The Road to Partition

Jaswant Singh‘s book provides the excuse for this post. We are going to move away from narratives that seek a villain in the story. Rather, we will present a sequence of events that increasingly predisposed the outcome towards a division of the subcontinent. Along the path marked by these events, there were a number of crucial turning points at which different decisions could possibly have led to different outcomes. These remain the big what-ifs of our history.

In this narrative we present just the big picture and the key highlights. Each of the turning points needs a chapter to itself but it is useful to sketch an overview before we begin to start filling in the details. We hope to use the commentary for that purpose.

The British become masters of India

The story can start at any number of points but let us begin it in 1803. Before 1803, the British were one among a number of forces contending for power in India. With the defeat of the Marhattas in 1803, they became the sole masters taking the Mughal king under their protection.

Becoming sole masters meant that the British had now to rule India and a rationale had to be found for this rule. It is at this point that the humiliation of Indians begins because the rationale for British rule was found in the need to ‘civilize’ India, to raise her to the level where it could rule itself. Soon after, with the opening of the Suez route, came the missionaries who added the need to show the benighted heathens the true light. This is when the lingam became the penis as described by Professor Balagangadhara.

The rise and fragmentation of Indian nationalism

This humiliation festered till it burst in the first outpouring of Indian nationalism in 1857. Note that this was ‘Indian’ nationalism as all the disaffected, irrespective of identity, united to ask their reluctant king to lead them in the uprising. The roots of this composite Indian nationalism could be traced back to the formation of the Ghadr Party in 1913, perhaps the last non-elite resistance that was free of any prejudices related to religion, caste, ethnicity, or language, an aspect that would surprise many today. Perhaps, it was so precisely because it was a subaltern movement devoid of elite concerns for power, employment, and appropriation of resources.

Of course, the uprising was crushed. More important were the uneven (or at least perceived as such) punishments meted out to the groups that had participated in the uprising. This effectively split Indian nationalism along religious lines. Humiliation is a very powerful motivator and the responses to it left lasting impressions on Indian history that are being felt even today. (The most vivid account of this period is by William Dalrymple in The Last Mughal.)

Not only did Indian nationalism split into Muslim and Hindu nationalisms but each in turn split into nationalisms that looked for redemption to the past or to the future. On the Muslim side one can contrast the groups that set up seminaries with Syed Ahmad Khan setting up the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College. On the Hindu side, one can contrast the forward-looking vision of Nehru with glorification of a Hindu past by Savarkar.

Perhaps the lone voice of dissent was that of Gandhi who advised rejecting the British ‘habit of writing history.’ He must have sensed that given the context of India, any invention of a past would be divisive. “I believe,” he wrote, “that a nation is happy that has no history.” Khilnani explores this crucial point:

In contrast to nationalists who sought to construct a reliable future out of a selected past, Gandhi expressed profound distrust for the historical genre. He turned to legends and stories from India’s popular religious traditions, preferring their lessons to the supposed ones of history. The fact that so many on the subcontinent found these fables accessible, and recognized their predicaments and symbols, itself testified to a shared civilizational bond.

But it was too late in the day. It is ironic that Gandhi’s recourse to religious symbolism (including his support of the Khilafat movement in 1920 – which Jinnah opposed as ‘religious frenzy’) itself proved to be divisive.

By far the most influential of these invented histories in terms of impact on the immediate future was the nationalism espoused by Savarkar that equated India with Hinduism with everyone else “relegated to awkward, secondary positions.” Khilnani notes that “the Gandhian Congress adroitly marginalized the Savarkarite conception of Indian history and Indianness, but its presuppositions were never erased: many nationalists outside Congress, and even some within it, shared them.” This sentiment was to make itself felt after the elections of 1937.

The political fracturing of Indian nationalism

Just in case the widening of religious and cultural splits in Indian nationalism were not sufficient guarantors of British dominance, a political fracture would make assurance doubly sure. In 1905, Bengal was severed into two provinces: East Bengal,with 18 million Muslims and 12 million Hindus, and West Bengal, with a largely Hindu population of 47 million. The stated purpose was administrative efficiency—Bengal was too big to govern effectively — yet British advisers were quite clear about the political implications. “Bengal united is a power,” one of them counseled. “Bengal divided will pull several ways. That is what the Congress leaders feel; their apprehensions are perfectly correct and they form one of the great merits of the scheme….One of our main objects is to split up and thereby weaken a solid body of opponents to our rule.”

The objective was achieved. Here are Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s observations in his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian: “It was from the end of 1906 that we became conscious of a new kind of hatred for the Muslims, which sprang out of the present and showed signs of poisoning our personal relations with our Muslim neighbours and schoolfellows. If the spouting enmity did not go to the length of inducing us to give up all intercourse with them, it made us at all events treat them with a marked decline of civility. We began to hear angry comments in the mouths of our elders that the Muslims were coming out quite openly in favor of partition and on the side of the English.”

Although the partition was reversed in 1911, things, not unexpectedly, could never revert to the status quo ante. The damage was done even if its ultimate consequences were not entirely intended. It was the prelude to the partition of 1947 and some of whose seeds were sown in Bengal in 1905.

The creation of religious identities

The shock of the great uprising of 1857 yielded two immediate lessons to the British – the need to learn more about Indian communities and to find a way to rule indirectly through a pliable elite. The first led to the introduction of the census (conducted in 1871) in which the determination of religion was of primary importance. This was contrary to the practice in Britain itself where a question about religion was not included in the census.

The fascinating story of the census is described in In the Making: Identity Formation in South Asia  by Kamaljit Bhasin-Malik (2007). The notes of the census takers themselves tell the story – no one answered to the category of ‘Hindu’ when asked their religion and so Hinduism was defined as a default category – anyone who could not be classified into any other religion was listed as a Hindu. There was no room for ambiguity; all syncretic communities were put under one heading or another (see a brief description in this post). Thus were religious identities created – as Sunil Khilnani puts it in The Idea of India: “The terminology of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ was itself an inescapable imposition of the political accountancy of the Raj.”

