuclear. China, which occupies parts of the state, denounced India’s action as “unacceptable.” Just a miscalculation by either India or Pakistan about each other’s perceived military plans may result in a nuclear winter.
Kashmir is a picturesque Himalayan region that encompasses roughly 135,000 square miles, almost the size of Germany, and has a population of about 18 million. India controls 85,000 square miles, Pakistan 33,000 and China 17,000. Both Pakistan and India claim the entire state as their own.
In 1948, after a fight between the two nations, India raised Kashmir in the UN Security Council, which called for a referendum on the status of the territory. It asked Pakistan to withdraw its troops and India to cut its military presence to a minimum. A ceasefire came into force, but Pakistan refused to pull out its troops. Kashmir has remained partitioned ever since.
U.S. solution went nowhere
The United States has pushed the warring neighbors since the Kennedy administration to make the existing division their permanent border, but the idea went nowhere because of a fatal flaw in it — it gives nothing to the victims of this tragedy, the Kashmiris. India loves the U.S. idea, but Pakistan wants no part of it, and the Kashmiris outright hate it.
An examination of the major factors that led to the fateful partition on 14 August 1947 helps understand what happened then and what is happening now. Apart from intricate socio-economic and political reasons, one thing that contributed heavily to the division was mutual distrust of the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League. Congress leaders Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel both doubted sincerity of their League counterparts Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan. Likewise, Jinnah and Liaquat never trusted Nehru and Patel.
U.S. diplomatic cables from New Delhi on conversations with these leaders during a crucial phase in India’s freedom struggle give an interesting insight into what was behind the partition. One such cable came to the State Department on 14 December 1946 from Charge d’Affaires George Merrell, then the highest-ranking American diplomat in India, who reported on his talk with Nehru the night before.
The United States pushed Britain to leave India sooner after London had become weak following World War II. Washington feared that if the British resorted to repression to prolong their rule, Indians would become radicalized and tilt toward communism, which America earnestly sought to prevent. America wanted to keep India united, too. The Soviet Union, on the contrary, supported India’s partition in an attempt to create multiple entry points to spread communism.
Jinnah’s position baffled Nehru
On Pakistan’s creation, Nehru was baffled by Jinnah’s posture. Congress had endeavored to learn what Jinnah wanted, but never received satisfactory replies. Jinnah never even adequately defined Pakistan. Nehru believed that Jinnah sought some changes, but did not want a democratic government. He argued that prominent Leaguers were landholders, who preferred antiquated land laws—British rule.
The British, however, believed that Jinnah embraced the Pakistan idea for bargaining purposes. But by the mid-1940s, the movement had gained such momentum that neither Jinnah nor anyone else could apply the brakes.
The crux of the problem that India faced stemmed from differences between Congress and League as to the conditions under which provinces would join or stay out of sub-federations in northwest and northeast India.
“I am confident that if the Indian leaders show the magnanimous spirit the occasion demands, they can go forward together on the basis of the clear provisions on this point contained in the constitutional plan proposed by the British Cabinet Mission last spring to forge an Indian federal union in which all elements of the population have ample scope to achieve their legitimate political and economic aspirations,” Merrell wrote to Washington.
Did Nehru foresee carnage?
Britain wanted the two major political parties to jointly frame India’s constitution as a prelude to independence. This idea resulted from the British Cabinet Mission to India in 1946. The mission proposed a united India, having groupings of Muslim-majority provinces and that of Hindu-majority provinces. These groupings would have given Hindus and Muslims parity in the Central Legislature.
Congress abhorred the idea, and League refused to accept any changes to this plan. The parity that Congress was loath to accept formed the basis of Muslim demands of political safeguards built into post-British Indian laws to prevent absolute rule of Hindus over Muslims. Reaching an impasse, the British proposed on 16 June 1946 to divide the subcontinent into a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan.
This resulted in unprecedented bloodbath and mass migration. In the riots in the Punjab region alone, as many as a half million people perished, and 14 million Sikhs and Muslims were displaced.
No one knows for sure whether Nehru anticipated the carnage. He should have, though, because his comrade, Moulana A. K. Azad, had cautioned that if India were divided violence could erupt. Nehru remained convinced that League would ultimately join the Constituent Assembly.
He, however, doubted that League would ever work constructively in a coalition government in a free India. Congress never liked the Cabinet Mission proposal, but in the interest of a peaceful and fair settlement had formed the interim government before the partition. This decision was based on an understanding that League would cooperate. But League members joined the cabinet to fight. If they entered the Constituent Assembly, where Muslims held 73 seats against 208 by Congress, “it would be with the purpose of wrecking it,” Nehru vented.
Nehru could prevent partition
Still, had Nehru accepted Jinnah’s demand for parity in the federal legislature and regional groupings as outlined in the British Cabinet Mission plan, India would have remained united.
One sticking point in the partition plan was the division of Bengal and Punjab, the two Muslim-majority states with a large number of non-Muslims. Regarding Bengal’s status, on 11 December 1946, Merrell talked with Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, an interim cabinet member and a favourite of both Nehru and M. K. Gandhi, India’s paramount independence leader. Rajagopalachari told the envoy that “Congress could not possibly agree to [the] interpretation of cabinet proposals which would inevitably place millions of Hindus under Muslim rule, particularly in [the] Bengal-Assam group.”
Asked how the basis for a democratic government could be established as long as mutual distrust between Hindus and Muslims exemplified by this view persisted, Rajagopalachari evaded the issue.
Washington strove to persuade Nehru to accept the Cabinet Mission plan.
