Lesson from a Fallen Empire

This August 14th and 15th 2022, are respectively the 75th anniversaries of independent Pakistan and India. India today is known as an economically thriving and stable republic. Pakistan, somewhat less so. The history of these two nations in their present form began with the end of Great Britain’s imperial rule of the subcontinent in 1947. One of the historical lessons we in the United States of America can learn, if we will, comes from the accompanying trauma of these two nations achieving independence.

Prior to the British arriving in the late 17th Century, and for some time after that, the Muslim Moguls had established an empire over most of the subcontinent. That empire, though shrinking in area and power, lasted into the 19th Century. British presence began with the East India Trading Company chartered by Parliament to establish commerce in east and south Asia. By the 1850s, that company had become a quasi-governmental power in India, even possessing its own private army manned by Indians, called Sepoys. In 1857, subsequent to the rebellion by Sepoys in the company’s army, the British government assumed responsibility and control in what became know as the Raj. In 1876, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli had Parliament declare Queen Victoria “Empress of India” and added that appellation to her other titles. That title for British monarchs lasted until the partition and following independence of what is now India and Pakistan.

Prior to independence, the Indian subcontinent consisted of a number of provinces directly administered by Britain and numerous princely states ruled by potentates with various titles such as “maharaja” if Hindu, or “nawab” for Muslims. There were other titles; for example, “Nizam” in Hyderabad. The princely states accepted British hegemony in varying degrees, especially for external matters. The most significant of the British-administered provinces were Bengal in the southeast, and Punjab in the north. There was a polyglot of languages and ethnicities throughout the subcontinent, and two main religions. The most numerous of religious faiths were the Hindus and the Muslims. In Punjab the Sikhs, an offshoot of Hinduism, were a significant minority. Members of these sects often lived near each other, and sometimes shared the same village.

Serious indigenous agitation for the end of British rule began in the early 20th Century. A principal reason for independence was economic, including what many Indians regarded as oppressive taxation by the British, and the high-handed manner in which they were ruled. Hindu leaders, especially Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, and the charismatic Mohandas Gandhi, engaged in various activities resisting British rule, most of which were passive rather than active violence. Mohammed Ali Jinnah emerged as the leader of Muslims. (Interestingly, all of these individuals, including Gandhi, were British-educated lawyers.)

Subsequent to World War II agitation for independence increased. Despite the Allied victory, Britain was politically and economically exhausted. Maintaining the Indian Empire was a net liability that had become unaffordable. The Labor government, recently installed, established a policy that India would be granted independence, and very soon. Prime Minister Clement Attlee appointed Viscount (later Earl) Louis Mountbatten, a cousin of King George and a naval commander in the Far East during the war, as the Viceroy. Mountbatten was explicitly given the mission of establishing Indian independence.

Two issues with independence were evident, the first was what would be the status of the princely states. With the exception of Kashmir, which remains troubled even today as a flashpoint between the two nations, and Hyderabad, which was forcibly integrated into India, this did not turn out to be a problem. The other, more serious, and ultimately a disaster, was that of the Hindu-Muslim question.

The Muslim leader, Jinnah, expressed concern that an independent monolithic India would become a theocratic Hindu state in which Muslims would be second-class citizens. Gandhi was Hindu, but he believed in toleration of all religions and expressed that toleration in many ways over his entire career. Nehru was Hindu, although non–observant with a secular outlook. Even so, Hindus were a majority, and an extreme sectarian nationalist group known as the RSSS was increasing in influence.

Jinnah, even if he really believed that a majority Hindu nation state consisting of the entire subcontinent would oppress Muslims, he doubtless believed identity politics was his way to achieve personal power. He thus insisted upon a partition of the subcontinent along religious lines.

The Moguls were Muslims who ruled India as their empire for several centuries. They do not appear to have been oppressive towards the Hindus. After the British assumed control, both Muslims and Hindus lived together more or less peaceably in Bengal and Punjab. At least they did not indulge in wholesale pogroms, or anything close. That comity became strained with the realization that independence was not far off. This strain was particularly fueled by Jinnah’s fear-mongering and that of his followers. They insisted on a separate Pakistan for Muslims, and threatened a bloodbath if a separate Pakistan was not created.

Pakistan was created and a bloodbath did occur. Several million Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs were murdered in sectarian violence in the wake of independence and partition. Most of the violence occurred in Punjab and Bengal.

