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A Tale of Two Nations

A Tale of Two Nations

Power politics, religious nationalism, and a divided subcontinent

On March 18, 1930, speaking at the Albert Hall in London, Winston Churchill proclaimed — in a speech titled quite succinctly, ‘Our Duty in India’ — that if the British left India, then the subcontinent would pull away quite hastily “through the centuries into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages” (Churchill, 1931).

In August 1947, the British left India after the culmination of a lengthy and relentless struggle. And, Churchill, who was strongly opposed to the self-determination of the Indian people, did get his ‘I told you so’ moment as a condition of ‘barbarism’ and ‘privation’ did follow (Guha, 2008)—largely due to the partition of British India into the Dominions of India and Pakistan.

The chief tenet of partition, as mainly articulated by the Muslim League (henceforth, the League) leaders, is the ‘two nation’ theory which states that Hindus and Muslims were separate civilizations fated to evolve into distinct nations (Brass, 2002) and, thus, couldn’t live together peacefully in a united India. So to understand the importance of religious nationalism, it is important to first analyse whether it was the key causal factor of partition.

This essay will strive to address the importance of religious nationalism in the partition of India, and in doing so, will try to put forward the argument that partition was much more a result of a calculated power struggle between key players in the provincial and central political arena and not so much a direct cause of religious nationalism. Religious nationalism, in this context, can be defined as the concoction of religious doctrine with nationalism. An important aspect in the discussion will be the interplay between religious representation and political power — and how the epic personalities of the time used the notion of the former in their pursuit of the latter.

British India and the Princely States in 1909, with the former shaded pink and the latter yellow. | Image Source:   Imperial Gazetteer of India   (Edinburgh Geographical Institute; J. G. Bartholomew and Sons. - Oxford University Press, 1909).

British India and the Princely States in 1909, with the former shaded pink and the latter yellow. | Image Source: Imperial Gazetteer of India (Edinburgh Geographical Institute; J. G. Bartholomew and Sons. - Oxford University Press, 1909).

In order to correctly ascertain the importance of religious nationalism, it is essential to revisit history. Religious conflict, British politicians of the era claimed, had invariably always existed — even in the late 19th Century, there were numerous communal dissensions and squabbles in north India. The British, thus, felt the need to entrust special representation for the minorities; a tactful manoeuvre with an aim to entrench their divide and rule policy (Ghose, 1991). A key turning point in the historiography of the independence struggle is the British commitment in 1909 to institute separate electorates for Muslims at the provincial rank. Largely seen as an early catalyst for the ‘Pakistan demand’ due to it strengthening the Muslim political electorate, this move etched the colonial notion that those communities who belonged to a common religion shared collective interests distinct from others (Talbot & Singh, 2011). Thus, there’s a need to first consider the political misgivings and miscalculations in provincial politics.

The Congress’ decision after the 1937 provincial elections to defiantly reject Jinnah’s proposition for a coalition ministry in the United and Central Provinces (UP and CP, respectively) could, in hindsight, be considered a critical political blunder as it paved the way for the League’s consolidation of differing Muslim factions — a development which could have been avoided considering that in the pre-Khilafat and Non-Cooperation days, there were not so many splits between Hindus and Muslims in North India as compared to those between Sunnis and Shias (Hasan, 1994).

Commentators have asserted that religious harmony was at its lowest during the quarter of a decade that Congress was in power and communal carnage was commonplace. However, it needs to be stressed that not all of these clashes were based on religious dissents — most were local conflicts to control key resources, strengthen existing “patronage networks” (Hasan, 1994: 19) and to augment dependency. Therefore, though lines of cleavage were apparent between Hindus and Muslims, they were equally visible between the Congress establishment and non-Congress Hindus. Another explanation is that most of the communal dissensions were artificially cultivated by self-serving elites. For example, the UP Tenancy Bill, which aimed to bring about agrarian land reforms was denounced by Muslim zamindars in eastern and western UP and taluqdars in Awadh labelling it a religious attack against Muslims, despite it not being directly against them — they weren’t the victims of the scheme in their capacity as Muslims, but in their capacity as political adversaries of Congress and its land reform policies (Hasan, 1994).

It is also pivotal to mention the dynamics in play at the principle theatres of partition — Punjab, North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Sindh. It can be argued that “elite factional realignment” (Talbot & Singh, 2011: 15), the world war and economic instability following the great depression (Bates, 2007) were key causal factors for inducing a synthetic feeling of religious nationalism amongst Muslims in these regions. As workers lost their jobs and the economy collapsed, the peasantry, which was overwhelmingly Muslim (especially in East Bengal) foresaw the economic advantages that might accompany political sovereignty (Bates, 2007).

