Of Colonialism, Partition and Legacies- India and Pakistan at 70

Submitted by Mohammed Iqbal Degia

I have an absolute hatred of colonialism and imperialism and I don’t mince my words about this. As far as I am concerned, Europe’s imperialism and colonialism were brutal, exploitative, oppressive systems and there was nothing positive about it. There are apologists including from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East who try to point to supposed benefits of European domination such as education systems, infrastructure and governmental structures. The fact is that all those places the Europeans went to possessed their own way of living, dynamic cultures and systems of governance. The only positives from the colonial experience were felt by Europe which enriched itself at the expense of black and brown people and on their blood, sweat and tears. Obviously, there were cronies and traitors who collaborated with the oppressors for a few pieces of silver.

All of this brings me to the date August 15th, 1947 when the British formally ended their physical colonisation of India and two nations were born through a disastrous partition- India and Pakistan. India and Pakistan celebrated their 70th anniversary of independence on August 14th and 15th respectively.

70 years on, India rivals China for the status of new economic power while Pakistan grapples with political unrest and economic stagnation. The central question that remains to this day is whether partition was the correct decision. It is a difficult question to answer.

Oppressed people inevitably rise up to fight their oppressors and it was no different in India. By the end of the 19th century, nationalist movements had started to become stronger and by the beginning of the 20th century were calling for the end of the British presence. They were organised largely along the lines of religion- Hindu and Muslim- with the Congress Party representing the majority Hindu population and the Muslim League representing the minority Muslims. British divide and rule policies which worked so well throughout its empire also reaped much success for them in India and allowed for their dominance.

The 1930s and 1940s saw increased calls by the Muhammad Ali Jinnah led Muslim League for a Muslim state to accompany the exit of the British. This was not helped by the non-reconciliatory position of the Congress Party which further convinced Jinnah and his party that a separate state was the only solution. The end of World War Two and the economic realities of Britain made it clear that the practical move for the British would be to grant India independence. The Labour Party won the 1945 elections and Lord Mountbatten was dispatched to India as the last viceroy in March 1947 with an agenda to transfer power as quickly as possible. The deadline for British withdrawal was brought forward from June 1948 to August 1947 and on August 15th, the British formally ended their rule of India. The months preceding the exit had witnessed all manner of discord, rioting, communal fighting and unrest and this only served to cement the British view that they needed to leave as quickly as possible.

Many historians have argued that this hasty withdrawal was one of the major causes for what happened next- the largest ever migration of people as 10 million Hindus and Muslims made the move into India/ Pakistan. Ironically, the borders of the new states were only announced on August 17th. They had been drawn up by a British lawyer, Cyril Radcliffe, who had no knowledge of local conditions and who used outdated maps and census information. Communities and families were cut into two and estimates put the figure of people killed in the resulting slaughter and riots at one million- a tragic loss of human life.

While both countries inherited ruined economies, poverty, social and economic malaise and instability, in 1947 it was obvious that India had gained much more than Pakistan from the partition. Pakistan was a state made up of two physically disconnected parts separated by India- West Pakistan and East Pakistan. This logistical nightmare for effective governance would result in East Pakistan becoming independent Bangladesh in 1971 after a brutal civil war in which India intervened on the side of East Pakistan. Pakistan only inherited 17.5% of the colonial government’s financial reserves and by the time the army was paid, there was no funding remaining for economic development. Its economy was mostly agricultural and controlled by feudal elites. In contrast, 90% of the subcontinent’s industry, and taxable income base remained in India, including the largest cities of Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta. The core of the Muslim League’s support was based in central north India- Utter Pradesh- and as such, those Muslims had to migrate westwards into Pakistan. This meant competition with local populations for access to resources and employment, a recipe for conflict.

India, Pakistan and Bangladesh today. Photo courtesy of www.teara.govt.nz

The issue of Kashmir also erupted shortly after independence and resulted in a war between the two new states. Kashmir was a princely state with a Muslim population but ruled by a Hindu Maharaja who when faced with an uprising at partition fled Kashmir and decided to cede it to India. Pakistani tribals moved into the area and clashed with Indian troops and this intensified into outright war. The war ended in 1948 and a ceasefire came into effect on Dec 31st, 1948. Kashmir was divided into two with the ceasefire line known as the Line of Control demarcating the pseudo-border. The UN Security Council called for a plebiscite in the region to enable the people there to determine their own future. While Pakistan claims that it in principle accepts a plebiscite, India has refused to agree to one. In 1989 an armed insurgency rose up against the Indian presence and it continues to this day. The world has for the most part turned a blind eye to the brutality of the Indian occupation and the Indian army’s genocidal actions. The Indian army has been accused of committing war crimes throughout its occupation and in the past year there has been an upsurge in horrific violence being committed against Kashmiris by the army. Torture, imprisonment, rape, murder and disappearing are the everyday reality of people in Kashmir. A favourite tactic of the Indian army is to target the eyes of Kashmiris, especially young men, with “non-lethal” pellet ammunition leading to blindness in thousands of people. I visited Kashmir in 1999 for a few weeks during my four month trip to India. It is a beautiful place and it is so sad that the wonderful people there have had to live in the midst of political conflict. I am sure if they are given the chance, they would overwhelmingly choose to be an independent nation.

Kashmir. Photo courtesy of BBC

Jinnah’s death, ethnic and religious differences and the inability to agree on a constitution paved the way for a military coup in 1958 and since then Pakistan has mostly been ruled by the army. Indian secularists managed to gain an upper hand, a constitution was ratified and democratic elections were held in 1951, making India the world’s largest democracy. India has however not been spared from ethnic and religious conflict and tensions between Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs and Hindus have often turned violent. While India’s economy continues to grow phenomenally, the disparities between rich and poor are extreme and in both India and Pakistan a large proportion of the population live in poverty. Pakistan is embroiled at the moment in one of its usual political dramas while Modi, India’s version of Trump but with a war crimes record already obtained, has stoked up the hatred that has resulted in violence and murder being committed on a regular basis against Muslims since he came to power.

A look at India and Pakistan today makes one wonder if all the bloodshed, suffering and billions of dollars spent on defence were worth it. On the one hand, an undivided Indian subcontinent would have been much more economically viable and definitely so for Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is also rather ironic that in 1947 far more Muslims were left in India than incorporated into the Muslim state. One wonders about the political strength of this combined Muslim body in an undivided India. While it would still be a minority bloc it would be much larger than what it is today. On the other hand, the horrendous violence met out to Muslims at different points since independence, the rise of Hindu fanaticism, events such as the destruction of the Ayodha mosque in 1992, the election of Hindu nationalists who view India solely as a Hindu nation, and the violent attacks carried out in the past two years by despicable Hindu cow zealots, seem to confirm the fears of the Muslim League for Muslims in a majority Hindu India.

It is a complex situation that historians will continue to grapple with and disagree about for years to come. What is most striking though is that while millions of people go hungry every day and lack access to basic health, water and education in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, trillions of dollars are spent on arms and weapons.