Book Review: Partitioned Freedom

Author: Ram Madhav | Publisher: Prabhat Prakashan Pvt. Ltd. | Year of Publication: 2022 | Book Review by: Abhijeet Sriwastava
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“Vivisect me before vivisecting India”, warned Gandhi as he vociferously opposed the ‘Lahore Resolution’ proposed by the Muslim League. Jawahar Lal Nehru proclaimed that the idea of partition was “fantastic nonsense”, a fantasy of some mad people. Sardar Patel roared “Talwar se talwar bhidegi”. Lord Wavell, the British viceroy during 1943-47, opposed the partition, he said, “India is a God-made triangle, you cannot divide it.” Britain’s Prime Minister Attlee gave clear instruction to Mountbatten “keep it united if possible. Save a bit from the wreck. Bring the British out in any case”.

“None of the leading lights of India’s independence movement wanted India to be divided; neither did the majority of the people of India-both Hindu and Muslim. Yet the country was partitioned. Why?” It is this basic question that forms the backdrop of Ram Madhav’s new book ‘Partitioned Freedom’. The book reveals the dichotomy between lofty idealism and political pragmatism, both employed to a highly exaggerated degree, in the context of India’s freedom struggle.

The Partition of India has been one of the most momentous events in  world history. The ‘partition scheme’, adopted on June 4, 1947, sealed the fate of four hundred million human beings in the subcontinent. What ensued in the following months was the kind of horror that was rarely witnessed in the annals of mankind. Underlining the rarity and severity of the event Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre wrote in their book ‘Freedom at Midnight’, “never before had anything even remotely like it been attempted. Nowhere were there any guidelines, any precedents, any revealing insights from the past to order what was going to be the biggest, most complex divorce action in history.” Even after 75 years, the tremendous pain and trauma induced by the partition remain etched in our collective memory. It is the persistence of the horrific memories of the partition in our national consciousness that led the current government to acknowledge in 2021 that “the horrors of the partition must be revisited in order to learn lessons from it”. Ram Madhav writes, “India had paid as much a price for hiding the horrors of the partition as for the partition itself…revisiting horrors of the partition is needed not just as an academic exercise, nor to hate anybody, but to learn appropriate lessons and avoid another partition.” The book is an articulation of his thoughts on various events and personalities that shaped the destiny of the country during those fateful years preceding its independence.  

Of all the questions the book raises, the one that stands out is that why “a country that successfully defeated the British designs to partition one province failed to avert the partition of the whole country four decades later? Why if “nobody wanted partition of India, nobody was there to stand up against it when the moment came”?  

The book highlights the inherent contradictions that existed in the minds of the leaders with regard to the most important question of the time:  Hindu-Muslim unity. Gandhi and Jinnah represented two extremes of the ideological spectrum as they constantly clashed on their individual idea of secularism and Hindu-Muslim unity. The respective views of Gandhi and Jinnah on the Khilafat question give a unique insight into the thinking of the two most important leaders of the movement in the initial years of their political lives. While “Gandhi viewed Khilafat as the best opportunity for Hindu-Muslim unity and exhorted the Hindus to join the struggle for preserving Islam’s honour if they really want Muslims’ friendship.”, Jinnah called the Khilafat a “false religious frenzy of which no good will come out for India.” Before quitting the Congress in 1920 over the question of Khilafat he said, “I will have nothing to do with this pseudo-religious approach to politics. I do not believe in working up mob hysteria; politics is a gentleman’s game”. 

Although the two-nation theory, originally propounded by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan during a speech at Meerut in 1886, didn’t find many takers in the initial years, it went on to become the foundational idea of a separate nationhood for Muslims in subsequent years. The first major articulation of this divide came in the form of the partition of Bengal which was strenuously opposed by the nationalists across the country, forcing the British to finally annul it in 1911. The birth of the All India Muslim League under the presidency of Sir Mohammed Aga Khan in 1906 and their demand for a separate electorate for Muslims which the British government finally agreed to under the Minto-Morley reforms “legalised communalism” in India and irretrievably set the country on the path of inter-communal hostility. 

Questions like ‘who was responsible for the partition of India’ or ‘what were those factors that led to the partition’ cannot have a simplistic answer. India’s partition was the cumulative consequence of various events that took place, especially from 1905 onwards. Ram Manohar Lohia in his book, The Guilty Men of India’s Partition, enumerated those whom he considered to be the essential players responsible for the partition. He wrote, “First the British chicanery, secondly, the declining years of Congress leadership, thirdly, objective condition for Hindu-Muslim rioting, fourthly, lack of grit and stamina among the people, fifthly, Gandhi’s non-violence, sixthly, Muslim League’s separatism, seventhly, inability to seize opportunities as they came, and eightly, Hindu hauteur”. 

Partitioned Freedom offers an objective analysis of events that unfolded during the eventful years preceding independence. Partition of Bengal, Foundation of All India Muslim League, Separate electorates for Muslims granted under the Minto-Morley Reforms, Gandhi’s support to the Khilafat Movement, Jinnah’s transformation from a secular icon to the flagbearer of Islamic nationhood, ignoring the nationalist elements among the Muslims, the mutual dislike between Nehru and Jinnah, alienation of Gandhi and his ideas from the Congress leadership, and most importantly,  the British government’s pandering to the communal sentiments of Muslims, all played a definitive role in the ultimate partition of India. Lohia, as the author writes, believed Gandhi, Jinnah and Mountbatten to be primarily responsible for the partition. 

The last two chapters of the book make for an interesting read for they describe Gandhi’s inner struggle with the hard reality he saw unfolding in front of his eyes. In those immediate years preceding the partition, Gandhi came across as “a shattered man” who was in deep pain as his “life’s work seemed to be over”. Very rightly the author writes, “Gandhi may not be fully absolved of the sequence of the events that had ended in the tragic partition of the country, but it would be unfair to put the entire blame on one man who represented many lofty ideals and inspired generations. Gandhi was like a mystic and a metaphysical idealist.”

It is true that nobody can be held exclusively responsible for the partition of the country but it is also true that at some level, all the aforesaid figures were responsible for giving to a fictitious two-nation theory the shape of reality. The most important takeaway of the book is that we must resist the temptation of brushing the inconvenient parts of our history under the carpet as they never really disappear and always come back to haunt us. “You don’t change the course of history by turning the faces of portraits to the wall”, Nehru said, and this is the message one gets after reading this book. 

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Abhijeet Sriwastava

Abhijeet Sriwastava is the Head of Policy Research of Bihar Bharatiya Janata Party.

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