December 5, 2023

Lessons from Partition – IF Chats with Shri M J Akbar and Shri Swapan Dasgupta

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In this episdoe of India Foundation Podcasts Members of Parliament Shri M J Akbar and Shri Swapan Dasgupta talk about the Lessons from India’s Partition in 1947. 

Transcript of the talk:

Shubhrastha – Good evening everybody. Today we are in conversation at the India Foundation fora and we will have a discussion around Partition today. India celebrates its 74th Independence from British rule. This year, we also must take a pause and reflect on what happened in the past 74 years. We have grown into a strong nation. We are the world’s largest democracy today. Definitely there have been many hits and some misses. Today in conversation, we have two very accomplished ex-journalists, members of the Rajya Sabha and formidable authors. M.J Akbar and Dr. Swapan Dasgupta.

Before we begin on the real conversation around history. Do you think it is relevant to talk about partition? The relevance of partition in today’s time, especially for the young generation?

MJ Akbar- Well obviously. Because visceral memory lasts for generations. It’s political and geopolitical consequences are not erased in one lifetime. And if you look at the reasons, the manner in which that colossal mistake was made, then you will begin to appreciate why precisely it remains something that everyone, particularly the young generation, who are in charge of the next 75 years of our country must know. And in fact, before asking Swapan to make his initial remarks, I must say that lots of people have forgotten this factual narrative of what precisely happened, why it happened and what for me was the most fundamental lesson which I hope to discuss, which I hope to present a little later; which was the whole partition idea. The people who eventually opposed Gandhi within the Congress; the reason that they gave was that partition would be a solution to the Hindu-Muslim problem. In fact, as Gandhiji said over and over again, it was the exact opposite. It consolidated and it institutionalized the problem whose consequences we are facing today. 

Dr Swapan Dasgupta- I have very mixed feelings about whether the partition is relevant or not. In my youth and that goes back some time. There used to be inevitably around Independence day, all newspapers used to have supplements in which one of the very basic questions that was asked was- Was partition inevitable? Could it have been averted? I see less of that today. Except that among a certain section of the Indian diaspora, mainly in Western Europe who settled, partition remains a very vivid memory not least for many of the Muslim communities who were unsettled from Uttar Pradesh. Even the proverbial Muhajir, who were very unsettled in contemporary Pakistan. Now the issue of whether this is relevant or not comes up in sort of curious ways. At one level we were one people who went our separate ways in 1947. Today when we look 74 years later, we are tempted to this unfortunate but inescapable conclusion that we have indeed evolved in very very different ways. I mean there are commonalities but I think there are larger differences between India and Pakistan. Less so perhaps in Bangladesh but certainly quite marked even there. We have developed very very differently, in very very different trajectories. I think one of the– for them, both in Bangladesh and in Pakistan, the question of nationhood is now established and settled. So when we often ask this question- Was partition/Could partition have been averted? And cease to posit it in a historical way? I think it’s one thing to posit it in a historical sort of way as to what exactly happened. Were there sort of wrong choices made? Were certain things absolutely inevitable– Did events drive the decisions bit too much? Those questions are alright in a historical sort of way but when if we try to posit it in a more contemporary dimension, I think we get into a lot of problems. I think at the best of time the conversation between India and Pakistan is difficult. It becomes even more difficult if we raise the question of- Was partition inevitable? And if you ask the question- Is your nationhood somehow suspect? So I, that’s why I said I have very mixed feelings about this whole thing.

