PM Modi, at the End of His Tether, Is Intent on Wilful Destruction of Syncretism

We do need to remember the horrors of Partition, to remind ourselves not to allow, let alone participate in, a destruction of the uniquely tolerant fusion of religions that India created over three millennia.

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Had Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered the long Independence Day panegyric to himself two years later, even his bitterest critics would have regarded it as nothing more than the starting gun of the BJP’s 2024 election campaign. But the fact that he chose to give it when he is not even half way through his current term in office shows that he is not only at the end of his tether but knows it.

From failed economic promises to misbegotten economic reforms; from relentless communal polarisation, to the crushing of civil dissent and the destruction of citizens’ fundamental right to liberty, he has tried everything to shore up the superman image of himself that he has tirelessly built over the past seven years.

But, as India Today’s ‘Mood of the Nation 2021′ poll has shown, his approval rating as prime minister has plummeted from 66 to 24% in a single year. 

But Modi is a fighter and is not prepared to give up. That is the message he has sent out with his decision to commemorate  August 14 as the ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’. The announcement is mystifying, to say the least. The slaughter and displacement of millions that it triggered have turned the memory of what should have been the most memorable event of my life into one that I have unthinkingly avoided for the whole of my life. Why is Modi reminding me of it now?

Also read: Mixed Messages from a PM and President: Are We to Remember or Transcend the Past?

The government’s notification says that the country needs ‘to remember the Pain and Violence of Partition”. But BJP president, J.P. Nadda has been more forthright. “Partition,” Nadda intoned, “created the circumstances (opportunity) for the politics of appeasement and negativity to dominate our politics (Vibhajan se utpann paristhitiyon ne tushtikaran ki rajneeti aur nakaratmak shaktiyon ko haavi hone ka mauka diya).”  

Nadda’s remark does more than explain Modi’s purpose: it gives us a glimpse of a dark mind that confuses negotiation with cowardice, and compromise with surrender. And it gives us a terrifying glimpse of where this government could take us in the next three years in Modi’s determination to avoid both at no matter what cost to his country and people.

Partition did turn Indian Independence into an event that evokes only painful memories – a “horror”. But not because it involved any weakness or appeasement on Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru’s part. On the contrary, because they had no previous experience of statecraft, both the Congress and Muslim League leaders dallied over decision-making and fought small battles with each other till the opportunity for fruitful compromise was taken away by others less scrupulous and more hungry for power than themselves. 

India’s last two prime ministers, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Dr Manmohan Singh, had understood this and come within a hairsbreadth of repairing the damage that Partition had done to the entire sub-continent. But in the last seven years, Modi has succeeded in undoing everything they had achieved. Today, with the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan, and relations with both China and Pakistan at an all-time low, even the truncated India that Partition left us with is in greater danger than it has ever been. 

A file image of former Prime Minister, late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, with his Pakistani counterpart Parvez Musharraf. Photo: PTI/File

So, much as I would not like to, I too find it necessary to revisit the “horrors of Partition,” to learn how we allowed ourselves to be plunged into them, so as not to plunge into them once more. 

The first misconception is that the Muslims of India were bent upon carving out a separate state for themselves. Partition was not the original objective of the Muslim League. Jinnah’s goal, from the day he agreed to become the president of the newly formed Muslim League in 1916, was to obtain a guarantee of the rights of minorities, with one-third representation of Muslims in all legislatures, based upon reserved constituencies. This was why he remained a member of the Congress even after being elected the head of the Muslim League.   

Twenty four years later, the March 1940 Lahore resolution of the party, which is now universally regarded as its “Partition Resolution,” resolved only to create “an autonomous or semi-independent Muslim majority region within the larger Indian confederation.”

This was not only Jinnah’s preference but that of the two large Muslim majority provinces of the country, Punjab (which then stretched from Delhi till the Khyber pass) and Bengal. 

