What if India wasn’t partitioned?

In an undivided India, about one out of three Indians would have been a Muslim. Muslims would have constituted large majorities in Kashmir, Punjab and Bengal, besides Sindh, Balochistan and the NWFP, and substantially larger minorities elsewhere than presently.  With a population and geographical distribution such as this, it is hard to see them getting the short shrift from the Hindu majority.

(Daily Times, 12 June 2014)

It is best to avoid getting into debates on hypothetical situations based on “what if” postulations, particularly on such a sensitive issue as partition. Nevertheless, I am tempted to make a few observations on the subject, prompted by Mr Yasser Hamdani’s recent article in this newspaper (26 May 2014), “What if there had been no partition of India?”

Whether one is for or against it, partition is now irreversible. No one anywhere in the three countries in question, namely, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (except a few “Great India” idealists and some radical “Bharat Mata” devotees in India), envisage anything more than good neighbourly relations between them, including freedom of travel.

India’s now ascendant Hindu-nationalist forces view the country’s Muslim population of about 15% as a liability, an obstacle to their vision of a Bharat (India) imbued with Hindutva (literally, Hindu-ness). Better a smaller India fashioned as a Hindu state than a greater one forever “contaminated” with a larger Muslim population!

Indian Muslims lag behind in economic and social development not only vis-à-vis their Hindu fellow-citizens, but also in comparison with the Muslims in Pakistan and Bangladesh. This is the result of over five decades of state support of the Muslim majorities in these two countries and the official neglect of the Muslim minority in India. 

A comprehensive official survey, the Sachar Committee Report (2006), over 400 pages long, found that Muslims comprise only 2.5% of the state bureaucracy. Justice Rajinder Sachar’s attempt to obtain the number of Muslims in the Indian armed forces was stone-walled by the defence establishment, but they are believed to comprise less than 2% of the total.  In socio-economic terms, they now rank even below the backward Hindu castes, who are patronized by the state with affirmative action (quotas).

Indian Muslims have been penalized for partition in multiple ways.  They suffer in a way that Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh do not, namely, by being stigmatized as supporters of the partition of 1947. Many Hindus think that Indian Muslims have forfeited the right to live honourably in a post-partition India.

While millions of Indian Muslims either chose to or were compelled by circumstances to remain in India (they and their descendants now number about 160 million), the vast majority of the Muslim elite of India migrated to Pakistan at partition or subsequently. They left behind broken families, shattered homes and disjointed neighborhoods clinging to little else but hope and just biding their time.

Thus, India’s residual Muslims (about a third of the subcontinent’s total Muslim population) became trapped in a vicious cycle of governmental neglect and social discrimination, aggravated by suspicion, aspersion, unemployment, low education and a lack of leadership.

Mr Hamdani credits partition for the “accumulation of capital” in Karachi (and Dhaka) and the transformation of “the tract along the Grand Trunk Road from a poverty stricken rural agrarian society to the booming semi-urban middle class populated area that it is today”. 

If we are to justify the sacrifice of up to a million lives and the uprooting of another 15 million by the economic uplift of certain backward areas, who can argue against the separation of Balochistan, southern Punjab and upper Sindh from Pakistan, and of the five northeastern Indian states, besides Bihar, Odisha and Kerala from India, for the sake of their economic development?

If we are to follow the logic of economic backwardness and ethnic, religious or communal disharmony to justify the breaking up of states, one may ask where this will end, for India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, China, Russia, Ukraine, Brazil, Congo, Sudan, South Sudan and, indeed, most countries of the world.

In an undivided India, about one out of three Indians would have been a Muslim. Muslims would have constituted large majorities in Kashmir, Punjab and Bengal, besides Sindh, Balochistan and the NWFP.  The educated, business and land-owning Muslim elites of UP, Bihar, Central Provinces, Gujrat and Bombay would have retained their influential positions in their respective regions. With a population and geographical distribution such as this, it is hard to see Muslims getting the short shrift from the Hindu majority.

