The Alternative History of an Undivided India

“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 Muhammad Ali Jinnah as prime minister of a confederation of the whole subcontinent, with Dominion status and the British monarch remaining as King Emperor. The new federation has a weak centre and strong, autonomous provinces like undivided Punjab and Bengal. Its constitution is based on the Cabinet Mission Plan, proposed by the British government in 1946 and accepted by both the predominantly Hindu Congress Party 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, the presiding deity of Congress, has given him the premiership of a coalition national government. Nehru, whose arrogance and insistence on the top job had alienated Jinnah, has been slapped down in a realignment of the Congress leadership. Gandhi has joined forces with anti-Nehru conservatives such as Sardar Patel and the south Indian leader Rajaji. Nehru had been collaborating closely with Lord “Dickie” Mountbatten, sent out 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 love affair with Lady Mountbatten, including insinuations that bisexual “Dickie” was a willing participant in a ménage à 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. The result is the new national unity coalition between Jinnah and Congress conservatives. With Jinnah as his Muslim prime minister, Rajaji, a Hindu brahmin, succeeds Wavell as the first Indian governor-general of the new Dominion. 

Hindu-Muslim tension, ratcheted up by the Pakistan demand and Congress opposition, now subsides. Jinnah’s main power-base, the influential Muslim minority of India’s central Hindi belt, is delighted with the power-sharing deal. For them, Pakistan was always a tactical rather than a practical demand, because it would uproot them from their homes in a partitioned India. The two largest Muslim-majority provinces of Bengal and Punjab are equally pleased, because they remain undivided with powerful, devolved governments of their own. A year later, Jinnah dies, and his successors as leaders of the Muslim League, lacking either his charisma or ambition, accept the role of second fiddle to Congress. Gandhi’s gamble has paid off, and he lives happily on for another decade, instead of falling victim to a fanatical Hindu assassin.

This historic Hindu-Muslim compromise avoids the estimated 2 million deaths and 12 million refugees caused by a violent partition and the ethnic cleansing it would involve. It also has profound international implications for the balance of power between the West and the Soviet bloc and for the future of global Islam. A united, pro-Western India, unhampered by wars with Pakistan and a nuclear arms race, acts as a major bulwark against Russian and Chinese expansionism in Central Asia. The world’s largest Muslim population — now 500 million — peacefully assimilated into a secular Indian democracy, avoids the jihadism of future generations in Pakistan and Kashmir. It dramatically shifts the Islamic centre of gravity from the turbulent Middle East, preoccupied with the issue of Palestine, because Indian Islam, with its far more tolerant and eclectic Sufic traditions, permeated by indigenous Hinduism, is a potent antidote to the fundamentalism of both Arab Wahabism and Iranian Shi’ism.  

Is all this just a far-fetched, counterfactual scenario born of nostalgia and wishful thinking? Or could it have become a reality if the partnership of Attlee, Mountbatten and Nehru hadn’t rushed through a premature transfer of power to satisfy their own personal and ideological ambitions? The historical evidence suggests that India’s partition was not inevitable and that the final decisions were far more finely balanced and swayed by personalities than nationalist historians in the subcontinent like to admit.

It’s a nationalist myth that Indian independence was won by militant Congress direct action and that partition was the inevitable price exacted by a pro-Muslim colonial power determined to divide and rule. On the contrary, effective independence was implicit in the progressive constitutional reforms introduced by the Raj in 1909 and 1919, well before Gandhi launched his campaigns of civil disobedience. Congress was knocking at an open door: the real point at issue was how to introduce Westminster-style democracy in a subcontinent so diverse and largely illiterate.

The central problem with elected legislatures was to safeguard the interests of India’s large Muslim minority, numbering a quarter of its population, still rooted in its imperial past and fearful of domination by more successful Hindu business and professional elites. The solution accepted by a reluctant Congress was to have separate electorates for additional, reserved Muslim seats. What had still to be resolved was how to guarantee adequate Muslim representation in newly devolved governments in the provinces and eventually at national level.      

