Partition, Jinnah, Jaswant Singh
by Sanjeev Nayyar on 12 Sep 2009 4 Comments

Jaswant Singh’s latest book has raised a fresh controversy on who was responsible for the Partition of India. Some think it was Jinnah; others say Nehru/Patel. The truth is that the seeds for Partition were sown at least eighty years before Partition actually happened.

This article seeks to share some insights, though it is by no means an exhaustive account of the reasons for Partition or the events that led to it. It covers:
- Former foreign secretary J N Dixit’s views on Partition
- Causes of the 1857 Mutiny in brief
- Status of Muslims around 1857 
- Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and the two nation theory
- Role of British principal of Aligarh Muslim University in encouraging Muslim separatism
- Was the idea of a separate nation conceived after 1935 or when? Impact of the Khilafat Movement
- Why B R Ambedkar suggested Hindus concede Pakistan

1] In his book, Anatomy of a Flawed Inheritance, former foreign secretary J N Dixit wrote, “The partition of the sub-continent, in a manner, has its roots in Islamic ethos. It goes back to the Prophet’s journey from Mecca to Madina in 622 AD in the face of persecution and harassment, known as Hezira. The concept of Hezira is generally acknowledged as a norm, to the effect that Muslims do not live in tyranny or oppression from peoples of other faiths. They must remake their lives in order to practice their faith. Where Islam is not dominant, it is Dar-ul-Harb. It is necessary to move to Dar-ul-Islam. This was the sub-conscious logic underpinning the demand for Pakistan by Chaudhury Rahmat Ali of Cambridge, later on endorsed by Allama Iqbal and concretized by Jinnah.

The demand for Pakistan came from areas where there were sizeable Muslim minorities desiring to escape from anticipated or imagined thrall of Hindu domination. It was, in fact, the concept of Hezira transmuting itself to 20th century sub-continental politics! 

A host of prominent Muslim leaders did not buy the two nation theory or the sub-conscious negative theological impulses which gave consent to it.”

Partition was as much a result of what Mr. Dixit wrote as the British desire to perpetuate the Hindu Muslim divide. This article restricts itself to some key events post-1857 and the British role in promoting separatism.

2] Dr B R Ambedkar wrote in 1941, “The curious may examine the history of the 1857 Mutiny, if he does, he will find that in part at any rate it was actually a Jihad proclaimed by the Muslims against the British that owing to the occupation of India by the British the country had become Dar-ul-Harb” (See Thoughts on Pakistan). 

This is substantiated by Prof Sheshrao More in The 1857 Jihad (Manas Publications). It is because Muslims took an active part in the 1857 Mutiny that the British were anti-Muslim in the initial years after the Mutiny. By trying to re-establish Muslim rule over India, the community wanted Dar-ul-Islam once again. This reinforces J N Dixit’s view. The advent of the British led to Muslim insecurity.

3] Condition of Muslims around 1860: The British had swept away the last vestiges of Muslim rule by annexing Sindh in 1843, Avadh in 1856, and exiling the Mughal Emperor to Rangoon. The Deccan kingdom had a Muslim Nizam, but he was more a British ally. 

The condition of Muslims was best stated by a liberal, R M Sayani in his Presidential address at the 12th session of the Congress in 1896: “Before the advent of the British in India, the Muslims were the rulers of the country. The rulers and their chiefs were Muslims, so were the great landlords and officials. The court language was their own (Persian was the official language of India till 1842). Every place of trust and responsibility, or carrying influence and high emoluments, was theirs by birthright. The Hindus did occupy the same position but were tenants-at-will of the Muslims. The Muslims had complete access to the rulers and chief. The Hindus were in awe of them. By a stroke of misfortune, the Muslims had to abdicate their position and descend to the level of their Hindu fellow-countrymen. The Muslims resented the treatment.

Meanwhile the British introduced English education into the country. This required hard application and industry. The Hindus were used to this, as under Muslim rule they had practically to master a foreign tongue, and so easily took to new education. But the Muslim had not yet become accustomed to this sort of thing. Moreover, they resented competing with the Hindus, whom they had till recently regarded as their inferiors. The Muslims were gradually ousted from their lands, offices; in fact everything was lost save their honour. To the Hindus it was the opposite. They were soon reduced to a state of utter poverty. Ignorance and apathy seized hold of them while the fall of their former greatness rankled in their hearts” [History and Culture of Indian People, Bhartiya Vidya Bhawan, Vol. X: 295]

The hostile attitude of Muslims towards the English and their aversion to secular education kept them aloof from English education imparted in schools and colleges, whilst the establishment of Hindu College in 1817 gave a great impetus to English education amongst the Hindus. For the next fifty years, Muslims made little progress.

