As the British Raj crumbles, old animosities begin to stir in the subcontinent’s communities. Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru face a formidable new adversary in the form of Muhammed Ali Jinnah, who calls for the creation of a separate Muslim nation - Pakistan. Hindu-Muslim tensions, fueled by political polarization and corrosive rhetoric, explode into sectarian violence during the Great Calcutta Killing of August 1946.
As the British Raj crumbles, old animosities begin to stir in the subcontinent’s communities. Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru face a formidable new adversary in the form of Muhammed Ali Jinnah, who calls for the creation of a separate Muslim nation - Pakistan. Hindu-Muslim tensions, fueled by political polarization and corrosive rhetoric, explode into sectarian violence during the Great Calcutta Killing of August 1946.
Akbar, M.J. Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan. 2011.
Tharoor, Shashi. Nehru: The Invention of India. 2003.
Tharoor, Shashi. Inglorious Empire: What The British Did To India. 2017.
Khan, Yasmin. The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan. 2007.
Guha, Ramachandra. Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World. 2018.
Sarila, Narendra Singh. The Shadow of the Great Game. 2005.
Charles Rivers Editors. The Punjab. 2018.
Charles Rivers Editors. British India. 2017.
Puri, Kavita. Partition Voices: Untold British Stories. 2019.
Malhotra, Aanchal. Remnants of Partition: 21 Objects From A Continent Divided. 2017.
Von Tunzelmann, Alex. Indian Summer. 2007.
Zakaria, Anam. The Footprints of Partition. 2015.
Ahmed Akbar. Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity. 1997.
Urvashi, Butalia. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. 1998.
White-Spunner, Barney. Partition. 2017.
Lawrence, James. Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India. 1997.
Hamdani, Yasser Latif. Jinnah: A Life. 2020.
Fischer, Louis. Gandhi. 1950.
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Hello and welcome to Conflicted.
The history podcast where we talk about the struggles that shaped us, the tough questions that they pose, and why we should care about any of it.
Conflicted is a member of the Evergreen Podcast Network; and as always, I’m your host, Zach Cornwell.
You are listening to Part 2 of a multi-part series on the Partition of India. If you haven’t listened to Part 1 yet, I’d suggest you hit the pause button and go check out that first episode. We covered some very important events and met some very important characters, and you might rob yourself of some critical context if you skip it.
But if you have listened to Part 1: End of Empire, you are in the right place. However, before we dive into the next stage of our story, let’s take a moment to quickly refresh ourselves on what we’ve covered thus far.
When we left off last time, the year was 1930. And the all-powerful British Raj had been dealt a symbolic blow by a 61-year-old man in a loincloth, armed with a handful of sodium chloride. The climax of our first episode was Mohandas Gandhi’s historic Salt March, in which he and his followers walked 241 miles to the coast to collect contraband salt, throwing up a punk-rock middle finger to the British government in the process.
It was the culmination of a long journey, not only for Gandhi himself, but India as a whole.
Last time, we spent a decent chunk of time discussing how the British came to rule over India in the first place. We talked about the corporate predations of the infamous British East India Company in the 17th and 18thcenturies. How they embedded themselves like a tapeworm into India, siphoning off wealth in the form of rubies and spices, making England fabulously richin the process.
It was a colonial game of “just the tip” that escalated into a full-on takeover. Like a desperate junkie, the more the Company tasted, they more they wanted. Soon, India was falling like dominoes under the boots of their private armies. The once magnificent Mughal Empire rotted from within, and the English were able to hack it down like a very large, but very dead tree.
But in 1858, after a nasty rebellion, the Directors of the East India Company were forced to hand over administrative control of India directly to the British Crown. Private enterprise became imperial possession; The result was an effective, but brutal political infrastructure we call the British Raj.
But the Raj was not built to last. In fact, it would endure for fewer than one hundred years. That limited lifespan was due, in part, to some of the characters we met in Part 1.
We learned about Mohandas Gandhi and his revolutionary concept of peaceful non-cooperation. He called it satyagraha or “truth force”, but to the British, it might as well have been kryptonite. They could crack as many skulls and snap as many bones as they wanted, but Gandhi’s incorruptible moral example ignited a mass movement hell-bent on self-rule and eventually full independence. As Gandhi phrased his challenge to the Imperialists:
“No matter what you do, no matter how you repress us, we shall one day wring reluctant repentance from you”
One of the people inspired by Gandhi’s non-violent example was another key member of our cast, the rich-kid-turned-radical, and future prime minister of India: Jawaharlal Nehru. We met Nehru as a young man, boiling with rage over the notorious Amritsar Massacre, in which British troops methodically murdered 379 men, women and children in a public garden.
Under the wing of the Mahatma, Nehru’s righteous anger eventually hardened into idealistic conviction, and he would go on to become Gandhi’s political heir-apparent. As the writer Shashi Tharoor describes, Nehru was “the glamorous face of Indian nationalism just as Gandhi was its otherworldly deity.”
But Nehru and Gandhi are only one side of a very complex equation.
As we attempt to understand the churning political currents that would influence the Partition of 1947, we need to turn our attention to a different character, a different community, and a different perspective. Gandhi and Nehru may have visualized a future of peace, love and harmony, but they were dismissive, even blind, to ancient anxieties festering in the body politic of India.
An old virus was lying dormant in the cells of India’s diverse communities. A tension, a strain, a resentment, that would be agitated, exploited, and eventually weaponized – to the death and detriment of millions of people.
The sectarian violence that bubbled up in the summer of 1947 was waged primarily along religious lines, although rarely for religious reasons. Faith became a political identity, pitting neighbors against neighbors. And through a rapid process of polarization, the religious communities of India learned – or perhaps re-learned – how to hate one another.
The result was a “manmade sea of blood”, according to historian Ayesha Jalal. Hindus killing Muslims. Muslims killing Hindus. Sikhs killing Muslims. Muslims killing Sikhs. Of course, it’s very important to emphasize – and I will continue to emphasize it throughout this series - no one religious group is solely to blame for what happened during Partition - it was equal opportunity atrocity. As Hajari Nisid notes: “The story features no easy villains—and few heroes.”
But the lingering mystery at the heart of Partition, one that has confounded historians for decades, is why people who lived side by side for so long in relative peace, different in creed but similar in culture, butchered each other so callously in 1947. You can sense the frustration in a large portion the historiography, the feeling that it doesn’t quite make sense, that it shouldn’t have happened this way – and yet it did.
As historian Joya Chatterji writes, it is the “gaping void at the heart of the subject’. We simply do not know why people who had lived cheek by jowl for so long fell upon each other in 1947 and its aftermath with a ferocity that has few parallels in history.” Historian Yasmin Khan agrees, writing: “No single answer can explain the series of events in 1947, and there is no smoking gun in the archive.”
And it’s true. Clean, tidy narratives rarely exist in the pages of history, and try as we might, those who study it are never entirely free from their own internal biases. As historian Will Durant famously said, ‘History is mostly guessing; the rest is prejudice.”
In today’s episode, we will examine the historical relationship between India’s main religious communities: Hindus, Muslims. That history will serve as a backdrop for the rise of a new character, who will become as important to our story as Gandhi or Nehru. The founder of Pakistan, Muhammed Ali Jinnah.
So now that we’ve refreshed ourselves on where we’ve been and sketched out where we’re going, let’s get started.
Welcome to The Partition of India: Part 2 – Two Blind Eyes
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Seventy years after the Partition of India.
We’re in the UK, in a small suburban town west of London.
It’s Thursday evening – but not just any Thursday evening. Tonight is “Pizza Thursday” at the local community center.
As the pizza boxes are delivered and brought inside, a small crowd of elderly men and women start to congregate inside the community center. They are members of the East African Asian Senior Citizens Association – a local support group of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians.
Every Thursday, rain or shine, they meet here, in the local community center; and they spend that time reading poetry, watching films, talking, catching up, and of course, eating pizza.
One of these people, is an 86-year-old man named Swaran Singh Rayit.
Swaran is a small man. He wears a crisp suit and a delicate pair of glasses. His beard is snow-white, the same color as the turban wrapped tightly around his head. Swaran is a practicing Sikh, and as such he observes the commandment to never cut his hair – a “symbol of respect for the perfection of God’s creation”, as journalist Kavita Puri describes. The turban is a symbol of self-respect and dedication.
Every Thursday, Swaran comes to see his friends at the community center. Outside of these weekly events, his daily routine is simple and unremarkable. He wakes up at 4am, says his prayers, and listens to the radio. Later in the day, he takes the bus to the local Sikh temple. The next day, he wakes up at 4am and does it all over again.
To anyone sitting on the bus across from Swaran, he looks like just another polite old man. He talks about the weather, or his faith, or his family. But there is something that Swaran does not talk about. And that is what happened to him seven decades ago, on the other side of the world, when he was just a fifteen-year-old boy.
It was the summer of 1947.
Swaran lived in a small village in the Punjab region of northwestern India.
A quick note on geography: If you think of India as looking like a giant shark’s tooth, pointing down into the Indian ocean, the Punjab is up in the gums, at the top left. That’s Punjab. Very important area to mentally earmark for future reference. At the time, that part of India was incredibly diverse, a melting pot of many different cultures and religions, primarily Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus. Swaran’s village was no different; it was in some ways a microcosm of the Punjab at large.
There was a Sikh side of town. And a Muslim side of town. The two communities lived together, side by side. They traded with one another, celebrated holidays together, and let their kids play together. Case-in-point, fifteen-year-old Swaran. His best friend was a Muslim kid from the other side of town, a boy named Gulam.
Swaran and Gulam did everything together. They went to the same school, visited each other’s houses, and knew each other’s parents. There were differences though; Sikhs and Hindus alike were forbidden from sharing food with Muslims or eating food prepared by Muslims. Swaran and Gulam, as close as they were, could never cook a meal together.