MJ Akbar– Just to take off from this point. In fact, we have to address this issue, slightly differently. Because there wasn’t one partition, there were two partitions. Pakistan was partitioned. I mean because of a very legitimate liberation movement by Bangladesh. A liberation movement which actually exposed the original idea of Pakistan- as based on the principle of religion-right? -was completely fallacious. Right? I mean the Bangladeshi Muslims are as much believable Muslims as anywhere else. The Bangladeshi Muslims have as much faith in Allah as they have anywhere else and in fact,there is another element to it. He (referring to Dr Swapan Dasgupta) mentioned I think, in a passing, it’s a kind of phase that we use in passing that, we went our separate ways. No! There are two hundred million Indian Muslims who didn’t go a separate way; who remained very much an intrinsic part of the unity and the potential and the dynamic of India. So in fact the number of Indian Muslims today is equal to the number of Muslims in Pakistan. So we have actually, the community because of what it did in ‘ 46 and ’47, has managed to sort of triple partitioned itself. Once we get, I also, but I take the point that Swapan is making which is very valid and which should be addressed. Nobody here is challenging the sovereignty of Pakistan. It’s a separate country and it can work to its own dynamics. Similarly, Bangladesh is a proudly independent country. A country with which we have had very good relations and hope to have even better relations. So it isn’t necessary that the memory of’ 46,’ 47,’ 48 should always impinge negatively upon our present relationship. No that’s not true. And the Indo- Bangladesh relations are evidence that yes, despite what happened or whatever irrespective of what happened, rational sensible nations can actually work a good neighborhood policy. So yes with these qualifications I think we can proceed.

Dr Swapan Dasgupta- Well I would agree and disagree again. Because if you look at the manner in which the people who migrated to Pakistan. And you see there are two aspects to what composed Pakistan. One is a settled population thatwas there in Punjab, in Sindh, and the North-west Frontier Provinces. And there was a large section of Indian Muslimswho came from Uttar Pradesh and Hyderabad. That was what made up. Now if we look at the Hyderabad and the Uttar Pradesh Muslims, it’s a bit like what you see among the Irish and the Italians who migrated to America. You know, there are commonalities but there are profound differences because the experience of what they have seen in the past 70-75 years has been markedly different. The manner, the society in which they have lived, their neighborhood, their larger social relationships have been very different. So that point is there. So while there are similarities, there are differences. And the point which is very important to make is that a large section actually sincerely believed in their own minds, rightly or wrongly, that Pakistan was going to be the proverbial homeland for the Indian Muslims. It didn’t quite turn out to be that way. But they went there with a certain degree of idealism in their terms, in actually believing that a new sort of dawn, a new utopia which is going to be presented to them. The reality was of course quite different. 

MJ Akbar– At this point, we have to mention that enormous irony of what he (Swapan) has said, which must again, since we’re bringing out all the points from the subterranean levels of history. The places where today Pakistan has been created are the very places that never actually voted for the Muslim League.

Shubhrastha– Yes.

MJ Akbar– In ’37 and even after the false narrative that was imposed by Jinnah on the consciousness of Muslims and narrative of fear, – Islam is in danger if you know India becomes free and we don’t get our own country, every mosque will be destroyed- and so on and so forth. A narrative of invective, a narrative that had no relationship to our past, present, or future. But became a confection which had absolutely incendiary consequences. There even in Punjab, it was the you know, Unionist Party which won and even in the ’46 elections. Right? It wasn’t quite defeated. Right? Jinnah had to do actually direct action, repetition of what he did in Bengal in January ’47 in Punjab in order to then, what shall I say bloody the mood, sadly. But we know, Sindh- no history, the Frontier- till the end Abdul Gaffar Khan sitting you know saying why we betrayed us, asking the Congress.

Dr Swapan Dasgupta- No, I think there’s also this question of whether in the end partition was a direct consequence to a knee jerk reaction to a series of very cataclysmic events which took place between ’46 and ’47, beginning with the direct action day. And MJ is quite right in pointing out that as far as Sindh and Punjab and even the Frontier were concerned, the hold of the Muslim league in those areas was tenuous and it really didn’t establish itself till 1946. One of the reasons why subsequently, in the Post Independence Pakistan they found their political stability so fragile. The really bizarre thing and the irony of the whole situation was that those who supported the Muslim league most avidly, who were the most avid supporters of Muhammad Ali Jinnah for its homeland of the Indian Muslims, actually came from the Uttar Pradesh, some in Bihar, some in Madhya Pradesh, some in Tamil Nadu. Which never- I don’t think in their wildest dreams they rationally thought about the whole thing. They actually were in any way going to be, I might point out the rather thing. One of the greatest supporters of the Pakistan idea in Bengal was an Urdu speaking Muslim. A man of considerable industrial fame and fortune, a chap called MAHS Mahani, a very good industrialist. He was one of the most elite industrialists. And he was one of the principal backers of Jinnah. Some years ago in the European capital, I encountered a very close, I will not elaborate, a very close descendant of MAHS Mahani who asked me gently whether it was possible where if a PIO, as they were called in those days, the card could be issued.