Then there is the question of Urdu, which is dying a slow but sure death in India, despite being the mother tongue of a large majority of Indian Muslims, notwithstanding its rich cultural heritage and the large number of its admirers amongst Hindi-speaking and Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs. Sadly, it is a consequence of partition that the best Indian songs in the finest Urdu, immortalized in films seen and heard around the world, are now labelled and known as Hindi songs.

But in a united India, Urdu would have held its own, not just thanks to Muslims but also its numerous Hindu and Sikh adherents. Even those Pakistanis who now regard Urdu as an imposition on them, would have defended and promoted Urdu as a counterweight to Hindi in their own interest.

Finally, let us not overlook the spillover of partition, its downstream effects, so to speak: three Indo-Pakistan wars, Bangladesh tragedy, Siachen, Kargil, the simmering Kashmir and water-sharing disputes between India and Pakistan, water-sharing, border and the cross-border enclaves issues between Bangladesh and India, trade barriers among all three countries and hundreds of thousands of divided families. Surely, these wars and disputes wouldn’t have occurred in a united India.

Even assuming that Hindu-Muslim riots would have been a regular occurrence in an undivided India, as Mr Hamdani does, it would still take many centuries of such violence to approach the total numbers killed and maimed at partition. Add to that the casualties of the three wars over Kashmir, the Bangladesh war and the Hindu-Muslim riots in all three countries, including the infamous Gujrat riots of 2002, in which two thousand Muslims are believed to have been killed.

To put it into perspective, and using the conservative estimate of half a million, rather than a million killed at the time of partition alone, it would take 2,500 Gujrat-style riots to equal that number. In other words, if a Gujrat were to occur somewhere in a united India once every month, it would still take over 200 years to equal the number killed in the violence that accompanied partition!

By Razi Azmi


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16 Responses to What if India wasn’t partitioned?

  1. Razi, Your columns afford a Westerner some of the clearest and most provocative insights into various subjects little addressed in our stream of journalists, or at the least, with convincing awareness. I’m sending links to some of my colleagues with the eastern papers. In this piece you do well to warn against “What if?” history, as cause and effect is difficult enough to prove. Nonetheless, your closing two paragraphs drive home your point. Although the comparison is not a good one, your article reminds me of the American Civil War, the gross loss of lives, but with an opposite ending–no partition. We’ve had our riots since then, especially during the 1960s, but they’ve been of quite another nature and certainly without the death tolls of your region’s uprisings. On a slightly different note, how does Samuel P. Huntington’s thesis measure up to your take on India’s partition?

  2. Adnan khan says:

    Excellent article, certainly in United India, one third Muslims would have had a bigger say in all matters. India’s poverty levels would not have been that pathetic. I think the biggest losers after the partition are the Muslims of India who have to after 65 yrs still have to prove their loyalty to Hindu India.

  3. Tony says:

    Hi Razi,
    Sorry but this is pure fantasy. Muslims are incapable of living with their fellow Muslims let alone those ghastly infidels such as the Sikhs, Hindu. Christians etc. The vicious sectarian wars that have been a characteristic of Islamic societies for several centuries (on and off I do accept) are proof of an insurmountable barrier to the idea of a “greater India”. Of course it is not only the Muslims who would have been the downfall of a unified state incorporating Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. All of the aforementioned nations have shown a preference for demagoguery over statesmanship and genuine leadership.

    In recent times Greece, France and Russia have all shown in their various ways how hard it is to keep unity and peace in a democratic nation which allows freedom of speech. If people like Putin, Le Pen, Berlusconi can prosper in “advanced” western nations, then what chance would Greater India have ever had of keeping the fissiparous forces from taking control. Do you really believe that demagogues would not have stoked up the fires of religious intolerance to further their own political ends? Even today, Pakistan is in danger of becoming a failed state. Had Pakistan and Bangladesh been incorporated into a greater India, the result would have been a civil war 1000 times more bloody and intractable than the war in Northern Ireland. The decision of Mountbatten and the British Government may have been based on the wrong reasons, military weakness, lack of political will etc but it avoided the long and bloody struggle that would have inevitably ensued.