But that was just the way it was. In every other respect, they were as tight as brothers. But as they got older, things began to change. There was chatter around the village – rumors that the British masters were leaving India for good, after centuries of colonization. But unfortunately, the India they were leaving behind would not be a united one. At the stroke of midnight on August 15th, 1947, the Punjab, with its mix of different peoples and religions, would be split, or partitioned.
One side would belong to India. The other side would go to a new country, Pakistan. To Swaran and his friend, the million-dollar question was …which side of the dividing line would their village be on? In August of 1947, they got their answer. When the maps were revealed to the public, a jagged line ran through the Punjab. Swaran’s village, to his relief, was to remain in India.
But to Muslims like his best friend Gulam, Partition brought anything but comfort.
Already there were rumors of acts of violence against Muslims on the Indian side of the border. Militant gangs of Sikhs and Hindus were prowling East Punjab, kicking Muslims out of their homes, hurting them, killing them, forcing them migrate to “where they belonged”, the new Islamic-majority country of Pakistan. Of course, on the other side of the border, in West Punjab, the same exact thing was happening to Hindus and Sikhs.
It seemed as if the Punjab was like a glass of oil and water, temporarily stirred and incorporated, but now slowly separating, molecule by molecule into distinct halves.
Swaran said goodbye to his best friend Gulam in the middle of the night. It wasn’t safe for Muslims here in the village anymore, so Gulam had to flee for Pakistan. As they hugged each other, the two friends realized they would probably never see each other again. Swaran remembered the heartache seven decades later: “We were very disturbed, we had all been living together for hundreds of years.”
But the real trauma of Partition would arrive at Swaran’s doorstep shortly after.
As the weeks passed, the violence in the Punjab began to intensify. Long columns of refugees clogged the roads, pursued by gangs of killers and nationalist death squads. A wheel of reciprocal violence was beginning to spin out of control.
One day, there was a knock on Swaran’s door.
Outside, a large group of armed men was forming. The elders of the village had decreed that one man from every Sikh household must participate in an attack on the nearby Muslim village. The Muslims, they said, had killed Sikhs. Had hurt, abducted, and raped Sikh women. They must be punished.
And so, with little choice and much hesitation, fifteen-year-old Swaran found himself marching alongside a posse of men from his village, carrying a sword in his hand. Even after 70 years, the memories of that day were razor-sharp in Swaran’s mind. He says he remembers walking for over an hour, and as they passed other Sikh villages, the raiding party got bigger and bigger and bigger. It would’ve been easy to see from a distance, the blades of dozens, if not hundreds of men, winking in the summer sun.
Finally, they arrived at their destination. And without words or talk or reticence, the Sikhs threw themselves upon the Muslim villagers. Fifteen-year-old Swaran could only stand, trembling, paralyzed, the sword shaking in his hand, as they began hacking the Muslim villagers to death. Journalist Kavita Puri describes what happened next:
When they arrived, there was panic. The Muslim villagers tried to escape. One of the adults Swaran was with, a heavily built man, tried to behead a Muslim. But his sword was damaged in the act. He shouted to Swaran, who was just ten yards away from him, to hand over his sword. Swaran said the man was much older than him, and he had no choice but to give it to him.
The young man watched as his sword was used to murder a Muslim, not far from where he was standing. The day of killing will never leave Swaran. He can still visualize how the older Sikh villager took a cloth to wipe the fresh blood off the murderous blade and then handed the sword back to him. The scene was one of chaos. There was frenzied killing, blood in the street, bodies on the ground. ‘Maybe fifty to a hundred people they killed in that village.’ Swaran insists he did not harm anyone, that he had no choice but to go along with the other men.
The walk back to the village had to be one of the longest hours of Swaran’s life. His sword was still smeared with someone else’s blood, a Muslim’s blood, and if his thoughts wandered to his friend Gulam, he kept that to himself. It could’ve easily been Gulam’s head under those blades. All Swaran could hope was that his friend had been able to avoid kill-squads like the one he’d just been recruited into.
After Partition, Swaran eventually immigrated to England, but even at the age of 86, riding that bus in London, the memories of the murderous raid are still crystal-clear in his mind. As he told journalist Kavita Puri: ‘I was a student … I did not want to kill people. ‘But I have seen this.’
Over the years, Swaran tried many times to track down Gulam. He never did find out what happened to his friend.
Swaran Singh Rayit’s story is one of thousands, if not tens of thousands, just like it. Even at the age of 86, he did not understand why India was partitioned. He blamed the British for leaving, for turning their back on the subcontinent as it descended into bloody violence. His confusion and resentment is common among Partition survivors.
Yet the fact that Swaran was willing to share his story to anyone is a minor miracle. Most witnesses to Partition violence refuse to talk about it at all. It’s simply too painful. As one elderly woman named Azra Haq told a journalist:
I’d rather not talk about what I saw. I’m sorry, I cannot repeat those things. I cannot bring them to life again. I don’t want to remember them.”
But another common theme you’ll hear a lot in Partition narratives is a kind of wistful utopianism. A rose-tinted nostalgia, suggesting that everything was entirely copacetic between India’s religious communities before Partition. That everyone lived in peace and harmony, that there were no tensions, no drama, no baggage. As if when the clock struck midnight on August 15th, 1947, everyone just suddenly lost their minds.
The truth, of course, is more multi-faceted. Harmony in India, writes academic Ahmed Akbar, was “part imagined, part real.”
The seeds of conflict had always been there. Ticking time bombs with very long fuses, snaking back through the centuries. And like old bombs, some are inert, harmless, duds. But others are primed to explode at the slightest graze/touch.
To even begin to understand why seemingly peaceful villages and communities could suddenly rupture into open genocide, we need to turn our eyes back to the distant past. Before Partition, before the Raj, even before the East India Company landed on the subcontinent’s shores.
THE IMAGINED PAST
In 1947, India’s population was composed of three main religious communities: Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. Hindus were in the majority by a huge margin – they constituted about ¾ of the population. Muslims were the largest minority – constituting slightly less than a ¼ of the population. The Sikhs were a very distant 3rd – only about 2% of the population.
If you were to walk up to the average Hindu or Muslim or Sikh on the streets of Delhi or Lahore in 1947, and ask for a history lesson about India, you would’ve gotten three wildly different responses. Three very different and somewhat contradictory interpretations of the same set of facts – like a Rashomon-style set of flashbacks. Similar, but with some crucial deviation or differentiating detail.
The Sikhs are an important group in our story, but for now, for the sake of simplicity, we’re just going to focus on the historical relationship between the two largest groups: Hindus and Muslims.
For Hindus, the story of India was one of paradise lost. Of a glorious heyday. A resplendent heritage stretching back into antiquity, until it was corrupted and defiled by invading armies and bloodthirsty usurpers. First the Muslims, then the British. Twice colonized and forever shamed.
For Muslims, the story of India was of paradise found. A new home, a new land, and the proud empire that flourished within it. They were a regional superpower, the epicenter of the civilized world, until they lost it all to infighting, sabotage, and the eventual predations of European colonizers. Superiority squandered; legacies lost.
Both communities had their own entrenched narratives, and both were desperate to recapture old glories. Both pined for “the good old days”, they just disagreed on when those good old days were. As MJ Akbar writes: “Both Hindus and Muslims were tempted by an imagined past.”
But when, oh when, did this complicated relationship begin?
In the 8th century – almost 1000 years before English sails appeared on the horizon - a different kind of invasion swept into India.
At the time, the subcontinent was a land of many gods, with many names, and many faces, but these incoming outsiders only worshipped one God. This God had no face; in fact, it was forbidden to even depict him in art or sculpture. He was all-powerful, all-knowing, and when he revealed himself to a Prophet in a cave, far away in the Arabian desert, a new religion was born.
Islam sprung to life in the 7th century AD, and within 100 years, it covered vast swathes of the Earth. From the meadows of Spain to the mountains of Afghanistan, followers of the Prophet Muhammed pressed their foreheads to the earth in supplication to Allah. One of the most remarkable things about Islam in those early days was its ability to expand at a very rapid pace, to catch like wildfire in the hearts and minds of common people, and not long after the Prophet died, his teachings found their way to a new land – a place the Persians called “Hindu” - or India.
The longtime religious residents of India, the Hindus, did not take kindly to these outsiders.
The two belief systems could not have been more diametrically opposed. Hindus saw the face of God in all things; The divine spark came in many forms and many shades. But these Muslims believed in only one deity. He was remote, unknowable, and suffered no rivals.
Then, there was the matter of society. Hindus lived within a system of rigid social hierarchy – the famous caste system, which, as Ahmed Akbar put it, “determined their status, wealth and marriage simply by accident of birth”. Islam on the other hand, emphasized the equality of all things and all people in the eyes of God. It was egalitarian; no one was inherently better or worse than the other, but they all owed surrender - or “Islam” - to a single deity.
Even food was a hot button issue. The Hindus venerated the cow as a sacred, life-giving avatar of Mother India. To kill a cow, this symbol of all that was good and plentiful in life, was unforgivable. The Muslims, on the other hand, saw no issue with killing cows and eating their meat, provided it was properly prepared.
Needless to say, the two faiths started off on the wrong foot.
First contact between the two belief systems unfolded predictably and violently. Muslim invasions nipped and pricked at the peripheries of the subcontinent for a very long time, but it was in the 16th century that Islam truly established its forever-foothold in India.
Under a series of refined yet ruthless leaders, the Islamic Mughal Empire rose to prominence, beginning in northern India, and eventually stretching its fingers southward. The Mughals never did achieve complete control over India, but the power dynamic had undeniably flipped. By the 16th century, Muslims - not Hindus - were running the show in India.
