Aug 21, 2017
Seventy years ago, on 15 August 1947, former “British” India gained independence. But fearing that a sense of victory would allow India’s future regime to resist Britain’s continuing economic domination, while boosting the then-growing rebellion of other colonized people against their colonizers, the British government ensured that independence came at an exorbitant price for the Indian masses. It played a cynical game of divide and rule which led in the end to the partitioning of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, thereby causing one of the largest, bloodiest refugee migrations in modern history and a toxic legacy of warfare and religious bigotry.
The Proletarian Masses Against Colonial Domination
The very basis for this artificial division was laid by colonial policy. The British created an electoral system based on religion and cultivated the loyalist Muslim League against the larger nationalist party, the Indian National Congress. This INC, although it espoused an all-Indian nationalism, also had ties to Hindu nationalist groups.
The end of WWII saw a mobilization of the Asian poor masses against the colonial powers. In China, the peasantry rose against the landlords and threatened to set the towns alight. After the collapse of the Japanese occupation in Malaysia, Indonesia and Indochina, the proletariat rose against the return of the old colonial powers. In India, a mutiny of 20,000 sailors of the Royal Indian Navy, in February 1946, sparked off a wave of strikes involving hundreds of thousands.
Bankrupted by the war, the British state could not afford to maintain its presence in India. But, since it had to leave, it was determined to do it on its own terms, so as to retain its political influence and preserve the economic interests of British companies. To this end, the mobilization of the masses had first to be crushed.
For this, the British authorities used the services of the Indian Congress and the Muslim League, both of which represented the propertied classes. Both had proved their willingness and ability to keep a lid on the poor masses in their past positions in local governments, and neither could afford to come to power on the back of their mobilization.
Jawaharlal Nehru, soon to become India’s first Prime Minister, later described the Congress position in these days as “sitting on the edge of a volcano” – a proletarian volcano that could blow away both the colonial power and the weak Indian capitalist class at once.
Had the proletarian masses had a party of their own, they could have bid for power in the name of the working class and poor peasants. However, there was no such party. Despite the willingness of the working class to fight at the barricades in the face of British bullets, this opportunity to assert its own interests was squandered. Class unity drowned in communal violence.
By May, 1946, the mobilization was receding. But the masses could rise again. The British hurriedly set about making arrangements to leave this explosive situation to the Indian elite. They proposed a power-sharing plan by which the Congress, the League and the princely states would counterbalance each other’s influence in a Federation entrenching the religious divide (“Hindustan” and “Pakistan”).
The Congress, however, opposed this scheme. In their struggle for power, both parties began to fan the flames of religious violence. In August 1946, communal riots were orchestrated, with the worst killings in Calcutta. Thus, the class unity of January-May was drowned in the blood of religious fratricide. Once again, the proletarian masses paid dearly for the absence of a party standing on a class policy, in the name of the defense of the whole proletariat, against its exploiters – colonial and indigenous.
A Bloody Legacy
Failing to get a power-sharing agreement from the Congress Party, the League demanded a religion-based Pakistan. This suited the British, both because a divided subcontinent would be easier to control and because this would prevent the emergence of a giant independent state in Asia.
In July 1947, the British government decided to withdraw, having hastily drawn up an artificial border between India and an unviable Pakistan formed by two territories over a thousand miles apart. Riots broke out, sparked off by gangs from both sides. There were horrific killings, looting, arson and rape. People on the “wrong” side of the border were forced to flee. Leaving everything behind, 10 to 12 million people crossed on foot this British-made border, in long columns. At least a million were killed. An estimated 75,000 women were abducted and raped.
Britain handed over power to the Indian and Pakistani wealthy and their gangs; it defused the proletarian powder-keg and gave an ominous warning that independence came at a bloody price. It kept both new states under its influence, with its own civil servants and military top-brass at the head of both state machineries until 1950. The bloody legacy of Partition was to be borne by both populations for decades, through wars, the 1971 breakup of Pakistan, and the on-going use of religious demagogy and riots by nationalist parties in both countries.