Partition: ‘Keep a bit of India’

This is an edited extract from Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam

by Mark Curtis

In 1947 the partition of colonial British India into two new states, India and the Muslim state of Pakistan, involved massive population transfer and a bloodbath: up to a million people lost their lives in the communal violence that accompanied partition. Indian nationalists, and a good many others, have constantly charged Britain with having deliberately promoted partition and the creation of Pakistan to secure its strategic interests. A huge amount has been written on this subject, and there remains much debate and controversy. Much of the historical evidence is contradictory, and the issues involved are clearly complex, but there is considerable evidence to support the view that Britain indeed used the ‘Muslim card’ for its own purposes.

In 1886 a group of northern Indian Muslims, led by the educationalist and social reformer, Sayyid Ahmad Khan, set up the All-India Muhammadan Educational Conference in order to build bridges between Islam and science, and between Muslims and the colonial state. Known as the Aligarh movement, after the city in modern Uttar Pradesh where it was founded, the conference made a point of not supporting the Indian National Congress, the organisation of Indian nationalism – thus endearing itself to colonial officials, who provided it with moral and material support.

In 1906, the movement’s representatives, largely landowners from the Muslim nobility, asked the viceroy, Lord Minto, for special political representation for Muslims in new provincial legislative councils announced by the British; separate electorates were duly established for Muslims who voted for representatives from their own community, and with extra seats, over and above their proportion of the population, in certain provinces. Minto thus secured the continuing loyalty of the Muslim elite; his wife recorded in her diary that her husband had prevented ‘sixty-two million people from joining the ranks of the seditious opposition’.

On 20 December the same year the Aligarh movement gave birth to the Muslim League, whose first article was ‘to promote among the Mussalmans of India, feelings of loyalty to the British government’. The League was looked on favourably by British officials; then Labour MP and future prime minister, Ramsay Macdonald, wrote in his 1910 book, The Awakening of India, that the leaders of the League ‘were inspired by certain Anglo–Indian officials, and that these officials pulled wires at Simla [the colonial ‘summer capital’ in northern India] and in London and of malice aforethought sowed discord between the Hindu and the Mohammedan.’

By the 1930s the idea of a separate ‘Pakistan’ – meaning ‘land of the pure’, an acronym of Punjab, Afghan (i.e., the people of the Northwest Frontier province), Kashmir, Sind and Baluchistan – gained ground within the Muslim League. In 1939, the viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, worked with Muslim League leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, to try to counter the Congress Party’s demand for full Indian independence from British rule and to urge the League to come up with an alternative. Linlithgow told Jinnah in September 1939 that if the Muslim League regarded it as unsuitable for India to become a dominion within the Commonwealth, a major British demand, ‘then the escape from the impasse is partition’.

When the two met again in March 1940, Linlithgow continued to press Jinnah to produce an alternative to Congress’ plan. Linlithgow considered that the demand for a separate Pakistan might give the British some useful leverage over the Hindu nationalists, who feared any break-up of India, and was, as Patrick French notes, ‘playing a complex game of political brinkmanship which was to have lasting consequences for the future of Asia’. On 23 March, ten days after this meeting, and backed by the British secretary of state for India, Lord Zetland, the Muslim League adopted the Lahore resolution, declaring as its official policy the establishment of a separate Muslim state in northern India.

Whitehall had long opposed demands for Indian independence of any description, but the popular power of the nationalist movement led by Gandhi, coupled with Britain’s weakened postwar position, made the end of the Raj inevitable by the mid-1940s. By then, crucially, the British realised that, post-independence, Indian nationalists would withdraw India from the Commonwealth and deny Britain military and political influence in the region. It was at this point that, much evidence indicates, London sought to detach the northwest part of the country to establish a separate Muslim state. The proposed state of Pakistan was strategically located, bordering Iran, Afghanistan and China, and close to the southernmost areas of the Soviet Union – the site, indeed, of the nineteenth century Great Game. Britain now deliberately set out to partition India to achieve important strategic objectives in the area.

Field Marshall Wavell, the British viceroy in India from 1943, was the principal proponent of partition, realising soon after his arrival that the Congress Party was not interested in post-independence military cooperation with Britain. By 1944, Wavell was determined to build up Jinnah’s Muslim League and withdraw British military forces into the strategic northwest, where they would seek to retain their bases. Pakistan, he envisaged, would become a dominion within the Commonwealth; the rest of India would be left to its own devices. Prime Minister Churchill had long rejected any form of Indian independence, but by March 1945, Wavell remarked that Churchill’s position was shifting: he ‘seems to favour partition of India into Pakistan, Hindustan and Princestan’ – Hindustan referring to the Hindu regions of India, and Princestan to the numerous princely states which Britain had long cultivated to ensure colonial control.

