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International Socialism, December 1997


Sam Ashman

India: Imperialism, Partition and Resistance


From International Socialism 2:77, December 1997.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Indians celebrated 50 years of independence from British rule in August 1997. The end of the empire in India was a massive blow to British imperialism. Yet as Britain withdrew, it divided the subcontinent between India and the supposedly ‘Muslim’ state of Pakistan. The convulsions of partition saw Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs slaughter one another on an unprecedented scale. Today right wing forces in India are again stirring up divisions between Muslims and Hindus. However, the legacy of the empire and partition is certainly not one of an inevitable communal divide.

From trade to empire

Disraeli famously dubbed India a ‘jewel in the crown of England’. In the 1880s India took nearly one fifth of British exports and overseas investment. In the mid-19th century all tea had come from China. By 1900 most of it came from India. The possession of India, as Churchill once remarked, made all the difference between Britain being a first and a third rate world power. Viceroy Mayo wrote, ‘We are determined as long as sun shines in heaven to hold India. Our national character, our commerce, demand it; and we have, one way or another, £250 millions of English capital fixed in the country’. [1]

India also provided a cheap source of labour following the abolition of slavery. By 1838 over 25,000 Indians had been shipped overseas as indentured labour. The peak of this process was reached in 1858–1859 when 53,000 Indians were sent overseas, the vast bulk of them to Mauritius which became the most ‘Indianised’ of the colonies. [2]

The British ruling class reaped great economic benefits from India. But the seeds harvested in the late 19th and early 20th century had been sown over the preceding 150 years. Trade began slowly in the 17th century but developed rapidly over the course of the 18th. Indian manufacturing industry was more developed in the 16th and 17th centuries than European, and so British traders took great delight in the goods of the subcontinent. The traders of the British East India Company sought to establish themselves as the middlemen controlling Indian trade with Europe and in the process came to dominate whole swathes of the Indian subcontinent. The later organisation of the British Empire in India was rooted in the organisation of the company.

The traders of the East India Company riddled Indian society so that, by the 1750s, the company was buying huge numbers of Indian finished goods, at low prices, for export to England and Europe. While the British wanted Indian products, Indian traders wanted few British ones, so the company bridged the gap with silver bullion imported via London from the ‘New World’ bringing India’s rulers great wealth. The company’s traders initially allied themselves with the Mughal Empire that ruled much of northern and central India. It was strong enough to put down any disorder, and allowed the company’s men to travel safely with their goods. But by the beginning of the 18th century the Mughal Empire could no longer protect trade so the company built up its own European style standing army to defend its activities. [3]

The company became increasingly preoccupied with raising the revenue needed to pay for its administrative and military overheads. It had financial obligations to London – the company had to pay dividends to shareholders, pensions to its retired members, bills for military equipment and stores, and interest on the public debt (the so-called ‘Home Charges’). The company extended the territory under its control in order to generate extra revenue and so meet its financial obligations. But the costs of expansion frequently overshot the estimates and so threatened to wreck the company’s finances rather than rescue them.

The need to keep remittances flowing to London remained a constant pressure. But superior naval strength, and larger capital resources, allowed the British to beat off competition from French traders and also to strengthen their hold over various Indian rulers. A crucial breakthrough, however, came in 1757 when Robert Clive led the company’s forces to military victory at Plassey after a revolt by a local ruler. This left the company in control of Bengal. Clive installed a pliant ruler, asked the Mughal Empire to recognise him and began collecting the huge revenues available in the form of taxes.

A number of benefits followed. The British increasingly used the proceeds of the new Bengal revenues to pay for goods acquired in Bengal and eastern India, thus drastically reducing the need to import bullion. The land revenues were also used to support an enlarged army which intervened in other Indian states. The company was now collecting huge revenues, making wars and negotiating with princes. It had become part of the political system.

In the process, Bengal, which Clive had described as an ‘inexhaustible fund of riches’, was bled dry. Company traders and soldiers with the ‘get rich quick’ ethos gathered profits, bribes, monopolies and taxes as fast as they could. Clive, like many others, returned to England a millionaire. But the vast wealth accumulated by the company’s ‘servants’ angered shareholders in London who sought more return for themselves. It also provoked a new, less pliant local ruler to attack company forces and inflict a serious and costly military defeat.

Clive was condemned in parliament and reorganisation of the company was demanded. The East India Company was second only to the Bank of England in importance in the City. It was a major bank, making loans and taking deposits. When it failed to make a profit because of the greed of its members in India or because of the cost of a war, investors were ruined and it shook the ruling class as a whole.

In 1773 parliament appointed the first governor-general to preside over all Britain’s possessions in India – the longstanding company official in Bengal, Warren Hastings. Hastings consolidated the company’s acquisitions so far and sought to establish a more orderly administration in the interests of the stable pursuit of profit. He presided over a more ordered state with a well paid, well organised army. Neighbours who were friendly sometimes had their thrones guaranteed by the company stationing a force of its troops in their capital, paid for by the local ruler but under the control of a British resident. Others who were less friendly were simply defeated. In this way, company rule continued to extend to incorporate much of India by the early 19th century. It faced many problems and some regarded company rule as a failure – but it took the revolt of 1857 to blow up completely the foundations of company rule. [4]

The revolt of 1857 combined an army mutiny with peasant revolt. Soldiers defied and killed their European officers, Delhi was captured by the rebels and rebellion broke out all over north, central and western India. The causes of revolt in the army were many, from feelings that soldiers’ religious beliefs were being abused to racial abuse and discrimination. Once the Sepoys’ revolt began, peasants rose en mass as accumulated grievances, particularly against excessive taxes, found expression in a challenge to British rule. Government buildings were destroyed, treasuries were plundered, barracks and court houses were burnt and prison gates flung open. In some areas the local Indian landowners were also attacked whilst in other areas landowners joined the rebellion, angered by the pressure of rising taxation. For more than a year the rebels fought on, but in the end they could not withstand the onslaught of a more effective army. [5]

Britain had believed it was unassailable and was utterly stunned by the revolt. They exacted severe retribution from the rebels. Indian prisoners were blown from the mouths of cannon, shot, hung or disembowelled. Villages were burned and temples desecrated. In Delhi in particular there was indiscriminate slaughter after the city was recaptured. Those Indians deemed to have taken part in the Cawnpore Massacre when 200 European women and children were killed were forced to clean up a portion of the blood stains before being hanged (thus condemning them to perdition). Those who objected were made to lick the blood clean with their tongues.