Referring to the Muslim elite in UP whose political powers were cut by successive British acts, Robinson (1973), a key adherent of the ‘Cambridge School’ of Indian historiography, focuses on self-interest of the top echelon of political players as driving force of religious nationalism. He mentions how despite UP being a Muslim-minority province, it ended up being — as Talbot and Singh (2011: 14) proclaim, the “birthplace of Muslim separatism” — due to intra-elite infighting and dissension; also mentioning that “historical enmity” coupled with “weakening of the Muslim position” (Robinson, 1973: 91) and perceptions of an utopian Muslim life played a part in the notion of separatism. Brass (2002: 884), on the other hand, comments that feelings of separatism were cultivated by Muslim elites vying for economic and political power by intentionally feigning “selected symbols of Muslim identity” and that a “secular political union” could have very well been created by transferring religious identity to the private rather than communal domain.

Thus, by the time World War II (WWII) started Muslim sentiments were characterized by rancorous bitterness. This resulted in strengthening the position of the League and cementing its role as chief representative body of Muslim populace. At the same time, the ability of Congress to negotiate a settlement with the British worsened, as it could not legitimise its claim of being the sole mouthpiece of India (Talbot & Singh, 2011). This is where the British interest comes into play: The wartime Churchill-led British leadership leaned towards favouritism for the League over Congress, mainly since the latter was overtly against Indian involvement in WWII unless the British promised expeditious independence (Bose & Jalal, 2004) — and spearheaded the Quit India movement when that option was eliminated; while the former supported the British in lieu for a promise for inclusion in any further cross-party deliberations. This move of boosting the League’s position in the pre-independence dialogue eventually threatened Britain’s resolve towards a United India (Talbot & Singh, 2011).

Muhammad Ali Jinnah: proclaimed as the Ambassador of Hindu–Muslim Unity by Sarojini Naidu. | Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah: proclaimed as the Ambassador of Hindu–Muslim Unity by Sarojini Naidu. | Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

This implores us to consider the political dynamics at the national level. Much of the academic discourse on the partition adheres to the traditional outlook — branding Jinnah and the League as the Machiavellian components that wrecked INC’s plans of a united India (Roy, 1990). Wolpert (1989: vii), for example, quips that Jinnah “virtually conjured” Pakistan by the strength of his invincible determination. However, in recent times, there’s been a shift in the focus of certain historiographers. Citing the volatile power politics in the INC and League high command, such historiographers peeking through a ‘revisionist’ vantage point describe Jinnah’s ‘Pakistan demand’ as a strategic “bluff” (Jalal, 1994: 263) and attribute partition to the former, instead of the latter.

Bose and Jalal (2004) state that the federation proposed in the 1935 Government of India Act made most of the Muslims uncomfortable. Muslim-majority provinces desired a faint centre and robust provinces with strengthened autonomy and therefore shunned the idea of a federation, while those in Muslim-minority regions realised that they would hardly get any share of power. Thus, a conceivable solution was to summon the primordial notion that India was a conglomeration of a Hindu and Muslim nation — both entitled to equivalent share of political authority and patronage. Consequently, the League’s mandate in 1940, as stressed in the Lahore Resolution was that all forthcoming constitutional provisions be reassessed afresh since Indian Muslims were a collective nationality and not a minority, as originally gauged. For the same reason, it also insisted on autonomous sovereign Muslim states in the north-west and north-east of India. The ambiguous wording of the Resolution, however, completely ignored the notion of a unitary centre, neither strong nor weak. Why? As mentioned earlier, the core centre of support for separatism on religious lines lay in Hindu-majority provinces of UP and CP — so the problem Jinnah faced was that to have any input in constructing the constitutional future of the country, the League had to substantiate its backing in the Muslim-majority provinces. Hence the consciously vague phraseology used in the text, which didn’t alienate either side by letting each believe what they wanted to believe — a rather ingenious tactic, which gave Jinnah some “breathing space” (Bose & Jalal, 2004: 144). Thus it can be said that Jinnah’s resort to religious ideology had nothing to do with his personal beliefs, but was instead a realistic ploy to realise his dream — rallying a society ruptured by politics but restrained by religion.

Clement Attlee, the former British Prime Minister who oversaw the decolonisation of British India. | Image source: Hulton Archives / Getty Images (  New Statesman  ).

Clement Attlee, the former British Prime Minister who oversaw the decolonisation of British India. | Image source: Hulton Archives / Getty Images (New Statesman).

During the later years of the independence struggle, it is said that most Congressmen — and in turn, the British — accepted the notion of partition. The conclusion of WWII significantly pruned Jinnah’s political leverage in swaying the terms of the handover of authority, while that of Congress’ simultaneously increased. This was largely thanks to the inability of the Colonial government to face another nationalistic upheaval like ‘Quit India’. In addition, at the end of WWII, and despite being part of the victorious allies, Britain’s “prestige and authority, not to mention its wealth, had been severely reduced” (Darwin: 2011). The British requirement of the day was to set their own house right, and to rebuild a war-torn nation. Thus, the government and the British population themselves, didn’t want to bear the excessive burden of ruling over an unruly nation such as India — so, a deadline was set to pull out of the subcontinent by 1948. Also, the advent of Labour administration in Britain following the war, brought politicians who were sympathetic to the Indian nationalistic cause in power. Jinnah’s stalling manoeuvres, which aided him (and the British) during wartime, now became a nuisance (Talbot & Singh, 2011). This was coupled by the British belief that its future strategic and economic interests in South Asia dangled on the existence of an authoritative centralized government (Roy, 1990) — and Congress looked ardent to take on the baton. Thus, giving Jinnah a small chunk of the subcontinent seemed like a better option than leaving behind a weak alliance.

