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Why were the British unable to secure a united India at independence in 1947 Essay

To most political commentators and historians, Indian independence had become inevitable by 1947. But up on to this point in time no one had believed that India would be dissected and two countries would be formed in its place. This was not the British intention. The realities of the situation on the ground in 1947 left both the British and Congress leadership impotent and unable to secure a united India. I believe it was the intention of the British government to leave a united India if possible, but a variety of reasons meant that they were not able to realise this goal.

The intense nationalist struggle led by Congress and Britain’s anxiety to avoid being caught in the middle of a civil war between Hindu’s and Muslim’s was a primary reason Britain left India as hastily as they did as well as the fact that India’s economic value to Britain had been diminishing since the end of the WW1, infact by the end of WW2 India was a financial burden on the treasury. Britain had changed domestic priorities at the end of WW2, devastated economically by the war and heavily in debt to the USA.

But of primary importance to why Britain was unable to secure a united India has to do with the role of Mohammed Ali Jinnah and of the Muslim League which was able to demonstrate, by the electoral success they enjoyed in 1946 Provincial elections when they secured 75% of the Muslim vote across the whole of India, that they had a mandate from India’s Muslims to press for an independent Muslim homeland in India, Pakistan. This has to do with deep and historic hostility between Muslims and Hindus and with the electioneering of Jinnah and the Muslim League.

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Muslim League theorists first advanced the ‘two nation’ theory as a major political theme in the 1930’s. At that time Muslim League theorists merely argued that the Hindu and Muslim communities in British India constituted two different ‘nations’, in the sense that they were divided by cultural and social values that made it impossible for them to live together peacefully in a common political system. On March 1940 Jinnah addressed a Muslim League rally in Lahore.

The Lahore address spelled out the two-nation theory justification for the demand for a separate Muslim state. In his speech he portrayed the Muslims and Hindu’s as irreconcilably opposed monolithic religious communities. At this rally a resolution was passed which called for the grouping of contiguous Muslim majority areas in the North West and North East of India into ‘Independent States in which the constituent units would be autonomous and sovereign’. But Pakistan should not be considered inevitable from the time of the Lahore Resolution however.

The Muslim League first had to demonstrate its support in the major centres of Muslim population where it traditionally lacked influence, namely across the North West and North East of the country. In the 1937 provincial elections, it had won one seat in the Punjab and none in Sind or the Frontier, it was only in Bengal were the Muslim League had some success, winning 37 of the 119 seats reserved for Muslims. In these areas there was a whole multitude of local Muslim parties competing against each other for votes and were advocating very different points from one another.

This weakened the Muslim League greatly as they couldn’t claim to represent the Muslims of India if they had very little support from the ballot boxes. The British would not have to take the Muslim League very seriously unless they could prove widespread support from India’s Muslims, only then could they claim to speak on behalf of them. In order to do this they needed much more support around the country and Jinnah decided to re-structure the party and change electioneering tactics and policies. This opens up the debate on the actual role of Islam in the creation of Pakistan.

Islamic ideology was chosen and manipulated by political elites in order to legitimise their bid for power which arose from other, predominantly economic and social compulsions. Muslim historians such as Hafeez Malik and Riazul Islam who maintain that Islam did not just legitimise political action, but impelled support for the Muslim League. However, the tactics of the Muslim League were very controversial. In literature and speeches they linked the powerful themes of ‘Islam in danger’ and the need for an Islamic community.

Many critics argue that this was scare mongering and creating heightened levels of communal tensions. It could be said that this was the aim of Jinnah and the Muslim League as it was a sure fire way of quickly increasing support was to appeal to Muslims in the easiest way by playing on there fears of being dominated over by Hindus intent on gaining revenge on Muslims because of preceding Muslim rule over India before the British raj tookover. In the 1920’s riots erupted in small towns and cities across India from the frontier of India with Afghanistan to the eastern boundary of Bengal with Burma between Hindus and Muslims.

This was to do with the slaughter of cows, a revered animal in the Hindu religion, but one often sacrificed by Muslims on religious occasions. Muslim competition for job’s whether relatively prestigious in government or lowly bureaucratic jobs, intensified the hostility of lower middle-class Hindus. Behind much of this lay a generalised crisis in certain lines of employment, such as the declining market for the handloom products of Muslim wavers who were displaced by the output of textiles from mills owned by Hindus.

Kanpur in the United Provinces was the site of large scale rioting between Muslims and Hindus in 1931 on this account. Older causes for suspicion and conflict continued in places where landlords and tenants were of different religions. In Bengal and in Punjab, the Muslim League adopted radical social and economic policies so as to be able to replace the smaller regional Islamic parties that gained much of the vote, who campaign on local issues and who struggled to help Muslims against Hindu zamindar’s(landlords) and moneylenders.

In 1915, a group of Hindu fanatics formed the Hindu Mahasabha. The primary goal of this new organisation was the ‘reconversion’ of Muslims, claiming India’s Muslims were forced to convert from Hinduism to Islam by Islamic invaders against there will. The fact that Congress leaders and Gandhi himself did not explicitly repudiate such inflammatory religious campaigns, and often maintained close personal relations with their leaders, was not lost on Muslims or the Muslim League.