The mutiny had immediate and lasting consequences. It marked the transition from company rule to crown rule. In 1858 authority was transferred from the East India Company to the British monarch. The governor general was made directly accountable to the secretary of state and given the extra title of viceroy. In 1877 Queen Victoria was declared the empress of India.

The mutiny also drew the government of India into a closer alliance with the conservative landowners and princes who had remained loyal throughout. For example, land that had been granted to peasants was restored to the landowners of Oudh if they submitted in full allegiance to the crown. [6] The privileges of princes and landlords (zamindars) and a variety of urban and rural notables were endorsed in order to incorporate them as the junior partners of empire. Indeed the rulers of the ‘princely states’ that officially remained outside the empire’s control were to remain among the most loyal bulwarks of the empire until the very end.

The need to keep remittances flowing to London remained central. The government was constantly preoccupied with improving India’s system of land taxation in order to increase its revenue. Land revenue remained the single biggest source of income and receipts increased despite devastating famines in the 1890s. But too much enhancement of the land tax was regarded as economically unwise and politically dangerous in the light of the mutiny. Upping rents too much could produce discontent and increase the costs of maintaining order whilst also putting off other investors.

Instead, the rulers of the British Empire promoted exports to increase the amount of revenue derived from foreign trade. India’s overseas trade grew rapidly during the second half of the 19th century. Export values increased fivefold between 1870 and 1914 as jute, cotton, indigo and tea flowed to Europe, and rice and opium flowed to the Far East. [7] In turn, India absorbed increasing quantities of manufactured goods from Britain. India’s share of Britain’s exports grew from 8 percent in the 1870s to 13 percent from the 1880s through to 1914. It made India the most important market in the empire, and it made Britain India’s primary trading partner, supplying 85 percent of India’s imports in the 1890s. [8]

Finance and shipping also grew rapidly in the second half of the 19th century. After the transition to crown rule in 1858, India attracted increasing amounts of investment from London, especially when the railway building boom was at its height. Shipping was boosted by the growth in trade that followed the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. In fact, Bombay benefited from the canal more than any other part of the world. The export of wheat was made possible on a grand scale by the canal, as was the export of raw cotton and jute. [9] British businesses were in virtual total control of all overseas trade, shipping and insurance in India. This had horrific consequences for ordinary Indians, however, as traditional handicrafts were uprooted by what amounted to a process of deindustrialisation.

By the end of the 19th century India’s export surplus had become vital for the whole of Britain’s balance of payments. As tariff walls went up around the other economies in Western Europe and the US, the British ruling class found it harder to establish markets for its goods, yet still needed to import agricultural products. India solved the problem. British business exported its own finished products through trade with India. In particular, India was a captive market for the Lancashire textile industry. During the 1880s about two thirds of British exports to India were cotton goods. As Marx put it, ‘The homeland of cotton was inundated with cotton.’ On top of that, India’s export surplus with countries other than Britain through the outflow of agricultural products and raw materials was used to counterbalance British deficits elsewhere. Thus, combined with military and strategic advantages, there were considerable benefits to be had from the empire in India. As Eric Hobsbawm puts it:

India was the ‘brightest jewel in the imperial crown’ and the core of British global strategic thinking precisely because of her very real importance to the British economy ... anything up to 60 percent of British cotton exports went to India and the Far East, to which India was key – 40–45 percent went to India alone – and when the international balance of payments of Britain hinged on the payments surplus which India provided. [10]

It was, of course, naked plunder, and theories of ‘the drain of wealth’, developed by early Indian National Congress figures, would become important to the development of a national movement against Britain. But those at the head of the British Empire were not concerned with that. They had two central imperatives: to hold together their rule, and to keep the profits flowing. That India might default on her external obligations was a recurring nightmare for successive viceroys that only intensified the need to hold on to the empire. Lord Mayo summed up this dilemma in 1869 when he wrote:

We hold India by a thread. At any moment a serious danger might arise. We owe now £180 million, more than 85 percent of which is held in England. Add £100 millions to this and an Indian disaster would entail consequences equal to the extinction of half the national debt. The loss of India or a portion of it would be nothing as compared to the ruin which would occur at home. [11]

Divide and rule

The main instruments of British rule in India were the army and the civil service. They controlled the means of coercion and they collected and allocated resources. The Indian army was vital for both internal and external reasons. It policed a vast area, stretching from the eastern Mediterranean to China. Without the Indian army, and the Indian revenue that sustained it, the British government would not have been able to maintain its position east of Suez and the status of ‘great power’ would have been seriously undermined.

The repeated deployment of Indian troops outside India gives an idea of this. Indian troops were used in China in 1839, 1856 and 1859; Persia 1856; Ethiopia in 1867; Afghanistan in 1878; Egypt in 1882; Burma in 1885; Nyasaland in 1893; and the Sudan and Uganda in 1896. Between 1838 and 1920 the Indian army was used outside India on 19 different occasions. [12] During the First World War the Indian Army supplied one million troops. For the Second World War it supplied 2 million. [13]

The memory of 1857 had a lasting impact on the army. At the time of the mutiny the British army in India was made up of 34,000 Europeans and 257,000 Indians. Following the mutiny, the proportion of Europeans was increased and they were given a strict monopoly over the artillery. Attempts were made to prevent the communal unity seen in 1857. ‘I wish to have a different and rival spirit in different regiments, so that Sikh might fire into Hindoo, Goorkha into either, without any scruple in case of need,’ said one military figure. [14] The ideology of ‘martial races’ took shape from the late 1880s and was used to justify a recruitment policy directed towards Sikhs and Gurkhas, relatively marginal religious and ethnic groups who were regarded as less likely to be affected by nationalism.