So I think you know the wheel has turned full circle. 

MJ Akbar– But having said that, it’s again just to get text and context in some relationship with each other. You must remember that we have just mentioned the ’46 elections, we have just mentioned the ’37 elections. In both these elections, the electors are only ten percent. The elected was an elite elected. Nawab Liyakat Ali Khan, the first prime minister of Pakistan, Jinnah’s closest aid and so on, his bridge partner and much else, you know. They were socially very western-oriented gentlemen. He actually in ’37 was fighting on the Agriculturist Party which was the landlord party, so it was rich. And I tell you this is why till today in Pakistan there’s no land reform. Because they represented the landed interest, the leftover of the Nawabjyadas. And so on. And they were frightened of the promise of land reform in India. And because they were frightened of the economic upheaval that has to accompany because without economic equity you cannot have a nation. You know, you cannot have a Zamindari nation. This frightened them and drove them into a language of hysteria, using arguments that could not stand the test of history. 

Dr Swapan Dasgupta- How are you even talking about 10 percent. I’m talking about the ten percent who was the electorate of those days. I think it’s very interesting to recall also that most of those who migrated from the places which didn’t become part of Pakistan, inevitably happened to be from the middle class. 

MJ Akbar – and the Upper class.

Dr Swapan Dasgupta -Yeah but more of the middle class. So that’s what became one of the great liabilities of Muslim society after independence within India; that you started off without a middle class and that middle class is only now just about to getting totally formed. So that was a big gap and I think that was a big setback for Indian Muslims overall. I mean apart from Bengal where really the Muslim elite didn’t really exist except in a very small sort of way. Everywhere else it was really the loss of that middle class. After all, remember AMU which was at the heart of the Pakistan movement. Aligarh was a modernist movement within the context. It was quite against the Deobandis which were the orthodoxies. But therefore, loss of that AMU alumni to Pakistan actually created the space for the more conservative and orthodox sections of Muslims to prevail in India post ’47.

MJ Akbar– And now since it’s going to be an evening of ironies. The Deoband movement wanted United India.

Dr Swapan Dasgupta– Absolutely.

Shubhrastha – In 1937, Muslim Independent Party had 20 candidates. Three of the Congress candidates, one because of MIP support and this completely routed the league. The question that I’m really trying to ask is that why were these leaders not a part of the final negotiation on the partition?

