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Could India Have Remained an Undivided Country?

It would be a silly question indeed to ask why December 25th is celebrated.  On the other hand, one could ask why it is a national holiday in Pakistan, for it is not because it’s Christmas.  By an unusual coincidence it happens to be the birthday of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of the country.  Exactly how Pakistan came into being is an interesting story as it also leads to the question whether the dismemberment of the Indian subcontinent — now three countries — could have been averted.
 
Jinnah started out as a voice for Hindu-Muslim unity, although wary of majoritarianism and Hindu domination.  A highly successful lawyer with patrician tastes, he was averse to mob violence and wanted constitutional independence — the British handing over to an elected Indian government and a constitution safeguarding the rights of minorities.
 
The first step was to seek Dominion status in which Indians would run their own affairs although subject to control by the British government.  Accordingly a London conference was convened.  The Round Table Conference began in grand style on November 30, 1930 with a plenary session at the House of Lords;  after which the participants retired to St. James Palace for the talks.
 
Hindu and Muslim members sought first to agree on a united front.  His Highness The Aga Khan was leading the delegation and also spoke for the Muslims.  Sir Chimanlal Setalvad, a prominent Hindu member, has written that the Aga Khan agreed to the Hindu demand for joint electorates, instead of separate Hindu and Muslim ones, but with the reservation of seats for Muslims, and he added magnanimously, “In that event you lead and we follow.”  Jaswant Singh describes (p. 178) what transpired in his excellent book, “Jinnah: India — Partition, Independence.”   Unfortunately the Hindu members receptive to the proposal were intimidated by the others and the Hindu Mahasaba (p. 179, ibid.), the precursor of the nationalist Hindutva movement.  Prime Minister Modi’s Bharataya Janata Party (BJP) has a Hindu nationalist fervor which has unmasked the BJP that was in power with Jaswant Singh as Foreign Minister.
 
Without a united front, the Round Table Conference was doomed.  The seeds of Pakistan had been sown, and as Jinnah repeatedly confronted majoritarianism devoid of any assurances for Muslims, his demands for Pakistan became more implacable.
 
The last chance for one India arrived in 1946 with the Cabinet Mission.  Field Marshal Viscount Archibald Percival Wavell served as Viceroy of India from 1943 to early 1947.  Lord Wavell hosted the Mission and served as a link to the parties i.e. Jinnah of the Muslim League and Nehru of the Congress Party.  The somewhat ingenious plan devised coalesced the provinces into four groups, the western provinces (now Pakistan), the east, the center and the south.  The first two were Muslim majority, the latter two Hindu.  The individual provinces would elect members to a group constituent assembly which would then select representatives for the central government in Delhi.  Equal Hindu and Muslim groups ensured reasonable parity in Delhi.
 
The interim government in Delhi that Wavell had in mind would consist of a council of twelve (p. 207, ibid.):  five from the Muslim League, five from Congress, one Sikh and one Dalit.  In accepting the plan and therefore less, Jinnah was putting his demand for Pakistan at risk.  The gesture was unappreciated for with each letter and each communication with Congress, Wavell’s original parity suffered dilution.  Moreover, Nehru even rejected the Cabinet Mission’s grouping plan claiming clearly falsely that, the “entire country is opposed” to it (p. 379, ibid.).
 
In the end there were fourteen members of the council without parity for Muslims.  The plan was formally rejected by the Muslim League on July 27, 1946 (p. 382, ibid.).  The era of a constitutional path to independence was over.   Jinnah and the Muslim League had tired of Nehru’s repeated shifts on positions critical to Muslim interests.
 
Thus the call for Direct Action.  The demonstrations began on August 16, 1946, and the confrontations led to riots leading to killings.  The British government recalled Wavell in February 1947.  Lord Mountbatten of Burma took over, and a precipitate rush to independence followed.  Group enmities resulted in a mania of  killing as Muslims fleeing violence in the new India and Hindus and Sikhs the same in Pakistan fled towards the borders without protection.  Over two million lost their lives before the cataclysm ended.  And occasional spasms still erupt such as the 2002 killings of Muslims in Gujarat during Modi’s rule plus numerous other incidents.
 
The leftovers include the continuing troubles in Indian Kashmir and the frequent blinding of the young during demonstrations.  The security forces eschew rubber bullets for pellet loaded shotguns.  The decades-long insurgency has cost the lives of up to 100,000 Kashmiris.
 
The two countries have fought four wars.  In the first, Pakistan wrested control of a third of Kashmir from India after the Maharaja seceded the state to India against the wishes of an overwhelming majority of his people.  In the third war, India repaid Pakistan in kind paving the way for East Pakistan to become the new country of Bangladesh.  The other two wars ended in the status quo ante.  If there is another war, the world could face a nuclear winter — about 300 nuclear weapons in the two countries are trained on each other.
 
What a price to pay for majoritarianism!  In the meantime, the new Modi government with its Hindu nationalist agenda and continuing contempt for secularism  — even centuries-old place names are being changed — confirms the fears of the Muslim minority, justifying their course of action during that fateful summer of 1946. 

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Arshad M. Khan is a former professor who has, over many years, written occasionally for the print and often for online media outlets.

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