The creation of political identities

At the same time, the mechanism envisaged to involve the local elite into the governance of India was electoral representation. Here again, the practice differed from that in Britain where the unit of representation was a territory. In India, the British chose the units to be communities “with immutable interests and collective rights.” And once again, these were determined on the basis of religion. “Defined as majorities and minorities, they were shepherded into communal electorates whose interest the British had to protect from one another” (Khilnani).

The decision to use separate electorates based on religion was a crucial decision taken in 1909. Any other marker of identity – territory, language, ethnicity – could have been used, if at all one was needed. Or proportional representation could have been employed to give adequate representation to the various groups that the British felt were vulnerable in the electoral system. But the British opted for religion. Ostensibly it was the Muslims who asked for separate electorates. It is well known now that the British principal of the Aligarh College and the private secretary of the Viceroy drafted the memorandum spelling out these demands. The Viceroy readily agreed to the demands. Thus “the dice were loaded against Hindu-Muslim unity” (see Raghavan here).

So religious affiliation was turned into a decisive distinction. Here is a quote from the conclusion of the Indian Statutory Commission in 1930:

So long as people had no part in the conduct of their government, there was little for members of one community to fear from the predominance of the other. The gradual introduction of constitutional reforms, however, had greatly stimulated communal tension as it aroused anxieties and ambitions among many communities by the prospect of their place in India’s future political set-up.

This is followed by the verdict of the Indian historian K.N. Pannikar: “the introduction of the principle of elected representation in public institutions actively promoted the rising of communalism in India.” (Both these quotes can be found in this post.)

The next crucial turning point came in 1932 when the draft Indian Constitution proposed by the British included separate electorates for Dalits – a proposal that was supported by Dr. Ambedkar.  Gandhiji began a hunger strike because he felt that separate electorates for Dalits would “disintegrate Hindu society.” Apprehensive of the consequences, Dr. Ambedkar withdrew his support. Later, on his own deathbed, he is reported to have said that it was the “biggest mistake in his life.”

Two things are important to note here. First, no one in Congress opposed separate electorates for Muslims on the grounds that it would disintegrate Indian society (as it did). Second, the entire process of representation was not based on any consistent principle. The choice of separate electorates for Muslims was a bad one; but having made it, separate electorates for Dalits could have lent coherence to the system. Together, the Muslim and Dalit vote could have provided a balance to the Congress that could have made a first-past-the-post electoral system work. By giving separate electorates to one but not to the other the system became lopsided and unworkable.

The rules of the game

There is an important feature of this period of Indian history that is often overlooked. I will borrow the terminology of game theory to explain it. There are some contests that take place within well-defined rules of the game; there are other contests that take place to determine what the rules of a future game are going to be. There is a profound difference between the two. Think of two teams playing a game of cricket or negotiating over what the rules of cricket are going to be. Contests over rules are resolved most often when the balance of power is one-sided – thus the formation of the UN after WW2 when the big powers decided there was going to be a Security Council, they would be the permanent members, and they would have the right to veto. When the balance is not so lop-sided resolution becomes very difficult – as is the case in the negotiations over the WTO or climate change. Brinksmanship is common and statesmanship of a very high order is required to arrive at any mutually acceptable consensus. When the game itself is alien (as electoral representation was in India), the difficulties get compounded many times.

 The 1937 elections

Given the electoral system in place, the Congress won an overwhelming majority in the 1937 elections. But as Khilnani notes: “there is real force to the point that that the practical experience of Congress rule in the provinces after the elections of 1937 was instrumental in encouraging political alienation. Congress governments, subject in many cases to the influence of nationalist Hindus, lost the trust of Muslims and so helped to kindle support for the Muslim League. It was this erosion of trust that fanned a desire to redescribe a ‘minority’ within British India as a separate ‘nation’, and to take it outside the boundaries of India.”

The demand for Pakistan

Khilnani concludes the above line of argument with the statement: “The Muslim insistence on a separate state crystallized only in the decade before 1947.” It was in this period that Jinnah, the secular ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity (as vouched for most recently by LK Advani and Jaswant Singh) became the champion of Muslims only.

And here there is another critical twist in the story. Recall that all the leaders who mattered at this stage of history represented India but were not representative of India. They were all British-trained lawyers with whom the British felt at ease because of their competence and intellect and degree of comfort with European ideas. Khilnani remarks how unrepresentative Indian political parties were and that “most people in India had no idea of what exactly they had been given. Like the British empire it supplanted, India’s constitutional democracy was established in a fit of absent-mindedness.”

Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his book The Burden of Democracy writes:

The significance of India’s democratic experiment was itself disguised by the historical process through which it came about…. It was not the object of ideological passion, it was not born of a deep sense of conviction widely shared, but it was simply the contingent outcome of the conflicts amongst India’s different elites, or an unintended by-product of the British having produced too many lawyers adept in the idioms of modern politics.

The fact that the leaders representing India were lawyers and not politicians by tradition or training had a major impact on subsequent events. When Jinnah took on the brief for Pakistan, his entire focus converged on winning his case. Like it would for any lawyer, the case became the world and everything outside blurred in significance. Professor Ralph Russell has a perceptive take on this dilemma when he notes that there had indeed emerged a “sophisticated” case for Muslim separation based on secular or quasi-secular concepts (see here).

But such sophisticated concepts could not arouse the mass Muslim enthusiasm which the leadership needed if acceptance of its demands were to be enforced. With the illiterate and half-literate Muslim masses, what carried weight was precisely the ideas of the ‘most undesirable reactionary elements’… An appeal to the Muslim masses to come into the political arena could, in the late 1930s and 1940s, hardly have had any other result than to fan this sort of Muslim chauvinism. The response to Jinnah’s call in December 1939, to celebrate a ‘Day of Deliverance’ when Congress ministries resigned, already showed this; still more horrifying was the response to his Direct Action Day of 16 August 1946.

Borrowed concepts

This aspect needs to be mentioned briefly although it is perhaps of the greatest importance. The European concepts that dominated the thinking of Indian elites were grafted onto Indian soil without much analysis of their compatibility with local realities. Their efficacy and applicability were assumed to be universal: Westminster-style democracy was introduced in a vertically stratified and horizontally polarized society and nationalism in a multi-national polity, to mention only two dimensions. Khilnani remarks on the latter: “The special frisson of Savarkar’s ideas lay in their translation of Brahminical culture into the terms of an ethnic nationalism drawn from his reading of Western history.” Gandhi who was most skeptical of these borrowed concepts was swept aside because the alternatives he presented were not considered modern enough.