“We have found that a central [government] initially with limited powers gradually acquires, as experience demonstrates necessity therefor, the additional authority which it must have to meet problems of the Federal Union,” the State Department advised Nehru. “Our hope that Congress accept clear implications Brit Cabinet Mission plan…on reciprocal undertaking by Muslim League to work loyally within [the] framework [of] Indian Federal Union, subject only to reopening constitutional issues after 10 years of experiment.”
Muslim League distrusted Congress
Muslim League’s views on its difficulty with Congress were articulated by Liaquat Ali Khan during a discussion with Merrell on 27 December 1946. Muslims, Liaquat said, “would not agree to independence [from British rule] unless adequate safeguards for minorities were provided.”
He expressed grave doubts whether Congress would accommodate Muslims. “Liaquat …discussed at length his conviction that Congress leaders have no intention of trying to work Cabinet mission plan conscientiously but are determined to seize power without regard for Muslim rights,” Merrell wrote.
As evidence of Nehru’s lack of interest in Congress-League cooperation, Liaquat pointed out that Asaf Ali was appointed India’s first ambassador to the United States without consulting League members of the interim government. Liaquat learned about the appointment from read press reports in London. Asaf Ali, he said, did not command respect or confidence of Muslim Indians.
Furthermore, Liaquat added, as soon as League joined the interim government, he proposed two League representatives—Begum Shah Nawaz, a Punjabi lawmaker, and Mirza Abol Hassan Ispahani, a Constituent Assembly member who later became Pakistan’s first ambassador to Washington—be appointed to the UN delegation. Nehru refused on the ground that the number was limited to five and the appointment of these two would mean replacing the two who had already prepared themselves for work at the UN.
When League joined the interim government, Liaquat proposed that in the interest of efficiency and cooperation, questions concerning more than one department be discussed by ministers concerned prior to full cabinet meetings, regardless whether these ministers were Congress or League members. Nehru again refused, arguing it was preferable to thrash out all questions in full cabinet meetings. When Merrell asked whether all votes in cabinet meetings were along party lines, Liaquat answered in the affirmative.
In reply to a question from Merrell, Liaquat said he was convinced Gandhi had no desire for Hindu-Muslim cooperation; he was working for Hindu domination of India—to be attained through violence, if necessary. When the envoy further asked whether Liaquat believed that Gandhi’s activities in East Bengal were a deliberate attempt to embarrass the Bengal government and to divert attention from Bihar, where communal violence had killed thousands of Muslims, he said “there was no question about it.”
Gandhi had gone to East Bengal to restore communal harmony after a series of massacres, rapes, abductions and forced conversions of Hindus as well as looting and arson of Hindu properties by Muslims in October–November 1946, a year before India won freedom. However, his peace mission failed to restore confidence among the survivors, who couldn’t be permanently rehabilitated in their villages. Meanwhile, Congress accepted India’s partition, and the mission and other relief camps were abandoned, making the bifurcation a permanent feature in South Asia.
Modi’s India mimics Hitler’s Germany
Following the partition, Kashmir won a special status as a precondition to join India. By scraping Kashmir’s decades-old status, Modi has taken a risky step toward implementing the dream of a right-wing Hindu extremist, the late V. D. Savarkar.
Sitting in a prison cell on the Andaman Islands, in the mid-1920s the convicted-violent-revolutionary-turned-nationalist drew up his solution to the vexing issue of India’s minorities, much like Adolf Hitler’s final solution to the Jewish question. It is interesting to note that both of them came up with their ideas almost at the same time and under similar circumstances—both were in prison for political violence.
Savarkar initially wanted to convert all Muslims and Christians back into Hindu. But he faced a significant obstacle. He could convert them, but not arbitrarily decide their caste. A Hindu must belong to a hierarchical caste, which he acquires through birth only. Hindu religion forbids assigning a caste.
To overcome this barrier, he revised his idea. First, he came up with a new identify for himself: He is a Hindu, not an Indian. Then he figured that his motherland is Hindustan, not India. Hindustan extends from the Himalayas to the Indus River and boasts a 5,000-year-old rich culture that influenced a vast number of people from Greece to Japan. On the contrary, India is a parochial concept that separates Hindus from their ancient heritage; it is championed by the nationalists who, unlike the orthodox Hindus, wanted an independent and united country for all Indians, regardless of their religion.
In Savarkar’s Hindudom, Muslims and Christians were unwelcome, as were the Jews in Hitler’s Third Reich. Even though Buddhists and Sikhs were no longer as pure as Hindus, they were still acceptable because their religions originated in Hindustan. Savarkar disliked Muslims and Christians because of their allegiance to Mecca and Rome; they worshiped foreign gods and had no cultural affinity with Hindustan.
Two evil minds work the same way. Like Savarkar, Hitler branded Jews as Gemeinschaftsfremde (community aliens) and condemned them as communists who aspired to dominate the world.
The situation in India today is far worse than it was in the Third Reich. Hitler was a one-man show, a temporary phenomenon, everything was over in a matter of 20 years. Modi is a product of an ideology that has taken roots in India over the past 100 years. Second, India and Pakistan are two nuclear-armed nations with diametrically opposite ideologies. Third, lives of a huge number of people are at risk.
If India defeats Pakistan in a conventional war, if the Pakistani nation faces a threat to its existence, Pakistan will definitely use nuclear bombs, killing tens of millions of people, if not more. India will retaliate with overwhelming force, causing a carnage the world has never seen before.
Not jingoism, but dialogue will defuse the tension. Peaceful co-existence is the answer.
(B. Z. Khasru is author of “Myths and Facts Bangladesh Liberation War” and “The Bangladesh Military Coup and the CIA Link.” His new book, “One Eleven, Minus Two, Prime Minister Hasina’s War on Yunus and America,” will be published shortly.)