The prophet Muhammed had worn little more than patchy robes, but these Mughal princes were dripping with rubies and sapphires. The precious stones, after all, came from Allah’s earth – why not clothe oneself in spectacular proof of the creator? Hindus, meanwhile, felt they were being robbed blind, both of their material wealth and their cultural autonomy. Their attitude, even to this day, can be extremely bitter. As one man confided to a historian:
‘Even before we could read, we had been told that the Muslims had once ruled and oppressed us, that they had spread their religion in India with the Koran in one hand and the sword in the other, that the Muslim rulers had abducted our women, destroyed our temples, polluted our sacred places’
From the Hindu viewpoint, the Muslim invasions were incredibly disruptive and borderline apocalyptic. Ahmed Akbar paints the perspective:
“Muslims arriving from outside, threatening their temples, sacred animals, their very identity; reordering the world around their own notion of a monotheistic God, a defined truth, clear-cut rituals, thereby challenging the very hierarchy that sustained the caste system.”
But there were many Hindus who did not bristle at the monotheism these invaders brought with them. To the lower castes, Islam offered an enticing alternative. As Barney White-Spunner writes:
“India’s Muslims were not an immigrant population, but generally native Hindus, usually low caste, who preferred the freedom and spiritual promise that Islam offered. It was more attractive to be considered equal before God, and to live one’s life with the promise of salvation and paradise, than under the rigidity of caste and the weariness of an endless cycles of reincarnation.”
By the time of Partition, it was said that at least 75% of India’s Muslims could trace their roots back to converted Hindus.
But from the very beginning, an intimacy and interdependency developed between the two faiths. When people work, struggle, laugh, and exist alongside each other, even as invader and the invaded, they mingle, mix and marry. They become part of each other. The lines between them start to blur. They start to become one people, not two. Ahmed Akbar goes on:
On the surface no two more dissimilar systems could have evolved side by side— Islam believing in one God, Hinduism in many forms of the divine; Islam denouncing social hierarchy, Hinduism steeped in caste; Islam sharply and simply defined in its beliefs and attitudes, Hinduism always with shades of grey, understanding the world through the notions of purity and impurity, pollution and defilement.
Two different ways of life were locked together in one subcontinent, intermarrying, their blood flowing into each other. Culturally and linguistically, in their food and their clothes, they were similar; they were living with each other, yet withdrawing from each other. Synthesis yet distance, consensus but also confrontation.”
Yes, the destinies of Hindus and Muslims were now irrevocably intertwined. Like two threads wrapping tighter and tighter around each other over the centuries. Islam and Hinduism were part of the same fabric, the same culture, the same language. Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal expounds:
“The blood of both have changed, the color of both have become similar.… We mixed with each other so much that we produced a new language—Urdu, which was neither our language nor theirs.”
Over time, culture clash became co-existence. As a 20th century Muslim-Indian politician named Abul Kalam Azad put it:
It was India’s historic destiny that its soil should become the destination of many different caravans of races, cultures and religions…This vast and hospitable land welcomed them all and took them into her bosom.
The last of these caravans was that of the followers of Islam, who came in the footsteps of their many predecessors and settled down here. This was the meeting point of two different currents of culture. For a time, they flowed along their separate courses, but Nature’s immutable law brought them together into a confluence. This fusion was a notable historic event.
Since then, destiny, in her own secret ways, began to fashion a new India to take the place of the old. We had brought our treasures with us to this land which was rich with its own great cultural heritage. We handed over our wealth to her and she unlocked for us the door of her own riches. We presented her with something she needed urgently, the most precious gift in Islam’s treasury, its message of democracy, human equality and brotherhood.
An Indian-Muslim philosopher named Syed Ahmed Khan put it slightly more poetically:
"India is a beautiful bride and Hindus and Muslims are her two eyes.”
But the two eyes of India were in for quite a shock when they peered towards the horizon and saw English ships heading towards their shore in the early 17th century. Now, we’ve already covered at length England’s slow-motion subjugation of India, but it’s important to understand how it impacted the dynamic between India’s religious communities.
When the first Englishmen landed on the subcontinent, Muslims were the ruling elite. Small in number, but extremely powerful. The East India Company changed all of that. The English slowly dismantled the Mughal hold over India, transforming them from proud rulers to just another religious minority in the land of a hundred million Hindus. As Ahmed Akbar writes:
The history of India was no longer the history of Muslim princes, poets, saints and warriors. Muslims now became invisible, marginal characters. For Kipling the Muslim is a horse-trader, for Tagore a money-lender. The final brutal termination of the Mughals by the British left the Muslims bitter and confused. The dynasty which had emerged from Central Asia and ruled India for over three centuries carrying with pride the name of the invincible warrior Timur, bursting with energy and vitality, now disintegrated. Overnight the Muslim ruling élite was neither ruling nor an élite.”
And it only got worse from there. As their power receded, Muslims in India became increasingly anxious about their position in society. By 1857 the last vestiges of Mughal rule were stamped out. “Extinction,” Akbar writes, “after centuries of glorious rule”. To drive the point home with a bit of political theatre, the British instructed ordinary soldiers to sit on the Mughal throne, so that everyone would know “that the lowest in the British hierarchy was equal to the highest in India.”
And he goes on: “Muslims now felt not only politically vulnerable but concerned for their very identity.”
For Muslims, “India seemed to be a land where the future had died”, writes historian Abraham Eraly.
But less than 100 years later, in the early 20th century, Islam would discover a new future.
Its name was Pakistan.
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Nine years before Partition.
We’re at Aligarh [Ah-LEE-Gar] Muslim University in Northern India, and a huge crowd of students is forming on campus; one person remembered it feeling like “a swarm”.
Thousands of eyes are glued to an empty podium on an empty stage, waiting to hear a highly-anticipated speech from a highly-respected man. Conversation is hushed and pregnant with excitement, the mood is electric with anticipation, and soon - any minute now - the man of the hour will step out onto the stage.
The speaker the students are waiting to hear is a celebrity. A political powerhouse. His name was known from the halls of Parliament to the alcoves of Calcutta. His message had given hope and pride to millions of Indians; restoring their dignity, reviving their history and stiffening their resolve. For many, he was the face of the Indian independence movement.
And his name was not Mohandas Gandhi. And it was not Jawaharlal Nehru. To people in this crowd, those men were clowns, play-actors, pernicious instruments of Hindu supremacy.
The man they were waiting to hear speak, was named Muhammed Ali Jinnah. And he was the most powerful Muslim leader in India. The students at the university had been waiting hours to catch a glimpse, staring at an empty stage, breathless with anticipation. And then, finally, they see him. As one student remembered:
Suddenly there was a lot of commotion and a burst of slogans from thousands of throats, and the whole crowd was on its feet. Amongst this uproar and shouts of Allah-u-Akbar, a tall and elegant figure appeared from behind the dais and ascended the improvised steps from the rear of the raised platform. He was none other than Mr. Jenna the Quaid-i-Azam [Kai-day-Ahs-um), My leader, our leader, everybody’s leader. The public gave him a standing ovation, shouting slogans of welcome. I was overwhelmed and made myself hoarse shouting [zindabad] victory slogans.”
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to both the literal and figurative stage, the final addition to our main cast: Muhammed Ali Jinnah. That’s J-I-N-N-A-H – Jinnah. We’ve met the Mountbattens, we’ve met Gandhi, we’ve met Nehru, and now – I want you to commit this name to memory. Muhammed Ali Jinnah.
When most Westerners hear the name Muhammed Ali, they think of the boxer. Hulking, healthy, muscled and lightning-fast – a perfect athletic specimen. But the Muhammed Ali in our story, Mr. Jinnah, is on the exact opposite end of the physical spectrum.
Picture in your mind’s eye, a very tall, very old, very thin man. At six-foot-one, Jinnah towered over most people, yet he was barely 140 pounds. Emaciated and skeletal. “Lean as a rapier”, according to MJ Akbar. His face was a collection of sharp angles, with cheekbones that “jutted out like the edges of a diamond” according to Hajari Nisid. One journalist compared him to the actor Christopher Lee.
Jinnah’s physical appearance is always, always mentioned in the history books about Partition, but I think Alex Von Tunzelmann has my favorite description of the man:
“Tall and slender, he hardly ate, and smoked fifty cigarettes a day. He was often described as looking cadaverous, but this description does no justice to his dynamism. With his smooth coiffure and glittering stare, he looked more like a cobra than a corpse.”
In modern India and Pakistan, the name “Jinnah” is a loaded gun. He is an incredibly controversial, and somewhat enigmatic, figure.
In India today, he is a devil, an antagonist for the ages, the “man who broke up India” as one publication put it. In Pakistan, he is the founding father, the savior, “Washington, Lenin, and Gandhi all rolled into one” according to one historian. But neither interpretation is entirely accurate. As the Pakistani lawyer Yasser Latif Hamdani writes:
In India, he is universally demonized for having destroyed the unity and for having laid the foundation of a perpetual communal conflict. In Pakistan, at least according to the official version, Jinnah is revered as the great savior of Islam who created Pakistan and thus saved the Muslims from perpetual slavery to a Hindu majority. Jinnah’s own life and long political career do not sit well with either view.
Muhammed Ali Jinnah is important to our story, because he, more than any one man, united India’s Muslims and championed the creation of a new nation, Pakistan. When India was eventually partitioned in '47, Jinnah was named the leader of that new nation. He is virtually synonymous with the creation of Pakistan.
To Indian Muslims, Jinnah was nothing short of a messiah. A leader of leaders, a long-awaited deliverance from their humiliation under British rule and irrelevance under Hindu ubiquity. He was a superstar - like Elvis, Michael Jackson, and all four Beatles combined. A woman named Almas Chinoy remembered shaking Jinnah’s hand in Karachi when she was a little girl, and then refusing to wash the hand for almost a week. A man named Zeenat Rashid recalled: “He was like God—although we Muslims can’t say God. He was on a pedestal; he was our salvation.”