We have reached the end of the road on this whistle-stop journey and can pause here to recap. The following were the key markers of the road to Partition: The establishment of British supremacy in 1803; the humiliation of Indians; the rise of Indian nationalism and the uprising in 1857; the discriminating punishments and the splitting of Indian nationalism into Muslim and Hindu nationalisms; the first census in 1871 and the creation of religious identities; the separate electorates for Muslims in 1909 and the creation of political identities; the denial of separate electorates for Dalits in 1932 and the resulting imbalance in the electoral calculus; the contest over the rules of an alien game and the resulting brinksmanship; the elections of 1937 and the disappointment of the Muslims; the lack of experience with electoral compromise and the dominance of lawyers; the determination of Jinnah to win his brief; the mechanisms to mobilize the political support of largely illiterate voters; the Day of Deliverance in 1939.

By this time things had reached such a pass and sentiments had hardened to such an extent that the leaders, brilliant and clever and selfless as they were or might have been, had lost control of events and were just being sucked into the undertow. Put these happenings in the framework of intellectual concepts and ‘modern’ systems borrowed from Europe without consideration of their appropriateness to local conditions and one can get a sense of how overwhelming and impossible the challenge would have been to the ‘best and the brightest’ in British India.

Each one of the great leaders got something right and something wrong. None of them got everything right. And that was the tragedy of India.

Essential Reading:

Sunil Khilnani: The Idea of India
Kamljit Bhasin-Malik: In the Making: Identity Formation in South Asia
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: The Burden of Democracy
William Dalrymple: The Last Mughal
Ralph Russell: Strands of Muslim Identity in South Asia in How Not to Write the History of Urdu Literature
Bettina Robotka: Democracy in India – A Historical Perspective in The Cultural Construction of Politics in Asia by Hans Antlov and Tak-Wing Ngo (eds.)
Karl E. Meyer: The Invention of Pakistan – How the British Raj Sundered, World Policy Journal, Spring 2003. (Material on the 1905 partition of Bengal is taken from Meyer.)
Radha D’Souza: Revolt and Reform in South Asia: Ghadar Movement to 9/11 and after, Economic and Political Weekly, February 2014.

Note: I would like to experiment with this post keeping it as a live text almost like a Wikipedia entry. Let us see if we can end up with a shared history of this period in British India. 

The content on the Ghadr Party and the political fracturing of Indian nationalism – the 1905 partition of Bengal – were added in June 2014.


  • Vinod
    Posted at 14:49h, 31 August Reply

    The response to Jinnah’s call in December 1939, to celebrate a ‘Day of Deliverance’ when Congress ministries resigned, already showed this; still more horrifying was the response to his Direct Action Day of 16 August 1946.

    I have no idea what the response was. Could there be a sentence or two on what the response was?

    This is followed by the verdict of the Indian historian K.N. Pannikar: “the introduction of the principle of elected representation in public institutions actively promoted the rising of communalism in India.”

    I think this is too “systemic” a statement which hides the fact that the communalism was already well built and bottled up in the masses. The principle of elected representation brought it to the fore and cannot be said to be the root cause of the communalism. The root cause is yet to be mentioned.

    In general, I have a problem with trying to find the cause of the partition in purely political processes. Politcial processes can fan communalism. But for that, communalism should have already existed in the first place. How did that happen is the question to be answered. Part of the answer ofcourse lies in Savarkar’s writings and of those communalists among the muslims. The British divide and rule policy could only work if the Indian subcontinent was already divided in their hearts.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:16h, 31 August Reply

      Vinod: On the Day of Deliverance and Direct Action Day, could you do some research and let us know what transpired.

      On the main point: How do you know that communalism was already well built and bottled up in the masses or that the subcontinent was already divided in their hearts?

      This is the hardest part in understanding the past – when we try and imagine what it must have been like based on our experiences of today. Even over very short intervals of less than 30 years it can lead us astray – read this op-ed by Paul Krugmam that appeared just this morning by coincidence:

      We tend to think of the way things are now, with a huge army of lobbyists permanently camped in the corridors of power, with corporations prepared to unleash misleading ads and organize fake grass-roots protests against any legislation that threatens their bottom line, as the way it always was. But our corporate-cash-dominated system is a relatively recent creation, dating mainly from the late 1970s.

      And what do we mean by ‘division’? India was the most hierarchically discriminating society you can imagine but the British could not expolit those divsions. How the religious identities were created has already been mentioned – when Iranis, Turanis, Turks, Afghans, Shias, Sunnis all got lumped together as Muslims and all the castes got lumped together as Hindus. And then, with electoral politics, the numbers in each category became all important.

      It is important to remember that India was always a society operated on ‘strict rules of exclusion.’ This even carried over into dense cities. Khilnani has a good description of the nature of social relations in cities:

      Religious conflict was restrained by distinctive methods: not, as later nationalists fondly like to suppose, on the basis of a genuinely ‘composite’ culture founded on an active and mutual respect among the practitioners of different religions, but on routine indifference, a back-to-back neglect, which on occasions like religious festivals could be bloodily dispensed with.

      It was not that there were no divisions in India – there were, but society had a way of living with them and one’s identity had no bearing on the divison of some larger spoils outside of one’s limited circle. Through a thousand yeas of history, there were battles (just like there are wars between India and Pakistan) but hardly the communal killings on the scale one has witnessed much more recently in Gujarat and Delhi. If as much hatred had been bottled up as you are implying, one should ask why it took so long to explode? Why, right up to 1857, Indians felt they could be together under the flag of a Mughal king?

    • Vinod
      Posted at 05:20h, 01 September Reply

      If as much hatred had been bottled up as you are implying, one should ask why it took so long to explode? Why, right up to 1857, Indians felt they could be together under the flag of a Mughal king?