Punjab was ruled by the Unionist Party, in coalition with the Akalis and the Congress. This had been led, till his death, by Sir  Sikandar Hayat Khan, who was adamantly opposed to Partition because this would require “disrupting the Punjab and the Unionist Party, and he was not prepared to accept that”. Although the Muslim League had made impressive advances in the Muslim reserved constituencies, the Unionists had remained the dominant party in the province. 

Also read: Modi’s Gamble, and How Many Lives It Will Cost

Opposition to Partition was even more vehement in Bengal. Its Prime Minister, H.S Suhrawardy, was a stalwart of the Muslim League who shared Jinnah’s vision of a confederal India in which Punjab and Bengal would form the major part of the Muslim-governed areas of the county. When Lord Mountbatten unveiled an interim Partition plan in April 1947 that involved the partition of both Punjab and Bengal, Suhrawardy opposed it vehemently and proposed the creation of an independent, united Bengal. In a stirring speech on April 27 in Delhi, he said:

“Let us pause for a moment to consider what Bengal can be if it remains united. It will be a great country, indeed the richest and the most prosperous in India capable of giving to its people a high standard of living, where a great people will be able to rise to the fullest height of their stature…”

The significant phrase in his advocacy was ‘the most prosperous in India’.

Unless this was a slip of the tongue, Suhrawardy did not propose the creation of a separate state of Bengal. He wanted a United Bengal that remained part of an as yet undefined Indian confederation. What is equally significant is that his proposal did not raise hackles in the Congress, for several of the party’s leaders in Bengal, like Sarat Chandra Bose and Kiran Shankar Roy, felt that there was a good deal of merit in it. The Congress opposed it only after it began to be interpreted, notably by Sir Fredric Burroughs, the Governor of Bengal, as a proposal to create a separate dominion of Bengal as one of three successor regimes in India.

So what was it that triggered the holocaust that followed?

The short answer is the campaign of ‘Direct Action’, i.e ethnic cleansing – begun by an increasingly radicalised Muslim League to force the creation of “Pakistan”. Its chosen instrument was the Muslim League National Guard, which had been started in 1931 as a youth wing of the League, but been revived at a meeting of the League’s ‘Committee of Action’ at a Lahore in 1946 to serve a different, murderous end.  

Calcutta, after the 1946 riots. Photo: Public domain

By August 16, 1946, when it initiated the planned killing of Hindus in Calcutta, the Muslim Guard, as it came to be called, had 22,000 members. In Calcutta,Direct Action’ served the radicals’ purpose by causing the angered Hindus to retaliate. More than 4,000 lives were lost and, in a preview of what was to happen a year  later, both Hindus and Muslims began to move to safer parts of the city.

In the ensuing months, ‘Direct Action’ spread to the NWFP and Punjab and culminated in an organised massacre of Sikhs in Rawalpindi. By December, it had forced virtually all the Hindu and Sikh traders and land-owners of the NWFP and Northern Punjab to flee to eastern Punjab, Delhi and Muzaffarabad in Kashmir. ‘Direct Action’ spread to Noakhali in Bengal in October 1946, and to the rest of Punjab in December.

The resulting breakdown of law and order that followed, in particular the communalisation of the police and lower bureaucracy, forced the Unionist-Akali-Congress coalition government, then headed by Sir Sikandar Hayat’s son Khizr Hayat Khan, to resign in March 1947. Only weeks later, ‘Direct Action’ achieved its purpose when the Congress reluctantly accepted the Partition of India, stating that  it was doing so only to prevent the ‘communal poison from spreading to the rest of the country and tearing its social fabric apart’.

There is thus ample justification for holding the Muslim League responsible for initiating the communal violence that tore India apart in the next 12 months, but none for laying the blame at the doorstep of ordinary Muslims. For the express purpose of ‘Direct Action’ was to break Indian Muslims’ traditional support of the Congress

To do this, the radicals in the League deliberately aroused two of the basest motives in human nature: greed and lust.