The Indian Empire was vast, yet aside from the army it was presided over by a tiny number of British officials. In 1890 a little over 6,000 British officials governed almost 300 million Indians with the help of a little over 70,000 European soldiers. [15] The civil service was almost entirely British. The first Indians were not appointed until 1869. So Britain was forced to develop a variety of methods to cement its rule. As we have already seen, Britain created and sustained loyal groups among the population and used outright repression. It also set some groups against each other. [16] Its tactics varied according to the nature of the opposition it faced, and it switched sides as to who was favoured at any particular time.

The tactic of dividing Muslims from Hindus began at the end of the 19th century but crystallised further at the start of the 20th century as the stirrings of a nationalist movement against British rule emerged. [17] At the head of this movement was the Indian National Congress, formed by a group of English-educated professional Indians who resented both the crude racism of the Raj and the way it erected barriers to their own advancement. At first the organisation was timid in its outlook and constitutional in its aims. It was radicalised as the empire’s systematic drainage of wealth from the subcontinent produced famine and plague and increased the unpopularity of the regime, forcing the rulers of India to attempt to devise ways to weaken the new movement.

In 1905 the British announced the partition of the province of Bengal, justifying it on administrative grounds. In private, British officials were more candid about their motives. Home secretary to the government of India, H. Risley, summed up his view:

Bengal united is a power; Bengal divided will pull in several different ways ... one of our main objects is to split up and thereby weaken a solid body of opponents to our rule ... A separate administration, a separate high court and a separate university at Dacca would give extra opportunities to the Muslim middle class to emerge from their backward state and weaken the economic base of the Hindu middle classes. The Hindu zamindari patrons to the Congress would find the Muslim peasantry ranged against them, secure in the support of the Dacca Secretariat. It would divide the nationalist ranks once and for all. [18]

It was a disastrous miscalculation in some respects. The plan provoked an upheaval of protest and demonstrations that gave rise to the first mass movement of modern India. There were huge meetings, a boycott of British goods, the burning of foreign cloth and some younger militants initiated the terrorist tradition of Bengal. And while Bengal was the centre of the movement, the feeling of opposition to Britain was registered all over India. Britain was forced to rescind the partition of the province in 1911 to an avalanche of enthusiasm and rising national consciousness. But it did not abandon its overall strategy of divide and rule. One of the fruits of its manoeuvring was the formation of the Muslim League in 1906. Its objectives included: ‘to promote loyalty to the British government, to protect and advance the political rights and interests of Mussalmans of India and respectfully represent their needs and aspirations to government’. [19] The League began declaring that the partition of Bengal was beneficial to Muslims, it condemned agitation such as boycotts and it stressed the contribution it could play in ‘the defence of the empire’. [20]

The League was initially made up of the wealthy Muslim landlords, mainly from the United Provinces in north India. Its local bodies were headed by wealthy landlords or conservative Muslim intellectuals. Only in a few places were Muslim businessmen prominent in the League in its early years. [21] It was socially conservative and thoroughly elitist. Its members felt squeezed between the peasantry and the competition of Hindu landowners and feared the rising nationalist movement might threaten their property. Its leaders also resented the way ‘young, educated Mohammadens seem to have sympathy for the Congress’. [22] At a later date even the League’s best known leader, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, agreed that the League, ‘consisted mostly of big landlords, titleholders and selfish people, who looked to their class and personal interests more than to communal and national interests and who had always been ready to sacrifice them to suit British policy’. [23]

The British extended the scope and nature of elections in 1909, under the combined pressure of the movement from below and their recognition of the need to win the cooperation of a larger layer of Indians. At the same time they introduced one of the League’s most central demands: separate electorates for Muslims and Hindus at the provincial level. It turned ‘Muslim’ and ‘Hindu’ into political categories in a way they had not been before. Income and educational qualifications for Muslim voters were considerably lower than for other groups. And as the franchise was slowly extended, politicians were encouraged to see themselves as the representative of a particular group and to court support on that basis.

Muslims and Hindus were not, of course, homogeneous groups. They were divided by class as well as by region and language. Muslim peasants faced a Hindu gentry in east Bengal, Moplah Muslim cultivators faced Hindu landlords in Malabar, Muslim talukdars ruled over Hindu tenants in parts of the United Provinces, while Hindu moneylenders and merchants faced Sikh or Muslim peasants in the Punjab. The great mass of Muslims were Bengali, Punjabi, Sindhi or Pushtu speaking peasants, utterly different from aristocratic, Urdu speaking landlords of upper India. Nor was there an ancient tradition of Hindu-Muslim communalism, as is often claimed. Bitterly divided class societies had produced many conflicts and wars, but the long history of living together side by side meant Hindus and Muslims shared many practices. One author writes that before the late 19th century ‘one may...doubt whether there was even an identifiable ‘Muslim’, ‘Hindu’ or ‘Sikh’ identity which could be abstracted from the particular circumstances of individual events or specific societies. [24]

