Geopolitical Notes: Noble intentions split the subcontinent

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IN THE 51 years since India and Pakistan were divided, we have grown used to their snarling and occasionally lashing out at each other. As parents do everywhere, we in Britain have blamed our failures, accusing a list of culprits starting with Mountbatten and Churchill and running back to General Dyer, Lord Curzon and beyond.

Mountbatten was certainly responsible for the mad dash for partition which brought death to at least a million people. But although he - or more correctly Attlee on his recommendation - took the decision, he should not be blamed for partition itself: by the time he arrived in April 1947, it was already unavoidable. And the men who had made it unavoidable were the Indians themselves, notably Gandhi and Nehru.

The British had come to the subcontinent seeking trade not territory, and were, initially at least, reluctant rulers. As early as 1818, the Governor-General Lord Hastings could declare: "A time not very remote will arrive when England will, on sound principles of policy, wish to relinquish the dominion which she has gradually and unintentionally assumed over this country and from which she cannot at present recede." But it was not until 1917, under the pressures of world war, that Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India, could make a firm promise of "responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire".

Montagu's promise implied dominion status, and that was all that most Indians - including Gandhi - wanted. Gandhi was then a peripheral figure in Indian national politics, which were led by men like Motilal Nehru, Jawarharlal's father, and the brightest and sharpest of the younger nationalist leaders, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who were content to follow a strictly constitutional path to independence.

Everything changed in 1919, after General Dyer's Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Trust in British fair play was destroyed. Gandhi hijacked the Indian National Congress, and diverted it to follow his own agenda in direct conflict with the British government. In doing so, he alienated many fellow Indians, especially the Muslims. However noble his intentions, Gandhi's every thought and move were essentially Hindu, creating deep-rooted fears among the minority Muslim population.

Gandhi's use of non-cooperation was a powerful weapon that forced India's rulers to take the independence movement seriously. But, by refusing to co-operate, he lost valuable opportunities to negotiate and to participate in government. His contribution to the Round Table conferences at the start of the 1930s was largely obstructive. He bitterly opposed the 1935 India Act, with its federal system giving autonomy to the individual provinces. In 1942, he rejected proposals put forward by Sir Stafford Cripps, guaranteeing Indian independence immediately after the war, famously dismissing them as "a postdated cheque on a bank that is failing". In 1946, he torpedoed the Cabinet Mission, refusing its ingenious solution of a three-level federation which would have kept the Muslim provinces within a loosely united India and brought forward independence by at least 15 vital months.

Jinnah was prepared to accept the Cabinet Mission plan, which would have obviated the need for partition. Pakistan had been the official goal of the Muslim League since 1940 but Jinnah had always taken great care not to define it too clearly, keeping his options open. By the spring of 1947, faced with the obduracy of Gandhi, Nehru and the Congress, his options had expired. A separate Pakistan became inevitable, and two nations set off down a path that has led to the prospect of nuclear confrontation within the subcontinent.

Anthony Read is co-author, with David Fisher, of `The Proudest Day: India's long road to independence' (Pimlico, pounds 12.50)