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Home > English > NEWS AND ANALYSIS > Independence: Partition Politics and Popular Rhetoric Today

Independence: Partition Politics and Popular Rhetoric Today

Tuesday 16 August 2016, by Saib Bilaval

Yesterday was Independence Day in India - a day of celebrating our national sovereignty and saluting the anti-colonial freedom struggle. The triumph of Indian independence, however, is inseparable from the trauma of the Partition experience. Hence, in mainstream culture in India, August 15 becomes a day of bashing Jinnah left, right and centre. It makes one suspect that the ideals of populist nationalism and inclusive democracy have been long forgotten under a sea of symbolism, antipathy and myth making– of what a successful nation we could have had, had there not been an evil separatist at work whose legacy sabotages us even today. This begs the question – have we or our government ever tried hard enough to achieve our so-called original goals nevertheless? The fight was against the status quo and yet it remains entrenched today, hardly due to the deeds of a hostile neighbor.

To retreat into the history of the Partition and Indian politics would provide us useful insights. The question of powerful actors in the deal-making that happened at the dusk of Imperial rule, on the desk of colonial masters immediately questions the common narrative.

The Pakistan demand was initially a bargaining tool against a Congress party that was itself bulldozing through in a very Jinnah-like manner as the sole spokesman for India (never mind that Congress was a semi-communal, casteist party of the first order, right?) - to sideline the various popular movements that arose in the 1930s onwards. The main victims of this exercise of monopoly and backdoor favoritism were the Left (which controlled large sections of the peasant and trade union movement), Ambedkar and other Dalit movements, including the non-Brahman movements in Madras and Maharashtra, autonomous peasant struggles against politically well-connected zamindars, and any regional struggle that challenged upper caste North Indian hegemony.

The Muslim League was a pretty shady party too - landlord backed to the core, and a leadership that was socially conservative. It did not have any better a record than the Congress did in terms of backing social mobility. Only three leaders seemed to have a heart beyond their own self-interest: Jinnah (who was hardly a Muslim by anything but birth), Liaqat Ali Khan (who wrote the most progressive budget in Indian history as the first Finance Minister – many provisions of which were shot down by the Congress) and Jogendranath Mandal (a Dalit leader and the first Law Minister of Pakistan).

Jinnah was hardly familiar with the provinces he would later govern, and his dispensation appears far more secular than that of his party. Ayesha Jalal argues that Jinnah finally resigned himself to Partition when he became convinced that Muslims would not be treated equally in the halls of legislation in India. His first choice always had been a unified India with decentralization, as well as representation for minorities and protection.

The Cabinet Mission plan in 1946 provided for precisely that. It was accepted by Jinnah and vetoed by the Congress. The Muslim League was the first party to accept the Plan and the last party to join the Interim Government. The Congress was the last party to accept the Plan (why it in any case did not do fully) and the first to join the Interim Government. The relative weights of the actors comes out clearly here.

I would argue that the Pakistan Jinnah would have preferred to have would have been just a chunk of Uttar Pradesh and nothing else. That is where the Muslim League was strong - and those are the Muslims the League actually spoke for. Pakistan was then shortly led by an immigrant set of leaders (the old Muslim League guard) till the local landlord-Punjabi-Army elite took over soon after the assassination of Liaqat Ali Khan at the behest of the CIA. Jinnah’s vision died then and there – have no doubt about it.

The freedom of Bangladesh enabled West Punjab to dominate Pakistan electorally and demographically – any party that gets an overwhelming majority in Punjab becomes close to a majority in the National Assembly in Pakistan.

To say that Congress leaders from Bengal and Punjab didn’t benefit from the partitioning of their provinces would indeed be revisionist beyond redemption. After all which Congress would have wanted the chance of a Muslim League ministry in the two undivided provinces (where Muslims were a slightly higher percentage), when they could guarantee themselves a state-level victory with Partition?

Most of the Muslim League’s actions between 1940-46 show us a higher concern about Muslim safety and representation in areas where Muslims were not a majority, than a concern with Muslim majority provinces (where the Muslim League did badly till 1945). In the end, I believe the Congress found Partition a better deal than a less centralized state with several non-Congress provincial governments and a rival party perhaps buttressed by separate electorates.

The Congress had a final say in each of the decisions taken in 1947, by when the British were eager to leave showing a successful handing over of power at least on paper. Only the Congress government sanctioned history textbooks say otherwise.

In Pakistan, to some, Independence means azaadi even today. To others, it brings up the contrast between what is and what should have been. The leaders of their nation and their ideas had died out of power by the 1950s itself – that dream was over.

In India, however, the articulators of freedom and the political inheritors of freedom remained the same. That the populist elements of the national vision still remain a distant vision even now, while fiscal, administrative and communal matters overrode welfare and social justice – shows us how much remains of the pre-Independence status quo. That the socio-economic status-quo is a colonial heritage is bulldozed by bucketfuls of cultural nationalism, and what some would say – hegemony itself.

The idea that freedom was to most people the promise of a higher standard of living and an end to exploitation first and foremost, has been long subsumed by semi-communal outcries that should have no place in our society that serve to cover up what has not been achieved even today.