War and revolt

The policy of divide and rule failed to stem the mass radicalisation and communal unity that erupted following the First World War. Increased taxation was used to pay for Britain’s war effort in Europe and the Middle East while rising inflation meant the price of food soared and real living standards for the majority declined. The war also sharpened class divisions inside India. Indian business groups made enormous profits as a result of the increased demand, the decline in foreign competition and the decline in real wages. The slackening of competition with the Lancashire cotton industry saw the first real breakthrough by indigenous Indian business. [25] Economic and political grievances for the majority, however, combined. The Kalifat Movement, following Turkey’s defeat by Britain in the war, produced agitation in which Hindu leaders like Gandhi supported Muslim demands. The 1917 Russian Revolution had a radicalising impact and there was mass agitation against repressive British legislation that culminated in a huge upsurge in 1919 and the British massacre of at least 400 unarmed protesters at Amritsar in the Punjab where remarkable Muslim-Hindu-Sikh unity saw ‘people of the different creeds drinking out of the same cups publicly’. [26]

Widespread British repression also failed to halt a tide of workers’ and peasants’ risings between 1919 and 1921. Hundreds of thousands of peasants rose against their landlords. The most explosive was the Moplah Rebellion of 1921 when predominantly Muslim cultivators in Malabar, now part of Kerala on the west coast, rose against predominantly Hindu landlords. At its height the revolt involved 30,000 armed peasants. The British press and British officials of the empire presented it as a communal revolt but in many places poor Hindu peasants joined the rebels, and the newspaper of local landlords complained, ‘Only the rich and the landlords are suffering in the hands of the rebels, not the poor peasants’. [27] Strikes by tens of thousands of jute, rail, steel, textile and tea plantation workers also led to mass unionisation across industry. It was on the back of this radicalisation that Congress launched its own first India-wide mass nationalist campaign of non-cooperation with the British in 1921.

A pattern was established that was to be repeated in the future. The movement for Indian independence went through a succession of waves and troughs but at its peaks – in 1905–1908, 1919–1922, 1928–1934, 1942 and 1945–1946 – there was always united action by Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. One thing emerged from a very early stage, however. The social base and political goals of the Congress meant it was unable to appeal to Hindu and Muslim workers and peasants on the basis of class, even though that was the best way to build lasting communal unity.

Congress was formed in 1885 as the voice of the urban middle class who were secular, liberal and modern. Leaders of the Congress intended to ‘Indianise’ the colonial state by forcing concessions, and eventually independence, from Britain. To do so they sought a mass movement to pressurise Britain, but one which they could control. The wartime expansion of Indian industry drew to the Congress sections of the developing Indian capitalist class who were aggrieved by heavy war taxation and uncertainty over exchange and tariff rates. Business provided important individual figures in Congress but also became the organisation’s key funders. Gandhi throughout his activity was financed by the leading industrialists of west India, including the Sarabhais textile magnates from his home state of Gujerat and the Birlas, the second largest industrial group in the whole of India.

Congress’s urban agitation pulled in those who most stood to gain from the ‘Indianisation’ of society – middle class students and youth facing rising unemployment in the late 1920s; the traders, clerks and small businessmen hit by the trade depression of the 1930s. Agitation in rural areas pulled in small landlords and more prosperous peasants. Their support for Congress was consolidated in many areas by the collapse in agricultural commodity prices in the late 1920s which sharply increased the burden of revenue, rent and interest payments. There were calls for the abolition of zamindari in some areas but in the United Provinces, Bengal and Bihar Congress was heavily influenced by large landowners who resisted such demands.

Congress was thus an alliance between sections of the developing Indian capitalist class and the urban and the rural middle class. [28] For all those involved in the Congress, the leadership of Gandhi fitted perfectly. Gandhi recognised the need to go beyond petitions to mass protests declaring, ‘The growing generation will not be satisfied with petitions ... Satyagraha [civil disobedience] is the only way, it seems to me, to stop terrorism’. [29] He sought to draw in the masses whilst at the same time he sought to keep mass activity strictly within certain forms and under his control. The first non-cooperation campaign was deliberately called after the post-war strike wave had subsided, and it was abruptly called off when it began to get out of Gandhi’s control, despite the fact it was bringing the government to its knees. Gandhi stated his views on strikes unequivocally, declaring:

In India we want no political strikes ... We must gain control over all the unruly and disturbing elements ... We seek not to destroy capital or capitalists, but to regulate the relations between capital and labour. We want to harness capital to our side. It would be folly to encourage sympathetic strikes. [30]

Congress leaders took a conciliatory attitude to landlords, declaring, ‘We want to turn zamindars into friends’. [31] That meant that during the Moplah rising Congress leaders in Malabar tried to stop the rebellion and not a single leader of Congress backed the rebels or campaigned in their defence when the movement was repressed. In Assam when strikes hit the tea plantations, many plantation owners were Congress members. Of course there were many occasions when Congress failed to control the movement, and many examples of those involved in revolts from below interpreting Congress aims for their own ends. [32] But ultimately hostility to the movement of poorer peasants meant it was hard for Congress to unite Muslims and Hindus, given that the vast majority of Muslims were poor peasants.

Congress’s appeal to Muslims was limited in other ways. Despite the secular outlook of many Congress leaders, Congress activity on the ground was heavily overlain with Hindu symbolism and imagery. Gandhi himself, a Western educated lawyer, deliberately cultivated the look of a Hindu peasant, wearing only a loin cloth from 1921 and talking of the need to reach out to ‘village India’. One author says, ‘Congress at the local level was sometimes indistinguishable from the movement for the protection of cattle or for the propagation of Hindi, even though this may have been contrary to its secular protestations’. [33]

Some leading Congress figures were also members of the Hindu Mahasabha, a Hindu communal organisation that was formed by upper class and upper caste Hindus who were both disgusted by, and fearful of, the movement of lower caste and lower class Hindus during the non-cooperation period and who despised the notion of Hindu-Muslim unity. Congress leader Nehru recognised this when he wrote, ‘Hindu and Muslim communalism’ is ‘in neither case even bona fide communalism, but political and social reaction hiding behind the communal mask’. [34] There was an unprecedented growth in both Hindu and Muslim communal organisations in the late 1920s as the national movement subsided, industry entered a period of crisis and many strikes were defeated. This period also saw the foundation of the fascist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Joint membership of both Congress and the Mahasabha was not outlawed until the early 1930s and Congress workers were often confused about the relationship between Congress and the Mahasabha.