Matters came to a head in 1937, when the Congress Party agreed to work the new 1935 constitution enacted by the Raj, which aimed at transferring power first to the provinces and eventually to an All-India federation. Provincial elections were held on a greatly expanded franchise, similar to that of Victorian Britain. The key test came in the largest province, then called UP or United Provinces, the heartland of the former Moghul empire. Congress and the Muslim League fought the UP elections in alliance against a loyalist party and, while Congress swept the “general” seats, the League won most of the Muslim seats. The logical outcome was a Congress-League coalition government; but Nehru turned down the League’s coalition offer, and Congress formed a majoritarian government on its own, leaving the League in opposition. It was precisely the scenario that Muslims had dreaded at the national level, if independence was to mean simple majority rule.

The UP fiasco of 1937 was the key turning point in Muslim separatism and the radicalisation of its urbane and very anglicised leader, Jinnah. A more unlikely founder of a theocratic Islamic state is hard to imagine than this Edwardian barrister, with his London education and immaculate Savile Row suits, his love marriage to a glamorous, non-Muslim socialite and his total disregard for any Islamic religious rules. Back in 1916, when the Congress and the Muslim League agreed on an anti-British pact, it was Jinnah who had been its chief architect, hailed by the Hindu leaders of Congress as “the ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity”.

What turned this secular-minded, pro-Congress Muslim into the sectarian separatist of the 1940s? Two of his most recent biographers, Ayesha Jalal, a Pakistani-American academic, and Jaswant Singh, a former Indian foreign minister, have converged on the same answer: it was the arrogance and intransigence of Congress leaders — Nehru in particular — and the blatant pro-Nehru bias of the last viceroy, Mountbatten. “Partition was the last thing Jinnah wanted,” says Jalal, and she agrees with Singh that his demand for it was essentially a bargaining ploy. 

Following the outbreak of the Second World War, Congress, in a fit of pique about not being consulted, pulled out of provincial ministries and rejected British attempts to cajole it into a less than fully independent central government. Instead Congress launched the Quit India movement, which landed most of its leaders and active cadres in jail for the rest of the war. It was a spectacular own goal, because Jinnah filled the political vacuum, dramatically expanding his power base across India’s diverse Muslim communities. 

It was not until 1940 that the Muslim League formally adopted the goal of Pakistan, in a vague resolution which left wide open whether it would be a single or multiple entity, a sovereign state or an autonomous state within a state. Jalal emphasises that Jinnah’s two-nation theory was not a territorial concept, but a demand for parity between Hindus and Muslims within the same borders. Most Indian Muslims, after all, were minorities in Hindu-majority provinces, while the Muslim-majority provinces themselves depended heavily on the commercial and professional skills of their prosperous Hindu minorities. 

At the end of the war, constitutional negotiations resumed in earnest between Congress, the Muslim League and the viceroy, Field Marshal Lord Wavell, a remarkable soldier-statesman with long Indian experience. His role has been much misunderstood by nationalist Indian historians, who have blamed him for favouring the Muslim League and using divide-and-rule tactics. But his key objective was to transfer power to a united India, and he was determined that Britain must stay on until it could broker a workable deal between Congress and the League. 

Unlike Wavell, the new Attlee government in London saw its main priority as a rapid exit, winding up an overstretched empire that had long ceased to pay for its keep. Anxious to speed up the process, Attlee sent out the Cabinet Mission, led by Stafford Cripps, experienced in Indian politics and friendly to Nehru. The mission spent long months trying to reconcile the Congress goal of a majoritarian, unitary state with the Muslim League demand for effective safeguards and full autonomy for Muslim-majority provinces. The outcome was an ingenious three-tier scheme in which sovereignty would be shared in a pyramid, with individual provinces at its base, above them groups of provinces with either Hindu or Muslim majorities, and at the apex an All-India centre for defence and foreign affairs.

Had it been tried, the Cabinet Mission Plan would have been a unique constitutional experiment, more akin to the Holy Roman Empire than a modern nation state, but well suited to India’s political realities. Both Congress and the League reluctantly accepted the plan, but then fell out over its precise interpretation. Poor Wavell spent the next six months battling unsuccessfully with Congress to honour the plan as originally accepted. His diaries record his growing exasperation with Gandhi and Nehru, as they tried to wriggle out of their earlier commitments. “What the Cabinet Mission intended and the way we interpret what they intended may not necessarily be the same,” Gandhi told the viceroy at one such meeting. “This is lawyer’s talk,” said Wavell. “Talk to me in plain English. I am a simple soldier, and you confuse me with these legalistic arguments.” To which Nehru quipped: “We cannot help it if we are lawyers.” 

