Saturday, September 5, 2009


Subroto Roy

The bloated armies of Indian and Pakistani historians and pseudo-historians have failed to recognize the significance of the precise start of the Second World War upon the fortunes of the subcontinent. Yet, twenty years ago, in the book I and WE James created at an American university, Foundations of Pakistan’s Political Economy: Towards an Agenda for the 1990s, one of our authors, Professor Francis Robinson of the University of London, had set out the principal facts most clearly as to what flowed from the September 4 1939 empowerment of MA Jinnah by the British Government.

Germany invaded Poland on September 1 1939 and Britain declared war on Germany on September 3. The next day, Linlithgow, the British Viceroy in India, started to treat MA Jinnah’s Muslim League on par with the Congress’s nationalist movement led by MK Gandhi. Until September 4 1939, the British “had had little time for Jinnah and his League. The Government’s declaration of war on Germany on 3 September, however, transformed the situation. A large part of the army was Muslim, much of the war effort was likely to rest on the two Muslim majority provinces of Punjab and Bengal. The following day, the Viceroy invited Jinnah for talks on an equal footing with Gandhi” (Robinson, in James & Roy (eds) Foundations of Pakistan’s Political Economy 1989, 1992).

Jinnah himself was amazed by the new British attitude towards him: “suddenly there was a change in the attitude towards me. I was treated on the same basis as Mr Gandhi. I was wonderstruck why all of a sudden I was promoted and given a place side by side with Mr Gandhi.”

Jinnah’s political weakness had been made obvious by the electoral defeats the Muslim League had suffered in the 1937 elections in the very provinces which more or less came to constitute West Pakistan and today constitute modern Pakistan. Britain, at war with Germany and soon Japan, was faced with the intransigence of the Congress leadership. It was unsurprising this would contribute to the British tilt empowering Congress’s declared adversary, Jinnah and the Muslim League, and hence make credible the possibility of the Pakistan that they had demanded:

“As the Congress began to demand immediate independence, the Viceroy took to reassuring Jinnah that Muslim interests would be safeguarded in any constitutional change. Within a few months, he was urging the League to declare a constructive policy for the future, which was of course presented in the Lahore Resolution. In their August 1940 offer, the British confirmed for the benefit of Muslims that power would not be transferred against the will of any significant element in Indian life. And much the same confirmation was given in the Cripps offer nearly two years later…. Throughout the years 1940 to 1945, the British made no attempt to tease out the contradictions between the League’s two-nation theory, which asserted that Hindus and Muslims came from two different civilisations and therefore were two different nations, and the Lahore Resolution, which demanded that ‘Independent States’ should be constituted from the Muslim majority provinces of the NE and NW, thereby suggesting that Indian Muslims formed not just one nation but two. When in 1944 the governors of Punjab and Bengal urged such a move on the Viceroy, Wavell ignored them, pressing ahead instead with his own plan for an all-India conference at Simla. The result was to confirm, as never before in the eyes of leading Muslims in the majority provinces, the standing of Jinnah and the League. Thus, because the British found it convenient to take the League seriously, everyone had to as well—Congressmen, Unionists, Bengalis, and so on….(Robinson in James & Roy (eds) Foundations of Pakistan’s Political Economy, pp. 43-44).

Even British socialists who were sympathetic to Indian aspirations, would grow cold when the Congress seemed to abjectly fail to appreciate Britain’s predicament during war with Germany and Japan (Gandhi, for example, dismissing the 1942 Cripps offer as a “post-dated cheque on a failing bank”).

By the 1946 elections, Muslim mass opinion had changed drastically to seem to be strongly in favour of the creation of a Pakistan. The intervening years were the ones when urban mobs all over India could be found shouting the League’s slogans: Larke lenge Pakistan; Marke lenge Pakistan, Khun se lenge Pakistan; Dena hoga Pakistan; Leke rahenge Pakistan” (We will spill blood to take Pakistan, you will have to yield a Pakistan.)