This feeling of backwardness was brought to a head at the evidence before the Public Service Commission in 1886. Dadabhai Naoroji observed that the attitude of the Muslims was “based on selfish interests, that because the Muslims are backward, therefore, they would not allow the Hindus and all India to go forward” [Ibid: 330]

The Muslim community had to cope with the loss of political power and an ever adaptable progressive Hindu community. How Hindus felt when they lost political power to Muslims need not detain us here. Muslim attitude is reflected in Pakistan’s attitude towards India - we are not progressing and shall pull you down as well. It is one of the reasons why Mumbai, commercial capital of India, is victim to frequent terror attacks.

4] At a critical juncture in the 1870’s came Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. He took upon himself the responsibility of bringing about a political rapprochement between the British and Muslims. He persuaded the British that Muslims were not disloyal to the Crown. They were swayed in 1857, but a little tact and generous forgiveness could change Muslims into loyal supporters.

Syed Ahmad Khan conceived the idea of a Muslim college like Oxford and Cambridge - the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh, the foundation stone of which was laid by Lord Lytton on 8 January 1877. Sir Syed deserves credit for his endeavour to uplift his community, but the two-nation theory formed the basis of the Aligarh Movement.

At Meerut on 16 March 1888, he referred to Hindus and Muslims as two nations, in fact as two warring nations who could not lead a common political life if ever the British left India: “Now suppose that all the Brits were to leave India, and then who would be the rulers of India? Is it possible that under these circumstances these nations, the Muhammadan and the Hindu could sit on the same throne and remain equal in power? Most certainly not. It is necessary that one of them should conquer the other and thrust it down. To hope that both could remain equal is to desire the impossible and the inconceivable” [Ibid: 309]
[Other speeches at:]

KPS Gill wrote something similar recently while commenting on Indo-Pak relations: “The conflict over Kashmir is not, as is widely believed, a quarrel over territory; it is, rather, an irreducible conflict between two fundamentally incompatible ideologies - a pluralistic democratic ideology, on India’s part; and an authoritarian-fundamentalist-exclusionary Islamist ideology that asserts that different belief systems cannot coexist within the same political order. A permanent peace in South Asia will only result after one or the other of these ideologies succumbs - and these are crucial to national identity, consciousness, and even the existence of these two nation states.”

1888 and 2009 - has anything changed?

How did the British respond Sir Syed’s overtures? The appeal came at a very opportune moment. After two generations of English education, the Hindus had imbibed Western ideas and showed signs of political development, regarded with apprehension. So the British seized the opportunity offered by Sir Syed of enlisting the support of the great but politically undeveloped Muslims and holding it as a counterpoise to the progressive Hindu community. This article gives one example in the context of Aligarh Muslim University.

5] The British Principal of AMU, Theodore Beck, accentuated the Hindu Muslim divide. He took charge of the Institute Gazette, the literary organ of the Aligarh College, and edited it on behalf of Syed Ahmad Khan. The highlights of his speech were published in the Aligarh College Magazine of March-April-June 1895:

- A friendship between the Muslims and the British people was possible but not between for e.g. the Marathas and Sikhs who would never agree with the Muslims in accepting Aurangzeb as their hero 

- Muslims would never accept a system of government in which the Hindus would rule over them

- Muslim behaviour before and after the Revolt of 1857 had warned them against the agitational policy of the Hindus and they were now on the advice of Sir Syed Khan following loyalty to the British

- Muslims were opposed to the holding of competitive examinations for they knew this step would mean the replacement of many impartial British officers by anti-Muslims Hindus

Differences accentuated in connection with the legislation for local self-government on an elective basis, and for the first time a demand was made for separate representation of Muslims, a ball set rolling by the British. Said Muhammad Yusuf on 3 May 1883, “But it would be an advantage and more fit recognition of the claims of the Muslim population if provision could be made in the Bill for the election of Muslims by reserving a certain number of membership for that community.”

