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Britain and India: dividing to rule

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The policies of independence leaders and their colonial masters led to the tragic division of India following the end of British rule, argues Anindya Bhattacharyya
Issue 2063
HMIS Talwar, one of the ships central to the 1946 naval mutiny
HMIS Talwar, one of the ships central to the 1946 naval mutiny

Sixty years ago this week India won its independence.

It was a momentous event that effectively marked the end of the British Empire. This blow to imperialism would be the first of many national independence movements that would transform the world after the Second World War.

Yet this independence came at a huge cost. British withdrawal in August 1947 went hand in hand with a plan to partition the former “jewel” of the empire into two states – India and Pakistan. Ethnic cleansing and massacres marked partition, and saw 17 million people displaced and up to a million lose their lives.

It is worth revisiting 1947 to understand how an imperial occupation can be defeated by a national liberation movement, but also to understand how such movements can be undermined by the interplay between imperialism and the movement’s leadership.

The British ruling class was desperate to hang on to India. As Richard Bourke, Viscount Mayo, India’s viceroy from 1869 until his assassination in 1872, put it, “We are determined as long as the sun shines in heaven to hold India – our national character, our commerce demand it.”

The British ruling class was extracting extraordinary amounts of wealth from India. In addition to the huge revenues raised by taxation, almost all export industries were run for the benefit of the British – selling goods such as jute, cotton, indigo, rice, tea and opium around the world.

India was also a captive market for manufactured goods from Britain. Lastly, the Indian people supplied a cheap and seemingly inexhaustible pool of cheap labour and military recruits for British imperial adventures.


All this came at massive costs to the people and economy of India. Turning vast swathes of the country over to cash crops led to the wiping out of indigenous industries and traditional mechanisms to ensure that people would not starve in lean years were wiped out.

Millions of Indians died in famines that swept the country in the 1770s, the late-1800s, and again in 1943.

But how did the British manage to run this huge exploitation machine for so long? It wasn’t as if there was no resistance – in 1857 an uprising united Hindu, Muslim and Sikh soldiers against the imperial machine.

The rebellion was put down with the utmost brutality – but it served to remind the British that Indians did not desire their presence in the subcontinent.

It was in the wake of the 1857 revolt that the British administration hit upon, and systematically pursued, a strategy of “divide and rule”.

The reasoning was simple – the uprising had derived its strength from unity between different ethnic, religious and linguistic groups against the British, so conversely the empire could gain strength from formenting divisions on these very same lines.

As the British secretary of state put it at the time, “I wish to have a different and rival spirit in different regiments, so that Sikh might fire into Hindu, Gurkha into either, without any scruple in case of need.”

But the most significant division that the British increased was that between Hindu and Muslim. This ­tactic started at the end of the 19th century but was intensified as the national ­liberation movement against the British grew stronger and more popular.

A typical example was the first plans to partition Bengal, a mixed Muslim-Hindu state in the east of India.

“Bengal united is a power – Bengal divided will pull in several different ways,” wrote civil servant Herbert Risley at the time.

The partition proposals provoked a wave of resistance and the British were forced to abandon their plans in 1911. By that point it seemed that the nationalist movement was unstoppably on the rise.

This movement took many forms. These ranged from the relatively moderate Indian National Congress, formed in 1885 to represent the interests of the Indian urban middle class, all the way through to armed resistance – one of the most famous fighters being the revolutionary socialist Bhagat Singh. Mass strikes by workers, peasants and the army also played a key role.

Increased taxation to pay for the First World War and the wave of radicalisation that swept across the world in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution fanned the flames higher.

In 1919 the British army massacred hundreds of unarmed people attending a rally in the city of Amritsar – an event that was to inspire nationalist anger for many years to come.

Over the next few decades a pattern emerged – the nationalist movement would go up and down, its peaks coinciding with periods of unity, and its troughs corresponding to times when the British successfully managed to divide the movement or buy off its leadership.

