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How the dying British Empire tore India in half—and how it could have been stopped

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Issue 2567

Seventy years ago this week the British Empire left India after decades of brutal rule. But before leaving the British partitioned the Indian subcontinent into two states—Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan.

This set off a bloody process of killings and ethnic cleansing. Millions of Muslims were uprooted from India and were forced to move to West and East Pakistan (modern Bangladesh). Similar numbers of Hindus and Sikhs went the other way.

By 1948 more than fifteen million people had been uprooted, and between one and two million were dead.

This was not because of centuries-old sectarian hatreds, sometimes called “communalism”, that burst forth after the end of British rule.

The last ruler of the subcontinent’s Mughal Empire wrote that Hinduism and Islam “share the same essence”. He had come to the throne just 20 years before direct British rule of India was imposed in 1858.

One historian, William Dalrymple, wrote that “communities that had coexisted for almost a millennium.The polarisation of Hindus and Muslims occurred during just a couple of decades of the twentieth century, but by the middle of the century it was complete.

“Many on both sides believed that it was impossible for adherents of the two religions to live together peacefully.”

Another, Alex von Tunzelmann, wrote in her book Indian Summer that “the British started to define ‘communities’ based on religious identity and attach political representation to them.

“Many Indians stopped accepting the diversity of their own thoughts and began to ask themselves in which of the boxes they belonged.”


But none of this was inevitable if those who had fought imperialism had acted differently.

These sectarian divisions flowed from Britain’s attempts to rule a huge territory with relatively few imperialist administrators.

By the late nineteenth century, they were using a twin approach to maintain their grip on the country.

First, they sought to incorporate the Indian wealthy and upper middle classes into their imperial administration, known as the “British Raj”. They hoped this group would act as a buffer between themselves and any future revolt.

Second, the British used divide and rule tactics.

Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were set against each other by policies designed to favour one group at the expense of another.

In the early 20 century, the Raj even threatened to carve a Muslim state out of Bengal in order to drive a wedge into growing nationalist sentiment.

But the First World War marked a major turning point.

The growing Indian elite chafed against their imperial masters and started to believe that India required “home rule”.

The Indian National Congress became its mouthpiece.

Spiralling prices for food and basic goods provoked sporadic rioting, with the British increasingly convinced that Indian radicals were whipping people up.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Indians were in Europe as part of the British Indian Army. Officially fighting for democracy and the rights of weak nations, they were growing tired of the stench of British hypocrisy.

The war was brought to an end by the Russian Revolution in 1917, where workers had overthrown dictatorship. They appealed to oppressed masses in all countries under the yoke of colonialism to join them—a message that quickly found a mass audience in India.

An empire bathed in blood: when Britannia ruled the waves
An empire bathed in blood: when Britannia ruled the waves
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Gandhi sought to reconcile the furious masses that blamed the British and the Indian rich for poverty, with the factory owners and landlords who now faced agitation in their industries.

“In India we want no political strikes. We must gain control over all the unruly elements,” he said. “We seek not to destroy capital or capitalists, but to regulate the tensions between capital and labour.”

Top industrialists became some of Gandhi’s most generous backers.

But it was the poor, who warmed to his simple clothes and reasoning, that were to become his most numerous supporters.

When the Raj moved to ban protests in 1918, Gandhi was outraged. He relaxed his opposition to strikes, calling a work stoppage to galvanise opposition. There were mass demonstrations across much of India.

Protests continued for several months and passed out of Gandhi’s hands, leading to clashes with the police and army.

The streets of Amritsar were full in April 1919, despite the ban.

Demonstrators proclaimed unity between Sikh, Muslim and Hindu—making a show of drinking water from the same cup.

Thousands rallied in a park in the city. Soldiers fired into the crowd until hundreds were dead. When questioned after the massacre brigadier-general Reginald Dyer said that he had felt obliged “to teach a moral lesson to the Punjab”.

In nearby Lahore, demonstrations were met with force and turned violent, forcing the British to withdraw from the city.

The Raj responded with repression. But the scale of the rebellion confirmed the worst of British fears—a new and militant spirit had gripped the Indian poor. Congress then launched a new mass Non-Cooperation Movement against the British, but again the masses slipped from its control. A frustrated Gandhi brought the ­campaign to a halt.


But the demobilisation of the NonCooperation Movement created a political vacuum that a range of forces now attempted to fill.

Among them were ethnic communalist organisations which sought to mobilise people on the basis of religion rather than class or nationalism.

There were over 80 communal riots in India between 1923 and 1926. In each outpouring of hatred, communal organisation was strengthened as Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus sought safety among their own ­religious groups.

Through the 1930s, successive riots were to grow steadily more vicious and deadly. A new pattern was to emerge.

When Gandhi and Congress called mass action, communalism would subside. But when action grew radical and the leaders brought it to a halt, reaction would again raise its head.

Gandhi’s decision to end the Non-Cooperation campaign also caused a crisis within the freedom movement.

Even the Congress leadership was split over its premature ending. Some deserted to form more militant groups. Others attempted to push Congress in a more radical direction.

Throughout 1928 and 1929 a strike wave spread across Indian railways, iron and steel plants and the textiles industry. There were 31 million strike days in 1928 alone and trade unions grew rapidly.

The Raj, fearing that the newly-founded Communist Party stood behind the unions, launched a campaign of jailing and harassment.

A military massacre in India: Secret papers reveal Britains role in Operation Blue Star
A military massacre in India: Secret papers reveal Britain’s role in Operation Blue Star
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Despite the repression, each wave of the independence struggle loosened the ties that bound India to Britain. By the mid1930s it was clear that they could not hold on indefinitely.

But as talk turned to India without the British, the Indians who wanted to replace them as the rulers began jockeying for position. Some were prepared to use religion to bolster their position.

The onset of the Second World War was to further intensify the struggle.

Without a single Indian being consulted, India was drafted into the war. More than two million of its soldiers were sent around the world to fight for “democracy”.

Growing outrage led Congress in 1942 to launch its biggest challenge yet—the Quit India Movement.

In parts of India the whole Raj administration broke down as railways were dismantled and telegraph wires cuts.

The British were forced to use 57 battalions of soldiers to put down the rising. Faced with rebellion across India, and the threat of the Japanese Empire across the rest of the Asia, the British played their last card.

They let it be known that they were in favour of partitioning India and creating a new Muslim state.

They hoped to drive forward the communalist movement at the expense of the Indian freedom movement.

But there was to be one last chance to stop India’s break-up.


The trial of three radical freedom fighters in 1946 on the charge of waging war against the king led to riots against the British in Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi.

There were mutinies by the Royal Indian Airforce and Royal Indian Navy.

Mutineers captured 20 naval vessels in Bombay. They celebrated their unity by hoisting three flags upon the ships they controlled—the tricolour of Congress, the Muslim crescent and the hammer and sickle of the Communist Party.

A general strike in support of the mutiny spread across the city and for two days pitched battles raged at barricades erected in the working class districts. The British were forced to send thousands of troops to quell the rising and even threatened to bomb the city from the air.

But ultimately it was not military strength that broke the mutiny and strike, it was Congress that isolated it. Gandhi wrote that the sailors had set “a bad and un-becoming example for India”.

“A combination between Hindus and Muslims for the purpose of violent action is unholy,” he said.

The price of failure was great.

The legacy of Empire and partition was the creation of two states with communalism built into them from the outset.

But the fight against British rule also showed an alternative—a tradition of poor Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs uniting to fight oppression and exploitation.

Read more on India from the International Socialism journal. India: imperialism, partition and resistance by Sam Ashman

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