And yet, on paper, Muhammed Ali Jinnah was the most unlikely representative Indian Muslims could have ever had.
As he looked out on the adoring crowd that day at Aligahr University and croaked out his speech in a smoker’s rasp, the irony of it all must have been apparent to him, at least subconsciously. Because Jinnah was a uniquely secular savior. As Yasser Latif Hamdani observes: “Other than Jinnah’s name, there was hardly anything Muslim about him.”
Jinnah was raised in a Muslim household, but for most of his adult life, he looked at Islam and felt…. nothing.
He didn’t resent his religious heritage, he didn’t actively reject it, he just didn’t care. Like our old friend Jawaharlal Nehru, Jinnah was a secularist, with little time for prayers or piety. For Jinnah, the real world was not buried in old books, in the words of dead prophets and forgotten Caliphs; the real world was here and now. Flesh and blood, brick and mortar, actions and deeds.
Technically, he identified as a Muslim. But in everyday life, he was just a man. No ancient text or sanctimonious mullah was going to stop him from enjoying a ham sandwich or a nice glass of wine. He didn’t fast during Ramadan, he didn’t get up early for prayers, and he couldn’t quote the Quran to save his life. As a young man, Jinnah only had one god, and that god was his profession.
Thirty years before he stepped onto the stage, cheered by adoring crowds of Muslim nationalists and hailed as the Great Leader - the Quaid-i-Azam - Jinnah was one of the hottest lawyers in Bombay, wining and dining his way through life at the height of the British Raj.
While Mohandas Gandhi was getting beaten up by police in South Africa, Jinnah was living a cosmopolitan existence filled with fast cars, strong wine, and expensive clothes. Gandhi wore homespun cloth, but Jinnah wore the finest threads; A quick peek into his wardrobe would’ve revealed an astonishing collection of over 200 hand-tailored suits, which he sometimes changed 2-3 times a day. The New York Times called him: “undoubtedly one of the best dressed men in the British Empire.”
And unlike Jawaharlal Nehru, Jinnah loved being a lawyer. He was good at it too, and he knew it. When clients complained about his exorbitant fees, Jinnah would respond: “To drive a Rolls Royce, you need to pay for a Rolls Royce.”
By almost every metric, Jinnah was more of an Englishman than an Indian. He read Shakespeare at the end of the day to relax. He preferred bland British food to spicy curries. He “spoke and thought in English”, rather than his native Urdu, according to one historian. As Ahmed Akbar explains:
“His mimicry of the upper-class Englishman in India was so accurate it made the English uncomfortable. He was that most dangerous of natives, the credible mimic. The British could only respond in two ways: they could hate him or admire him; they could not ignore him.”
But although Jinnah was a great lover of British culture – a true anglophile if ever there was one - he did not love the British Raj or its stranglehold over India. Far, far from it. On the surface, Jinnah appeared frivolous, indulgent, arrogant, but he was a deeply committed advocate for Indian independence. Like Nehru and Gandhi, Jinnah wanted the British gone.
They just disagreed on how to do it.
When Gandhi returned to India from South Africa in 1915, Jinnah was 39 years old. He paid the bills for his suits, cars, and wine with his legal practice, but he devoted a huge portion of his time working in political activism, writing, speaking, and pleading the case for a free and united India.
Jinnah looked at the British Raj and saw the same exact thing Gandhi and Nehru saw: a parasite, a cage, a hand-brake on the true potential of India. But whereas Gandhi and his acolytes insisted on a mass mobilization of the common people, Jinnah saw a dangerous flirtation with what he called “mob hysteria”.
How, he wondered, could Gandhi actually expect his followers to live up to his saintly example, everywhere, every protest, every time? How could he expect normal people to just sit there and not react when policemen broke their bones, their friends’ bones, their wives’ bones? Humans are emotional creatures, violent by nature, and when they are in pain, they will lash out. They get angry, they hurt, they kill. Gandhi’s non-violent movement, his so-called “truth force” was naïve, wishful thinking. It was an open door to chaos and anarchy.
All Gandhi and Nehru seemed capable of accomplishing was a cyclical pattern of prison sentences. As Jinnah sniffed: “I do not believe in starting a movement for the sake of jail-going.”
No - only through patient reasoning and surgical legal analysis could Indians ever hope to unlatch the British from the subcontinent. You can’t just pull a tick straight out of a cow’s skin, you have to slowly and precisely remove it. Convincing the British Raj to leave India was not the job of toothless farmers and illiterate fishermen. As Jinnah put it: “Politics is a gentleman’s game”.
His worst fears were confirmed in 1919, when British troops under the command of Brigadier General Reginald Dyer murdered 379 people in the Amritsar Massacre, which we discussed back in Part 1. When news of the massacre reached him, Jinnah was furious, not only at the British, but at Gandhi, who had been calling for mass protests against British laws. See?, Jinnah said, see? This is what happens. This is the only reward we will get from agitating in this way. As Yasser Latif Hamdani writes:
For Jinnah, Amritsar was a confirmation of what he had feared all along – that any resort to protest marches could turn violent, giving the government an excuse to resort to brute force and also to stop any constitutional progress by citing disorder.
Gandhi’s mass movement was vexing enough, but Jinnah also objected to the Mahatma’s insistence on injecting religious imagery into everything. Jawaharlal Nehru, also an avowed secularist, was able to see past Gandhi’s fixation on religion, but Jinnah was not. As he later said: “I will have nothing to do with this pseudo-religious approach to politics.”
Religion, mob hysteria, mass movements – Jinnah saw a toxic brew curdling in the politics of India. The stirring of a hornet’s nest. Could no one else recognize the peril of this path? Foreign admirers swooned over Gandhi’s peaceful philosophy, but it was just a candy-coating, a false veneer. The Mahatma was playing with fire. Underneath all the sunshine and rainbows, were some very uncomfortable questions.
When the British left, who would be in charge? Who would govern?
Already, fringe elements were looking at the looming vacuum, and licking their chops. On the peripheries of Indian politics, extremist groups were hoping to remake India in their own image. Hardcore Hindu supremacists and Islamic militias were envisioning a future where the two communities would finally settle old scores, once and for all.
Hindus and Muslims had co-existed under the Raj for almost a century, but the British had been very, very careful to keep the communities from getting too cozy with one another. As the first Viceroy of India, Lord Canning, wrote:
As we must rule 150 million people by a handful [of] Englishmen, let us do it in a manner best calculated to leave them divided and to inspire them with the greatest possible awe of our power and with the least possible suspicion of our motives’. We have maintained our power in India by playing off one party against the other, and we must continue to do so. Do all you can, therefore, to prevent all having a common feeling.
The friction between Hindus and Muslims was already very real; All the British had to do was keep picking at the scab, to keep that fissure from healing. As MJ Akbar writes:
The British did not invent fantasy; Muslims and Hindus were quite capable of deluding themselves. But history became a frontline weapon in the armory of colonial power […] The politics of Hindu–Muslim–British relations rubbed salt into old wounds. The British did not need to invent the past, merely to embellish it.
The Raj did not want the religious communities of India to feel kinship with each other, lest the nightmarish uprising of 1857 be repeated. Hindus and Muslims being hand-in-glove was a British nightmare come to life. So, partly out of fear, but mostly out of ignorance, they put each community in a box. They compartmentalized and divided the vast, permeable tapestry of Indian people into neat little political identities.
One of the most decisive measures came in 1909, when the Raj codified separate electorates for Muslims and Hindus. As Louis Fischer explains:
“The British had introduced separate electorates for Hindus and Moslems. In consequence, and as long as the British raj remained in India, a Moslem could vote only for a Moslem candidate, and a Hindu only for a Hindu. The mischief produced by this institution was incalculable because it made religious differences the deciding factor in every political contest. It was as though Catholics in England, the United States, and France could vote only for Catholic candidates to parliament and all other offices, and Protestants for only Protestant candidates, and Jews for only Jews. The central problem was to bridge the gulf between Hindus and Moslems and thereby make India a nation, but separate electorates, by closing the door to political intermingling, destroyed the bridge and widened the gulf.”
This dismemberment of India’s people into separate electorates virtually guaranteed that Hindus and Muslims would never feel like they were on the same team. India was such a diverse and complex place, it was never as simple as just Muslim vs Hindus. But the British helped make it simple. As Alex von Tunzelman writes:
“A Sunni Muslim from the Punjab might have more in common with a Sikh than he did with a Shia Muslim from Bengal; a Shia might regard a Sufi Muslim as a heretic; a Sufi might get on better with a Brahmin Hindu than with a Wahhabi Muslim; a Brahmin might feel more at ease with a European than he would with another Hindu who was an outcaste.
When the British started to define “communities” based on religious identity and attach political representation to them, many Indians stopped accepting the diversity of their own thoughts and began to ask themselves in which of the boxes they belonged. At the same time, Indian politicians began to focus on religion as a central part of their policies—defining themselves by what they were, and even more by what they were not.”
Muslims and Hindus began to see their own political objectives as divergent, irreconcilable. History became a whetstone that sharpened the old animosities and polarized communities. As Akbar writes:
While the Muslims looked to the past, the British and the Hindus looked to the future. Muslims wished to regain lost glory; the British wished to preserve and consolidate their rule; and the Hindus waited for a day when they would be in command once again of their land. Three peoples, three sets of history, three parallel destinies, sometimes overlapping, sometimes clashing but ultimately separate.
