What If Attlee Hadn’t Partitioned India?

outlookindia.com“Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially.” Imagine those famous words spoken “at the stroke of the midnight hour”, not by Jawaharlal Nehru as leader of a partitioned Indian republic, but by Mohammed Ali Jinnah as premier of a confederation of the whole subcontinent. The new state is an independent dominion, like Canada and Aus­tralia, with the British monarch as king-emperor. It has a weak central gov­­ernment and strong, autonomous pro­­vinces like undivided Punjab and Ben­gal. Its constitution is based on the British government’s Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946 and acc­epted by both the predominantly Hindu Congress and the separatist Muslim League.

To persuade Jinnah, already dying of tuberculosis, to abandon his largely tac­tical demand for Pakistan, an indep­e­ndent state carved out of India’s Mus­­­lim-majority provinces, Mahatma Gan­­­dhi has given him the premiership of a coalition government at the centre. Nehru, whose arrogance and insistence on the top job had alienated Jinnah, has been slapped down in a realignment of the Congress leadership: Gandhi joining forces with anti-Nehru conservatives like Sardar Patel and Chakravarty Raja­gopalachari (Rajaji). Nehru had been collaborating closely with Lord ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten, sent as viceroy by the new Labour government to “cut and run” as quickly as possible. But the Nehru-Mou­ntbatten axis is seriously discredited by a scandal about Nehru’s affair with Lady Moun­tbatten, including ins­i­n­uations that the bisexual ‘Dickie’ was a willing participant in a menage a trois.

Mountbatten is packed off home in disgrace, while his perspicacious predecessor, Lord Wavell, returns as vic­eroy, resuming negotiations for a more gradual transfer of power to a united subcontinent. This slowly results in a new national unity coalition between Jinnah and the Congress conservatives. With Jinnah as his Muslim prime min­ister, Rajaji, a Hindu Brahmin, in due course succeeds Wavell as the first Indian governor-general of the newly independent dominion.

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Categories: Asia

1 reply

  1. The outcome was an ingenious three-tier sch­eme in which sovereignty would be sha­red in a pyramid, with the provinces at its base, groups of provinces with either Hindu or Muslim majorities above them, and at the apex, an all-India centre for defence and foreign affairs.

    This would have been a unique constitutional experiment, more akin to the present European Union than a nation-state, but well suited to India’s political diversity. Both, the Congress and the League, reluctantly accepted the plan, but then fell out over its interpretation.

    “What the Cabinet Mission intended and the way we interpret what they inte­nded may not necessarily be the same,” Gandhi told the viceroy.

    “This is lawyer’s talk,” said an exasperated Wavell. “Talk to me in plain Eng­lish. I am a simple soldier. You confuse me with these legalistic arguments.”

    To this, Nehru quipped, “We cannot help it if we are lawyers.”

    The coup de grace for the Cabinet Mission Plan was delivered by Nehru in July 1946, when he publicly announced that a new constituent assembly, which would obviously have a large Hindu majority, would modify the Plan as it pleased. The Muslim League promptly seized on this to back out as well, reiterating its demand for a separate Pakistan and launching “direct action” to achieve it.

    Two of Nehru’s closest colleagues have laid the blame for this breakdown squarely at his door. Maulana Azad called Nehru’s statement “one of those unfortunate events which changed the course of history”, lamenting the fact that “he is at times apt to be carried away by his feelings”. Sardar Patel, too, criticised Nehru for acting “with childlike innocence, which puts us all in great difficulties quite unexpectedly”.

    Nehru himself maintained that he had acted out of the conviction that partition was preferable to a loose federation. He wanted to be master in his own house, free to implement his socialist policies through centralised economic planning

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