Jawaharlal Nehru (left) and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (right). | Image source:   The   New York Times  .

Jawaharlal Nehru (left) and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (right). | Image source: The New York Times.

Elsewhere, although Nehru’s allegiance to a secular image of the nation’s future has remained undisputed, his commitment to a united India has been questioned from various corners of academia in recent times — not least because of his rejection of the Cabinet Mission Plan. The League had already accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan, which documented a federal scheme and Nehru’s denunciation put Jinnah in an awkward position — “accepting something less than Pakistan, he had lost the bargaining counter which the demand for the fully sovereign Pakistan gave him” (Roy, 1990: 405). Similarly, Jaswant Singh (2009: 510) a veteran Indian politican and former Cabinet Minister, blamed the Nehru-Patel leadership in Congress for “conced[ing] Pakistan to Jinnah” while the British played their role of “an ever helpful midwife.” Patel, who empathised effortlessly with Hindu right-wing sentiments found it comparatively easy to accept partition. Azad (1988: 225), in the unabridged version of his autobiographical narrative says that Patel was of the view that Pakistan would fail so miserably that, at the end, the Provinces would “be forced to return to India” — he, thus, wanted Congress to accept partition in order to teach Jinnah “a bitter lesson”. Azad (1988: 170), too, pins the “responsibility” of partition on Nehru. Tellingly, the nature of relationships, personal ambitions and characteristics did play a central role in the division of India (Singh, 2009). Jinnah and Nehru shared, to put it lightly, a rather hostile rapport. Nehru (as cited by Brown, 1999: 68), for example, penned back in the end of 1943:

“Instinctively I think that it is better to have Pakistan or almost anything if only to keep Jinnah away and not allow his muddled and arrogant head from interfering continually in India’s progress.”

Moving on, any analysis of pre-Independence India is incomplete without assessing the role of Gandhi. Gandhi was opposed to the emotion of division — considering instead the country as an unfragmentable whole and expressing that he could not stomach any thought which entailed its laceration (Talbot & Singh, 2011). He was also opposed to the British involvement in partition talks, believing that they had no right to split India. However, many political commentators claim that Gandhi didn’t do enough to stop partition from happening. For example, when riots broke out in North India between 1946–47, Gandhi braced himself to travel across these regions inorder to extinguish the sparks of hate, instead of staying in Delhi and quenching the root cause of the troubles — which was largely political — and aiding in the foremost negotiations which, even to this day, define the subcontinent (Nanda, 2007).

Thus, it was Nehru’s lust for power, Jinnah’s lack of articulate political judgments, Gandhi’s naïve analysis of the core issue behind partition, and the British preference of leaving behind an authoritative government free from religious infighting (coupled with their own priorities back home), that eventually led to a divided subcontinent.

Carrion birds feast on victims of the Direct Action Day riots. | Image source:   TIME  .

Carrion birds feast on victims of the Direct Action Day riots. | Image source: TIME.

It is imperative, now, to consider the Great Calcutta Killing of 1946, a result of Jinnah’s Direct Action Day and which is cited as a grim event that ultimately forced partition on India. Here the power-hungry regional League leaders were hand-in-hand with local goons, giving them a blank cheque to do whatever they wished towards the Hindus; who retaliated against Muslims elsewhere in Bihar on a much wider scale — a horrible move justified by certain Congress leaders as apt reciprocity (Bates, 2007). Thus, the massacre was in itself masterminded for political gain — where it was made to seem that religion, and only religion determined a community’s political identity — thereby making it appear as though partition was the only option left (Talbot & Singh, 2011).

Before coming to any hasty conclusions, it needs to be stressed that leaders from all sides of the pre-Partition political spectrum were, metaphorically, in a ship traveling in rough waters with independence as their goal; they didn’t have the luxury of making judgments in a peaceful and tranquil state. It also needs to be kept in mind that partition was a consequence of the independence struggle — without the latter, Hindus and Muslims would have persisted to concentrate on their respective status under British rule (Gandhi, 2010) — as both would be ‘subjects’ of the Crown, and not ‘citizens’ in a democracy hinged on majority-rule.

That said, it can safely be concluded that Partition wasn’t so much the result of religious nationalism as much as it was a latent power struggle — a dynamic tussle between the Congress and League leadership which played on the underlying religious sentiments of the masses for political gains. Even at the provincial level, religious discords were theatrically synthesized by self-seeking elites — which when coupled with class divisions, exacerbated feelings of discord. The fact that the plea for separatism originally came from those colonial pockets that are today in India, and that there are more Muslims left behind in India post-Partition — who are, arguably, living in rather peaceful harmony with their Hindu brethren refutes the primordial notion of India historically comprising of two separate Hindu and Muslim nations unable to fuse together.


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