Both Muhammed Ali Jinnah and Mohandas Gandhi and were quick to recognize the danger there, and they both urged religious unity at every turn. Only together could Indians take charge of their own destiny and truly earn the right to rule themselves. As Jinnah said:
“We are all sons of this land. We have to live together. Believe me, there is no progress for India until the Muslims and Hindus are united…’
Gandhi did his best too, taking aim at a particular point of contention: cows. Sacred for Hindus, food for Muslims. Violence often erupted over it. But Gandhi pointed a spotlight on the hypocritical outrage of it all:
“Though I regard cow protection as the central fact of Hinduism […] I have never been able to understand the antipathy towards the Muslims on that score. We say nothing about the slaughter that daily takes place on behalf of Englishmen. Our anger becomes red hot when a Muslim slaughters a cow. All the riots that have taken place in the name of the cow have been an insane waste of effort…The cows find their necks under the butcher’s knife because the Hindus sell them…I am convinced that the masses do not want to fight, if the leaders do not…I agree with Mr. Jinnah that Hindu–Muslim unity means swaraj – self-rule.”
Privately though, Gandhi was deeply concerned that the wedge being driven between the two communities, created by history and exacerbated by the British, was becoming borderline insurmountable: “I feel the wave of violence coming.”
And as for Jinnah… He would sit in his study, wreathed in minarets of smoke, thinking, thinking, thinking. And the more he thought, the more seeds of doubt began to worm their way into his core convictions. For years, he had believed that Hindu-Muslim unity was the only path to a free India…but was it? Maybe there was another road to take? Jinnah sipped his wine and surrendered himself to this seductive line of thinking.
If Hindus and Muslims could not reconcile their differences before the British left, it was only a matter of time before Jinnah, and Muslims like him, were side-lined, marginalized, and shouted down. Gandhi claimed to speak for all religions, but at the end of the day, he was a Hindu. And in a Hindu-dominated post-colonial India, Hindu interests would come first. Muslims would be second-class citizens gnawing at table scraps, rather than the proud inheritors of their Mughal legacy.
But perhaps more selfishly, Jinnah understood that as Muslim influence waned, so would his political career. When the British eventually departed, it would be Gandhi’s India – Nehru’s India. There would be no place for a politician like Muhammed Ali Jinnah. He had never defined himself by his religious identity, but in an India dominated by Hindu majority rule, it would define him whether he liked it or not.
And so, Jinnah hatched a strategy. The Mahatma and his errand boy Nehru had ridden a wave of populism to prominence; they had stood on the shoulders of the masses, bathed in their adulation, promised them the world.
Well, Jinnah thought, two can play at that game.
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In November of 1937 – 10 years before Partition - a scathing editorial was published in the Indian publication Modern Review.
It wasn’t a long piece – just over 1500 words – but the rhetoric within it was heated and emotional. It used like words like “fascist”, “dictator” and “Caesar”. In political circles all across the country, the article turned heads and ignited debate.
The piece was titled, “The Rashtrapati” which means “the Head of State” in Sanskrit, and the subject of its disapproval was one of the most powerful politicians in India – none other than our friend, Jawaharlal Nehru.
By 1937, young Nehru had become middle-aged Nehru.
At 48 years old, he was no longer the spry radical who we met back in episode one – that angry young man who had traced his fingers over the bullet holes in the wall at Amritsar. It had been almost 20 years since the spark of activism had caught fire in his conscience, and in those two decades – between stints in jail - Nehru had flown on rocket-powered wings to the highest echelons of Indian politics.
The haters whispered he’d done little more than ride Gandhi’s coattails, but once he seized the reins of power within India’s powerful Congress party, Nehru proved himself a shrewd politician and a brilliant orator - a hard bargainer with a soft touch. In 1937 he was easily one of the most powerful figures in India. The Mahatma had no interest in power or public office, so Jawaharlal Nehru became the poster boy of Indian independence.
But in November of that year, Nehru’s allies and aides were blindsided by an article, written anonymously, that took aim at the beloved leader of India’s largest political party – the Congress party. It specifically and emphatically targeted Nehru, expressing a concern that a politician as popular as Nehru, in such an unstable and revolutionary time as the twilight of the British Raj, might fall prey to autocratic tendencies:
Men like Jawaharlal, with all their capacity for great and good work, are unsafe in democracy. He calls himself a democrat and a socialist, and no doubt he does so in all earnestness, but every psychologist knows that the mind is ultimately a slave to the heart and logic can always be made to fit in with the desires and irrepressible urges of a person. A little twist and Jawaharlal might turn a dictator sweeping aside the paraphernalia of a slow-moving democracy. He might still use the language and slogans of democracy and socialism, but we all know how fascism has fattened on this language and then cast it away as useless lumber.
He has all the makings of a dictator in him—vast popularity, a strong will directed to a well-defined purpose, energy, pride, organizational capacity, ability, hardness, and, with all his love of the crowd, an intolerance of others and a certain contempt for the weak and the inefficient. His flashes of temper are well known and even when they are controlled, the curling of the lips betrays him. His over-mastering desire to get things done, to sweep away what he dislikes and build anew, will hardly brook for long the slow processes of democracy. He may keep the husk but he will see to it that it bends to his will. In normal times he would be just an efficient and successful executive, but in this revolutionary epoch, Caesarism is always at the door, and is it not possible that Jawaharlal might fancy himself as a Caesar?
In spite of his brave talk, Jawaharlal is obviously tired and stale and he will progressively deteriorate if he continues as President. He cannot rest, for he who rides a tiger cannot dismount. But we can at least prevent him from going astray and from mental deterioration under too heavy burdens and responsibilities. We have a right to expect good work from him in the future. Let us not spoil that and spoil him by too much adulation and praise. His conceit is already formidable. It must be checked. We want no Caesars.
Naturally, speculation swirled about who could’ve written this withering piece. Was it some British civil servant, masquerading as a concerned Indian? Maybe it was Muhammed Ali Jinnah, who had never approved of Nehru, his mentor Gandhi, or their populist platform? Hell, maybe it was a jilted lover? Nehru was known to have more than a few of those. But only a handful of people in the world knew the actual identity of the mystery writer.
The author of the piece – was none other than Jawaharlal Nehru himself.
Nehru had written the piece in secret, under a pseudonym, as a very public exercise in self-reflection. It didn’t help his political career, if anything it provided ammo to his critics, but at that time in his life, Nehru felt the need to throw a little cold water on his own popularity.
This was, after all, the late 1930s. The heyday of strongmen and cults of personality – Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini. Jawaharlal Nehru was as democratic and progressive as they came, but he recognized that power brought with it extreme temptation. We want no Caesars, he said; It was as much a reminder to himself as to his supporters. It’s hard to imagine any modern politician writing so eloquently at their own expense. As Von Tunzelmann comments:
In Nehru’s writing, there is no piece more telling of his personality than “The Rashtrapati.” Introspection, honesty, wit and mischief—few other politicians in history could have written such a lucid essay in self-deconstruction.
But as insightful has he could be when it came to his own shortcomings, Nehru had a massive blind spot. One that would keep him from seeing the cancerous divisions growing in India’s communities until it was too late.
As we know from Part 1, Jawaharlal Nehru was not religious whatsoever. He grudgingly acknowledged faith as an important thread in India’s social fabric, but God had no real place in his life. Nor did it, he insisted, have any place in politics. Nehru envisioned post-colonial India as a secular, pluralistic democracy. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, atheists and agnostics – all living together, as Indians. As Hajari Nisid writes:
To him, the fact that Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs and Christians and Parsis and others had mixed together on the subcontinent for centuries was fundamental to India’s identity. This was the country’s genius, like America’s—the ability to absorb and meld different cultures into a coherent whole.
He would’ve agreed heartily with the words of the contemporary thinker Abul Kalam Azad:
Eleven hundred years of common history have enriched India with our common achievement. Our languages, our poetry, our literature, our culture, our art, our dress, our manners and customs, the innumerable happenings of our daily life, everything bears the stamp of our joint endeavour….
Throughout the 20s and 30s, as the Indian independence movement gathered steam and the British Raj began to wobble, Nehru repeatedly ignored the alarm bells that were ringing in India’s villages and meeting halls. The growing anger, fueled by separate electorates, the feeling of historical resentment and mutual discrimination between the communities – he believed, needed to believe, that they were above all of that. As Hajari Nisid writes:
Nehru remained convinced that the supposed “Hindu-Muslim divide” was nothing but a nuisance, that both communities would soon realize they were being exploited equally by the British and Indian upper classes
Nehru scoffed at talk of a return to a Hindu golden age, or the reawakening of a Mughal empire: “Am I to insult my intelligence by talking baby-talk of an age gone by?”
India’s future was right there, right in front of them, all they had to do was keep the pressure on the British, keep winning concessions, little by little, incremental change – and then the dam would break. They were so close. The Raj was the enemy; wasting time and bickering over which God you worshipped was counterproductive at best and destructive at worst. The two eyes of India just had to keep looking forward.
But of course Nehru felt that way. Religion meant nothing to him. But he had failed to grasp something crucial. Religion was not just religion anymore. It was a political identity. It was black or white, red or blue, shirts or skins. Nehru mistakenly thought that religion didn’t matter; but in reality, it was the only thing that mattered. And that lack of awareness came back to haunt him in the form of a most unlikely political rival: A well-dressed, highly-intelligent, six-foot cobra named Muhammed Ali Jinnah.
On paper, Jinnah and Nehru were so, so alike. Both secular in disposition, cosmopolitan in style, and absolutely committed to the idea of Hindu-Muslim unity, to a free, pluralistic India. At least, that’s the man who Jinnah was in the early 1900s. But along the way, something had changed. He had experienced a transformation – reawakening, a complete ideological reversal that would’ve been shocking if it hadn’t happened so gradually.
