Could Partititon have been avoided?: Congress Perspective Examined

One of our regular readers interested in modern Indian history, V.Srinivasan, has written an article on the Cabinet Mission Plan and whether it could have succeeded. The abstract of the article, as written by Mr.Srinivasan, is as follows:

In the 60th anniversary of our Independence , naturally some of our thoughts go back to revisit partition. There is a tendency to form imaginative solutions for the communal issue that caused the partition. The last and concrete solution that tried to avert partition was the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946. The plan suggested a three tier pyramid of provinces, groups of provinces and the Union . Both the League and the Congress accepted to work the plan. However the plan failed mainly due to Congress insistence on its own interpretation of a clause governing the option of provinces to form groups. This article discusses the course of events that led to the failure of the plan. In the end some questions that naturally arise in the discussions are addressed. Mainly it is argued that the while the Congress interpretation may have been conceptually justified, it was practically flawed and politically unwise. An attempt is made to analyze the fears behind the Congress position while pointing out the inherent advantages for the Congress position in the groups. Though I am not terribly optimistic on the Union, I argue why such a Union was a worthwhile experiment to pursue.

The article can be read here.

Join the discussion

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Dear Mr. Srinivasan,

    Well-written article and I agree with much of what is said. It is interesting to speculate what form the Constitution might have taken in an undivided India and how differently post-independence policies might have been shaped in the absence of a dominant center led by Pandit Nehru and the Congress party. I would think that many of the provisions in the Constitution, being largely borrowed from the West, may have found a place even in a legislature with a strong Muslim League presence given the westernized orientation of its top leadership. However, the League being the only political group strong enough to oppose the Congress at that time, the process of constitutional amendment may have been much more arduous and controversial the event of their resistance given the far reaching nature of many of the changes passed at the time. Also, the greater decentralization of powers that would have inevitably resulted coupled with the requirement of the Congress to work with the League at various levels may have made them more sensitive and respectful of due process and fundamental rights and less likely to carve out exceptions to the same. The absence of large scale rioting that preceded and accompanied the Partition might have also predisposed the Constituent Assembly to provide for stronger guarantees of these rights and limit the discretionary authority of the State.

    In particular, I wonder whether India’s foreign policy too, which also had wider ideological ramifications on economic and social policies, would have been substantially different given that the primary interest of the West during the Cold War was, and remains to a significant extent to this day, in the strategic location of Pakistan as a route to access Central Asia. It is open to question whether non-alignment would have been a reality without Nehruvian dominance or the alliance with the Soviet Union would have come about in the absence of a conflict of interest with the United States.

    Had the Cabinet Mission plan been accepted and implemented, you suggest three reasons why a later partition would have not had a greater impact or led to balkanization of India. This is debatable. (1) Local and regional factors would have strengthened post-independence: The same thing was said to explain why a Hindu vote bank was not possible and why the BJP could not succeed. Yet the party and their ideology have been relatively successful showing that religious ideology as a political force can be very persuasive and dwarf other local and regional considerations with its emotional appeal. (2) Predominance of Congress under what is now Indian territory precluding separatist tendencies: such tendencies have arisen in many areas owing to a variety of factors even in the presence of such dominance (Nagaland for eg.) as we have seen, so it is certainly possible, even likely, that they would have come about even then. One of the reasons for the relative weakness of such fissiparous tendencies might have been the dominance of the congress at all levels of government and therefore ensure relatively equitable development. In the presence of the league, neither of those would have existed and the weakness of the Center itself might have been a factor promoting such forces. (3) The time lag factor that the partition would have occurred much before other centrifugal forces have gathered steam: this is by no means clear because one does not know whether the culmination of the result of the Cabinet Mission Plan would have been a clean break as you suggest or a prolongation of the status quo of multiple groups in the final constitution with varying levels of autonomy and an option to secede without a firm determination of any outcome. The latter does not necessarily imply that the demand for Pakistan might have abated since the League itself under different leadership following Jinnah’s death or a different political organization might have kept not only the idea of Pakistan alive but continued to advocate the idea of partition – after all, though Jinnah himself studiously maintained ambiguity about the role of religion vis-à-vis the state, other Islamic organizations openly embraced the concept of a theocracy. The compromise formula of the Cabinet Mission Plan would have conferred moral legitimacy to the idea of regional secession thereby giving a fillip even to other non-Islamic groups in the north-east and elsewhere fighting for independence. The point is not only the time factor here but one of principle – allowing departure of some provinces from the independent Union would almost certainly have implied the acceptability of such a notion to the government of India and be followed by a cascade of similar demands by a variety of groups.

  • Dear Dilip,
    Thanks for your insightful analysis as always. I agree with what much of you said in the first para. In a single constitution the League and the Congress had vested interest in creating stronger checks and balances on each other’s domains. On the question of fundamental rights, there might have been some disagreements on specifics, but on principle both had paramount need to make it stronger. Though it is crude to suggest, the security of Muslim traders in Uttamapalayam in my native district and of Hindu traders in Quetta would have been one single question.

    On foreign policy the Nehruvian outlook though necessitated to a large extent by Partition, was possible because of the whithering away of the right wing challenge to Nehru. The death of Patel, ouster of Rajaji, the accomodation of regional satraps all played a very important role.

    On balkanization I think I differ. Jinnah had the “Muslims in danger” card. It had to be cashed at some point. If he had cashed it partially with the CMP, it would have lost some value. As you rightly point out, issues in the North east would have risen anyway. But we also have to consider that the League was equally, if not more, threatened by this danger. The Baluchis were promised a State by the British and to this day they nurse a grievance. The danger posed by Pakhtoon ethnicism in NWFP hardly needs emphasis.Religious solidarity could not help solve the water sharing problems between Punjab and Sindh. A recent dam project, Kalabagh was shelved due to this. In essence both “India” group and “Pakistan” group faced threats: similar in nature yet different in manifestations. In that case I would argue that the “Pakistan” group would have been wise to not “stoke” fires inside “India” group. It is possible that they would have acted strongly against such forces which threatened their respective group, though not in unison,but atleast without opposition from the other.

    The CMP did not grant the right of secession to groups or provinces.Some smart aleck pressmen tried to pin down Cripps on this, the day afer the plan was revealed. He wouldn’t even mention the “s” word. What was expressly spelt out was a reconsideration of the constitution after 10 years. The League read in it a right for secession by implication to which the Congress had acquiesced earlier in private consultations with the mission.

    With your point about principle, I would say that rarely nation states concede to B, just because they had to concede to A. Pakistan was possible not just because of the priniciple of self-determination, but also the capacity of the League to thwart a solution against its will. No other group/section has so far obtained that kind of clout, fortunately, that is why India has survived balkanization, even after conceding Pakistan, though there has been hardly any dearth for such forces claiming such “principles”