In order to expedite independence, Mountbatten and the government in London believed that partition was inevitable and should be accomplished at the same time independence was granted. The British-governed provinces and princely states that were predominantly either one or the other sect, would accede to the newly independent India if Hindu, or Pakistan if Muslim. Punjab and Bengal were the difficulty. Each had a significant number of both sects. Punjab also had the Sikhs, and their holy city of Amritsar. A British lawyer named Cyril Radcliffe, who was completely unfamiliar with the cultures in India, was given the task of drawing partition lines across each of those provinces. So many villages and areas were intermingled and Radcliffe had only five week to do it, it was a hopeless task from the beginning. Nevertheless, Radcliffe finished with a boundary line that pleased no one and left millions of Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan and many Muslims in India, The Western area of Punjab went to Pakistan, as did the Eastern part of Bengal (since 1972, the independent nation of Bangladesh). Almost immediately the Muslims in their portion of each province set upon the Hindus left there, and Hindus wreaked similar violence upon Muslims left in India. Wholesale massacres occurred. Refugees streamed across the new borders; trainloads of dead Hindus arrived in India; likewise, dead Muslims arrived in Pakistan. Riots occurred in major Indian cities, particularly Delhi and Calcutta. The police and military were overwhelmed. The British Army was gone or going, and the government in London, still recovering from World War II, had no desire or even means to use its forces to assist.

Gandhi lent his prestige with both Hindus and Muslims to encourage an end to the violence, and began one of his famous fasts. Gandhi’s fasting appears to have had some salutary effect in Calcutta. He also had some success in Delhi, but in January 1948, on his way to prayer after he terminated his fast, a Hindu fanatic shot and killed Gandhi.

After Gandhi’s assassination — some might say martyrdom — much of the violence was brought under control. Both nations, however, continued to be antagonistic towards each other, even for the next 75 years. Since both are nuclear armed, one hopes that cool heads prevail.

Much of the blame for the partition, and the murder and mayhem that occurred in its wake, was placed on Mountbatten and the British government in general for botching the grant of independence. There is probably enough blame to go around, but Mohammed Ali Jinnah is probably the main culprit, along with those who acquiesced in his religious identity politics.

While analogies invariably break down when pushed too far, there are disquieting circumstances today in our country that bear some similarity. Identity politics is poison, be it race, ethnicity, religion, sex, or any category that relies on collectivism and irrelevant or immutable characteristics attributed to different groups of men and women. The respected historian David McCullough, who died this past week, believed that learning from history was necessary, although he did caution that when considering it one should step back and take the long view. Well, the long view is that conflict based on identity politics has never turned out well. From the religious violence of the Crusades and the European Thirty Years War in the 17th century, through the Nazi Holocaust — and the Indian partition — to the present day jihads, uncountable destruction and suffering has resulted. Here in present day United States avaricious individuals have and are fostering identity politics based on race and ethnicity as well as sex. This cannot end well. We must remember the intrinsic worth of individuals, and reject the poisonous collectivism of identity politics.

The history of the British Empire and its end with India’s independence and the creation of Pakistan in this essay barely scratches the surface. For those interested. two books for additional reading are Larry Collins’ and Dominique Lapierre’s Freedom at Midnight (1975) and Alex Von Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire (2007). Collins and Lapierre are journalists. Their work is aimed at a popular audience and is readable. They omit references and footnotes, but they have a reputation for being thorough and accurate. Their most notable work, Is Paris Burning?, is the story of the German general who defied Hitler’s order to destroy the city before evacuating in the face of British and American forces in 1944. It earned many accolades. Von Tunzelmann is an Oxford-educated British academic historian. Her work is researched and footnoted almost to a fault, and the detail in some of the chapters is somewhat difficult to plow through. Its history of the British Raj is immensely interesting. (She actually cites one of Collins’ and Laperre’s monographs.)

A note that Collins and Lapierre added but which Von Tunzelmann omits is that when the British announced that August 15 would be the date the British transferred power to the new nations, the Indian astrologers ascertained that because of the position of the stars it was an extremely inauspicious day of an inauspicious month. Bowing to the astrologers, Mountbatten revised his date to 11:59 PM on August 14. Given the mayhem that followed, it appears that the stars were not fooled.

By bobreagan13

My day job is assisting individuals and small businesses as a lawyer. I taught real estate law and American history in the Dallas County Community College system. I have owned and operated private security firms and was a police officer and criminal investigator for the Dallas Police Department.

I am interested in history and historical research, music, cycling, and British mysteries and police dramas.

I welcome comments, positive, negative, or neutral, if they are respectful.

Leave a Reply