      This is my speculative answer –

      The mughal rule, like all medieval plans of development, did not affect the rural parts of India. In the rural parts people continued their lives unaffected by who the current emperor was. The fates of people were not so interlinked as it is today. Rural areas were quite self sufficient with minimal contact with cities. Cities themselves were not as densely populated as they were in the industrial era. Cities were merely market centers, not sought-after places of residence. It was so only for the administration officials. So while the communalism grew and festered, there was no reason to get into rioting because there was no implication of that on power distribution. There was no fear of muslims coming to power and affecting the destinies of hindus en masse or vice versa.

      Power itself was hardly seen as a democratic concept or one that fostered equality of treatment. Monarchy and inequality were expected treatment. No body thought it was out of the ordinary for mughals to favour some and disfavour others. People did not see political activism as something that the masses could be a part of and benefit from. People saw their fates asa determined by the personal likes and dislikes of whoever ruled and over which they had no control or demand any whatsoever. Rule of the people, for the people was simply non-existent in the Mughal period. The best they could do was to appeal to the human sensibilities of the ruler. So if they got the bad end of the stick there was nothing that could be achieved by rioting.

      • SouthAsian
        Posted at 02:42h, 02 September Reply

        Vinod: Alright, so we rule out the rural areas which you say were unaffected by whoever was ruling. That takes care of 90 to 95 percent of the total population of the India of those days. It leaves 5 to 10 percent of the population in the cities. I think you are wrong about the nature of cities – all travelers from Europe marveled at the size and opulence of Indian cities – they were larger than most European cities of that time. Also, the cities were very dense simply because the built up area was very small – there being no means of transport other than walking. If you see old Delhi or old Lahore you can see what the density must have been like; people lived very close to each other in mohallas connected by narrow lanes.

        Now we come to the main point and I am puzzled by the way you have formulated it. You start with a speculation – so you are proposing a hypothesis. What is the hypothesis? I presume it is that there were strong feelings of communalism bottled up at that time.

        There are two variables in the proposition: an unobservable variable (feelings of people) and an observable variable (events of rioting). The scientific method to prove or disprove an hypothesis would be to look at the observable variable (the evidence) and from that infer the nature of the unobservable variable (the feelings).

        You have reversed this sequence. You are taking the unobservable for granted (communalism grew and festered) and because the observable evidence does not support the hypothesis (there was no rioting) you are trying to further speculate about the reason for the lack of evidence – that there was no point in rioting. This is not a valid approach. You cannot take the unobservable for granted because that is what you have to prove. You end up with another speculative hypothesis – that there was no point in rioting which itself needs to be proved.

        If there are strong feelings of hatred in a small densely populated area, the tensions should manifest themselves in everyday life and not necessarily in rioting. But there is little evidence in contemporaneous texts of such tensions. Take just one example – Ghalib wrote hundreds of letters during the first half of the 19th century; they talk in detail of all aspects of life in the mohallas of old Delhi. Do you think such a perceptive observer would have missed the tension of day to day life if it had anything of the kind of virulence that you are implying?

        The bottom line is that the hypothesis remains unsubstantiated and the evidence does not support it.

      • Vinod
        Posted at 03:45h, 02 September Reply


        I was arguing that the absence of rioting is not evidence to support the argument that there were no communal tensions. Communal tensions need not manifest in rioting.

        How then can they manifest? Both of us could be wrong that rioting did not occur. The first cases of recorded rioting were in Ahmedabad in 1713 AD. I would presume that rioting long preceded the recording of it.

        This may interest you – (Ghalib was perhaps Delhi focused)

        • SouthAsian
          Posted at 03:58h, 03 September Reply

          Vinod: Rioting may not be a good indicator. We know from our own times that rioting is almost always instigated for political purposes. Why should it have been different in the past? If there are tensions they have to manifest themselves in day to day living. In this sense Gahlib is perhaps the best evidence because he was living in the Mughal capital. If any discrimination was taking place, it should have been most blatant around the court. As you have mentioned, the further you moved away, the less was the impact of whoever might have been ruling till it disappeared in the rural areas.

          We have to consider a number of other factors. First, what is the baseline we are using? There is never any society or time when everything is idyllic. So the question is were those times much more tense than what we would consider a normal state of tension? How would we determine that?

          Second, society has a way of dealing with normal levels of tension. I think the most perceptive insight is that of Sunil Khilnani which I have quoted earlier: He notes that Indian society operated by strict rules of exclusion. “Religious conflict was restrained by distinctive methods, not, as later nationalists fondly liked to suppose, on the basis of a genuinely ‘composite’ culture founded on an active and mutual respect among practitioners of different religions, but on routine indifference, a back-to-back neglect, which on occasions like religious festivals could be bloodily dispensed with.”

          A number of things are important here: society did have a way of dealing with differences (the structure of exclusion); the absence of conflict did not mean the presence of perfect coexistence; and incidents did occur. The question is how was it different from today? What is our basis for saying that it was much worse in the past?

          We can look at this from another angle. We have been considering horizontal differences between religions. Let us apply the same analysis to vertical differences between castes. Much more discriminatory relations existed among the top and the bottom (some of which led to a conversion of many at the bottom to Islam and Christianity). Were there huge tensions bottled up? No rioting occurred. Were there incidents of inter-caste violence over transgression of caste rules? How did society find a way of containing these potential conflicts?

          My own guess would be that people accepted their fates as divinely ordained. Ironically it was only when caste discrimination was legally challenged and affirmative actions started to emerge (like the Mandal commission) that the resentments began to manifest themselves. Two things can be inferred from this. First, when it is realized that social arrangements are not ordained by fate but man-made, they begin to be challenged. It was the same in Europe where poverty and serfdom had existed for centuries but Enlightenment ideas and the decline of religion led to social revolutions against monarchs who claimed a divine right to rule. Second, only when identity becomes involved as a determinant of the the allocation of resources or power or jobs do conflicts over identity begin to materialize.

          Based on this logic there is no reason to expect that social tensions in 1800 were significantly greater than what they were in 2000. Rather, given the extreme provocations of the last decades of the Raj, the horrible carnage of partition, the subsequent hostilities and terrorism, the loss of belief in divinely ordained fate, and the competition amongst political parties – given all that one could reasonably expect that the tensions in the present would significantly exceed those of the past.