MJ Akbar- You know, the final negotiation on the partition, by the way, was taken over by Jinnah, and Jinnah wanted to be the sole spokesman. He didn’t allow Sikander Ayat Khan. Mr Sikandar Ayat Khan and his sons and his family were the leaders of the largest province in the country which was Punjab. Punjab existed from the border of the Delhi right up toKhaibar. Right, of course, princely states inside sure but that was extinct and in fact, the original dream of Pakistan was that it would reach here and they were saying whether Aligarh should be included in it or not. But final phase which actually Jinnah began to craft through ’42,’ 43, he knew the contradictions. And he knew he had to defeat the contradictions in order to get somebody to accept a completely rational idea. And then he removed all the other Muslimleaders and became what is known in Ayesha Jalal’s book title which is ‘The Sole Spokesman’ and that is what he was. I think this point whether Pakistan would be good for Muslims or not? There is a very interesting conversation and I might, why not put a gentle plug for my own book in which, the whole details are there in “Gandhi’s Hinduism: The struggle against Jinnah’s Islam.” The exact, the whole conversation. Now Mountbatten is having one of his last conversations, just before. There is no dispute in anyone’s mind that partition is going to happen. That phase is over. I would still like to talk about ’46, if we get a chance because I think the decision that was made by Jawaharlal Lal Nehru in July 46 before direct action contributed significantly. It is a blunder which nobody has been able to explain. And why he held that press conference after the cabinet mission plan and I’m sure people who are listening today will be absolutely fascinated by the events of the May, June, and July 46. But to get back to this conversation, Mountbatten asks Jinnah that “look please explain to me why you want Pakistan? ” He says, “you have got according to the plan that is worked out Group A, Group B, Group C …”, you know by the cabinet. He said,” you have got your majority provinces. You have got the whole of Bengal.” Right? Maybe not Assam although that was you know, there was a discussion, and it was being disputed whether it should be tagged down to Bengal or not. But I’m sure Assam would have been separated.”You have got the whole of Punjab. You have got Sindh. You have got Frontier. You have got Balochistan. You have got a vast population in U.P. Nobody can bully you in these populations in U.P and Bihar. Why precisely do you want Pakistan.?” And he had no answer. He says how is the economy better? It’s a very simple question. You get your country. How do you make the economy? Religion doesn’t give jobs. Right? How do you get geopolitically better? On the other hand look at the strength of India as a united country. Right? From Gwadar to Chittagong. Right? Who would have been in the control of the geopolitics of the seas? And so on and so forth. I could label that point. 

Dr Swapan Dasgupta (cuts short)- May I just add a thing?

MJ Akbar continues– just to, because it’s important and then Mountbatten, maybe that’s why they dislike him so much. He tells Jinnah that “you are a psychopath.” Now calling somebody a psychopath is not a (chuckles). Then in the weekly report that the viceroy sent to London if you can say it was a casual remark may be made in the heat of the moment and so on, alright. But he repeats the remark! That “this is an act of a psychopath who wants to cut up for the sake of cutting” and I think history is evidence perhaps that there was something in what he said.

Dr Swapan Dasgupta- You know since we’re going in the counterfactual of what if? May I just say something which might appear to be completely heretical. Jinnah really gained his maximum strength between 1939 to 1946. That was the time when Jinnah, the Muslim league grew out from being just a provincial body to becoming a national force. In hindsight, one of the reasons why this happened was because the field had been vacated by all other political forces because of their participation in the Quit India movement. So there was a completely empty terrain in which the Muslim League with the aid of the British administration could actually move in and without any real challenge posit the Muslim community and also as being the great defender of India and therefore get a lot of benefits and that and the appeal with which he managed to extend his reach all over India at that time was quite significant. I mean if you go back and look back that period, you’ll find that the only person who’s really active in the political sphere at that time was Muhammad Ali Jinnah and to a lesser extent in a different sort of way, the communists.

MJ Akbar– And Subhash Chandra Bose.

Dr Swapan Dasgupta- Subhash Chandra Bose was out of India.

