The Blind Men Of Hindoostan

Last Wednesday an eminent American research scholar and author on South Asia, Mr Paul Brass, wrote an article in a national daily. His study of over four decades led him to believe that ordinary people were not responsible for riots. Riots according to him emanated from “institutional riot systems”. These riots were in fact pogroms.

However, Mr Brass went on in his article to write about the riots of 1947: “Even such a stupendous disaster as the partition of India had been massively distorted in historical writing on the subject and in public consciousness, that it had not been at all recognized, except by a tiny minority of scholars, for what it actually was, namely, a twentieth century form of genocide and ethnic cleansing, but made to appear wholly or mostly spontaneous or blamed upon various easy targets such as Lord Mountbatten or the British policy of ‘divide and rule’.”

Mr Brass is accurate in the first part. I offered a rationale of the 1947 riots in a book over fifteen years ago. Its views were identical with the views expressed by Mr Brass except for one huge difference. When Mr Brass dismisses Lord Mountbatten or the British as “easy targets” one can only wonder if he has done his homework. To consider Lord Mountbatten as an individual is facile. He was Britain’s chosen instrument to preside over policy as the Empire was being dismantled. To reappraise the partition today is not merely academic engagement in a historical dispute. The truth about partition lies at the heart of the Kashmir problem, of the Baluchistan problem, of the Indo-Pakistan discord.

Recently former British foreign minister Mr Jack Straw regretfully acknowledged that Britain had made serious errors on Kashmir in 1947. He did not elaborate. Was he referring to the seemingly personal decision of a junior British army officer to declare Gilgit as part of Pakistan? Was he referring to Mountbatten’s prevailing over Nehru to move the UN and order a ceasefire before the Indian army occupied the whole of Kashmir, which it was about to? It served Britain to make sure that the partition endured. That was why Britain helped create an intractable Kashmir dispute to make this happen.

What impelled Britain to partition India? It was at that time a rational and sound policy for a departing colonial power to perpetuate its strategic interests. In those days Britain, even though impoverished and crippled by the war it had won, remained miles ahead of America in its understanding of global strategy. Britain’s secret service had thought about partition even before world war started in 1939. The British central intelligence in India wrote to the Secretary of State in London: “The differences between Hindus and Muslims have reached a point at which there is only one solution: partition. Thus, shortly, a nation of Muslim India should be established.”

Why did Britain want partition? It foresaw the need to contain the Soviet Union from expanding to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Lord Mountbatten was appointed as Viceroy by the King over Prime Minister Atlee’s head. Mountbatten was Queen Victoria’s great grandson. The British had convinced the Americans that an Islamic crescent encircling the Soviet Union and emerging Red China was the best bet to contain the “Godless communists”.

Less than two months after Mountbatten became Viceroy, US Secretary of State George Marshall sent Ronald A. Hare, head of Division of South Asian Affairs, and Thomas E. Weil, Second Secretary of the US Mission in India, to confer with Jinnah. In that meeting Jinnah echoed Lord Wavell’s views that a Muslim Pakistan would contain the Soviet Union. The American team conveyed this to Secretary of State George Marshal

But for a truly Muslim Pakistan a transfer of populations had to be ensured. There is enough circumstantial evidence to convincingly suggest that the “institutional riot system” which Mr Brass has discovered was very much under operation by Britain in 1947. Former Pakistan President Iskandar Mirza’s memoirs, when he served as a deputy commissioner, offer one morsel of evidence. Lord Mountbatten’s inexplicably perverse deployment of police forces, which facilitated instead of curbing riots, offers another. In certain areas the army instigated riots. To imagine that the most experienced world power would not exercise control over a bureaucracy and army created by it would be extremely naive.

The riots, which escalated in Punjab well after the Congress had formally accepted partition, were necessary to bring about a transfer of populations. Ninety per cent people of present Pakistan opposed the partition. The Khan of Kalat, who ruled over most of Baluchistan, remained independent for a year after partition, wanting to join India. Inexplicably, Nehru spurned him. Pakistan annexed Baluchistan through military coercion. Baluch insurgency has waxed and waned for over fifty years. This Sunday Baluchistan’s foremost leader Nawab Akbar Bugti was killed by the Pakistan army. He sought autonomy, not independence as other illustrious self-exiled Baluch leaders did. The Frontier Gandhi, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, wanting either independence or merger with India, was also abandoned by Gandhi and Nehru. The Nawab of Bahawalpur, ruling a state contiguous to India, was also spurned by Nehru after he wanted to join India. One need not dwell on the betrayal by their top Congress leaders of the thousands who fought for freedom. These leaders were manipulated like pawns when it came to the crunch.

What is germane to the present is the truth that the birth of Pakistan was as controversial as the birth of Israel which was culled from Palestine partitioned by the British a few months after India’s partition. Both Israel and Pakistan were artificially created. Both have survived for six decades. They are a reality. Any realistic solution would have to protect their sovereign identities. Nevertheless, the past cannot be wished away. The problem between India and Pakistan is not Kashmir. It is the partition. Kashmir is the symptom. Its people in all of its five segments spread across India and Pakistan deserve self-determination provided India, Pakistan and Kashmir – whatever its future status – arrive at a special relationship which might later encompass Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

No outside power should be allowed to encroach as an equal on this special relationship. To talk of joint management by India and Pakistan of Kashmir is futile. Kashmir is not a factory requiring joint management. President Musharraf, the Hurriyat leaders, Syed Salahuddin, Mr Farooq Abdullah and others are busy discussing the peace process. Let them first confront the truth. The basic problem is not Kashmir. The basic problem is the partition. Let them start from that end.

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