Jinnah had never been buddy-buddy with Gandhi and Nehru, but back in 1910s, they at least agreed on the fundamentals. The British Raj had to go; and it would leave behind a free united India. Keyword: United. But over the years, Jinnah had grown increasingly alienated from the main stream of Indian politics.
At the time, there were two main political parties in India. The Congress party – led by Nehru and Gandhi; which claimed to represent all Indians. And the other party, was something called the Muslim League, which obviously claimed to represent India’s Muslims. Well, Jinnah became a mover and a shaker in the Muslim League, and by the late 1930s, he was running the show.
It was, of course, ironic that a man who couldn’t quote the Quran and enjoyed the more-than-occasional whisky would claim to speak for all of India’s 100 million Muslims. It was a testament to his intelligence, tenacity, and genuine talent that he had managed to do so. Jinnah saw what Nehru could not; Like it or not, faith was identity in India.
Jinnah recognized that by uniting all Muslims under a single banner, they could become a potent political force. A necessary check, a safeguard, against what he felt were the Hindu-leaning, anti-Muslim attitudes of the majority Congress party.
And those fears were not born out of thin air; On the fringes of the party, Hindu supremacy was on the rise, stoking demographic fears of a great replacement. One journal called Bengalee published an article called “Hindus: A Dying Race”, which warned that “within a very precise 420 years Hindus would be driven to insignificance because of demographic decline as compared to Muslims and Christians.”
There were other alarm bells. Cultural microaggressions that became flashpoints in a festering culture war. Children in schools were expected to seem Hindu religious songs; The Congress party flag was often flown at schools and business events. Some politicians had proposed a national ban on cow slaughter in accordance with Hindu custom.
Jinnah was afraid. Afraid of what might happen to people like him in a Hindu-majority India. He was also angry. Angry at Gandhi for stirring up the hornet’s nest, ignoring his calls to caution and shunning his lawyerly approach to independence. Angry at Nehru for keeping the Muslim League at arm’s length, patronizing their appeals and dismissing their demands.
And so, in an astonishing reversal, Muhammed Ali Jinnah threw his unitarian roots aside like a crumpled pack of cigarettes, and began stoking the very tensions he had once sought to heal. Hindus and Muslims he rasped, were:
“Different beings. There is nothing in life which links us together. Our names, our clothes, our foods—they are all different; our economic life, our educational ideas, our treatment of women, our attitude to animals. . . . We challenge each other at every point of the compass.” -
And he went on in another interview:
Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs, and literature[s]. They neither intermarry nor interdine together, and indeed they belong to two different civilizations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions. Their aspects on life, and of life, are different. It is quite clear that Hindus and Muslims derive their inspiration from different sources of history. They have different epics, their heroes are different…Very often the hero of one is a foe of the other, and likewise their victories and defeats overlap. To yoke together two such nations under a single state, one as a numerical minority and the other as a majority, must lead to growing discontent, and final destruction of any fabric that may be so built up for the government of such a state.”
In other words, we cannot live together. We are too different. We’re incompatible. No one was more shocked or confused by Jinnah’s heel-turn than the Mahatma. It was like he had turned into a completely different person. As Gandhi wrote in a letter directly to his old colleague: “Are you still the same Jinnah?”
Jawaharlal Nehru was predictably less reserved than his old mentor when it came to the subject of Muhammed Ali Jinnah. The incandescent anger, the temper that always threatened to get the better of him, leapt out when he spoke on the subject of Jinnah:
Blatant, vulgar, offensive, egoistical, vague. . . . What a man! And what a misfortune for India and for the Muslims that he should have so much influence! It is opportunism raised to the nth degree, Total incomprehension of the events & forces that are shaping the world.”
Nehru looked at Jinnah’s new world view and saw nothing but rank hypocrisy. This charlatan, whose only Muslim quality seemed to be his name, was trying to cut the Achilles tendon of the Indian independence movement. And to what end? Nehru was not religious, but to use religion as a path to power offended him on his most basic moral level:
To exploit the name of God and religion in an election contest is an extraordinary thing even for a humble canvasser. For Mr Jinnah to do so is inexplicable…It means rousing religious and communal passions in political matters; it means working for the Dark Age in India. Does not Mr Jinnah realize where this kind of communalism will lead us to?’
Jinnah was unmoved by Nehru’s childish anger, calling him: “Peter Pan – the boy who never grew up.”
And so, as the 1930 came to a close, and the 1940s arrived, people in India began to wonder: what was Jinnah even trying to accomplish? What was his endgame? In time, it became perfectly clear. As historian Ayesha Jalal writes:
“What Muslims needed above all was to overcome the limitations of being a minority. One way to resolve the dilemma was to assert that Muslims were not a minority but a nation entitled to being treated on par with the Hindus.”
If Hindus and Muslims could not live together, then they needed to live in separate nations entirely. The Hindus could have India. But where would the subcontinent’s Muslims live? It was a huge question; after all, India’s Muslims made up one-third of the entire world’s Muslim population. The answer to this dilemma, oddly enough, came in the form of an obscure and often-mocked geopolitical theory cooked up by a few university students.
In 1930, the same year Gandhi embarked on his famous Salt March, a handful of students at Cambridge University began discussing the idea of a homeland for India’s Muslims. A confederation of provinces in the Northwestern corner of the subcontinent that historically had high concentrations of Muslims.
They called it “Pakistan”.
Prior to 1930, the word Pakistan had not even existed. It was an acronym, each letter standing for a key region in the theoretical nation. The P stood for the Punjab. The A stood for Afghanistan; The K stood for Kashmir. S for Sind. And Baluchistan supplied the “stan”.
It was just a happy accident or clever entendre that in Urdu, “Pakistan” means “land of the pure”.
Muhammed Ali Jinnah latched onto this idea like a dog with a bone. Only through Pakistan could India’s Muslims find a safe space to thrive once the British left India. MJ Akbar writes: Islam was in danger, and Pakistan was the fortress where it could be saved.
And so, an idea that had barely existed for 10 years became the key plank in Jinnah and the Muslim League’s political platform. It caught like a brushfire in the hearts and minds of Muslims throughout India, as one student organization passionately put it:
We Declare…that we are a NATION, not a minority…a NATION of a hundred million, greater than Germans in Greater Germany…Pakistan is our only demand! History justifies it; Numbers confirm it; Justice claims it; Destiny demands it; Posterity awaits it; AND By God, we will have it! Muslims unite! You have a world to gain. Muslims unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!’
It was a powerful idea. As MJ Akbar writes: “Pakistan emerged out of a fear of the future and pride in the past”. The promise of Pakistan turbocharged Jinnah’s already stratospheric popularity among Muslims. They started calling him Quaid-i-Azam - the great leader.
The Muslims had not felt like this for a long time, writes Ahmed Akbar.
One man named Bashir Maan, who was just a kid at the time, remembered:
‘I did feel it would be a very good idea,’ he says. ‘A Muslim country where we could live according to our religion. Because in a democracy, which India was going to be, we couldn’t have imposed our religion, our village values. In Pakistan we could – it was a Muslim country, a separate independent country. And that was the idea of the Muslim League. I thought that Pakistan would be created and everyone would be living here peacefully. The others would be living in India peacefully. We never thought how it would end up.’
Every mainstream Indian politician, meanwhile, from pacifist Gandhi to fiery Nehru, condemned the Pakistan concept as suicidal. Nehru was particularly incensed. Years, decades, they had worked for a free and independent India, and now Jinnah was trying to break it all up, to pervert their noble struggle with petty, divisive, identity politics. Nehru felt hat Pakistan was: “mad and foolish and fantastic and criminal and . . . a huge barrier to all progress,”
But for the time being, Nehru could sleep peacefully at night knowing that Jinnah, as powerful as he was, simply didn’t have the numbers to will Pakistan into existence out of thin air. The Muslim League was a vocal minority, but still just a minority. The Great Leader, the Quaid-I-Azam, didn’t have the clout to force the issue.
At least not yet.
But all that would change, when another World War exploded onto the global stage. Sensing a chance to win India’s independence for good, Nehru and Gandhi would make a grave miscalculation, one that Jinnah would masterfully exploit, simultaneously using the dream of Pakistan as a threat against his rivals and a promise to his supporters.
But as they say: be careful what you wish for. Mr Jinnah would end up getting far, far more than he ever bargained for.
Pakistan – and Partition - were closer than anyone could have imagined.
---- MUSIC BREAK ----
One year before Partition.
We’re on a crowded street in the east Indian city of Calcutta. It’s a bright summer day, and like most summer days in India – it is brutally hot. As one British man recalled:
“No matter how long one lived in India, the summers never got any easier to bear. Spring is hardly noticed and then the hot weather starts, when ‘all living things move more slowly and seek the shade. A hot wind rides in from the desert like an invading army, its impact is a physical assault. For weeks and months, the sky is hidden behind a lurid pall of dust, and night brings no relief from the obsessive heat.
But as hot as it was, no amount of blistering weather was going to stop a young woman named Pamela Dowley-Wise from going on a bike ride.
Pamela was 19 years old, a young English girl from a wealthy English family. But she wasn’t a tourist, or a civil servant; Pamela had been born here in Calcutta. Her father had been born here. The Dowley-Wise family had deep roots in the subcontinent, stretching back into the early days of the British Raj.
Growing up, Pamela lived the charmed life of an aristocrat. She grew up riding horses, playing tennis and spending summers in jungle villas. As a child, she remembered seeing leopard footprints in the flowerbeds below her bedroom window.
Like most English girls in India, Pamela had very little contact with actual Indians – at least not the kind who didn’t make her bed or prepare her meals. As she recalled: ‘When you spoke to them you did not carry on conversations with them at all. You just asked them to bring you something or take something.’
