The partition of India

One common allegation against Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, is that he, in league with the British, effectively blocked alternative solutions to the Hindu-Muslim problem other than a partition of the subcontinent. Is the allegation valid?

The communal problem in the British India centred on Muslims’ apprehension that in the absence of adequate constitutional safeguards, they would be overwhelmed by the majority Hindus politically and economically. The Congress most of the time would deny either that the communal problem existed, or that it was serious enough to warrant even special safeguards for Muslims, to say nothing of a separate Muslim state.

Despite having made the demand for a separate Muslim homeland in the March 1940 Lahore Resolution, it was willing to consider alternative options as late as 1946, the year of the Cabinet Mission Plan. Presented in May, the plan was a watershed in the history of the subcontinent as it embodied the final attempt by the British for a united India. Its failure made the bifurcation of the country inevitable. The Congress and the League were offering different solutions to the country’s problems. Whereas the Congress stood for a free, united India, the League wanted a separate state for Muslims.

The plan sought to strike a compromise between those two positions and proposed a loose federation to be called the Union of India. The central government would control only three departments: foreign affairs, defence and communications. The Union would consist of three units or groups. Group A would comprise Hindu-majority provinces; Group B would consist of western Muslim majority provinces; and Group C would be made up of eastern Muslim-majority provinces. The residuary powers would be vested in the provinces. The plan provided that any province could call for reconsideration of the proposed constitution after 10 years.

Thus the plan sought to divide India into autonomous regions on the basis of religion and authorised each unit to quit the federation after a specific period. The plan ruled out the demand for Pakistan for being not practicable, as it saw no justification for including non-Muslim-majority regions of Punjab and Bengal in Pakistan. And in case those regions were not included in Pakistan, the proposed Muslim state would be too small and weak to remain independent. But despite this Jinnah and the League accepted the plan and they did that for at least three reasons.

In the first place, when the plan was presented to the Congress, it tried to get the Mission’s assurance that in the event the Congress accepted the plan while the League rejected it, power would be transferred to the Congress. The Mission gave the assurance. As the plan fell short of Muslim demand for a separate state, the Congress was certain the League would turn it down, thus prompting the British to hand over power to the Congress; the 1937-39 Congress provincial governments had already given Muslims a taste of Hindu rule. Jinnah did not want that and thus decided that the League should accept the constitutional scheme.

In the second place, the Congress had unleashed the propaganda that the partition of India was a British scheme and that Jinnah and the League were merely a tool to execute the scheme. The Congress would also accuse Jinnah of obstructing the independence of India by pressing for the partition. Jinnah wanted to refute these allegations and tell his critics that he was as keen for independence from British imperialism and a settlement of the Hindu-Muslim problem as Gandhi, Nehru and Azad were.

The third reason for Jinnah to accept the plan was that he saw in it seeds of Pakistan. The proposed units, two of which were to comprise Muslim majority provinces, were to be given full autonomy. Moreover, each region after 10 year could opt out of the federation and proclaim independence. And the units were to be created on the basis of religion – the same basis on which the demand for Pakistan rested.

The League’s acceptance of the plan took the Congress by surprise. Jinnah’s astute move threw cold water on the plans of the Congress. Now the ball was in their court. But a weak centre and strong units were not acceptable to the Congress. What the party wanted was a strong centre and weak units as demanded by the Nehru Report of 1930. This is also true of the constitution of independent India, which is federal in form but unitary in spirit and which is one of few federal constitutions in the world that vest residuary powers in the central government.

The Congress leadership therefore started putting its own interpretations on the plan. For instance, Jawaharlal Nehru maintained that the groupings as provided in the plan were not compulsory and vowed to establish a strong centre at the expense of provincial autonomy. His views were so unwarranted that Sir Stafford Cripps, a member of the Mission, had to say: “I do not know myself how such a thing would be possible, but if anything of that kind were to be attempted, it would be a clear breach of the basic understanding of the plan.”

Interestingly, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who at that time happened to be the Congress president, was in favour of accepting the plan in letter and spirit, because he believed it provided adequate constitutional safeguards for Muslims without conceding their demand for a separate state. However, he failed to get the support of his colleagues.

The plan had two parts: the constitutional scheme outlined in the preceding paragraphs and the provisions relating to the installation of an interim government until a new constitution was drawn up. The Congress accepted the constitutional scheme but only with its own interpretation of the compulsory grouping clause, which was a clear departure from the very spirit of the plan. The party also initially refused to join the proposed interim government. The reason for the refusal was the viceroy’s acceptance of the League’s claim that it alone had the right to nominate all the Muslims in the interim administration.

The Congress’s refusal to join the interim setup meant that power should be transferred to the League, which had conceded to the plan totally. However, the viceroy was reluctant to exclude the Congress, India’s largest political party, from the interim government. Therefore, he allowed the party to nominate a Muslim to the interim government, upon which the Congress joined the interim setup. However, the viceroy’s decision prompted the League to withdraw its acceptance of the plan.

Later, upon the viceroy’s persuasion, the League also joined the interim setup. From the very outset it became clear that the two parties could not get along. There was no unity in the cabinet and the two parties used their powers to settle scores against each other. In particular, Liaquat Ali Khan, as finance minister, shot down every Congress proposal and presented a budget which heavily taxed big industrialists, the Congress’s financers. This convinced both the British and the Congress that there could hardly be smooth power-sharing between the two parties.

Meanwhile, there was a change of guards in India as Lord Mountbatten was appointed the new viceroy. Soon after Mountbatten’s arrival, the Cabinet Plan was discarded and the stage was set for the partition of India, which was formally spelt out in June 3, 1947 plan. By that time, the Congress leadership had also accepted that there was no alternative to the partition of India. In retrospect, Jinnah’s acceptance of the Cabinet Mission Plan, despite the fact that it advocated a united India, was his last concession to the Congress. However, the Congress wasted that opportunity. The failure of the plan proved the last nail in the coffin of a united India and paved the way for the birth of Pakistan.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Islamabad. Email: hussain hzaidi@gmail.com

Hussain H Zaidi/The News