The politics and class basis of the Congress would eventually cripple its ability to neutralise the Muslim League. But the League was moribund for most of the 1920s and 1930s. Local Muslim elites regarded the Muslim League as having little to offer them. The bulk of the League’s support came from provinces where Muslims were a minority of the population, not the two centres of the Muslim population of India, the Punjab and Bengal. From 1920 the Punjab was ruled by the Unionist Party, an intercommunal alliance of Punjabi landlords whose leader told Jinnah to ‘keep his finger out of the Punjab pie!’ [35]

The League’s weakness was highlighted dramatically by the election of 1937, granted by the British as a tactic designed to preserve power at the centre. The League won only 4.8 percent of the total Muslim vote. [36] In Bengal the largely Muslim peasantry supported the Krishak Proja Party that claimed to represent the poor peasants. In the Punjab the Unionist Party remained dominant. In Muslim minority provinces there was intense feuding between rival Muslim organisations. In the North West Frontier Province the League was known as the ‘Motor League’ because its members spent so much time driving to tea parties! [37]

So only ten years before partition, there were few signs of the communal terror that was to come. The League reappraised its strategy and began seriously to attempt to build more of a mass base through an overtly communal appeal to Muslims. It increasingly equated Congress with a ‘Hindu Raj’, identifying it with the majority religion in order to create apprehension among Muslims. Even British officials confessed the League was deliberately creating communal tension. The governor of the United Provinces, Sir Harry Haig, wrote to Viceroy Linlithgow in 1938, ‘Finding themselves unable to effect much by parliamentary methods, they are inevitably tempted to create unrest and disturbance outside the legislature, and there is no doubt that the Muslim League have set themselves quite deliberately to this policy’. [38]

It was in these circumstances that the League passed its famous 1940 Lahore Resolution that accepted the ‘two nations theory’ which deemed that Muslims and Hindus were separate nations and called for the establishment of an independent state of Pakistan. Until that point the League had regarded Muslims as a religious minority. But even then the demand for Pakistan was vague and unspecific. Jinnah at times suggested he was really interested in maintaining separate electorates or in securing a degree of autonomy for Muslims within the framework of a united nation state. What is clear is that Jinnah’s overriding goal was to be recognised as the spokesman for Indian Muslims at the negotiations with the British that were inevitably to come over the terms of withdrawal. [39]

Divide and quit

It took the upheaval of the Second World War and a near revolutionary situation before the League could have Pakistan within its grasp. War once again led to mass radicalisation while world events transformed the position of India. Japanese forces drove through South East Asia from the end of 1941 and in the space of four months swept Britain out of Malaya, Singapore and Burma and threatened to bring the empire in India to an end too. This rout shattered the prestige of the British army. It also angered Indians as the retreating British commandeered all transport and left Indian migrant workers to trek home through atrocious conditions. Train loads of wounded soldiers returning from the Burmese front intensified the mood of anger and hostility to what was, to most Indians, an alien and meaningless war. Prices at home also rocketed, while Congress rebel S.C. Bose added to the pressure on Britain by forming the Indian National Army from Indian prisoners of war in Japanese camps. The INA pledged to fight with the Japanese in order to kick Britain out of India.

Congress leaders could sense the mood and launched the Quit India Movement in August 1942. Their almost immediate arrest, the day after the resolution was passed, unleashed an enormous rebellion that saw huge clashes with the police and army, mass strikes and a peasant rebellion in Bihar and the United Provinces. The Quit India Movement lasted until March 1943 and it was only defeated by massive repression. Linlithgow telegrammed to Churchill that it was ‘by far the most serious rebellion since that of 1857, the gravity and extent of which we have so far concealed from the world for reasons of military security’. [40]

The rebellion enhanced the position of the League in the eyes of the British authorities enormously because of its compliant stance. While Congress leaders were imprisoned, the League offered Britain its support. Britain did not openly repudiate the League’s demand for Pakistan because it helped them repudiate Congress’s claim to speak for the majority of Indians when it demanded independence. When Congress resigned control of the provinces it governed, the Muslim League was invited to form governments in a number of states. The composition of the League was also transformed during the war by an influx of Muslim merchants, small landlords and students who saw the creation of a new state of Pakistan as a way to escape Hindu competition.

In 1945–1946 elections were held to set up a constituent assembly to frame a new constitution and the League knew it had to improve on its performance in 1937 if it was to be in a position to claim to speak for ‘all Muslims’. So it shook up its organisation, varying its tactics from province to province. In the Punjab League campaigners were told when they visited a village to ‘find out its social problems and difficulties, to tell them [the villagers] that the main cause of their problems was the Unionists [and] give them the solution – Pakistan’. [41] In Bengal and Assam, League leaders presented the demand for Pakistan as one for provincial autonomy. They said it would lead to prosperity for Muslims and promised the abolition of zamindari without compensation. [42]

The League’s electoral situation was transformed. The Congress won the overwhelming majority of the unreserved seats, but the League won 76 percent of the vote for reserved Muslim seats. Although only approximately 10 percent of the population was eligible to vote at all, it was a long way from the humiliation of 1937. Even then, partition was not inevitable. The British decision to flee was forced by a huge rebellion from the end of 1945 to 1946 that surpassed even the Quit India Movement.

At the end of 1945 the British authorities decided to put on trial Indian National Army prisoners and made matters worse for themselves by putting a Hindu, a Muslim and a Sikh together for the first trial. Country wide protests saw massive inter-communal unity, particularly in Calcutta where strikes and riots exploded intermittently over a number of months. At the same time railway, post and government workers threatened national strikes over rising prices.