    Islam is to the body politic of any nation like a poison to a person’s body. The stronger the Islamic sentiment the weaker the state. Just as the stronger the poison in a body the weaker that body becomes.

    “Even assuming that Hindu-Muslim riots would have been a regular occurrence in an undivided India, as Mr Hamdani does, it would still take many centuries of such violence to approach the total numbers killed and maimed at partition.” If you really believe that then look at what is going on in the middle east at the moment and ask yourself if you really believe that Pakistani Moslems would peacefully coexist with their fellow Indians.

  4. Carl says:

    Interesting article Razi. I like counter-historical speculation. But let me comment on one of the responses.
    I’ve noticed that we – most of us – often respond to conflict that we don’t understand by assuming that the people involved in those conflicts are incapable of cooperation, self-rule, whatever. There is usually a “they” to pin this incapacity on.
    I tend to think instead that ALL human communities divided by ethnic or religious identity have difficulty living side by side, and that virtually every such community generates demagogic leaders who will inflame the fears of their constituents. This has been true in the US, the UK, and countless other countries.
    Fortunately people in some countries have managed to moderate such difficulties and live peacefully together, even if uneasily. But unfortunately, some individuals in these fortunate countries blithely pronounce judgements on the capabilities and incapabilities of people in other countries from afar, with no more evidence than is selected for them by the news. This seems to serve no purpose so much as to further inflame the passions. Is that just inconsiderate?
    Those of us living in more fortunate countries, where ethnic and religious tensions are moderated to some degree, should think twice. Instead of congratulating ourselves, we might reflect that making inconsiderate pronouncements on the capabilities of people in other countries can only earn us the enmity of those people.

  5. Razi Azmi says:

    A reader has sent in the following comment directly to me:
    “Partition happened because the Hindu and Muslim majority parties failed to find a constitutional solution within the framework of a single country. A single sub-continental country had never existed before the British Raj which further complicated the problem already posed by two large religious communities/identities that had failed to find a modus vivendi especially since Aurangzeb’s divisive and disastrous adventures.

    But Partition made matters worse by further deepening the Hindu-Muslim divide which in turn opened the door wider for fanatics on both sides. And it also artificially altered the demography and culture of its two most contentious regions – Punjab and Bengal. Partition also diverted staggering resources away from development into defence pursuits which also worsened the psyche on both sides.

    A more important question is what could have prevented Partition in the first place. Give and take for sure. Jinnah was more interested in that until he was rebuffed by Nehru et al for seeking safeguards against the feared tyranny of the majority community in an undiluted parliamentary system.

    There was no simple solution to a complicated problem but Partition was hardly the best.”

  6. Khalid Pathan says:

    I think that the response sent directly to Mr. Razi is one which is much closer to reality in my opinion. The fact that religion mixed with politics creates the most destructive force that a human brain could ever have conceived.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      I agree that “religion mixed with politics creates the most destructive force that a human brain could ever have conceived”, but it has certainly not caused the most havoc or the largest number of casualties in the world, by far. About 10 million were killed in the First World War, over 40 million in the Second World War, anywhere from half a million to a million were slaughtered over 100 days in the Rwandan ethnic genocide and over 5 million in Congo’s tribal conflicts between 1998 and 2008 (it isn’t over yet). The Bangladesh war was one of self-determination with no religious underpinning. Tony may not know, but most western and many Indian historians and writers now concede that, despite the religious façade, the Pakistan movement was one of self-determination too. Mr Jinnah was not the villain he is often portrayed to be, rather he was more flexible than some leaders of the Indian National Congress, including Mr Nehru. What led Jinnah, once called the “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity”, to argue for Pakistan is an interesting story. Even so, most believe that he was ready for a compromise to the very end, including his acceptance of the Cabinet Mission Plan, which would have preserved the unity of India for the foreseeable future at least. Just for those who are obsessed with the Suuni-Shia schism, the Iraqi Sunni Kurds are now allied with the Iraqi Arab Shias in opposing the Arab Sunni ISIS (or ISIL) now invading from the northwest. What superficially appears to be a sectarian divide in Iraq is, in fact, regional and tribal, with the Sunni Kurds in the north, Sunni Arabs in the center and the Shia Arabs in the south.