That August, Churchill, now in opposition following Clement Attlee’s landslide Labour election victory in July, had a further meeting with Wavell, who was in London to discuss India with the new ministers. According to Wavell, Churchill left the meeting with the parting words: ‘Keep a bit of India’. Thus, although Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy, has often been blamed for partition by decisions made in 1947, the division of India appears to have already been shaped two years earlier.

Attlee and other ministers also initially opposed partition, holding out for retaining a united India that would cooperate with Britain after independence. When it became obvious that this was never going to happen, Attlee agreed to support partition as long as the Congress Party also acquiesced with this solution – thereby absolving Britain of any responsibility for it. When it became plain that Congress would not support partition, Attlee went ahead anyway, in April 1946 authorising the government to work towards the creation of Pakistan, ‘if it seems to be the only chance of an agreed settlement’.

By 1947, British military chiefs of staff had become enthusiastic proponents of Pakistan, seeing its creation as providing several valuable functions, including obtaining air bases in the new territory and ‘to ensure the continued independence and integrity [of] Afghanistan’. ‘The area of Pakistan’, the chiefs noted, ‘is strategically the most important in the continent of India and the majority of our strategic requirements could be met.’ Britain would also be able to ‘increase our prestige and improve our position throughout the Muslim world, and demonstrate, by the assistance Pakistan would receive, the advantages of links with the British Commonwealth.’

Field Marshall Montgomery, now the chief of the imperial general staff, noted that it would be ‘a tremendous asset’ if Pakistan remained within the Commonwealth, since ‘the bases, airfields and ports in northwest India would be invaluable to Commonwealth defence’. A document in his papers provides a precise analysis of Pakistan’s strategic importance, post-independence:

‘The Indus Valley, western Punjab and Baluchistan [the northwest] are vital to any strategic plans for the defence of [the] all-important Muslim belt …[and] the oil supplies of the Middle East … If the British Commonwealth and the United States of America are to be in a position to defend their vital interests in the Middle East, then the best and most stable area from which to conduct this defence is from Pakistan territory. Pakistan [is] the keystone of the strategic arch of the wide and vulnerable waters of the Indian Ocean’.

Patrick French argues that no leading British civil servants favoured the dismemberment of the Indian empire at independence or believed that the creation of Pakistan would be beneficial. He writes that ‘the claim that the British had secret plans all along to partition India … cannot be supported from the internal memoranda and documentation of Whitehall officialdom.’ However, French’s account did not apparently benefit from consulting the documents from the chiefs of staff, which are recounted in the analysis by Narendra Sarila, a former aide-de-camp to Mountbatten. It is true that the British did not ‘prefer’ to dismember India up to, say, late 1945 or early 1946, and therefore did not have ‘secret plans’ to partition India all along. Yet by the time it became obvious that Britain would not obtain an agreement on its terms – i.e., a united India which would preserve strong ties with Britain – planners quickly opted to promote a separate Pakistan. The British had long tried to use the Muslim card to exert leverage over the Hindu nationalists, since they had few other means to maintain British power in the face of a popular movement against it – there were no other major political forces to turn to, and overt military intervention was out of the question.

Another key aspect of Britain’s policy towards partition concerned the north Indian region of Kashmir, which London wanted annexed to Pakistan. Pakistan invaded and occupied Kashmir in October 1947, and throughout the ensuing border war with India, Britain maintained a strongly pro-Pakistan stance. The Commonwealth secretary noted, five days after Kashmir acceded to India in October, that ‘it would have been natural for Kashmir to eventually accede to Pakistan on agreed terms’. At the UN, Britain lobbied in favour of Kashmir’s becoming a Pakistani province, based on the argument that 77 per cent of the population was Muslim. Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin told US Secretary of State George Marshall that ‘the main issue was who would control the main artery leading into Central Asia.’ Indeed, Pakistan was, as the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton put it, central to Bevin’s ambition to organise ‘the middle of the planet’.

The Times heralded Partition Day, 15 August 1947:

‘In the hour of its creation Pakistan emerges as the leading state of the Muslim world. Since the collapse of the Turkish empire that world, which extends across the globe from Morocco to Indonesia, has not included a state whose numbers, natural resources and place in history gave it undisputed pre-eminence. The gap is now filled. From today Karachi takes rank as a new centre of Muslim cohesion and rallying point of Muslim thought and aspirations’.

Two years after partition, its key proponent, Field Marshall Wavell, made an address to the Royal Central Asia Society, outlining the strategic importance of Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. Wavell stated that ‘the next great struggle for world power, if it takes place, may well be for the control of these oil reserves.’ These regions might be the battleground not only for the material struggle for oil but also ‘of the spiritual struggle of at least three great creeds – Christianity, Islam, Communism’. Therefore, ‘the Western powers must surely be in the Middle East.’