MJ Akbar- Was out of the country. But I will differ with Swapan here because I think Gandhi in jail was always more powerful than Gandhi outside the jail. Because the emotional quotient that he represented while inside was absolutely beyond British belief and whenever he tested it, through his fast. After all, he was testing the strength of the British empire (chuckles) to let him die. Right? Over and over again the British. Even in his last fast, the British succumbed. They would not be able to take the risk. Before in ’42, there was a plan. As it there was much earlier to send him into exile. Some people were suggesting that to send him to Southern Africa, I don’t know which country, maybe Tanganyika or something or to Aden. Right? Even at the (chuckles)end, throw him out. The governor said we won’t be able to handle the reaction. Now the mistake, this is the season of mild heresy. The mistake(chuckles) that Gandhiji made which I have said that his biggest mistake, he tried to reach Indian Muslims through Jinnah rather than reaching Jinnah through Indian Muslims. And that, unfortunately, gave Jinnah a legitimacy while the others were in jail which was through the I think 17 or 20 number of times that he went to Jinnah’s residence and you should see the governor’s remarks before the jury and after. Particularly Punjab and in the Frontier and they’re saying that before he went, Jinnah was not much of a factor in these areas. And after Gandhiji gave him Qaid e Azam status. A Qaid e Azam a term by the way that was given by one of his lady devotees, Abdul Sata/Salam I think, her name was and the one person who was very angry about this was of course Azad. He kept saying over and over again “What is he doing? What is he doing?” This was one factor that actually established Jinnah. Because once Gandhi had recognized him as the leader of Muslims. During this fallow period, I’m sure there are you know everything cannot be put in very neat boxes in this fallow period. That definitely helped his credibility enormously. And the second of course, now we must go back to the cabinet mission. After the war which Churchill had won, the British people exhibited maturity which has no parallel democratic politics. They throughout, the man who had won the second world war, I mean it was a massive sweep. Attlee was his number two became Prime Minister. In February, I think 26nd February or something like that ’46 Clement Attlee made a speech that absolutely changed the dynamics of the whole freedom struggle. He made a statement saying-, “We will not allow”, maybe instead he said, “I will not allow the minority to hold the majority hostage.” Because, Jinnah’s deal with the British had been made in 1940 through the august offer in which Jinnah actually, the bargain that he made with the British that he would help mobilize and recruit Muslims for the British army which the British for perfectly understandable reasons and they wanted bodies, troops. You know, I don’t, you know, we’re not in the business of passing on blame and so on. But they made a deal and in return “I will have a definitive say in the constitution-making process.” Right? That was the agreement. So in the end what Jinnah wanted would have to be honoured. This is Churchill’s basic commitment. Linlithgow waver. Churchill. When Attlee comes he changes the dynamic. Then he sends the three-member cabinet mission. Cut a long story short, the first time ever; previous efforts at Shimla had failed, and so on; first time ever by the end of June both the Congress and the Muslim league through their working committees endorse and pass an agreement on a United India. “This is astonishing” the headlines. I have seen the headlines of the time. The newspapers are bursting with joy. that “We’re saved.” Right? “This country shall remain united.” Then, an AICC is called as per the Congress rules, to ratify; now every AICC just ratifies a working committee. There’s a line beyond the working committee resolution. During that period, Jawaharlal is the appointed Congress President. Azad has to give way because the time is now for the formation of an interim government and so on and so forth. And Jawaharlal being the nominated heir of Gandhiji. For reasons we don’t have to get into (chuckles) but are rather thin but however, he’s made the Congress president. As Congress president, he holds a press conference in Bombay saying that the Congress is not committed to anything! The Congress working committee is stunned. Azad makes him a- Sardar in a letter which is written I think to DN Mishra about ten days later, says that “this is emotional insanity”. Others plead with Jawaharlal to withdraw that statement. And he says no this will be ..-what..- the respect to something of the Congress party’s president will be lowered. I mean we’re talking about the future of a nation. We’re not talking about an individual’s respect. And this was called by Azad “the historical blunder” in the 30 pages of documents which he did not release when his book came out. He said only thirty years after my death, they’ll be reading this. Anyways..

Dr Swapan Dasgupta- They gave Jinnah the opening to repudiate. He was looking for that opening.

MJ Akbar- No. Just to complete the point. This gave Jinnah the chance to call for direct action on 14th August, 15th August in Bengal resulting in the Great Calcutta Killings, then resulting in Noakhali, resulting in Bihar. After that of course I don’t think there was any realistic but there is no explanation from anyone as to why that press conference was first made and then condoned.