Then, in February 1946, Royal Indian Navy ratings in Bombay mutinied over racist abuse and poor food and demanded the release of all INA prisoners. The leaders of the mutiny tied together the flags of the Congress, the Muslim League and the Communist Party to indicate their unity and raised them jointly on the mastheads of the rebel fleet. Thousands of people brought food for the rebels and fraternised at the harbour with the sailors. The mutiny spread to naval bases all over the country to involve 20,000 ratings. A general strike in support of it involved 300,000 across Bombay and united protests spread to Karachi and other areas that were later to be part of Pakistan.

Nehru grasped the significance of these events:

The whole country is in the throes of serious discontent. We are sitting on the edge of a volcano which may erupt at any moment. A spark set ablaze Bombay, Calcutta and Karachi. These pre-storm conditions are not limited to big cities but are found even in the remotest villages. [43]

Britain , the leaders of Congress and the leaders of the Muslim League were drawn closer together by their joint fear of the revolt and did their utmost to call off the mutiny. Both Jinnah and Congress leader Patel successfully persuaded the ratings to surrender. Patel wrote, ‘Discipline in the army cannot be tampered with ... We will want [the] army even in free India’. [44] Gandhi was similarly hostile. He condemned the ratings for setting a ‘bad and unbecoming example for India’ and said, ‘A combination between Hindus and Muslims and others for the purpose of violent action is unholy’. [45] Viceroy Wavell, wrote, ‘We must at all costs avoid becoming embroiled with both Hindu and Muslim at once’. [46]

But it was a combination of subjective and objective factors that convinced the British cabinet that the empire in India must be surrendered. As well as the pressure from below, there was also the changing economic and international situation. The world crisis that preceded the Second World War weakened the economic reasons for Britain to remain in India by destroying the hard currency surpluses earned by the export of commercial crops to other countries. By the end of the war Britain was actually in debt to India – a reversal of the historical relationship.

The end of the war aggravated things further by shifting the balance of power between the US and Britain so that the US become the dominant power in the Pacific. The newly elected Labour government conceded it must leave India, but wanted to do so gradually, and it did not want to divide the subcontinent in the belief that an undivided Indian army would still be useful in the region as the Cold War began. But short term tactics during the war had militated against the realisation of long term aims by boosting the standing of the Muslim League. Still, negotiations in the summer of 1946 were discussing a three tier constitutional arrangement that would involve some degree of separate representation and autonomy for the Muslim majority provinces within an independent state.

The situation was transformed in August 1946 when the League, frustrated by the negotiations, launched ‘Direct Action Day’ and unleashed an unprecedented wave of communal riots. Events were the most bloody in Calcutta where 10,000 were killed in a day. The governor of Bengal, who did not lift a finger to stop the killing, described how the streets were ‘littered with corpses. I can honestly say that parts of the city...were as bad as anything I saw when I was with the Guards on the Somme’. [47] A leading League figure in Sindh declared that anyone opposing the demand for Pakistan ‘shall be destroyed and exterminated’. [48]

The Calcutta killings were followed by communal riots and killings in east Bengal, Bihar and the United Provinces and then the whole of the Punjab was engulfed from March 1947 onwards. Who was immediately responsible varied from area to area as fearful Hindus exacted revenge when they heard stories of massacres by Muslims and vice versa. Both Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communal organisations fed each other, provoking fear and loathing that was reinforced by every atrocity. While the League urged Muslims to join the National Guards it organised in many provinces, the RSS declared Hindustan only for the Hindus. RSS propaganda declared, ‘Trust not a Muslim ... Muslims are our eternal enemies ... Every Hindu must keep daggers and spears at his home and carry a sharp knife with him. [49]

Yet rebellion on the ground did not stop. The strike wave of 1946 surpassed all previous records. There were police strikes in April, threats of an all-India rail strike continued throughout the summer, a post strike in July, and a one day strike in support of the postal workers in Calcutta. The empire was literally crumbling, both administratively and militarily, from August 1946 onwards. In November the cabinet agreed that the army would not be capable of crushing a mass revolt. The British decided to flee. The descendants of the original Raj that had sowed divisions so cunningly now declared solemnly that partition was the only way to end communal violence.

The Congress, tantalisingly close to power, conceded to demands to divide the subcontinent. The closer it got to becoming the new government, the more conservative it became. It would not call for the united mass protests and strikes that could pose an alternative to communalism for fear of where they would lead. The only organisation that might have provided some alternative leadership was the Communist Party of India (CPI). But the CPI had slavishly followed the dictates of Stalin in the interests of the Soviet Union. In the early 1930s, during the Comintern’s ‘Third Period’, the party was completely isolated from the national movement as it denounced the Congress as a tool of British imperialism. The party only became any sort of force with the turn towards the Popular Front in the late 1930s, but then it surrendered any independent political position to the need for ‘national unification under the banner of the Congress’.

The CPI opposed the Second World War at first but then, following the invasion of the Soviet Union, gave wholehearted support to the war effort just as the Congress launched the Quit India Movement. The party branded both the Congress and the left inside Congress, the Congress Socialists, as ‘fifth column elements’, ‘saboteurs’ and ‘fascist agents’ for their activities in the Quit India Movement. [50] Twice in the space of decade it was utterly isolated from the national movement as a result. In 1942 it compounded this folly by declaring its support for the two nation theory and instructing its members to explain ‘what is just in this Pakistan demand’. A CPI pamphlet from 1942 said the League ‘is to the Muslim masses what Congress is to the Indian people as a whole’. [51]

Indeed the programme of the Bengal Muslim League that promised land reform was essentially the work of the CPI who entered the Bengal League in 1941. Although the organisation threw itself into support for the naval mutiny and recruited out of the strike wave, its slogan at the time was for Congress/Muslim League unity and so it was left paralysed when both the League and the Congress moved against the mutiny. At the time of partition the CPI was fully in favour of the state of Pakistan.