The coup de grâce 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, the leading Congress Muslim, called Nehru’s press 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. The union proposed by the Cabinet Mission Plan “would be a very weak India; that is a federal India with far too much power in the federating units. A larger India would have constant troubles, constant disintegrating pulls.”

Nehru wanted instead to be master in his own house, free to implement his socialist policies through centralised economic planning; and the Muslim League, in control of large, autonomous provinces, would have been an unwelcome brake on all this. Most important of all was Nehru’s visceral hatred of Jinnah, recorded with brutal candour in his diaries:

“Jinnah . . . offers an obvious example of an utter lack of the civilised mind. With all his cleverness and ability, he produces an impression on me of utter ignorance and lack of understanding and even the capacity to understand this world and its problems. . . . Instinctively I think it is better to [have] Pakistan or almost anything, if only to keep Jinnah far away and not allow his muddled and arrogant head from interfering continually in India’s progress.”

“There is no statesmanship or generosity in Congress,” Wavell lamented in his diary early in 1947, concluding that the Cabinet Mission Plan was effectively dead. What he called his own “Breakdown Plan” proposed that the Raj should “withdraw from India in our own method and in our own time”, using force if necessary to maintain order. But the Attlee government decreed otherwise and summarily replaced Wavell with another far more glamorous soldier-statesman. Earl Mountbatten of Burma came armed with the aura of his recent military victories against Japan, his royal lineage and his “progressive” politics, which were expected to win over Indian nationalists. In what Churchill called “a premature, hurried scuttle”, Attlee announced that, regardless of a political settlement, Britain would quit India by June 1948.

Both Attlee’s deadline and his choice of the man to implement it proved disastrous. Mountbatten’s vanity was legendary. A military colleague described him as the “most talented self-publicist among the senior British commanders”, so flattered by Noël Coward’s portrayal of himself in a war film that he watched it 12 times. Mountbatten’s chief concern on the eve of his departure for India was what he should wear on arrival. “They’re all a bit left-wing, aren’t they?” he asked one India expert. “Hadn’t I better land in ordinary day clothes?” He was delighted to be told: “No, no, you are the last viceroy. You are a royal. You must wear your grandest uniform and all your decorations and be met in full panoply and with all the works.”

Mountbatten’s official biographer, Philip Ziegler, concedes that his style of diplomacy included “a degree of manipulation, even chicanery” that his predecessors would have found inconceivable. On one such occasion, he told his dismayed civil servants: “I know what you’re thinking. Wavell would never have done it. Well, I’m not Wavell, and I will!” Attlee had given him far more freedom than Wavell to act on his own initiative, and he used it to announce that he would dramatically bring forward the British departure to August 15, 1947 and transfer power to two new successor states carved out of Hindu and Muslim majority areas. “The date I chose came out of the blue,” he later boasted. “I chose it in reply to a question. I was determined to show I was master of the whole event.” He was even more cavalier about this momentous decision at a public reception on the eve of partition: “He drew a childish simile by saying that the best way to teach a youngster to cycle was to take him to the top of a hill, put him on the seat and then push him down the hill. By the time he arrived on the flat ground below he would have learnt to cycle.”

While rushing through partition before the security forces were ready for it, Mountbatten made little attempt to explore the alternatives. In his first meeting with the new viceroy, Gandhi suggested that the existing interim government led by Nehru should be dismissed and Jinnah invited to form a new one, choosing whom he wished. “I asked ‘What would Mr Jinnah say to such a proposal?'” Mountbatten noted in his record of the conversation. “The reply was ‘If you tell him I am the author he will reply ‘Wily Gandhi’.” Surprisingly, the viceroy made no attempt to follow up Gandhi’s wily offer, which might well have changed the course of history by offering Jinnah an honourable retreat from partition.