Shubhrastha – This whole conversation on again as I said- Nehru, Jinnah, and Gandhi. This over dominance of these three figures in the partition narrative. Clearly Savarkar, Ambedkar, Patel all these national figures are completely absent. I want to take you back to Bengal. Early 20th century Bengal, that’s when the first seeds of partition perhaps were sowed. But somehow the entire nation along with Bengal came together to annul that act. What happened in the later thirty years? That as a nation we couldn’t put up a formidable force in front of either Nehru or Jinnah or whoever as MJ Akbar says- “The colossal mistake of partition” and as Nehru called it “the fantastic nonsense”. Why couldn’t we as a society come up with a counter?

Dr Swapan Dasgupta- Well I think three or four things happened in the interim between 1911 and 1947; one was the shift of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi which reduced the political importance of Bengal. And Bengal, rather than becoming the center of politics, became a province. So that was important. Secondly, an epidemic of communal riots. An epidemic of communal riots, really. Everyplace and most of them were on this rather abstruse question of music -before-mosque.

MJ Akbar– which is all deliberate mischief.

Dr Swapan Dasgupta– Yeah so that was the thing. The third was the communal award the thing which was by which the electorates were decided on the strength of whether you’re Hindu or whether you’re Muslim.

MJ Akbar- no that is 1908.

Dr Swapan Dasgupta- Yes, I know uh muchly later the whole communal award, the proportions.

MJ Akbar- Oh you mean 1932 communal award

Swapan Dasgupta– (agrees) 1932 communal awards which actually…

MJ Akbar- that gave disproportionate sizes in the legislature.

Swapan Dasgupta- which gave a certain thing and which actually set the Bengali elite, the Bhadralok elite really against the Muslims and I think that schism, an emotional schism which was developed in those areas and then you come, then you have a lot of things whereby a lot of issues which were very sacred to the Bengali Bhadraloks at that point. Calcutta University and things like that. Minor changes here and there. Change of the emblem. They sound rather petty at this point, you know in hindsight but it created and so when the ’46 riots, the direct action day took place, the biggest demand of the Bengali intelligentsia was “How do we save? How do we extricate a part of Bengal from Pakistan? From going to Pakistan.” That became, therefore, so in other words what Curzon had tried to do in 1905, now the Bengali said for their own, Bengali Hindu said for our own self-preservation “we need to create a West Bengal. Because we don’t want to go to Pakistan any longer”. And you know that became- that one of the things was the Congress at that time was almost in denial about the partition in the east.

Shubhrastha – Yes 

Dr Swapan Dasgupta- I’ll give you a very small example that in 1948, a delegation of Bengali Hindus was being turfed out of what was then East Pakistan. Went to the Congress session in, I think it was in Jaipur. And went to meet Jawaharlal Nehru, then the Prime Minister, and said- We have come to talk about rehabilitation. And he said, “Where are you from?” And they said,” we have come from East Pakistan.” He said, “Don’t talk to me, go and talk to the foreign affairs department of the AICC.” So the whole point which was believed at that particular point was that the partition in the East hadn’t happened. That it would somehow, the status quo would be maintained and there would be no transfer of population. By and large, whatever disturbances in ’46 had been done would be settled, would more or less settle in 47. And only the very elite would leave from East Pakistan to West Bengal. Now that didn’t happen, it happened in rigs and rags and I think that’s the untold story of, the forgotten story of partition that it didn’t happen in one fell swoop in 1947. 

MJ Akbar– The exchange of population..

Dr Swapan Dasgupta- That the movement of population. The movement of the population really took place in continued and in fact it reached a peak in 1971, 65-71, and then and is more or less continued on a daily basis even now. The last time I went to Dhaka, I was told in the Dhakeshwari Mandir which was there. That on the average about 40 families leave and these days more middle class, they leave, for West Bengal from Bangladesh. So that legacy, the persisting legacy of what took place in 1947 hasn’t been healed despite 1971. Then the formation of Bangladesh.