Independence was declared at midnight, 14 August. The day itself was marked by celebrations, demonstrations and speeches to mass crowds across most of India that the participants will never forget. A journalist recalled how:

I happened to be outside the Parliament House when Nehru made his ‘tryst with destiny’ speech. It was an enormous crowd and somehow one had forgotten all about what we’d been through and the killings and the riots. One felt very elated: at long last the country was free. [52]

But even on independence day the details of the partition plan had not been announced. Millions celebrated while still awaiting to find out where the new borders would lie. There were killings in Bengal, but Gandhi threatened to fast until death and succeeded in quelling much of the violence. The Punjab, however, was engulfed in savage mass killings, even on 15 August. In the days immediately after 15 August two extermination campaigns led to mass migration in opposite directions. There were daily columns, some more than 50 miles long, of Muslims trudging in one direction and Sikhs and Hindus in the other.

In the eastern Punjab exhausted Muslim migrants walking to their new ‘homeland’ of Pakistan, laden down with everything they possessed, were massacred by bands of Sikhs. Refugee trains that crossed into the Punjab would sometimes arrive carrying only dead bodies. An eye witness described how:

One afternoon there was a convoy which came across from Ferozepur in India. These refugees were in a very miserable condition: as many as 200 men, women and children coming along stark naked without a stitch of clothing on them. They were horribly mutilated, some of them had broken limbs, and the women had their breasts cut off. There were children carrying dead children just for the sake of burying them in the soil of Pakistan. [53]

In other parts of the Punjab where Muslims were in a majority, like Lahore, it was Sikhs and Hindus that were driven out. Then in September 1947 the killing spread back to Delhi where Sikhs and Hindus murdered Muslims.

The migration carried on throughout. Within less than a year refugees in their millions had moved both ways between India and Pakistan. The total movement of people is estimated to be around 17 million, one of the largest every peacetime movements of population, while around 1 million died in the slaughter that immediately accompanied partition. It was a carnival of reaction, ethnic cleansing like that seen in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. One Indian poet wrote that, ‘The battleships [of the RIN] lie motionless in the harbour, disarmed by treachery; in Noakhali, Bihar and Garmukteswar, Hindus and Muslims find unity only after death.’ [54] The carnage was tragic; it was the result of the fact that all the major players accepted that communalism was a lesser evil than the prospect of social revolution.

The legacy

The legacy of the empire and partition was the creation of two states with communalism built into them from the outset. The Pakistan created in 1947 was economically backward in the extreme, inheriting a tiny proportion of the industry that had developed across the subcontinent before partition. It had no coherent ruling class. Landowners were the most powerful single group but divided between rival camps with their own power bases in different states. What is more, the structure of the new state was absurd. It was carved out of the Muslim majority areas in the far north west and east of India. As a result, Pakistan was divided into eastern and western wings that had 1,000 miles of Indian territory in the middle! The only two institutions capable of holding this ragbag together were the army and the civil service, both of which were inherited directly from Britain. It was not to last.

After only ten years the army took over the reins of power. Vast amounts of US aid were negotiated as the military agreed to watch over US interests in the region. The state also promoted the development of industry and, while it is hard to imagine now, Pakistan was even lauded by the IMF as a model growth economy. By 1968 it was estimated that some 22 families controlled 66 percent of the country’s total industrial capital, 70 percent of insurance and 80 percent of banking. [55] This wealth was wrung out of the working class that developed in cities like Karachi, Lahore, Multan and Hyderabad, while trade union leaders were imprisoned and strikes repressed. Industrial development was also financed through the systematic drainage of wealth from the eastern wing to the west. As a result, pressure from below was mounting by the late 1960s. It exploded in a 1968 as protest movement by workers, students and peasants swept both the east and the west in late 1968. It eventually led to the east breaking away to form the state of Bangladesh in 1971.

In what remained of Pakistan, hopes of fundamental change from the Pakistan People’s Party government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s were sadly disappointed. Pakistan to this day has changed little. Capitalism, and a working class, have developed, but the power of the big landowners has not been broken. The military have been in power for most of Pakistan’s history, interspersed by periods of weak civilian government. The military has increasingly used Islam to attempt to justify the regime even though at independence Jinnah insisted Pakistan was not an Islamic state. The military also repeatedly whips up feeling against the Indian government and uses the demand for Kashmir to be part of Pakistan to divert people’s attention from the massive corruption at the top of society, and the staggering levels of poverty at the bottom.

The secularism of the Indian state since independence is often greatly overstated. As we have seen, Congress leaders like Nehru were committed to a more secular India but communalists were inside Congress and even included in Nehru’s first cabinet. After independence Congress was at the heart of the new ruling class, balancing between competing demands and competing factions. A large measure of this was through simple corruption and patronage. But Congress also became expert at playing one group off against another using communal brokering. Congress’s balancing act had a degree of success for the first two decades after independence as the economy expanded during the post-war boom. But as that expansion dried up from the late 1960s onwards, the Indian ruling class has splintered and Congress has lost its hegemony.

Since the late 1980s the free market has been pushed by politicians of all hues as the answer to all India’s problems. But market reforms have only intensified social and political instability. The Congress’s cynical use of the communal card in the late 1980s also boosted the fortunes of the right wing Hindu chauvinists of the BJP and the fascists of the RSS and Shiv Sena. These groups have risen markedly over the last decade. They attempt to scapegoat India’s Muslims for all the failings of capitalism in India. The destruction of the mosque at Ayodyha in December 1992 by right wing Hindu chauvinists was followed by the worst communal riots in India since independence as Shiv Sena members butchered Muslims in Bombay.