But why did the movement go up and down in this manner? Why couldn’t the unity simply be sustained and intensified to the point where the British had no choice but to leave?

To understand this we need to grasp how the middle class character of the Congress leadership prevented it from taking the steps necessary to cement unity between different religious and ethnic groups.

By the early 20th century Congress was increasingly focused on “Indianising” the colonial state. The idea was that the British would leave and they would take over. So while Congress helped build a mass movement against the British, it wanted a movement it could control.

As Mahatma Gandhi, the most famous Congress leader, put it, “In India we want no political strikes. We must gain control over all the unruly and disturbing elements. We seek not to destroy capital or capitalists, but to regulate the relations between capital and labour.”

Gandhi’s strategy of non-violence seemed sensible to many who feared the brutality of the British. But it also helped keep the leadership of the movement firmly in the hands of those who told people to be disciplined enough to maintain non-violence, even in the face of repeated assaults.

More seriously still, while Gandhi himself remained opposed to sectarianism and partition, in practice Congress’s leadership increasingly came to prefer communal division over the possibility of social revolution.

At the same time the British were cultivating the Muslim League. This was an alliance of landowners and activists who articulated fears of Hindu domination in the event of a British withdrawal.

By playing Congress off against the Muslim League, the British managed to hang on in India while dividing the mass of the people ranged against them.

There was one political force that could have united Muslim and Hindu – the Communist Party.


But, tragically, by the 1930s the Indian Communists – though significant in size, and with capable leaders – were entirely under the sway of Stalinist ideology, operating under instructions from Russia.

Despite the brilliance of many rank and file activists, on the question of Indian independence the party leadership lurched from one position to another.

By the time Hitler invaded Russia, the Communists were attacking Congress for demanding independence, denouncing them as “fascist agents”.

In 1942 Congress launched the Quit India campaign, a mass movement that unwittingly unleashed an enormous rebellion against the police and army. It was put down a year later, but the British had begun to realise that the writing was on the wall.

Victor Hope, Lord Linlithgow, viceroy of India at the time, wrote to prime minister Winston Churchill that the Quit India movement had been “by far the most serious rebellion since that of 1857”.

By 1946 the movement had spilled over into mutinies and strikes. Some 20,000 naval ratings in bases around the country mutinied, and a general strike in support of the mutiny attracted the support of 300,000 workers in Bombay and nearby provinces.

Sailors in the port raised three flags on the ships that they controlled – the flags of the Muslim League and Congress, together with the red flag of the Communist party, to symbolise their unity.

The firestorm did not only engulf the British – it also scared the leadership of the Congress and the Muslim League. They drew closer to the imperialists as they prepared to negotiate a British withdrawal.

The negotiations got bogged down and the movement stalled. By 1947 events were taking an ugly turn, as both Hindu and Muslim chauvinists organised communal pogroms and riots in order to strengthen their hands with the British.

Finally the plans for the British to leave and for the subcontinent to be partitioned into two states – a predominantly Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan – were announced.

Independence was to take place at midnight on 15 August 1947. But as Indians celebrated their independence Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims murdered each other in a carnival of reaction.


Yet none of this was inevitable, nor was it the outcome of any kind of “age old hostility” between Hindu, Sikh and Muslim.

The British, with the occasional help of the Indian middle classes, generated the divisions that scar the subcontinent today in order to maintain their control. And by staying on for as long as they did, the British undoubtedly made their eventual exit more painful and more bloody.

Nevertheless, the struggle for Indian independence shows us that united struggle from below can defeat even the most tenacious and vicious imperial occupation. The achievement of independence 60 years ago is rightly seen as a high point in anti-imperialist struggle, and has inspired national liberation movements across Asia and Africa.

But the struggle also teaches us a valuable lesson – unity can be built and communal division overcome, but only from below and from the perspective of the working class uniting all oppressed people against their common enemy.

For more on partition see Sam Ashman, India: Imperialism, Partition and Resistance. Go to

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