MJ Akbar- I hope we don’t run out of time(chuckles) because we can’t have a discussion on the legacy of the partition (chuckles) without saying one of the major legacies of partition is war on Jammu and Kashmir. (Chuckles). But that apart to get back to Bengal, the very reason why there was no immediate transfer of populations unlike Punjab where it happened, you know it is driven was because of Gandhiji. Gandhiji did not want to be in India on 15th August 1947. Why? Not because he didn’t believe in India. But because he didn’t believe in Pakistan. He had fought a bitter battle(chuckles) with his own side. Right? Eventually, it’s a very said story. He was on his way to Noakhali. And in Calcutta, a delegation including Suhrawardy said that “We will guarantee peace in Noakhali but we will not be able to maintain peace in Calcutta if you’re not here.” And because of that, he remained. And then what he did which Statesman describes as a miracle. How he single-handedly changed the atmosphere. The Statesman reporting of this period, I have read intensely of 15th, 14th August, and then on what he did. Then there was again this kind of riots which Swapan was talking about, again broke out. He had to go on a fast. And during the fast, he said,” I will only break my fast when Syama Prasad Mukherjee tells me that all is peaceful.” And eventually, you know, things were brought under control by the political class, not by the people. And Mountbatten famously sent him a letter saying that “in Punjab, I have 55000 men border’s force and they cannot keep a single peace. In Calcutta, there’s one man. And he has maintained the peace.” Think about it now that why did the Muslims living in the border districts of East Pakistan, then East Pakistan. Today’s situation of course it’s Bangladesh. Then East Pakistan. The border districts are still heavily populated by the Muslims, they didn’t go. They didn’t go because there was peace. In fact the real riot started after 1950. And then they peaked again in ’63-64, and as he said it was 64-71 which saw the back to these migrations.

Shubhrastha – Again this whole I’m taking you back to the Frontier states which actually suffered the brunt of the partition the most. Maybe you elusively explained how Nehru actually propelled Jinnah to the image that he has.

MJ Akbar– Not propelled Jinnah but he created the opportunity.

Shubhrastha – Right.

MJ Akbar- Just to choose words carefully.

Shubhrastha – Right. Why didn’t Gandhi with Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan or Gopinath Bardoloi in Assam and to a great extent Assam is part of India because of Gandhiji’s intervention? So why could he not come to terms with these Muslim leaders who could have given formidable opposition to?

MJ Akbar- Yeah I agree with you. Why did he not come to terms with the Unionist Party in Punjab? Let’s take Punjab where this disease was had its worst consequences. And as I said instead of reaching out to Jinnah through Muslims, you reaching out to Muslims through Jinnah and I said that earlier that if I find one political mistake that he made in all this complex time, it is perhaps this. He gave credibility to Jinnah. If he had given the same credibility to Hayat Khan or to you know whoever. And by the time he reached out to Suhrawardy, it was all too late. Suhrawardy was heavily accused and admitted before 14th, ’47. In August ’47 he admitted that he had been responsible for the Calcutta killings because he was then chief minister/Prime Minister as the used to say then, of Bengal.

Dr Swapan Dasgupta- I mean we have very two different narratives of partition. One is the belief that partition was a consequence of events, developments, missed opportunities that took place at best from 1937 and culminated in 1947 and therefore the period in which that is the period to examine and probe very deeply. And we are fortunate that we have got a wealth of papers and documents …

MK Akbar – the British documents..

Dr Swapan Dasgupta- and the documents which are there. There is another way of partition however that reflects a larger schism. More civilizational schism and a different perception which absolutely surfaced in ’47. If it hadn’t surfaced in ‘47, it would have surfaced sometimes later, and that it would have been unmanageable. Had that you know, the formulation of the cabinet mission plan been actually accepted. Then it would have been unmanageable. That is a sense that despite the hardships, despite the bloodshed, everything; India’s growth story today is a consequence that wouldn’t have taken place had partition not happened. You know this is another alternative narrative which I think is also worth considering and I don’t think we will get finality to any of these things and the point is that since 1947, as you said with lots of hits and a few misses we have travelled a long way and we have created certain element with we have created a structure in India whereby we are basically tried to gloss over some of the deeper wounds of partition. And we have tried not always successfully but we’ve tried. And I think that’s a very important thing. On the other hand Pakistan hasn’t even tried. 