But the future is not necessarily bleak. India has also a history of powerful, united, workers’ struggles like the massive strike by railway workers in 1974 or the 18 month long strike by textile workers in Bombay between 1982 and 1983. The Nazis of the Shiv Sena, based in Bombay and the surrounding state of Maharashtra, have only been able to grow because of the despair throughout the left and the working class movement that followed the defeat of that strike. India, unlike Pakistan, has a big left. It is dominated by variants of Stalinism, whether of the Communist Party, which split into two in the mid-1960s, or of the various Maoist groups, which number many thousands in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh. There are also many civil rights groups, womens’ groups and anti-BJP groups. Taken together these groups amount to many thousands of activists who not only want to stand against communalism but could be won to genuine revolutionary politics. But that requires a political argument about the need to orientate on the workers’ struggles of the future, struggles that have the potential to defeat communalism.


1. Quoted in R. Hyam, Britain’s Imperial Century 1815–1914 (Macmillan, 1993), p. 35.

2. Ibid., p. 38.

3. See C.A. Bayly, Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire (Cambridge 1988).

4. For a good account of the problems the company state faced, see C.A. Bayly, op. cit.

5. For a short account of the mutiny see B. Chandra, India’s Struggle for Independence (Calcutta 1988), ch. 1. For a more detailed account see E. Stokes, The Peasant Armed (Oxford 1986).

6. See R. Hyam, op. cit., pp. 142–143.

7. Ibid., p. 333.

8. Ibid..

9. Ibid., p. 36.

10. E. Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire (Weidenfield & Nicolson 1987), p. 69.

11. Quoted in P.J. Cain and A.G. Hopkins, British Imperialism: Innovation and Expansion 1688–1914 (Longman 1993), p. 341.

12. R. Hyam, op. cit., p. 37.

13. See B. Lapping, The End of Empire (Granada Publishing 1985), p. 43.

14. Quoted in S. Sarkar, Modern India 1885–1947 (Macmillan, 1983), p. 16.

15. E. Hobsbawm, op. cit., p. 81.

16. For a short account of this process, see N. Harris, National Liberation (London 1990), ch. 11.

17. The Hindu-Muslim divide and rule policy actually began as a response to British fears about armed Muslim rebels in the 1860s, following the mutiny. Britain began promoting a group of upper class Muslims from the United Provinces in order to develop a group of Muslim loyalists. In doing so they created a so called ‘Muslim interest’ which in turn produced notions of a ‘Hindu interest’.

18. Quoted in P. Addy and I. Azad, Politics and Society in Bengal, in Explosion in a Subcontinent (London 1975), edited by R. Blackburn, p. 111.

19. Ibid., p. 116.

20. See S. Sarkar, op. cit., p. 140.

21. See Y.V. Gankovsky and L.R. Gordon-Polonskaya, A History of Pakistan (Moscow 1964), p. 33.

22. S. Sarkar, op. cit., p. 141.

23. Quoted in A.I. Singh, The Origins of the Partition of India (Oxford 1987), p. 67.

24. C.A. Bayly, The Pre-History of Communalism? Religious Conflict in India 1700–1860, Modern Asian Studies 19, 2 (1985), p. 202.

25. The biggest breakthrough was made in the textile industry. A group of Calcutta based businessmen also accumulated considerable wealth during the war years by speculating in the jute trade and, soon after the war, established the first Indian owned jute mills.

26. Quoted in S. Sarkar, op. cit., p. 190.

27. Quoted in T. Ali, Can Pakistan Survive? (Harmondsworth 1983), p. 25.

28. Many Indian capitalists were janus-faced: on the one hand they looked to Congress to articulate their demands to Britain, but on the other needed imperial connections for access to imperial markets and to police workers and peasants. Sections of Indian capital were unequivocally hostile to Congress, fearing nationalist agitation would lead to class conflict.

29. S. Sarkar, op. cit., p. 188.

30. Ibid., p. 208.

31. Ibid., p. 210.

32. Peasants on occasions stopped paying rent and called for the abolition of landlordism in the name of Gandhi: they burnt landlords’ houses shouting, ‘Long live Gandhi!’; organised jail breaks in the belief that ‘Gandhi Raj’ was coming, and on one occasion police were attacked by peasants wearing Gandhi caps in the belief it would protect them from the police’s bullets! See S. Sarkar, ibid.

33. C.A. Bayly, The Local Roots of Indian Politics: Allahabad 1880–1920, quoted in N. Harris, op. cit., p. 173.

34. From his autobiography quoted in R.P. Dutt, India Today (London 1940), p. 413.

35. Quoted in A. Jalal, The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan (Cambridge 1985), p. 21. The Unionist Party was not really a party. Elections were fought on personal or tribal lines, with many rival candidates saying they would support the Unionist bloc if elected.

36. A.I. Singh, op. cit., p. 136.

37. Ibid., p. 44.

38. Ibid., pp. 38–39.

39. See A. Jalal, op. cit.

40. Quoted in S. Sarkar, op. cit., p. 391.

41. Quoted in A. Jalal, op. cit., p. 135.

42. Ibid., p. 137.

43. Quoted in S. Banerjee, RIN Mutiny, in We Fought Together For Freedom (Oxford 1995), p. 235.

44. Quoted in S. Sarkar, op. cit., p. 425.

45. Ibid.

46. Quoted in A.I. Singh, op. cit., p. 186.

47. Ibid.

48. Ibid., p. 188.

49. Ibid.

50. K. Damodaran, a CPI activist at the time, described how left wing nationalists would chant, ‘Down with the supporters of British imperialism!’ at CPI meetings. See K. Damodaran, Memoirs of an Indian Communist, New Left Review 93 (September 1975).

51. See S.K. Ghosh, India and the Raj (Bombay 1995), ch. 10.

52. Quoted in B. Lapping, op. cit., p. 131.

53. Quoted in B. Lapping, op. cit., p. 133.

54. Quoted in S. Sarkar, op. cit., p. 453.

55. R. Nation, op. cit., p. 255.

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