          Let’s discuss why this might be a false inference.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 18:59h, 31 August Reply

    Part of Vinod’s doubts stem from the fact that Indians have never been good historians and records of social relations during Mughal rule are not numerous. This letter from a Sikh Guru to Emperor Aurangzeb will give you an idea of the kinds of divisions his policies produced,

    I know we have discussed Aurangzeb before, but we really need to understand his rule better before we can agree on what Hindu-Muslim relations were like before the British came in.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:00h, 01 September Reply

      Vikram: We have to climb the mountain of Aurangzeb. If we get to the other side, we will be okay.

      Let me try and work with a more recent example:

      1. Indira Gandhi desecrated the holiest place of the Sikhs and over 500 Sikhs were killed. Was this action motivated by political considerations or did it reflect a visceral hatred of the Sikhs?

      2. After the assasination of Indira Gandhi, Congress leaders with census lists in their hands carried out a systematic pogrom against the Sikhs and over 4000 Sikhs were killed. In this case there was little doubt that the act was motivated by a visceral hatred of the Sikhs and was abetted and condoned by the state.

      Do these actions imply that there was a long festering hatred bottled up in the hearts of Hindus and Sikhs? Does it mean that Hindus and Sikhs cannot live together in India?

      Or does it mean that there is an incident that we have to try to understand and explain?

  • Vikram
    Posted at 17:29h, 02 September Reply

    I think you are taking the Indira-Aurangzeb analogy a bit too far. Indira Gandhi’s actions, though deplorable, had the backdrop of militancy in Punjab and substantial brutality by the Sikh militants. Maybe her actions show a contempt for human rights, but not a visceral hatred of Sikhs. Indira Gandhi did not desecrate other people’s religions at the drop a hat, Aurangzeb did.

    Also, the conflict between Sikhs and the Indian state was over the political control of a Sikh homeland. Conflicts between Hindus and Muslims were over political control of geographical entities with widely varying demographics.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 21:30h, 02 September Reply

      Vikram: I leave it to others to comment on whether the analogy is appropriate. I introduced it to highlight a number of points:

      1. We know a lot more about the present than about the past and so can see the compulsions for any event very clearly (e.g., backdrop of militancy in Punjab). We lack that information about the past, do not have the time to investigate the sources available, and dismiss available research if it does not conform to our priors (e.g., Aurangzeb desecrated other people’s religions at the drop of a hat).

      2. Aurangzeb had a very long reign. If Indira Gandhi (who was quite imperial in her own right) had ruled as long, Punjab, Ayodhya, Gujarat and Orissa would all have been included in her rule. A hundred years later this could have looked like desecrating other people’s religions at the drop of a hat especially if little documentation were available for her period and was in languages that were no longer common.

      3. Aurangzeb was a pretty nasty customer who was an equal opportunity employer. When he eliminated Dara Shikhoh, it could not have been Dara Shikoh alone but the entire faction that supported the latter, irrespective of their religions. But this was the norm in the old dynasties – recall the number of English kings and heirs who ended up in the Towers – and we cannot judge it by today’s standards. Every dynasty has its madmen, morons, and dimwits – why should the Mughal dynasty not have a few? Why do the Muslims need to be squeaky clean angels? Why can’t they have the spectrum of behaviors that is allowable to all other groups? Why is Aurangzeb’s brutality attributed to his Muslimness if Indira Gandhi’s or Narendra Modi’s brutalities are not associated with thier Hinduness?

      All of us need a much more open attitude about assessments of the past to make sure that we are not allowing our prejudices to reshape them. I know a lot of people dismiss Romila Thapar but she is among the few who examine the past not from the vantage point of the present but from contemporaneous records. The preliminary notes to her book explain the methodological issues involved. Luckily they can be read in their entirety on the web (here).

      • Vikram
        Posted at 18:18h, 03 September Reply

        You are right, I am not aware of the full history of that period. But then I must ask you why did Aurangzeb kill Dara Shikoh? Was it just because he was a political opponent, if so, he could have certainly imprisoned or exiled him. But he didnt, and there is some evidence that Shikoh believed in a more tolerant, syncretic Islam that perhaps Aurangzeb did not like.

        I am not isolating Aurangzeb as a cruel Muslim emperor, I am pointing out that his cruelty over an extended period of time must have led to growing resentments between Hindus and Muslims. And over a period of time, in a Hindu majority country that cruelty must have mostly been directed towards Hindus. You should probably read up on the rise of the Maratha empire and exactly why and how the Marathas rose in rebellion against Aurangzeb.

        India’s PMs did not ignite resentments between Hindus and Muslims that lead to Ayodhya and Gujarat, they were the results of factors quite distant from the way they wielded authority in the Centre. Gujarati Muslims and Oriya Christians were not massacred on the orders of New Delhi. That is the difference one has to understand here.

        • SouthAsian
          Posted at 23:38h, 03 September Reply

          Vikram: I can only guess why Aurangzeb killed Dara Shikoh instead of imprisoning or exiling him. I can imagine the reason might have been similar to Zia ul Haq’s hanging of Bhutto instead of keeping him in prison or exiling him – death removes the chances of a return. I am skeptical that if Dara Shikoh had shared Aurangzeb’s religious sentiments the latter would not have killed him – he killed all his brothers. That was the way dynastic successions were resolved in those days in Muslim rule – we have mentioned this on the blog before; they never had a rule for orderly succession like primogeniture.

          I am aware of the rise of the Maratha empire. I am not convinced that if Aurangzeb had been a very nice man the same wouldn’t have happened. Tussles for power and territory were the norm at that time – Aurangzeb spent half his life in the Deccan fighting Muslim kingdoms. Humayun was comparatively more humane and the Afghans (Sher Shah Suri) drove him away. Akbar was reputedly the most tolerant and the Rajputs rose against him. We have mentioned before that these were not Muslims arrayed against Hindus – the forces were mixed on both sides. These were battles of one set of elites against another for control.