MJ Akbar- Now let’s go to the evidence in ’47 before the generation taking decisions. The best government that Punjab has ever had was during ’37 and ’46 by a coalition of Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims. So, the fact that you know these so-called civilizational traits would inevitably lead to some kind of later schisms. May or may not, I mean we can’t say definitely what would have happened. But the evidences that, you know, were given a chance, they have just as Hindus and Muslims have lived for so long they would have found a way particularly since in a democratic system they would have had more freedom of expression than they ever had under feudalism of one kind to the other. The second is I must tell you this story, which when Gandhiji in his own way was trying to answer the same point. Because Jinnah used to make this point fervently. “We are separate people. We are a separate country. We don’t have anything in common” and so on and so forth. He used to say– he told Jinnah during these talks that “you know when I first saw you, I thought you were a Hindu.” A point that he would make over and over again. Some people may like it, some people may not. But this is part of the Gandhi narrative. He said “What is an Indian Muslim? An Indian Muslim is only a Hindu who has been converted”, by which he meant that you belong to the cultural ethos of this land. You have at some moment in your history adopted another religion, so what? That doesn’t change the fact that you’re an Indian. And then he tells Jinnah (chuckles) that” I thought you were a Hindu.” And then he adds very interestingly that “when I first saw Vithalbhai”, which is Sardar’s brother, “I thought Vithalbhai was a Muslim. Because Vithalbhai used to wear that face occasionally and had a beard. What he was trying to make the larger point that the Indian ethos is an assimilated ethos. The Indian ethos has actually created over a long period of history. The story of amalgam, which doesn’t mean there are no differences, no frictions, no tensions, of course, there are. But we have a chance of creating something together.

Shubhrastha – I thank both of you for this amazing conversation. I’m sure it has given us a lot of moment to pause and reflect on the journey by far. Thank you once again!

MJ Akbar- Thank you so much!

Dr Swapan Dasgupta- Thank you very much!


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  • Between 1936 and 1946, we had in 1942, the British offering Dominion status, which the congress party rejected. That, as Sri Aurobindo had recommended, would have avoided partition.

    • 100% correct & right information.
      Only because, Gandhi could not create his supremacy in this deal, he and automatically Congress did not accept it, although accepted by many e.g. Aurobinda, Deshbandhu etc., which Cong had to finally accept in 1947, after many Hindu Sikh bloodshed.

  • I’m not believe in multiple faith society, because Muslims are not believe in multyfaith. So co existence with them not possible.
    I’m believing on Suresh chavhanke/ Sudarshan news theory. Muslims have pak and hindusthan is for hindu only

  • Facinating Conversation with lot of facts, The MJA’s very good understanding that religion will not provide food, why today’s Muslim living in India not understanding. Why the riot in Delhi and Banglore.

    This conversations must be done in AMU and such other places to inform the reality of partition .

  • obfuscation…. too superficial…. it was islamic fundamentalism which is again raising head which caused partition…. a failed attempt is always portrait of harmonious existence between hindus and muslims… it never existed…. it will never be with grossly one sided and totally required domination by islam

  • The BJP would not have made it to power without the Partition paradigm. And BJP’s ‘Hindu’ rhetoric would not pass muster if there is no ‘Muslim’ . In an un-partitioned country, BJP would have felt frustrated with the presence of Muslim minority which was huge. Congress leaders too felt the same way. In 1947, Congress was the ‘Hindu’ party.

    • Sir, I beg to differ. The BJP now and in its earlier form Jan Sangh, opposed the pseudo-secular , minority- oriented appeasement politics of the Congress . And it had, in no way antagonized Muslims, as a whole. Before the Partition, the party, headed by Shri Shyama Prasad Mukheerji formed government in Bengal along with the Muslim League . India has gained nothing by the Partition. There are more number of Muslims in India than in Pakistan, who are leading a peaceful life by and large.