But as she got older, Pamela ventured out into the city of Calcutta more and more. She was an independent teenager, and she enjoyed cycling down the roads, dodging traffic and pedestrians. As a young white woman, cocooned in the prestige and power of the Raj, she felt completely at ease. As she said: ‘I could go anywhere in Calcutta totally on my own, totally in safety, totally respected.’
But one afternoon, on a hot summer day in 1946, Pamela’s bike ride was rudely interrupted. She was pedaling blissfully along, when she was suddenly shoved off her bike, into the middle of the street. She went down hard, sustaining several cuts and bruises. And as she fell, she heard a single phrase: “Quit India”. To her surprise, an Indian man had pushed her down “out of the blue”. It was a sobering moment for a privileged young aristocrat, and a clear indication that the British Raj was coming to an end.
It wasn’t the first time Pamela had seen and heard those words the man had said to her: “Quit India”. Ironically, the phrase had been coined by someone who would’ve completely disapproved of the shove that accompanied it.
The Quit India movement was a last-ditch attempt by Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the majority Congress party to shake the British Empire out of their stubborn ownership over India. In the darkest years of World War II, when Britain was fighting for its life against the Nazis, the Empire’s most important colonial asset was less of a jewel in the crown, and more of a rock in its shoe. As Von Tunzelmann writes:
“Quit India.” The slogan was not only catchy but accurate: the British administration was to be harried, disobeyed and besieged until it simply upped and left, war or no war, economy or no economy, responsibility or no responsibility.
Gandhi’s rationale was simple and straightforward. How could Great Britain claim to be fighting for freedom and democracy in Europe, and yet at the same time, continue to subjugate 400 million people in India?
Winston Churchill, helming the British government at the time, saw the movement as little more than open treason. As he sneered: “India is not a country or a nation. … It is merely a geographical expression. It is no more a single country than the Equator.”
Gandhi, always the moral absolutist, didn’t help his case when he urged his British brethren to adopt non-violent methods against the Axis powers, and allow Hitler and Mussolini to:
“take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your souls, nor your minds. If these gentlemen [sic] choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.”
Even then, Gandhi’s schtick was beginning to feel outdated. Jawaharlal Nehru, despite his resentment towards the British Raj, wholeheartedly approved of their war, believing the Axis Powers had to be stopped by any means necessary, violence included:
“Hitler and Japan must go to hell. I shall fight them to the end and this is my policy.”
Once again, mentor and student found themselves at odds. One more addition to their list of philosophical disagreements. Gandhi, Nehru believed, was letting high-minded moral abstractions cloud his sense of reality. As Nehru snapped at his mentor:
‘You can’t stop Japan by non-violent non-cooperation. The Japanese armies will make India a battleground and go to Iraq, Persia and throttle China and make the Russian situation more difficult…. The British will refuse our demand [to quit] for military reasons apart from others. They cannot allow India to be used by Japan against them.… They will treat India as an enemy country and reduce it to dust and ashes,
But eventually, Nehru came around, and the Quit India movement – a massive call to satyagraha resistance – went forward. On August 7th, 1942 – the Congress party drafted a resolution formally demanding that the British leave India immediately. Anything was better than one more second of colonial tyranny. As Gandhi put it: “Leave India to God. If that is too much, then leave her to anarchy”.
The British response was swift, harsh, and predictable. 36 hours later, they were all arrested and thrown into prison. Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, hundreds of leaders of the Congress party, were locked up with little more than a show trial.
To some, it seemed like a brave act of political defiance. But hindsight has clarified the Quit India movement as a regrettable, self-inflicted wound on the dream of a united India. As Von Tunzelmann observes:
“Quit India damaged the chances of a united India at least as much as any single act of the British administration ever had.”
The only thing Gandhi and Nehru managed to accomplish with their poorly-timed campaign was to sideline themselves. To take themselves off the playing field. And in their absence, without guidance, without leadership, protests quickly turned violent. The British Raj cracked down with its trademark brutality, as Hajari Nisid writes:
Many Britons—even liberal ones—believed they were facing a well-planned, traitorous attempt by the Congress to overthrow the Raj. When authorities responded with brutal force—using tactics that one British governor later admitted “dragged out in the cold light of [day], nobody could defend”—many simply looked away. British troops opened fire on demonstrators repeatedly. In the Midnapore district of Bengal, police were accused of gang-raping seventy-three women to terrorize the rebels. Prisoners were forced to lie naked on blocks of ice until they passed out. The viceroy authorized the strafing of villagers from the air. Churchill saw no reason to treat the Congress as anything but war criminals.
Their absence left a vacuum, an opportunity. One that would be skillfully exploited by our old friend, the Quaid-i-Azam and leader of the Muslim League: Muhammed Ali Jinnah.
While Gandhi and Nehru sat huddled in cramped cells, eating stale bread and scribbling down their memoirs to pass the time, Jinnah’s influence was on the rise. Instead of agitating and angering the British in their darkest hour, Jinnah urged cooperation and loyalty during World War 2. The British appreciated this, and left the Muslim League to its own devices. That breathing room became a gust of wind in Jinnah’s sails. The Quadi-i-Azam suddenly found himself on a chess board where all his opponent’s pieces were frozen still.
The Muslim League grew from 100,000 members in 1941 to 2 million by 1944. In Muslim communities all over India, flags emblazoned with the green color of Islam were hanging in the street, and cries of “Pakistan Zindabad” - Long Live Pakistan - were being taken up from Punjab to Bengal. Jinnah’s power was absolute, his influence unchallenged, his supporters innumerable. As one writer put it: ‘His hundred million Muslims will march to the left, to the right, to the front, to the rear at his bidding and at nobody else’s’ -
By the time Gandhi, Nehru and the rest of the Congress party were released from prison at the end of World War 2, Jinnah had transformed himself from a thorn in their side to a dagger in their guts. It seemed more and more likely, that when and if the British finally left, the subcontinent would be split, if only to keep the peace.
“Pakistan”, barely more than a fanciful acronym a decade earlier, had become a wedge issue between Hindus and Muslims. As Yasmin Khan writes:
Neutrality or political indifference was fast becoming an unrealistic and untenable option in the face of this activity and the killings hardened the nationalist lines as other, older and overlapping ideas about identity were stripped back to more simplistic badges of allegiance to either the ‘Hindu’ or the ‘Muslim’ cause. - Khan, Yasmin
The temperature was rising and rising and rising. As people were forced to pick sides, the rhetoric became more and more hostile on both poles of the political spectrum. As Hajari Nisid writes:
Anonymous leaflets appeared in several cities, showing a caricature of Jinnah brandishing a sword as he warned unbelievers, “Your doom is not far and the general massacre will come!”
A Muslim student remembered:
‘All my friends were Hindu, they went to school with me, they went to university with me. You had established such good relationships with them. Then suddenly you see them as enemies, as a people who have to be killed. It was a terrible situation.’
A Muslim newspaper warned that under a Hindu Raj, they faced the same fate as the Jews under Nazi Germany:
“The British-Congress Axis is formed and the rape of the Muslim nation is to begin in a more ruthless and criminal manner than Hitler and Mussolini dared in Europe,”
Hindu ethno-nationalists fanned the flames of hate and fear in return. As one politician told a crowd supporters:
Oh yes,’ they say, ‘the Muslims are a nation, just as much as we are, but we don’t propose to grant them anywhere to live. Oh yes, they are in India, and unfortunately there are 100 million of them—heretics and outcasts to a man—but India is ours, and we intend to keep it so. Oh yes, it is true that they were the dominant power for many centuries, and that they were the only people apart from the British who ever gave India even the semblance of unity, but all that happened in the past and we have no intention of allowing it to happen again. Thanks to the British we are now top dog. We are three to one in numbers and twenty to one in cash. And when the British have gone we shall be even more top dog.
Many were concerned that India was teetering on the brink of outright civil war. The pot was ready to boil over. And it eventually did, in the summer of 1946.
It was August.
For weeks the Congress Party, led by Nehru and the Muslim League, led by Jinnah, had been trying to hammer out a deal for the future of India. They talked and talked and talked, but no agreement could be reached. From Jinnah’s perspective, the arrogant Nehru was trying to repress Muslims and deny their desire for a homeland. To Nehru, the intractable Jinnah was willing to break up the subcontinent for the sake of a cynical power grab.
At the end of the meetings, the two men parted. Both went straight to find the nearest microphone to air their grievances against the other. But it was Jinnah’s words that would prove the most consequential – and deadly – that summer. He called for a day of mass protest and public agitation – “Direct Action” he called it.
When questioned by reporters about what Direct Action meant, he replied in his raspy smoker’s voice: “Do you expect me to sit with folded hands? I also am going to make trouble.”
August 16th, 1946 was designated as Direct Action Day by the Muslim League. It was supposed to be a nationwide, non-violent display of civil disobedience. And 20 years prior, it might have been just that. But this was not the Salt March or the early Satyagraha campaigns where Hindus and Muslims had stood shoulder-to-shoulder, calmly weathering a hailstorm of British batons.
Too much had changed. Too much hate and anger and resentment and rage had been kicked up. Political polarization, identity politics, ceaseless propaganda, and an ever-escalating culture war had sealed the subcontinent’s fate. As Barney White-Spunner puts it, each side saw the other as “a species that must go”
The two communities – the two eyes of India – could see nothing except fear and loathing for each other. And now, they were going to blind themselves, simply out of spite.
When Direct Action Day finally came on August 16th, 1946 the Raj held its breath. And it didn’t take long for everyone’s worst fears to come to life. The first spark was lit in the city of Calcutta, a very large, very old, very poor city in eastern India. Communal violence had been on the uptick for years, but what happened in Calcutta in 1946 would turn stomachs from London to Lahore.