  7. Razi Azmi says:

    Another reader, Dr Mir Latif, has sent in this comment directly to me (which I publish with his permission):

    In the written as well as unwritten history, India has been under one rule for only 650 years. Mughals and the British shared 600 of those 650 years between them and the rest under Ashoka, who became a Budhist. Rest of the period India was split into hundreds, if not thousands of rajwaras, holdings etc. Hind and Sind always remained independent entities, both meeting at Sirhind or a SARHAD between the two. Partition of subcontinent is not something new, it was always there in history.

    Now something about the subcontinent or you may say the British India.
    All the leading Muslim Religious parties opposed the creation of Pakistan some calling Quaid e Azam, KAFIR-e-AZAM. Quaid-e-Azam himself was a staunch Indian nationalist, until at least January 1915, when Gandhi singled him out as a Mohammedan. He was labelled as a symbol of the Hindu Muslim unity by Moti Lal Nehru, Jinnah Hall in Bombay, a symbol of that recognition. He had a Parsi women as his wife and he had an English living style, no beard, no Maulana tagged with his name.

    Quaid-e-Azam did not want partition of the British India until May 1946. He accepted the Cabinet mission proposals, division of the British India into three autonomous regions within India: (1) northwest, (2) East and (3) the rest of India. Congress rejected the proposals. It is the Congress, the Hindu mindset, which is responsible for the partition of British India.

    After the June 2, 1947 partition announcement by Mountbatten, Congress once again forced the division of Punjab and Bengal on religious basis, thus leading to massacres and migration of populations unmatched in the history of mankind.

    I have seen Pakistan in making and had crossed over to Pakistan in 1947, with my shoes littered with the blood of my dear ones.

    So my dear Azmi, you may like it or not, the Hindu mindset is responsible for the partition of British India, the bloodshed and the migration of populations. They take counsel from Chanakya, who recommended ENMITY WITH THE NEIGHBOUR AND FRIENDSHIP WITH HIS NEIGHBOUR.

  8. Nadeem says:

    As usual a great article from Razi Azmi, but had the British left without Partition, Hindu-Muslim antagonism would have escalated into civil war, leading ultimately to an even bloodier partition. India’s partition avoided civil war. But it’s hard to believe when Pakistan was created as a homeland for Muslims, why far more were left behind in India than were incorporated into the new state of Pakistan, a state created in two halves, one in the east and the other 1,700 kilometers away on the western side of the subcontinent. To avoid killing of more than million people, the least that the British, Congress and Muslim League could have done was to do it in a planned manner. This was the most disorderly migration in a most miserable manner.

    It is a possibility that Jinnah Saheb, simply wished to use the demand for a separate state for Muslims as a bargaining tool to win greater power for Muslims within India. Certainly, the idea of ‘Pakistan’ was not thought of until the late 1930s after Allama Iqbal’s address in Allahabad during the muslim league convention in 1930.

  9. Jehanzeb says:

    I would like to take Tony’s point a bit further. While this article tries to visualise the potential benefits of a united India, these speculations purely see Muslim viewpoint.