It is obvious that the British exploited the Muslim apprehension of co-existence with Hindus in independent India long before Jinnah and Nehru came on the scene.

The divide can be seen in the number and frequency of Hindu Muslim riots, particularly between 1885-1893. There were riots in Lahore and Karnal in 1885, Delhi in 1886, Hoshiarpur, Ambala 1889 and Palakod in Salem, Tamil Nadu in 1891. 1893 was a bad year with grave outbreaks in Azamgarh, UP; Mumbai lasted for six days.

The British role in India’s division is best summed up by Sardar Patel. He said on August 9, 1945, “The British talk of Hindu Muslim quarrels, but who has thrust the burden on their shoulders? If they are sincere, let them hand over to the Congress, League or international arbitration. Give me just a week’s rule over Britain, I will create such disagreements that England, Wales and Scotland will fight one another for ever” (Patel – A Life, Rajmohan Gandhi).

6] When was Pakistan conceived? Dr Ambedkar wrote in 1941 – “There is evidence that some of them knew this to be the ultimate destiny of the Muslims as early as 1923. In support of this reference may be made to the evidence of Khan Saheb Sardar M Gulkhan (who was President, Islamic Anjuman, Dera Ismail Khan) who appeared as witness before the NWF Committee to report upon the administrative relationship between the Settled Area of NWFP & the Tribal Area & upon the amalgamation of the settled districts with Punjab. The importance of this evidence was not realized by any member of the Committee except Mr. N Samarth - extracts from Report illuminates a dark corner in history of the evolution of this new destiny.

“Q – The idea at the back of Anjuman is the Pan-Islamic idea, which is that Islam is a league of nations and as such amalgamating this Province with Punjab will be detrimental. That is the dominant idea at the back of those who think with you? Is it so?

A – It is so, but I have to add something. Their idea is that Hindu Muslim unity will never become a fact and they think that this Province should remain separate and a link between Islam & British Commonwealth. In fact when I am asked what my opinion is – I as a member of the Anjuman am expressing his opinion – we would rather see the separation of Hindus & the Muslims, 23 crs of Hindus to the south and 8 crs of Muslims to the north. Give the whole portion from Kanyakumari to Agra to the Hindus and from Agra to Peshawar to the Muslims, I mean trans-migration from one place to another. This is an idea of exchange not annihilation. This seems impracticable but if it were practicable we would rather want this than the other” [Thoughts on Pakistan]

This shows the idea underlying the scheme of Pakistan took birth sometime before 1923.

“In 1924 Mahommed Ali is said to have suggested (See Lala Lajpat Rai’s Presidential Address to the Hindu Mahasabha at Calcutta on 11 April 1925 in Indian Quarterly Register, Vol. 1: 379) that the Muslims of the Frontier Province should have the right of self-determination to choose between an affiliation with India or Kabul. He also quoted a certain Englishman who said that if a straight line be drawn from Constantinople to Delhi, it will disclose a Muslim corridor right up to Saharanpur. It is possible that M Ali knew about the whole scheme of Pakistan which came out in evidence of the witness referred to by Mr. Samarth and in an unguarded movement what the witness had failed to disclose, namely, the ultimate linking of PAK to Afghanistan.” ” [Thoughts on Pakistan]

Many believe the Khilafat Movement (1919), a protest by Indian Muslims against Turkey’s abolition of the Caliph, religious leader of the Arab world, to be the first step towards India’s Partition. Gandhi spearheaded this movement but failed to realize that the Pan-Islamic idea cut at the very root of Indian nationality. What did the movement achieve?

First, Muslim fanaticism secured a position of prestige in Indian politics; thereafter their religious loyalty took precedence over national loyalty. Two, the Muslim population hitherto divided among various groups and political pulls now became a solid force. Three, a new fanatic leadership riding on the crest of the Khilafat wave came to wield the reigns of the Muslim leadership.

A Patwardhan, a former Socialist stalwart of the Congress, in a candid analysis of the Khilafat wrote in 1968, “The Congress movement placed the Muslims of India under the spell of orthodoxy and religious superstition by their support to the Khilafat leadership”. This had disastrous consequences on Hindu Muslim relations later. It led to a series of Hindu Muslim riots between 1920 and 1939 (See Ambedkar for details)

It is possible that after the Khilafat Movement, Muslims began to view themselves, not as a community but as a nation. A separate nation might have been a dream in the 1920’s but the movement sowed the seeds for one, although support for Pakistan was publicly voiced much later. Could and should Hindus have avoided Partition? Not if you read two insightful reasons by Dr Ambedkar. 