That morning, Muslims opened newspapers to find inflammatory advertisements, urging Direct Action – but not specifying what Direct Action meant:
Today is Direct Action Day. Today Muslims of India dedicate their lives and all they possess to the cause of freedom. Today let every Muslim swear in the name of Allah to resist aggression. Direct action is now their only course Because they offered peace but peace was spurned. They honored their word but they were betrayed They claimed Liberty but were offered Thralldom. Now Might alone can secure their Right.”
Across the city, Muslims shops and businesses closed as thousands of protesters converged for mass demonstrations. Jinnah had emphatically urged his followers to be peaceful, but the subtext of his rhetoric hinted otherwise. The threat of violence hung in the air like humidity. And after the speeches were done and the protests dispersed, some people were not ready to go home just yet. Whipped up into a froth of anger and fear, Jinnah’s faithful supporters took “direct action” in whatever way they saw fit.
Hindu and Sikh-owned shops were looted, burned. Ordinary citizens were kicked and cut and beaten and stabbed. The body count rose quickly.
But it wasn’t just the Muslim League who was prepared for violence that day in Calcutta. As the shops went up in flames and the summer sun burned higher in the sky, Hindu militias were forming up, distributing weapons, and preparing to retaliate. One of these gangs was led by a former wrestler and local gangster named Gopal Mukherjee. (Muh-KUR-jee)
His small army of 800 young Hindu nationalists called him Gopal the Goat, on account of the fact that his family owned a butcher shop in town. As Gopal remembered:
‘It was a very critical time for the country. We thought if the whole area became Pakistan, there would be more torture and repression. So, I called all my boys together and said it was time to retaliate. If you come to know that one murder has taken place, you commit 10 murders. That was the order to my boys.”
Over the next three days, fighting raged between organized gangs of Hindus and Muslims, but the contagion of hatred quickly spread to regular people. As Hajari Nisid writes:
Ordinary citizens joined the ranks of the goonda mobs [goonda means gangster], which bloomed in all corners of the city. They went about their work with an almost casual murderousness. One horrified Briton recounted how his butcher had sliced up his order before calmly striding across the street and using the same knife to slit the throat of a Hindu passerby.
Mechanical killing soon curdled into outright sadism. One resident named Nirad Chaudhuri (Chowd-ree) remembered seeing a man being tied up, before his attackers drilled a small hole into his skull “so he might bleed to death as slowly as possible”.
It was that methodical, calculated cruelty that haunted survivors on both sides years later. One Hindu professor named Partha Mitter told a story about how a mob had broken into his grandfather’s home. They didn’t hurt the family, but they did destroy or loot every single possession he owned. But the one that hurt the most was:
“-the books. They destroyed all the books. My grandfather’s great library, his collection of English, French and Bengali books, my mother’s collections of poetry—they were all mostly destroyed. When they realized that they didn’t have enough time to tear or set fire to all the books, they filled the grand bathtubs with water and immersed them.’
For local law enforcement, a ruined library was the least of their worries. Faced with the ubiquity and scale of the slaughter, police in the city could do little more than watch. As Hajari Nisid writes:
Armored cars could not pursue the marauders into the warren-like slums, and on foot, small patrols would have been quickly overwhelmed. Police shouldered their batons uneasily and watched as flames licked the night sky. The scale of the slaughter only became apparent in the daylight. Hundreds of corpses littered the streets on Saturday morning, 17 August, tossed out like refuse overnight. In photographs they look like gruesome mannequins, near-naked and beginning to bloat, their limbs tangled like rope.
Units from the British Army, quickly mobilized to keep the peace, also failed to curb the violence:
Whenever troops managed to concentrate their firepower enough to subdue one neighborhood, trouble broke out in another. The gangs put spotters on rooftops to alert them with flags and flashing signal lights as patrols drew near; rioters would scatter into alleys, only to coalesce again once the danger had passed. A flood of emergency calls overwhelmed the authorities: some were legitimate, others were false alarms meant to draw troops and police away from intended targets. Whole swathes of the city became no-go zones. Makeshift barricades sprung up dividing faith from faith, neighborhood from neighborhood.
Three days later, 45,000 troops entered the city and had managed to restore some order, but the aftermath of the Great Calcutta Killing, as it came to be known, was legitimately jaw-dropping.
One American photojournalist named Margaret Bourke-White said it reminded her of a Nazi concentration camp, which she had seen herself at Buchenwald. The British governor of Bengal, Sir Frederick Burrows, said it reminded him of the Battle of the Somme in World War 1, which he had fought in. Another journalist named Phillips Talbot described the devastation that he saw:
We drove through deserted streets in which nothing moved. . .. Occasionally the sweeping headlights . . . picked up the bare walls of a corner shop, obviously stripped clean. Finally, someone, seeing what we had all been sensing, muttered, “There’s one.” Visible momentarily in the beam of the headlights, avoided by a slight swerve, the body was again swallowed up in the darkness. “Four on this side,” someone else said. In a moment we were in the thick of them, weaving to miss the ghoulish forms which flashed into view and as quickly merged into the night behind us. . . . In street after street . . . tenements and business buildings were burned out, and their unconsumed innards strewn over the pavements. Smashed furniture cluttered the roads, along with concrete blocks, brick, glass, iron rods. . . . Fountains gushed from broken water mains. Burnt-out automobiles stood across traffic lanes. A pall of smoke hung over many blocks, and buzzards sailed in great, leisurely circles.
Another journalist named Ian Stephens remembered, that when he visited the city’s morgue, the stench was so suffocating he had to wear a respirator:
“On plots of waste ground, you could see mounds of decomposing, liquefying bodies, heaped as high as the second floors of the nearby houses because of lack of space elsewhere.”
When the guns finally went silent and the flames guttered out, the death toll was calculated. As Hajari Nisid writes:
The generally accepted estimate is that five thousand Calcuttans were killed, while another ten to fifteen thousand had their bones broken, limbs hacked off, or bodies charred. It was by far the worst communal massacre in the annals of British rule in India.
Ultimately, it is not possible to assign blame entirely to one side or the other. What exploded so suddenly in Calcutta in August 1946 were the pent-up fears of communities convinced that they faced imminent subjugation by the other. Riot no longer sufficed as a description. The Statesman grasped for a better label: “It needs a word found in mediaeval history,” the paper wrote, “a fury.” Something had fundamentally broken in Calcutta […] To a Hindu, every Muslim now looked like a potential killer, and vice versa.
As the news of what happened in Calcutta spread across India, no one was more crestfallen than Mohandas Gandhi. As one writer described:
The journalist Phillips Talbot, who met with Gandhi at this time, sensed “a feeling of frustration, if not of failure” in him. He had always imagined that in his beloved villages, humble Muslims and Hindus lived and would always live together peacefully, as brothers. Now the very peasants whom he had championed as the “real” India appeared to have turned into brutal murderers. Clearly ahimsa—his creed of nonviolence—had not penetrated more than skin-deep.
When Muhammed Ali Jinnah heard about what happened as a result of his call for Direct Action, he could only manage to frame it in divisive terms. The bloodbath in Calcutta was:
“what treatment the Muslims should expect from the Hindu majority if they exist as a minority in undivided India.”.
And as terrible as the Great Calcutta Killings were, they were only a taste of what Partition would eventually unleash. But August 1946 is a clear turning point in the Partition story. It represents a Rubicon, that once crossed, could never be un-crossed. As Shashi Tharoor explains:
“The carnage and hatred had ripped apart something indefinable in the national psyche. Reconciliation now seemed impossible.”
On the other side of the subcontinent, in the coastal city of Bombay, Muhammed Ali Jinnah sat in his study, adding dead cigarettes to the growing heap in his ash tray. If he were to catch his reflection in a window or a mirror, he would’ve seen an old man looking back at him. In 1946, Jinnah was 70 years old. His cheeks were hollow, his frame was skeletal, and his eyes were ringed with stress-induced shadows.
Still - he had accomplished so much in his long life. He had united India’s Muslims, given them back their identity, their sense of pride. But most importantly, he had given them a goal. A light at the end of the tunnel. Their own nation, their own home: Pakistan. But it wasn’t real yet. In 1946, Pakistan was still just an idea, an abstraction, a doodle on a map.
Jinnah realized he had to make it real, and he had to do it fast. Time was running out, not only for Pakistan, but for Jinnah himself. Because the great leader, the Quaid-i-Azam, had a secret. A terrible truth he kept hidden from his colleagues, his supporters, even his friends.
Muhammed Ali Jinnah was dying.
And if he didn’t manage to bring Pakistan into the world now - right now – it would die along with him.
---- OUTRO ----
Well folks, that is a wrap for this episode.
We covered a lot of ground this time, so I appreciate you sticking with me.
These first two episodes were really about establishing the back story to Partition. The characters involved, the history between them, and the political dynamics at work. We needed to get to know these people – Nehru, Jinnah, and Gandhi – we needed to understand their motivations, their world views, their contradictions and their biases.
Because these three men – as well as the Mountbattens, whom we met in Part 1 – are going to make decisions that will shape the fortunes of an entire subcontinent, and in ways, the whole world. It’s a small cast with big consequences. As Yasmin Khan writes:
“1947 was a perfect storm of hope and disaster, leadership and blunder. Not even a dozen people made momentous decisions affecting 400 million.”
So, in Part 3, we’re going to finally arrive at the actual Partition of India.
In a story like this, the build-up is as fascinating as the boom, and we’ll spend a lot of time wading into the complex human drama and interpersonal relationships that affected the actual decision-making process. Partition, after all, is more than just a line. It’s a web. A web of competing interests, clashing egos, and dangerous liaisons.
Next time, we’ll pick our way through that web, so that when Partition finally pops off, we understand with crystal clarity why it had to happen – or didn’t have to.
So, with that said, goodbye for now. As always, thanks for spending a couple hours of very your valuable time with me.
This has been Conflicted. Thanks for listening.
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