          I would be surprised if this warfare was motivated by religious resentments because then mixed forces would not be possible – we have mentioned earlier that Akbar’s force was commanded by a Rajput and the Rajput force had a Muslim commander. This makes me wonder that if religious resentments were not the motivating force, how exactly did the growing resentments that we are taking for granted manifest themselves?

          Regarding the Indian PMs, I guess you have a point. These days there are many more leaders than in the days of absolute monarchies when kings had to sanction everything – there are CMs and party netas. Some might claim that Narendra Modi inflamed opinion against Mulsims as did Varun Gandhi for which he was arrested. It is quite likely there were Muslims on the other side doing the same.

          But this is just quibbling. We know the present quite well. Our real question is what was the nature of the social resentments of the past and how did they manifest themselves? And secondly, were social tensions only across the religious divide or were there inter-caste tensions as well? If so, how did the latter manifest themselves given that there are no great caste wars on record unless one thinks of the rise of the Buddhist and Sikh religions as revolts against caste oppression.

          • Ganpat Ram
            Posted at 13:04h, 15 September


            What would it take to convince you that religious identity mattered to Muslim rulers of India, and for that matter to Hindus as well?

            Their repeated statements to this effect clearly do not qualify.

            Sivaji said in so many words that restoring Hindu life disrupted by Muslim rule was very important to him. This doesn’t fool you.

            The Sikh grus complained about Muslim oppression. Can’t fool you.

            Every Muslim ruler with rare exceptions showed great concern to contain and push back Hinduism. Even the relatively broad-minded Akbar destroyed Hindu temples. None of this convinces you.

            So what will?

            Just let us know.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 01:20h, 03 September Reply

      In the analysis of Aurangzeb, account should be taken of the fact that he also provided protection to many temples.

  • kabir
    Posted at 18:05h, 02 September Reply


    Aurangzeb may have destroyed temples, but he also had his own brother killed and imprisoned his father in the Agra fort. Most Mughal kings (and monarchs elsewhere) tried to eliminate people/groups that were a threat to their power. I don’t think that Aurangzeb did what he did because he was especially anti-Hindu.

    In this way the Indra Gandhi analogy holds. Mrs. Gandhi also did whatever it took to stay in power.

    By the way, I’m currently reading a book about the history of Kashmir and there is a passage which describes Mrs. Gandhi’s entry into Srinagar in a boat coming up the Dal Lake. The author specifically compares her to a Mughal ruler. Just thought that was interesting.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 04:14h, 03 September Reply

    Let us cut this discussion about Aurengzeb. I am interested in knowing if Vinod is right about this bottled up hatred between Hindus and Muslims prior to arrival of East India Company.

    Often perceptions are quite different from reality. A submerged hatred will not be recorded in events of history. But this will not prove that there was submerged hatred.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 04:34h, 03 September Reply

      Anil: What kind of evidence can we use to address this question? Let me offer one. Hindustani classical music is an incredibly beautiful amalgam of Islamic contributions to Hindu musical forms and traditions. Could something so beautiful emerge out of submerged hatreds? Could one community coerce the other into such artistic collaboration sustained over centuries? Is there evidence of such coercion?

      • Anil Kala
        Posted at 06:24h, 03 September Reply

        The problem with classical music is that it covers a niche segment, artists being highly individualistic people. If there is evidence of free collaboration in folk music/art then it will nearer reality.

        • SouthAsian
          Posted at 10:48h, 03 September Reply

          Anil: Would Bollywood music qualify? The use of Hindustani – a lot of Persian addition to the grammar of old Indian languages. Would that suggest a familiarity and acceptance at the mass level? The language could have remained confined to the court like classical music.

          • kabir
            Posted at 01:20h, 04 September

            Another possible piece of evidence is the Bhakti/Sufi movement. Islam in India was largely spread by the Sufis and not by the sword. Also, saints/philosophers like Bhagat Kabir are claimed by both Muslims and Hindus.

            Finally, I read in a book somethwere that one of Meerabai’s bhajans “Shyam piya more rang de chunariya” used to be sung by Indian muslims at the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti. They simply changed the word “Shyam” to “Khwaja”.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 12:11h, 03 September Reply

    Rioting may not be a good indicator. We know from our own times that rioting is almost always instigated for political purposes. Why should it have been different in the past? If there are tensions they have to manifest themselves in day to day living.

    SA, I suspect you have not seen the link I posted. It deals with these questions and assertions. Here’s the link again

    SA, I think you and I differ in the way we see politics. You are making a clean separation of politics from social phenomena and you are accepting only a unidirectional flow of impact between the two – from politics to the society. I am suggesting a two-way flow with a feedback: from society to politics to society. You are unwilling to see the connection between social tensions and the emergence of the partition movement in politics. But you are readily seeing the connection between the partition era politics, post independence politics and the social tensions in society.

    Once again, I urge you to look at the link. There were riots, in everyday life, even from 1713AD and these are only the recorded ones. One can only speculate that these were preceded by riots that were not recorded. And given the nature of cities and the distribution of the population, I don’t think riots would have been a significant phenomena then to be picked up by poets and artists. After all, the populace were already familiar with attacks on them from rival kings and the lootings that followed. I’m guessing that such looting and rioting were not thought of as empire-threatening. In other words, there was no empire-wide identity in the minds of people and artists. They only had their localized idenitity. Riots would have been seen as part of the social turbulence of that era and not as something that is going to disrupt a larger identity and lead to cataclysmic changes.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 03:03h, 04 September Reply

      Vinod: It would be a brave social scientist who would argue that there is a unidirectional flow from politics to society. I quoted Sunil Khilnani twice to show how the social structure kept political conflict over religion in check. I also wrote an elaborate argument to show how the social and religious structures modulated caste politics. I think this blog has gone further than most to argue that even what we eat and how we work affects our politics. We have also argued that social laws of inheritance affect politics. We have tried to show that social organization even affects the organization of music let alone the organization of politics.

      I think you have missed my argument. I relate partition squarely to social tensions but I have tried to argue how these tensions were exacerbated first by including religion in the census and then politicized through the introduction of separate electorates in the electoral system. In my view these interventions significantly increased the tensions compared to the past. I am not arguing that there were no tensions or no riots in the past – this is the same position as that taken by Sunil Khilnani. But the social structure could handle the level of past tensions; it failed to handle the increased level of tensions so that communities had to be physically separated from each other to prevent mutual carnage. This had never happened in the past.