7] One, the British had ensured that the Armed Forces consisted primarily of Muslim soldiers from the North West (modern day Pakistan). They justified this predominance by saying that men of the North-West belonged to the Martial Classes.

Chaudhari (‘The Martial Races of India,’ Modern Review, July-Sept 1930, and Jan-Feb 1931) shows that the predominance of the Northwest took place as early as the Mutiny of 1857, some 20 years before the theory of martial and non-martial classes was projected in a distinct form in 1879. Their predominance had nothing to do with their alleged fighting qualities, but to the fact that they had helped the British suppress the Mutiny in which the Bengal Army was complicit. The Mutiny blew up the old Bengal army and brought into existence a Punjabized army.

Changes in Communal Composition of Indian Army, 1914-30


Area & Communities

% in 1914

% in 1930


Punjab, NW.F.P & Kashmir




         Of which Punjabi Muslims & Pathans




         Of which Sikhs




Nepal. Kumaon, Garhwal




Upper India




          Of which Hindustani Muslims




South India







[Sikhs reduced from first to third place]

After 1930, there is no information available on the communal composition of the Indian Army. The British obstinacy to provide this information gave rise to all sorts of speculation as to the proportion of Muslims in the Indian army. Some believed it was between 60-70 %. Obviously it was high enough to cause alarm to the Hindus.

Veer Savarkar was one of the few leaders who kept exhorting Hindus to join the Indian Army in large numbers. He said in 1940, “Since the days of the First War of Independence in 1857, it has been the policy of the British to keep the army out of politics. Our politics must be to carry politics into the Indian army and once we succeed the battle of freedom would be won.” Till the day of Savarkar’s whirlwind propaganda for Hindu militarization, military career was the monopoly of the Muslims, who formed three fourths of the Indian army. The effect of this propaganda was seen everywhere. Muslim plans for preponderance were checkmated and brought down and the % of Hindus in the army went up as high as seventy (Life of Veer Savarkar, Dhananjay Keer)

How could Hindus feel protected against foreign invasion when the Army was predominantly Muslim from Punjab and NWFP, more so if the invaders were Afghans singly or in combination with other Muslim states? The only way for Hindus to get rid of a predominantly Muslim army was by the creation of Pakistan. 

Dr Ambedkar buttressed his argument by stating that the Pakistan area which is the main recruiting ground for the then Indian army contributed very little to the Indian exchequer.

Revenue Contribution to Exchequer – Pakistan area and Hindustan



Rs crs

Rs crs


Pakistan Area




Punjab, N.W.F.P. & Baluchistan




















Bengal (only ½ revenue shown based on population)







The main contribution comes from the provinces of Hindustan. Not only do the Pakistani provinces contribute very little to the Central Government, but they receive a great deal. Out of total central government revenues of Rs 121 crs, Rs 52 crs is spent on the army annually. The bulk of the amount spent on the army drawn from the Pakistan area, but is contributed by the Hindu provinces, while Hindus are excluded, he argued. The best way for Hindustan to stop taking this risk was the creation of Pakistan. A safe army is better than a safe border.

A series of events between 1940 and 1947, including Direct Action Day and the inability of the Congress/Muslim League to work in one government, probably forced Congress to accept Partition. Many events prior to and after 1941 accentuated the Hindu Muslim divide and resulted in Partition, to detail which would require another article.

To summarise the points made above:
- It is a myth that Nehru, Jinnah or Patel were responsible for Partition. They were merely implementing a partition plan scripted in the 19th century
- Hindus were apprehensive that Muslims wanted to rule India again. Muslims feared that under the principal of one man one vote, it would be a government for and by the Hindus
- Separate electorates for Muslims, reservations, caste and religion based divisions are some of the tactics used by the British to divide India
- Muslims realized that by virtue of having a larger population, Hindus would have a larger say in Government. Hence they insisted on equality, parity with Hindus. To this day Pakistan wants parity with India on all key matters, size of population and economy notwithstanding. 

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