The partition of India had immediate terrible human consequences. With an estimated 20 million people crossing the new border in both directions, in search of new homes, there was an almost total breakdown in law and order, and massive violence in the border areas. The process created a country that, like Saudi Arabia, would become a perceived strategic asset for Anglo–American planners. Pakistan would go on to become a ‘balance’ to neutral, non-aligned India, joining the US-backed Baghdad Pact military alliance in the 1950s and offering the US air base facilities to spy on the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, it was to act as a forward base for intervention in Afghanistan – precisely its utility as seen by British military chiefs over thirty years earlier.

Partition also created a state that had little to bind it together other than an adherence to Islam, and which, under military rulers lacking any other domestic legitimacy, would later propagate extremist versions of Islam and nurture jihadist groups. Kashmir’s division between India and Pakistan not only became a constant source of conflict between the two states; Pakistan’s Islamist cause to ‘liberate’ Kashmir from part-Indian control would help advance the jihadi movement far beyond the sub-continent. Thus would Pakistan go on to become an epicentre of Islamic radicalism and, in the present, pose the largest terrorist threat to Britain. While these are complex processes, working over a long time-scale, they can be traced back to the very creation of Pakistan, in which British policy-makers, seeking to promote their own interests, played an important role. Perhaps ironically, clerics of the revivalist Deobandi movement, which would be patronised by Pakistan’s later military rulers and would back jihadi forces in Pakistan, largely opposed the creation of Pakistan at the time, arguing that a Muslim national state was not needed to create their Islamic world.

Narendra Sarila notes that ‘the successful use of religion by the British to fulfil political and strategic objectives in India was replicated by the Americans in building up the Islamic jihadis in Afghanistan’. Overall, ‘many of the roots of Islamic terrorism sweeping the world today lie buried in the partition of India.’


  1. K P Fabian says:

    A sensible account of a complex slice of history.
    The Imperial power, the Congress, and the Muslim League formed a political triangle. As in any triangle, two sides together are longer than the third side.
    As the British and Jinnah wanted and worked diligently for partition , there was no way the Congress could have prevented it unless Gandhi would have decided to oppose it at any cost. He was past his prime and did not want to stand in the way of his disciples, Nehru and Patel, who accepted partition almost with alacrity after Jinnah’s atrocities of Direct Action in August 1946 and the sabotage of the interim government by the League ministers.

    1. sam says:

      True,but painful to see one million innocents killed and women mistreated from both sides.
      I went to prayers at Birla House where Gandhiji answer was to sing a hymn–Ishwar,Allah Tero Nam,give wisdom to all.
      Two days later on Jan.30th,1948 he was assissinated.
      I waited 8 hours at India Gate to get a good view of his body .Nehru,Patel were sitting next to his body in New Delhi on jan.31st,1948.

    2. Yes Partition could have been avoided had Nehru been a Stateman with Farsightedness and temporarily acquiesed to the Anglo-American wishes,many problems which India is beset with could have been avoided.

  2. Richard O'Donovan says:

    Good review.

  3. sam says:

    Great article-but we need reference for British War Cabinet–1945 declassified -Hostilities Planning-at behest of Winston Churchill.
    Also any reference to possible holocaust from Ethnic Cleansing–which is now on British.Churchill more than Mountbatten as Bengal Famine occurred in 1943-45 under Churchill.Mountbatten told Kuldip Nayar that by giving 10% space in his ships for grains to Bengal,he saved 3 million from starvation.

  4. sam says:

    Lord Mountbatten was gracious enough to accept his role in one million killed(kuldip Nayar interview 1971 in London),but what about Churchill whose statement to Wavell-“Keep a bit of India” plan resulted in the Punjab Holocaust in 1947 and another half million during 1969-71 in East Pakistan(now Bangladesh) as that was also part of “A bit of India”.
    Also what about ongoing killings in Afghanistan–Frontier Province of Pakistan.How will that end?
    Has Britain benefitted more from Pakistan or Bangladesh or Afghanistan or India in last 20 years?
    Or-Britain would have benefitted more if India was united?

  5. Zara Ali says:

    Another key aspect of Britain’s policy towards partition concerned the north Indian region of Kashmir, which London wanted annexed to Pakistan. Pakistan invaded and occupied Kashmir in October 1947, and throughout the ensuing border war with India, Britain maintained a strongly pro-Pakistan stance… I think the entire argument that the British were biased toward partition does not stand on solid ground. If only the Anglo-Indian conspiracy vis-a-vis Jammu Kashmir is taken into account without an effort to distort truth, it becomes clear the British had no other plan but to leave the Hindu leadership of India in charge almost like its Geo-political heir in the region. The truth is if the Brits could stop the partition of India they would have – if they had known Jinnah would die so soon, they would have never pulled Transfer of Power back from the originally set date.

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