    The united India would have its two major borders, entire western border and entire eastern border, lying in the areas where Muslims held an absolute majority. With Islam known to create supranational loyalties and identities among its followers, the domination of India’s two geopolitical borders by Muslims would have left it insecure. In fact, the control of these two regions would have afforded the Indian Muslims political weight over and above their numerical strength of about one-third in the united India. The over-representation of Muslims (from Punjab and the Frontier) in the British Indian Army would have also carried through. Such situation would have parallels in the politics of pre-1971 Pakistan, when the numerical majority of East Pakistanis was held hostage to the intransigent opposition to democracy of the Western wing. Hindus of India would have had to either accept a non-democratic power-sharing system where Muslims enjoyed political power at par, if not above, other religious communities combined or a constant civil war-like situation.

    If Pakistan, one-seventh in population and size, and one-tenth in economy as compared to India, could launch the Kargil War for political ends, one-third in strength, strategically-placed, Muslims in the united India would have even less hesitation in using force to settle domestic issues and, thus, undermine Indian democracy. We should not discount and underestimate the abilities of Muslims to enter in religion-based political alliances with Afghanistan and beyond to further undermine Hindus, if needed. Abdalis and the Taliban have historically been readily available to conquer Delhi and provide an external counter-balance to Hindu majority in the subcontinent. A purer but smaller India, with troublesome areas separated, is comparatively more stable and secure. My thoughts are, again, “what if” rambling. My scenario might not have happened in the united India but why take a chance.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      Below is a comment, in its entirely, posted by a former academic of Pakistani background, who does not wish to be named:

      “Would the Subcontinent have fared better if Partition had not occurred?

      That would have required a constitutional compromise, some form of a federal system with safeguards for religious minorities. Assuming that, my short answer would be yes, especially in light of all the disasters that followed Partition, starting with a humanitarian catastrophe.

      Briefly, Kashmir would not have been the big issue it became; costly inter-state wars would not have occurred; an undivided Subcontinent would have been in a much better position to limit the impact of the Cold War as well as deal with aspiring regional powers like Communist China. The non-aligned movement would have carried more weight and cohesion, giving the Subcontinent a bigger voice on global issues.

      Internally, the Subcontinent would have been able to focus more sharply and with more resources on meeting its social and economic challenges. Muslims in India would have fared better. Punjab and Bengal, which suffered the most from Partition, would have been more important politically and they would also done a lot better economically. Sharing the Himalayan waters would have been much easier to manage in an undivided situation than the big headache it has been since Partition.

      At least for the first one or two decades, the Subcontinent would have had a better post-colonial start than it did as a result of Partition. What would have happened further down the road is more speculative. But a better start is good enough for me.”

  10. Javed Agha says:

    Interesting debate…..But I think United India would have been better for the Muslims.

  11. It was a much greater conspiracy between the British and the Congres Party for dividing the sub-continent. Nehru could never become the Prime minister of India, if the Country was not partitioned. Go through the biography of late Sri Prakasha, a Congressman and personal friend of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and also Maulana Azad’s “India Wins Freedom”. If India was not divided, the muslims would have been in a better position which the Congress & RSS never wanted.

    • Jehanzeb says:

      No matter how much we disagree with Nehru’s politics, his secular credentials are indisputable. He abhorred RSS more than any other party, AIML included. Congress cannot be lumped together with the Hindu right.

      We should remember that Nehru headed the unity government of the pre-partition India, 1946-47, he would have been amongst the strongest, if not the strongest, candidate for PM in a united independent India. Nehru did not need India divided for any personal political ambitions.

  12. Aftab Khan says:

    The discussion is very much hypothetical. It is too late to judge now. The result of the division are visible. Muslims are LOOSER on all fronts. Let us work hard and grow irrespective of our location. Let all people of the subcontinent work for peace and stability. Mankind is passing through a critical time when we see around us. everywhere there are killings. No matter to which religion belong, let us live with love and support to each one.

    • Vishnu karthik says:

      loser? what do you mean by that? muslims got their 2 muslim only countries and also enjoy equal rights in the hindu majority country.. if anything its a win-win for muslims and a lose-lose for hindus..

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