To virtually equate the holocaust that occurred during the events of partition with the dignity and beauty of the achievement of independence from colonial rule is unjust and untenable. The term ‘partition’ as a synonym for independence belittles the vision and devalues the validity of the concept of Pakistan. It implies that the rationale for a new, predominantly Muslim nation-state is rooted in forced separation, displacement and violence. The painful circumstances of Pakistan’s birth should not become the lens through which we view a decisive landmark in the continuing evolution of Muslim nationalism in South Asia.
By design as well as by perhaps inadvertent repetition, the concept and word of partition have been made synonymous with the independence of Pakistan and India. With conscious intent or by unconscious adoption of a widely used term, this process of subtle, semantic misrepresentation was initially conducted in India and the West by scholars and the media. Regrettably, many of their counterparts in Pakistan also incorrectly use the word partition to refer to the momentous phenomenon of the birth of two entirely new nation-states.
The achievement of independence by Pakistan and India required the division of a region, not of an already existing single state or a single, historic nation.
What the British designated as the ‘Indian’ region in South Asia (instead of ‘Hindustan’) always comprised — as it still does — a wide diversity of races, faiths, languages, cultures and nations. These were partially or wholly organised into kingdoms, principalities and fiefdoms. Yet each such entity also contained diversities.
At the height of their power and reach hundreds of years earlier, neither Ashoka nor Chandragupta Maurya nor the Mughals ruled all parts of this region. They were certainly the dominant forces of their respective ages. But before 1947, there was no singular political entity covering the territories Pakistan, Bangladesh and India presently comprise that exercised the comprehensive control in all respects that the definition of a singular state entity mandates. Even during the British Raj of 1857-1947, many princely states retained sovereignty over several internal subjects while conceding only foreign affairs, defence and communications/currency to the British.
In mid-August 1947, only two provinces were partitioned: Punjab and Bengal. The other three provinces of West Pakistan were not divided. In what became the Indian state, there were 12 other provinces which were not subjected to division. These included the highly populated Uttar Pradesh, apart from southern provinces such as Madras (now Tamil Nadu) and Kerala. The de facto division of Kashmir was accidental, not planned.
While being a devastating event, then, partition was only a component of the achievement of independence by Pakistan and India, and not the whole of independence itself.
There were as many as 562 princely states in the region with their respective relationships documented by treaties and agreements with the British government. Whether it was micro-states such as Belha or states such as Hyderabad Deccan which was as large as France, each claimed a distinct, separate identity. Due to inescapable geographic reasons, most of these acceded to India. Yet several, despite being Hindu (e.g. Jaisalmer and Jodhpur, which preferred Pakistan), were crudely coerced to surrender. A few chose Pakistan outright. The refusal of small Junagadh and of large Hyderabad Deccan to join the new Indian state required ruthless intervention by India’s armed forces to compel integration.
Partition was the consequence of Mountbatten’s policy of excessive haste. He arbitrarily advanced to August 1947 the date for independence from the limit of June 1948 given to him by British prime minister Attlee’s government. This ill-considered decision was unfortunately accepted as a fait accompli by both the Muslim League and the Congress. There was a gross failure to anticipate and prevent the panic and migration on a mass scale which led to the horrific killings of about one million human beings and the displacement and transfer of about eight to 10 million people moving across the new frontiers.
The misrepresentation of partition as being synonymous with independence is best reflected in the title of a book by an Indian scholar who portrays the quintessentially secular Mr Jinnah as a rabid, Hindu-hating communalist. The Man Who Divided India: An Insight into Jinnah’s Leadership and Its Aftermath was first published in 2001. The fact that the author is an Indian Muslim named Rafiq Zakaria reinforces the attempted credibility. It is another matter that Mr Jinnah strongly opposed the partition of Punjab and Bengal. As late as May 1947, he addressed an urgent letter to the British cabinet asking it to prevent such a division because he wanted large numbers of non-Muslims to also be part of the original Pakistan. Partition was callously imposed by the Congress and Mountbatten, not a condition created by the Quaid-i-Azam.
This fact alone should persuade us to abandon the continued use of this term in a synonymous context. While it obviously needs to be used whenever reference is made to the division of the two provinces, the glory of a new nation-state’s independence should not be marred by a negative and misleading term.
The writer is a former senator and federal minister and author of Pakistan: Unique Origins; Unique Destiny?