Events remote from India’s history and geography, namely, the rise of Hitler and the Second World War, had contributed between 1937 and 1947 to the change of fortunes of the Muslim League and hence of all the people of the subcontinent.

The British had long discovered that the mutual antipathy between Muslims and Hindus could be utilised in fashioning their rule; specifically that the organisation and mobilisation of Muslim communal opinion in the subcontinent was a useful counterweight to any pan-Indian nationalism which might emerge to compete with British authority. As early as 1874, well before Allan Octavian Hume, ICS, had conceived the Indian National Congress, John Strachey, ICS, was to observe “The existence side by side of these (Hindu and Muslim) hostile creeds is one of the strong points in our political position in India. The better classes of Mohammedans are a source of strength to us and not of weakness. They constitute a comparatively small but an energetic minority of the population whose political interests are identical with ours.” By 1906, when a deputation of Muslims headed by the Aga Khan first approached the British pleading for communal representation, Minto the Viceroy replied: “I am as firmly convinced as I believe you to be that any electoral representation in India would be doomed to mischievous failure which aimed at granting a personal enfranchisement, regardless of the beliefs and traditions of the communities composing the population of this Continent.” Minto’s wife wrote in her diary that the effect was “nothing less than the pulling back of sixty two millions of (Muslims) from joining the ranks of the seditious opposition.” (The true significance of MAK Azad may have been that he, precisely at the same time, did indeed feel within himself the nationalist’s desire for freedom strongly enough to want to join the ranks of that seditious opposition.)

If a pattern emerges as to the nature of the behaviour of the British political state with respect to the peoples of this or similar regions, it is precisely the economic one of rewarding those loyal to them who had protected or advanced their interests, and penalising those perceived to be acting against their will. It is wishful to think of members of the British political state as benevolent paternalists, who met with matching deeds their often philanthropic words about promoting the general welfare of their colonial wards or subordinate allies. The slogan “If you are not with us you are against us” that has come to be used by many from the Shining Path Maoists of Peru to President George W. Bush, had been widely applied already by the British in India, especially in the form “If you dare not to be with us, we will be certainly with your adversaries”. It came to be used with greatest impact on the subcontinent’s fortunes in 1939 when Britain found itself reluctantly at war with Hitler’s Germany.

British loyalties lay with those who had been loyal to them.

Hence in the “Indian India” of the puppet princes, Hari Singh and other “Native Princes” who had sent troops to fight as part of the British armies would be treated with a pusillanimity and grandeur so as to flatter their vanities, Sheikh Abdullah’s rebellion representing the Muslim masses of the Kashmir Valley would be ignored. And in British India, Jinnah the conservative Anglophile and his elitist Muslim League would be backed, while the radicalised masses of the Gandhi-Bose-Nehru Congress would have to be suppressed as a nuisance.

(Similarly, much later, Pakistan’s bemedalled army generals would be backed by the United States against Mujibur Rehman’s impoverished student-rebels, and India’s support frowned upon regardless of how just the Bangladeshi cause.)

Altruism is a limited quality in all human affairs, never more scarce than in relations between nations. In “Pakistan’s Allies”, I showed how the strategic interests of Britain, and later Britain’s American ally, came to evolve in the Northwest of the subcontinent ever since the 1846 Treaty of Amritsar as long as a Russian and later a Soviet empire had existed. A similar evolution of British domestic interests in India is distinctly observable in British support for the Pakistan Movement itself, leading on August 14 1947 to the creation of the new Dominion of Pakistan.

Sheikh Abdullah’s democratic urges or Nehru’s Indian nationalism or the general welfare of the subcontinent’s people had no appeal as such to the small and brittle administrative machinery in charge of Britain’s Indian Empire — even though individual Britons had come to love, understand and explain India for the permanent benefit of her people. This may help to explain how Britain’s own long democratic traditions at home could often be found so wonderful by Indians yet the actions of the British state abroad so incongruent with them.


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