In Noakhali, the only district in Bengal that experienced an organised slaughter of Hindus comparable to Punjab, it was started in by a dislodged MLA named Gholam Sarwar Husseini, whose deeply pious family had presided over a shrine that both the Hindus and the Muslims of the area worshipped at. Hosseini, who did not belong to the Muslim League had lost the January 1946 elections to a League candidate, and decided to outdo him in extremism to recover his hold on the people. He therefore raised the  cry to avenge the death of Muslims on ‘Direct Action Day’ in Calcutta. But the real lure he offered was the ‘takeover’ of the land and shops, most which were owned by Hindus, and of women. 

In Punjab too, greed was the mainspring of the violence that was triggered by Partition, but it was compounded by a monumental anger, mainly among the Sikhs, at betrayal by neighbours with whom they had lived in peace for centuries. 

For this, the British government was largely, and not accidentally, responsible. The cause was its decision, taken secretly in London after the inevitability of Partition was accepted, to align the boundary along the Ravi river. 

When the Governor of Punjab, Sir Evan Jenkins, was informed of the decision, he wrote an agonised letter to the Viceroy, begging him to get London to change its mind and place the boundary along the Chenab. Placing it along the Ravi, he pointed out, would put 50% of the Sikhs of Punjab in Pakistan, when the Akalis had made it clear that they wanted to remain a part of India. 

This would force millions of Sikhs to leave their land and migrate as penniless refugees to East Punjab. The Sikhs were a martial race whose empire had stretched from Delhi till the Khyber pass less than a century earlier. They were bound to revolt against the decision. The resulting violence, he pointed out, would be well beyond the new government’s capacity to control. 

Placing the boundary on the Chenab would put 90% of the Sikhs within India, sharply reduce the displacement, and make it possible for the police and the army to limit the disturbances that would result. But Attlee’s recently elected government,  guided by a Commonwealth Relations office that had wanted all of Punjab to be in Pakistan and was therefore determined to “give away” as little of it as possible to India, remained adamant that the boundary had to run along the Ravi. 

Jenkins’ warning proved prophetic. In 1947, Sikhs made up 18% of the population of undivided Punjab, but owned 30% of the land, and paid 50% of the land revenue. In 1857, they had saved the British empire by helping it to recapture Delhi. In 1914 and 1940, they had sent their sons to fight for Britain against Germany. Their sense of betrayal when they got to know of the Partition Plan can therefore only be imagined. 

Also read: Days After Unveiling, First Memorial in UK to Honour Sikh WW1 Soldiers Vandalised

The Akalis reacted by hastily concocting a plot to assassinate Jinnah, which was equally speedily discovered and scotched by the  police. Master Tara Singh, Giani Kartar Singh and most other Akali leaders therefore ended up in jail. This left the Sikh masses, nearly all of whom were farmers, both leaderless and infuriated. 

As news filtered through to them that their Muslim neighbours were secretly parcelling out their land among themselves in anticipation of their departure or death, their anger crossed all bounds and the killing began.  

The two successor governments’ decision to limit the violence in Punjab by arranging a total exchange of populations completed the disinheritance not only of the Sikhs, but also of the substantial Muslim population of Eastern Punjab. 

Most of them left against their will. For example, the family of Tufail Niazi, one of Pakistan’s most renowned singers in the 1980s and 1990s, had been kirtan singers at the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar for generations and had no desire to leave. But the population exchange left them with no way to stay except by becoming Sikhs or Hindus. Not willing to do that, they were forced to leave. 

They were not by any means the only victims. Karnal, for example, had a thriving population of Muslim Rajputs, with a plethora of mosques, and madrassas, and an impressive tradition of Islamic scholarship. Today this is not even a fading  memory, for all that survives are a few mosque-like ruins, whose purpose has been almost entirely forgotten.  

While I recoil at the idea of remembering Pakistan’s Independence Day as the ‘Horrors of Partition’ day, I believe we do need to remember it, to remind ourselves not to repeat the mistakes of the past: not to allow, let alone participate in, a wilful destruction of the uniquely tolerant and syncretic fusion of religions that India created over three millennia of coexistence between existing and newly arrived peoples, ideas and beliefs.

That is the already injured syncretic civilisation Modi is sparing no effort to destroy. He must not be allowed to succeed.  

Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi-based former journalist and editor.