This column is in response to Mr Razi Azmi’s article, ‘What if there was no partition’ (Daily Times, June 12, 2014), which was in response to my article, ‘What if there had been no partition of India’ (Daily Times, May 26, 2014). Unfortunately, Mr Azmi, who is one of the better columnists I have had the opportunity of reading in this newspaper years ago, has completely misconceived the thrust of my article.
I concur with Mr Azmi that ‘what if’ exercises are a waste of time. Indeed it is this “waste of time” I sought to address by writing the original article. For too long, in my humble opinion, Pakistanis have shirked responsibility for their actions by blaming dead men for their miseries. I sought to rectify that by pointing out that partition did have its advantages, which in my view were — for Indians and Pakistanis — considerably more substantial than the losses caused by it.
First of all, let me state very clearly that the partition of Punjab and Bengal, and therefore the partition of India, was a choice exercised by Nehru and Patel. These two Indian statesmen realised that an India with five Muslim majority provinces all of which display tendencies towards autonomy, if not outright independence, would never allow a strong central government in Delhi. This sentiment for autonomy predates the Pakistan Movement as we understand it. Punjab, for example, was ruled by the Unionists, which was a cross-communal alliance of the landlords of Punjab. The Unionists and the Muslim elite of Punjab hated both Congress and Jinnah with equal disdain. Congress, they felt, would impose a Hindu-dominated Centre on them, while their grievance against Jinnah was that he had bartered Muslim majorities in Punjab and Bengal through the Lucknow Pact of 1916.
However, 1937 onwards, the Unionists in Punjab who had soundly beaten the Muslim League arrived at a pact with Jinnah whereby they would be free to proceed as they please but would vest representative status on Jinnah at the Centre. The Lahore Resolution in 1940 was an attempt to unite the interests of Muslims of Muslim majority areas with those of the Muslims in UP, Bombay and other Indian heartlands. This was the reason Jinnah refused to define Pakistan, keeping his opponents guessing. At times, Jinnah and his followers spoke of a limited Centre and, at other times, they spoke of treaty relations between two federations. When the opportunity presented itself in the form of the Cabinet Mission Plan, Jinnah jumped at it. He felt that, in terms of political power and projection, the best possible position that Muslims would have would be in the form of the Cabinet Mission Plan where they would be able to run their de facto Pakistan(s) group federations within an Indian union and threaten the Hindu majority to leave if they were to mistreat them.
It was precisely for this reason that Congress leaders like Nehru and Patel did not want the Muslim majority provinces in the federation of India though that may that have meant the denial of the ideal of United India. A smaller centralised India was preferable to them than a larger de-centralised three-tier federation or even a federation where they would be held hostage to political blackmail by a very large minority community, which also enjoyed majorities in at least five provinces. Nehru also feared that Muslim majority provinces would collaborate with the princely states in India and forge a large oppositional block to the Congress-led Indian union. Balkanisation of India would then have become a very real possibility. The federation of India may well have been a non-starter.
That Muslims would have formed a very large and substantial minority in India is not in doubt. It may have allowed Muslim leaders certain leverage on an India level but would it have created an indigenous middle class in the previously regulated Muslim majority areas? The answer is ‘no’, it would not have. The rigour of running a nation state has its own economic and political dimensions, the advantages of which cannot be outweighed by any advantages of having a large 25 to 30 percent minority in a federation that may or may not have existed. Already, with only 13 percent Muslim minority, India has been unable to fulfil its constitutional directive vis-à-vis a uniform civil code. The Congress Party government historically overturned even the Supreme Court judgment in the Shah Bano Case because it was held hostage by its Muslim supporters.
Next, Mr Azmi raises the issue of partition deaths. The conservative estimate of partition deaths is not half a million as he says but is around 180,000 to 200,000 as suggested by Penderel Moon. It is important to note that it was the Pakistan government that had come up with the number of one million at the United Nations, while the Indian government dismissed partition massacres as merely “disturbances”. Mr Azmi points out that the worst communal riot was in Gujarat in India and it would have taken hundreds of such riots to equal the numbers of dead at partition. Here again he has misconceived my point of view. Had there been no partition, the kind of massacres and riots that the subcontinent would have seen, upon the departure of the British, would have made the Gujarat riots look like an ordinary event. Communal violence in Punjab happened not so much because of the physical act of partition but because the restraining hand of the British was removed after independence. So, what happened in August to October 1947 would have been repeated with frightening frequency in a state where almost “one out of every three Indians would have been a Muslim”.
Finally, Mr Azmi asks if I can argue against the separation of Southern Punjab, Upper Sindh and Balochistan from Pakistan given the logic that I have used to justify partition. First of all, I believe very strongly that Pakistan’s unwieldy provinces ought to be divided into smaller provinces for precisely this reason. A province in Bahawalpur and South Punjab will no doubt help these areas come up. In India, a similar partition has happened with the creation of Telangana state along linguistic lines. Beyond that, however, it is impracticable for these areas to go their own way and that is why they will not choose to do so.
The point of this entire exercise is merely to arrest the trend of second-guessing history and constantly attempting national suicide by calling into question the validity of the state. We have enough enemies to do that for us. Let us instead concentrate on making Pakistan a normal, democratic and inclusive state, which treats all its citizens equally and impartially.
The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Mr Jinnah: Myth and Reality. He can be contacted via twitter @therealylh and through his email address firstname.lastname@example.org