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Some Questions Are Best Buried

Some Questions Are Best Buried

Author: Arvind Panagariya
Publication: The Times of India
Date: October 31, 2009

Introduction: Trying to fix blame for partition may be an exercise in futility

Jaswant Singh has done a great service by sensitising us to the importance of a better understanding of India's immediate pre-independence history. His book, and the controversy that surrounded it recently, have led me to undertake a closer scrutiny of this critical period. I have, in turn, reached the conclusion that the key question on which the media has been transfixed - who is culpable for the partition - is essentially moot. The objectives, philosophies and backgrounds of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammed Ali Jinnah and of the Congress and Muslim League were so fundamentally in conflict that the partition was inevitable.

The 1940s British India was divided into 17 provinces and hundreds of princely states. Of the 17 provinces, governors ruled 11 and chief commissioners the remaining six. The negotiations in the 1940s centred on the 11 provinces under governors. Hindus were in the majority in seven of them and Muslims in four. The principal parties to the negotiations were the Congress, the Muslim League and the British government. Princely states and minorities - Sikhs, Christians and Dalits - had representation but they did not have decisive influence on the outcome.

Nehru had a vision to build a modern, democratic India with equal representation for all. A strong central government was an integral part of that vision. Jinnah, who had given little thought to nation-building, was solely focused on achieving a post-independence governance structure in which his Muslim League would have parity with the Congress at the Centre and complete autonomy at the provincial level. The latter objective required a weak Centre.

Despite Muslims constituting only 25 per cent of the population, Jinnah insisted on equal representation for his Muslim League to that of the Congress at the Centre. He also saw his Muslim League as the sole representative of all Muslims in India and the Congress as representing strictly upper-caste Hindus. In contrast, the Congress viewed itself as the party of national integration representing all Indians. By corollary, it did not accept the Muslim League as the sole representative of Muslims.

At every stage in the negotiations, Jinnah insisted that the Muslim League be given as many representatives in the key decision-making central bodies as the Congress and that the Muslim League alone be allowed to appoint Muslims on these bodies. To the Congress, whose leadership included members of all communities - including Maulana Azad, a Muslim who served as its president from 1940 to 1945 - such demands were anathema.

Given the progressively inflexible position of Jinnah, the only way the Congress could have preserved a united India was by accepting his demands in entirety. But in view of his long struggle for independence that included many years spent in jail, his national integration aspirations, and the dream to build a modern democratic India, Nehru could hardly be expected to make such a sacrifice and that too in favour of someone who had not spent a day in jail, was solely focused on the preservation of the interests of a single community, and had little inclination to work cooperatively with the Congress to build a modern India. The experience with the 1946 interim government, administered jointly by the Congress and the Muslim League, confirmed the unworkable nature of their relationship. There came to exist a virtual vertical wall between the departments held by the Congress and the Muslim League from the minister at the top right down to the orderly at the bottom.

Prior to the arrival of Lord Mountbatten, the Cabinet Mission of May 1945 represented the only serious attempt by the British towards independence. To woo Jinnah, the Mission proposed an all-India federation with a threetier governance structure - with a weak Centre at the top, weak provinces at the bottom, and strong groupings of provinces in the middle. Three groupings were proposed: Group A with three contiguous Muslim majority provinces, Group B containing six Hindu majority provinces and Group C clubbing the vast Muslim majority Bengal with a much smaller Hindu majority Assam. Each group was to write its own separate constitution with the Centre's jurisdiction limited to defence, foreign affairs and communications. Predictably, the Congress refused to embrace the groupings idea.

Much has been made of Nehru's public repudiation of the idea in an interview to The Hindu in July 1946. A 1968 book reports even Azad as having said that the interview "changed the course of history". Yet, as a matter of historical record, at no stage had Nehru or the Congress accepted the groupings idea. As the Congress president, Azad himself had informed the Cabinet Mission in May 1945 that the Congress was "entirely opposed to any executive or legislative machinery for a group of provinces".

In the end, the gulf between Nehru's conception of a united India and that of Jinnah was too deep to be filled. Even so, if responsibility for the partition must be assigned, Indians with genuine national-integration aspirations are bound to point the finger at Jinnah.

- The writer is a professor of economics at Columbia University.

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