A major reason for Mountbatten’s failure to conciliate Jinnah was his all-too-obvious intimacy with Nehru. Widely rumoured at the time, and confirmed by the memoirs of his daughter, Mountbatten willingly facilitated a romance between his beautiful, wealthy and very independent wife Edwina and the handsome Congress prime minister. “She and Jawahar Lal are so sweet together,” he wrote to his elder daughter. “They really dote on each other. Pammy (his younger daughter) and I are doing everything we can to be tactful and helpful.” While his daughter saw this as “a happy threesome”, the bazaar gossip was less charitable. “Break open Rama’s heart, you will find Sita written on it,” chanted Hindu extremists. “Break open Nehru’s heart, you will find Lady Mountbatten written on it.” According to one account, a handful of incriminating love letters between Nehru and Edwina found their way to Jinnah, who chivalrously decided that “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion” and returned them.  The most appropriate epitaph on the Raj was provided by the Punjabi official who declared: “You British believe in fair play. You have left India in the same condition of chaos as you found it.” 

“The truncated Pakistan that remains will hardly be a gift worth having,” Nehru declared, triumphal about the moth-eaten Muslim state that had emerged from the partition of Punjab and Bengal. A year later, he conceded: “Perhaps we acted wrongly. . . . The consequences of that partition have been so terrible that one is inclined to think that anything else would have been preferable. . . . Ultimately, I have no doubt that India and Pakistan will come close together. . . . some kind of federal link . . . There is no other way to peace. The alternative is . . . war.” But as he spoke, the two new states were already at war for possession of Kashmir, a Muslim-majority principality with a Hindu Maharaja. It was the first in a series of hostilities that have endured for 60 years. 

For Jinnah to get even a moth-eaten Pakistan was, as a leading imperial historian put it, “an amazing triumph, the outcome not of some ineluctable historic logic, but of the determination of a single individual”. It is sobering to consider what might have happened if Mountbatten, instead of bringing forward the date, had delayed it by a few months. Jinnah was already in the final stages of tuberculosis and died just 13 months after partition.

The state he left behind was born to fail, and most Congress leaders expected that this malformed offspring would soon return, tail between its legs, to Mother India. It had virtually no industry, and the markets for its agricultural produce were left behind in India: although it produced three-quarters of the world’s jute, the processing plants were all in India. The predominantly Hindu entrepreneurial classes had fled with their capital and expertise. The ruling elite of the Muslim League were mostly refugees from India and soon at odds with the predominantly Punjabi population they governed. The Bengali Muslims of East Pakistan had little in common with the western half, a thousand miles away.

Little wonder that Pakistan fell prey to a series of corrupt and repressive military and civilian regimes, and that its eastern wing, after another bloody war and an estimated three million casualties, broke away in 1971 to become Bangladesh. After the Soviet invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan became the base for militant Islamists fighting the Russians, which further weakened its civil society and radicalised a younger generation already incensed by India’s occupation of Muslim Kashmir.  

The counterfactual story would have been far more positive. A united Indian Dominion based on the Cabinet Mission Plan would have had its tensions; but over time the glue of shared power would have held the Congress and the Muslim League together, at least on issues of external security. India, without Nehru’s pro-Soviet brand of non-alignment, would probably have allied with the West and, like the Raj, would have seen Afghanistan as a vital buffer state from which the Russians must be excluded. Under Indian protection, Afghanistan would have remained a benevolent, Westernising monarchy with little scope for al-Qaeda or the Taliban.

Without a hostile Pakistan on its borders, India would also have been far better able to check Communist China’s ambitions. The Raj had seen an independent Tibet as a necessary buffer against Chinese expansionism. “Rather than see a Chinese occupation of Tibet,” a British general had warned in 1946, “India should be prepared to occupy the plateau herself.” In 1959, a serious Indian ultimatum would probably have prevented China from occupying Tibet and ending its autonomy under the Dalai Lama. If so, India would also have been spared military defeat in the disastrous 1962 Sino-Indian War, for which the Nehru government was so ill-prepared.

A decentralised, federal union of sovereign provinces would not necessarily have been any less efficient or productive than today’s India, where the central government for the past decade has been a weak, fragmented coalition dominated by strong regional parties. Over time, the Hindu-Muslim religious divide would have faded into the myriad ethnic, regional and linguistic identities that make up the Indian mosaic. The union would also have been cemented by rapid economic growth, as India’s dynamic private sector, unshackled by Nehru’s state socialism, outstripped the mini-tiger economies of the Far East. A united subcontinent could have entered the 21st century as the world’s second largest economy, well ahead of China. 

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