      I will look at the link on the weekend and get back to you on that.

      • Vinod
        Posted at 13:39h, 04 September Reply

        SA, having got your point this second time, I believe there is very little left to disagree. I initially thought that you were not making any connections between the social tensions and the political fallouts. I see now that that wasn’t the case. I can go with your proposition that the politics exacerbated the tensions,. But if we were making a root cause investigation for the partition, then stopping at the politics would be a half baked answer. Although partition was a political phenomenon, the politics that resulted in it were simply the plate movements that were the last straw in the pre-existing fault lines of the society.
        Let me know if you think otherwise.

        • SouthAsian
          Posted at 00:47h, 08 September Reply

          Vinod: I disagree with the spirit of the last part of your comment. What you are saying is that what happened had to happen. If you extend this logic then whatever will happen in the future is already determined. If this is the case, we might as well pack up and go home. In my view human agency has an important role and their are crucial turning points where trajectories can shift in radical ways. On the road to partition, there were at least two such turning points – the granting of separate electorates to Muslims and the denial of separate electorates to Dalits. In the latter case, this was a pre-existing fault line that did not split. In post 1947 India, the sudden death of Sardar Patel was another such event.

          To take a contrary case, the fault lines in Malaya were equally stressed but the level of statesmanship was much higher – the threat posed by the fault lines was averted. Even if you attribute the outcome to pure good luck, still the inference holds that existing fault lines are not the sole determinant of the future. Serious analysis, coalition building, intelligent intervention, and chance have a role to play.

          • Vinod
            Posted at 02:17h, 08 September

            SouthAsian, wise statesmanship can only come from a population where the individuals can rise above tensions. But if tensions and faultlines are grooming individuals then one cannot expect such enlightened statesmanship.

            There is an element of serendipity and unpredictability in my thesis. Some individuals do manage to think beyond bigoted ideas and if they come to power they are able to keep a society together. At other times, bigots rule the roost and the society splits. To complicate this further, whether a society splits depends on the external influences – in terms of ideologies and thought patterns – that impinge on the society and influence the thinking of the communities in the populace. Societies that seem to stay together for centuries may split if the right catalyst for the specific fault line is added into the mix. I believe that the Dalits too will split from the Indian union if the right catalyst comes by. Politics is simply the catalyst and not the root cause.

          • SouthAsian
            Posted at 02:29h, 08 September

            Vinod: There is a contradiction in your argument. One part says if tensions are grooming individuals then one cannot expect wise statesmanship. The other part says wise statesmanship can come when individuals rise above tensions. Both cannot be true at the same time.

            The statement that politics is the catalyst and not the root cause is hard to understand. Politics is the art of dealing with the root causes. Good politics can rise above the root causes and reshape them; bad politics is overwhelmed by the root causes.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 03:18h, 04 September Reply

    This brings us to square one. This evidence will prove something patently wrong two hundred years from now. We know there is huge amount of hatred between the two communities yet collaboration in all forms of arts continues.

    I suggest a different method to resolve this issue. We note what the hatred does in present context and see if similar moves were noticed in the marked past. One subtle move of hatred is ghettoization. This occurs if there is sense of insecurity and a sense of not wanted. Therefore, l suggest that we look for evidence of segregation of communities especially minorities in a place where ruling class is the majority. Do we have such evidence?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:34h, 04 September Reply

      Anil: I would suggest we first make sure we know what we think we know and that everyone agrees with the propositions:

      1. That there is a huge amount of hatred between the two communities. What is the evidence we are using for that?
      2. That collaboration in all forms of arts continues. What is the evidence we are using for that?

      Your proposed method is an excellent idea in general. It might not work in British India though because its society was always segregated – that was the norm. This is what Sunil Khilnani means when he says that the structure of Indian Soceity was based on exclusion.

      We can certainly track this trend over the recent past. For example, ghettoization has increased markedly in Ahmedabad after 2002. This is the subject of a paper by Professor Vrajlal Sapovadia (A Critical Study on Relations Between Inter-Communal/ Caste Ghettoism and Urbanization Patterns vis-à-vis Spatial Growth and Equity: A Case Study of Ahmedabad, India) that was discussed in an earlier post.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 21:28h, 07 September Reply

    With reference to the discussion of the birth of Hindu and Muslim nationalisms in India after 1857, Dr. Radhika Herzberger has pointed me to an essay by Amit Chaudhuri (Thoughts in a Temple) that first appeared in The Times Literary Supplement. It is now available on the author’s website. The following are some excerpts:

    We perhaps owe the politicization of the colour saffron, its recent use, in India, as a sign of national pride, to the Hindu revivalist Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902). We largely owe to him, too (more than we do to any other single person), the notion of ‘Hinduness.’ Vivekananda is a curious figure, and an exemplary one; his story is inflected with the conflicts of interest, the contradictions, of the emergence of Hinduism into modernity. Vivekananda’s real name was Narendranath Datta; he was a graduate of Calcutta University, and had studied European religions carefully. Like many other middle-class, educated men of his generation, in India and elsewhere, he was a seeker after metaphysical and religious truth; but his search was related to the self-awareness of a colonial subject…

    …In 1893, a penurious Vivekananda travelled to Chicago to attend the Parliament of World Religions. By this time, he had abandoned the white apparel of the brahmachari, the celibate-devotee, for the saffron of the sannyasi, the wandering holy mendicant…. His address in Chicago, in which he announced a resurgent Hinduism to the West, made him famous; and made, by association and almost by chance, the colour he was wearing the sign of that resurgence rather than of liminality… Certainly, Vivekananda wanted Hinduism to stand on its own two feet, to become less inward-looking, and exhorted it to become a more ‘manly’ religion.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 02:46h, 08 September Reply

    Our differences lies in the way we view the dynamics between politics and the society in which it operates. You seem to accord a significant independence to the nature of politics. I am positing that the politics of a society and its political future is significantly determined by the society’s faultlines and that certain catalysts, whether internal or external to the society, can bring about a political dynamic that make those fault lines permanent.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 04:29h, 08 September Reply

      Vinod: We disagree on this point. The catalysts can also bring about a political dynamic that makes the fault lines less permanent. Abraham Lincoln? Willy Brandt dissolving the fault lines between West and East Germany? The EU dissolving the fault lines between Germany and France? The fault lines between China and Taiwan? Northern Ireland – the ultimate triumph of politics over fault lines? Let’s invite some other opinions.