On a local level, the Muslim League would have highlighted this to the Muslim population claiming these are the sort of people who would be running India when the British left. This change of tactics worked. In the 1946 Provincial elections the Muslim League won 75% of the Muslim vote across India, against the 4. 4% it won in 1937. They won 75 seats in Punjab and 115 in Bengal, the two major Muslim dominated provinces in India. Many considered these results as mandate for the creation of Pakistan; this is one way the British could have considered them.

This was because from 1940 the Muslim League’s main stated objective had been the creation of a separate Islamic nation for India’s Muslims. Indian(Hindu) nationalist writers deny that a mass upsurge in support for the Pakistan demand lay behind the Muslim League’s advance in the polls. They link the achievement of Pakistan with the long-term British divide and rule policy epitomised by the granting of separate electorates and bolstering the Muslim League during WW2. Pakistani(Muslim) nationalists focus on the role of Islam and of Jinnah in the creation of Pakistan.

Jinnah’s leadership is considered as vital in bringing moral authority and unity to a community. Recent works have sought to explore how Jinnah came to symbolise both the unity and aspirations of the Indian Muslim League. There are many important differences surrounding the interpretation of Jinnah’s intentions in demanding Pakistan. A revisionist understanding, as advocated by the Muslim historian Ayesha Jala, questions whether Jinnah ever regarded this as more than a bargaining counter for a greater Muslim say in a united India.

This view has been criticised for reducing the causes of Pakistan creation to deliberations in ”smoke filled rooms” Ian Talbot” work emphasises that Jinnah did not create Pakistan single-handedly and that there was immense popular enthusiasm and participation in the closing stages of the Muslim League struggle. The years 1939-1945 were crucial. WW2 was crucial to Indian independence and the resulting partition. Jinnah’s tactics during WW2 were very different to those of the Congress leaders.

The Muslim League was less confrontational as he sought to use the war as an opportunity to press the case for a separate Muslim state. The more Congress opposed the British the more sympathetic he thought Britain would be to his case. When the Congress leaders resigned from the provincial governments in protest at India’s being taken in the war, and then launched the Quit India campaign in 1942, this resulted in the entire Congress leadership being arrested and thrown into jail. Jinnah offered the British ‘benevolent neutrality’ and the Muslim League took over ministries from Congress were they had resigned or been arrested.

They worked with the British and demonstrated their ability to govern. The other major effect of WW2 was the devastation it caused to Britain, economically and to its infrastructure. India had become a financial burden to the UK, which owed massive amounts of money to the USA and wanted to relive itself of this burden. But it did not want to just give independence immediately and leave, they wanted to leave a democratic nation that would remain within the commonwealth and stay on friendly terms with their former colonial masters.

But to the British, a speedy departure was essential. The years immediately after the end of WW2 saw a heightened tension between Muslims and Hindus that the British had never sensed before. The electoral results of 1946 were the final nail in the coffin in any hopes of leaving a united India behind. Jinnah was extremely confident that now he could demand Pakistan and he would get it, and the British were fearful of what looked like a potential civil war that could leave millions dead and drag Britain into a conflict on a WW2 scale.

The Viceroy Field Marshal Wavell believed conflict was inevitable and the situation was so bad that the British might have to evacuate. Last ditch negotiations held by a new hastily dispatched Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, were futile. The details of the plans were not agreeable to Either Congress or the Muslim League, and besides, Jinnah had no intention of sharing powers with Congress and playing a subordinate role to Nehru. A Cabinet Mission was sent over by the Labour government, this represented Britain’s last desperate attempt to transfer power to a united India.

The mission put forward a three-tier federal form of government in which the central government would be limited to power over defence, foreign affairs and currency. Other powers would be handed over to the provinces. At first it seemed as though both parties accepted the plan, but the subsequent behaviour of the leaders soon led to bitterness and distrust and the plan fell through. Jinnah called for mass demonstrations on the 16th of August 1946, ‘Direct Action Day’. Communal rioting broke out on an unprecedented scale in Bengal, especially in Calcutta.

The new Viceroy assessed the situation and convinced Congress to accept partition as the price of independence and Jinnah had to accept a smaller Pakistan. The British were unable to leave behind a united India for a variety of reasons. The main obstacle being Jinnah and the Muslim League, who aroused the fears of the Muslim population of living in a Hindu dominated India and demanded a separate homeland. Every attempt was made in the short time scale to avoid partition, but failed. An acceptance of partition was made when the British realised the potential of unprecedented civil war that would leave millions dead.

By 1947, Muslims in Bengal and Punjab wanted an independent Muslim country, and were not prepared to accept anything less. Britain neither had the resources, financially or militarily, to stay in India and force order and spend more time on negotiations, they felt they had no option to leave as promptly as possible because as every day passed they were losing more control over India and they were anxious not to be caught up in the middle of a civil war. The Labour had different priorities after WW2 and needed to concentrate on the domestic front.

Some critics have blamed the British as a factor in the disunity amongst Muslims and Hindus, because from the beginning they argue the British instigated a policy of divide and rule amongst Hindu and Muslim, thus sowing the seeds of distrust and hate that would build up over two centuries. Some people criticise Congress, despite Congress’s professed secularism, Congress was suffused with Hindu religious symbolism. It also contained hegemonic tendencies which made it difficult for the difference of minorities to be accepted on anything other than the majority’s terms. Congress was not a party Muslims felt they could vote for.

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