  • Ganpat Ram
    Posted at 10:11h, 15 September Reply

    Hindus were very lucky that Partition happened.

    They were thereby rid of two-thirds of an extremely demanding and violent Muslim population, and also kept all the good land in India, except the Western Punjab.

    Almost all Hindus were united by Partition in one country while the Muslims are more or less equally divided between three.

    These are huge advantages for Hindus.

    Without Partition the Muslims in a couple of generations would equal and surpass the Hindu population in numbers. Given much greater communal consciousness and readiness to resort to violence among them, the Islamisation of India would then be a foregone conclusion.

    So a Hindu India survives THANKS to Partition.

    Well done, Jinnah !!!!

    An India without Partition would be a land of ceaseless riots and civil war.

    As for Aurangzeb destroying Hindu temples not proving he hated Hinduism – he said he hated himself. I believe him.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 12:00h, 15 September Reply

      Ganpat: That is certainly one view – it would be interesting to know how widely held it is. In any case, this discussion is more appropriate following the earlier post What if India Were Not Partitioned? There are already some perspectives presented there.

  • Ganpat Ram
    Posted at 11:54h, 15 September Reply


    what would it take to convince you that Muslims had a profound opposition to the Hindus in the times of Muslim rule in India?

    The FACT that rulers like Aurangzeb rpeatedly expressed acute contempt and for Hinduism and the desire to eradicate it is not enough.

    The FACT that Muslim rulers destroyed vast numbers of Hindu temples on any number of pretexts is not enough.

    The FACT that Hindus were subject to all manner of disabilities under Muslim rule is not enough.

    Then what is?

    As for Hindus having collaborated with Muslim rulers…..So what? Did not Indians collaborate with British rulers?

    As for the idea that a British census can create the Hindu-Muslim split: what sort of unity was it that could be split so easily?

    Why dream about a unity that is illusory?

    Just accept the division and live with it. India puts up with a separate Lanka and Nepal, which have infinitely more in common with India culturally than Pakistan and Bangladesh….Why can’t it accept a separate Pakistan and Bangladesh?

  • Ganpat Ram
    Posted at 12:32h, 15 September Reply

    I can’t help chuckling when I notice that practically all the sentimental hoo-hah about Partition having torn us poor Hindus from the loving embraces of dear-oh-dear Lahoris and all the Khilnani-style wah-wah about the dreadfulness -sob!- of it all – is all about PAKISTAN.

    No one I have heard of sighs and moans about the good ole blissful pre-Partion days in smelly old Dhaka.

    Grow up, all you Partition whiners.

    Pakistanis and Bangladeshis certainly don’t want to unite with their alleged Hindu “brothers”.

    Quit all this garlicky moaning about Jinnah and just accept that we Hindus have got rid of a huge burden and are INFINITELY better off without so many Muslims. If we are having endless trouble over 150 million Muslims, who but a mad man wants to add 300 million more to the explosive brew?

  • Ganpat Ram
    Posted at 13:08h, 15 September Reply


    So it was never Hindus arrayed against Muslims.
    Yet, when certain battles went one way and a supposed “Muslim” won, despite Hindu help, HINDU TEMPLES were destroyed, and MOSQUES built on their sites.

    A coincidence.

  • Ganpat Ram
    Posted at 10:57h, 16 September Reply


    As for Hindus having collaborated with Muslim rulers…..So what? Did not Indians collaborate with British rulers?

    As for the idea that a British census can create the Hindu-Muslim split: what sort of unity was it that could be split so easily?

    Why dream about a unity that is illusory?

    Just accept the division and live with it. India puts up with a separate Lanka and Nepal, which have infinitely more in common with India culturally than Pakistan and Bangladesh….Why can’t it accept a separate Pakistan and Bangladesh?

    Aurangzeb would have killed Dara Shikoh no matter how Islamic the latter was. Granted. BUT Aurangzeb would not have been able to moblise the orthodox Muslim ulema against Dara, in that case. So it WAS a struggle concerning orthodox Islam fighting more tolerant trends.

    Why deny the OBVIOUS?

    Why try to pretend black is white?

    You KNOW Muslims don’t get on with Hindus and loathe Hinduism. Why deny it? Just accept their right to a separate country. No one is OBLIGED to love Hindus.

    Hats off to Nehru for putting through this NEEDED divorce !!!!

  • NaSa
    Posted at 17:05h, 03 December Reply

    wow… i am visiting this blog two years later than i should have !! i just finished reading jaswant singh’s book on jinnah…. and it is very clear that he views the sequence of events leading up to the partition as some thing that was more unfortunate rather than inevitable.

    the one thing that fascinates me is how many people from india bemoan the partition while every one in pakistan is most decidedly happy about it

    so for all the pak-lovers in india… here is the million dollar question.. why dont you guys come up with concrete proposals on how we can make pakistan hate us a little less ?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 05:12h, 04 December Reply

      NaSa: There is saying in Persian ‘der ayed durust ayed’ meaning better late than never.

      Two things strike me about your observations regarding Partition. First, how do you know that “every one in Pakistan is most decidedly happy about it”? Second, and in the same vein, when you refer to the Indian side you speak, correctly, of ‘pak-lovers,’ whatever that might mean. Presumably you refer to a set of Indians holding a particular opinion about Pakistan. When you speak of the Pakistan side, you slip into the generalization “how can we make Pakistan hate us a little less” as if the country were a person. Is it plausible to believe that in a country as fractured as Pakistan everyone would have the same opinion about anything? Could something like this be assumed about any country?

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 19:11h, 15 August Reply

    Perry Anderson’s very detailed analysis – Why Partition?

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