Fallout from the Partitioning of the British Empire

In great measure, the roots of present-day Islamic terrorism lie in the partition of India, according to a comprehensive narrative by Narendra Singh Sarila, author of The Shadow of the Great Game:  The Untold Story of India’s Partition.  Sarila, a former senior-level Indian civil servant and aide-de-camp to England’s last ruler in India, Lord Montbatten, argues that the British used a divide-and-conquer strategy in India, fostering and exaggerating Muslim-Hindu acrimony, to safeguard British regional power against the Russians and maintain U.K. access to Middle East oil fields.

Pursuing a divided India in which they could maintain a measure of control, the British warded off pressure from U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Indian leadership for a unified, independent India.  Using diplomatic legerdemain, the British created a separate Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan, giving Muslims territorial launching points to pursue jihadist expansion in the region that continues to this day. 

The Great Game

“The Great Game” provided the backdrop for the events in India.  This rivalry in Central Asia between the British and Russian empires lasted throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries and was the precursor to the Cold War.  After World War I, the British found it increasingly untenable to continue their previous model there of imperial domination and began to pursue a different strategy.

By the late 1930s in British India, Sarila contends, the majority-Hindu National Congress Party had gained power and declined to form a coalition government with the Muslim League.  The British saw an opportunity to ally with the Muslims, exploit the Muslim-Hindu political rivalry, and retain a hold on the Indian subcontinent by partitioning British India into separate states.  Muslim League head Muhammad Ali Jinnah was willing to cooperate with British demands for a continued military presence in exchange for a state in Pakistan.  Meanwhile, Mahatma Gandhi acolyte and Congress Party leader Jawaharlal Nehru was intransigent in his aspirations for India.  So the British pursued a “divide and conquer” partition strategy, which would best meet their political interests at the time.  The British promulgated the meme of Muslim-Hindu acrimony by adeptly playing the majority-Hindu National Congress Party against the Muslim League, according to him.

World War II

Sarila goes on to explain that in 1942, to further complicate the situation, the Congress Party proclaimed a mass protest for independence based on Gandhi’s call for nonviolent civil disobedience.  The Quit India Movement, ill-timed in the midst of World War II, resulted in the resignation of the Congress Party from the government and was quickly crushed by the British, who imprisoned dissenters until the war’s end.

The author recounts how during WWII, Roosevelt pressured English prime minister Winston Churchill to ensure wartime support from India with the promise of independence and dissuaded him from any Balkanization of the subcontinent.  Much to the dismay of the British, India would not agree to remain part of the British Commonwealth and permit a continued British military presence in the country.  Without a base in India, the British felt that it would be impossible to fend off Russian aggression and keep an eye on Iran and the Persian Gulf’s oil supplies.

In order to hold on to the strategically attractive regions in the Indian Northwest, the British continued to court the Muslim League leadership in a sub rosa quid pro quo.  An independent Pakistan was desirable for British control of the main artery leading into Central Asia and Kashmir’s northern frontier borders on Afghanistan, the USSR, and China.  While the Congress Party’s contrary efforts represented an inopportune diversion for the British, Muslim League leader Jinnah used the situation to his advantage and was more than willing to cooperate with the British, providing concessions for the British military in exchange for the promise of an independent Pakistan. 

According to Sarila, the British stealthily orchestrated the division of the Indian subcontinent while bearing no responsibility for doing so and maintaining the façade of agreement with Roosevelt and Indian leaders.  To make sure the partition would become a reality and that the Americans would be none the wiser, Churchill knowingly misrepresented Muslims’ participation in the Indian army as 75% rather than the actual 35% and emphasized the necessity of appeasing Muslim demands to keep them on the Allied side against Japan.  This subterfuge seemed to temporarily mollify Roosevelt and temper his demands.

Publicly, the British maintained the charade that they desired a united India.  What they really wanted was a Middle Eastern sphere of influence that a separate Pakistan would provide.  With a Pakistani state, the British could protect the Strait of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf, and the Suez Canal from Russian influence as well as British interests in Saudi Arabia, Iraqi, and Iran.

Churchill blamed the lack of unity on India’s political parties and told Roosevelt that the Congress Party wanted a Hindu-dominated country and was prepared to sacrifice the Allied war effort to do so.  In reality, Nehru maintained a pro-Allied stance after 1942 and viewed winning the war with the Allies as a separate enterprise from Indian independence.  He accused the British of purposely driving a wedge between the Hindus and Muslims in India. 

Initially, the British had hoped to trifurcate the subcontinent into Hindu, Muslim, and princely factions so that the disunity would enable them to continue their rule.  They capitalized on and nurtured Hindu-Muslim antagonism and added fuel to the fire as they saw how an independent Pakistan would protect British interests in the northwest frontier and Persian Gulf, provide access to the port of Karachi and the air bases in Northwest India, and ensure the support of Muslim manpower.

In 1946, when Jinnah called for a “Direct Action Day” to demonstrate Muslim power, the British stood by as more than 5,000 people were massacred.  The British had foreknowledge of Direct Action Day, never held Jinnah responsible, and used the killings to reinforce the falsity that Hindus and Muslims could not live together.  As a last-minute appeasement measure to the Congress Party for nurturing division, they promised the accession of the princely states to India.

Pakistan Today

Ultimately, Pakistan became a U.S. ally during the Cold War in large measure due to its geographic position abutting Iran and Afghanistan, areas of great strategic importance to resist the Soviet threat and protect the oilfields of the Middle East.  But Pakistan today is a fertile anti-Western training ground, an inheritance born of its creation.  Islamic terrorist organizations became conduits for funds from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States used to establish Islamic madrasas that preached jihad on the sub-continent.  These groups also became instruments for the Pakistani intelligence services, the ISI, and served to further Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and India.  It was in Pakistan where Muslim youths received their training to participate in 9/11, kill American and allied soldiers in Afghanistan, and serve al-Qaeda and the Taliban. 

Middle East Parallels

The partition of India portrayed by Sarila bears striking similarities to the Middle East conflict between Jews and Muslims that embroiled the British.  As in India, Britain pursued a duplicitous course, initially expressing British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine in the Balfour Declaration, a letter written in 1917 by U.K. foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour.

As in India, the British supported a Jewish homeland for political, economic, and ideological reasons.  They were uncertain about the outcome of World War I and their ability to safeguard their interests in the Middle East.  With the war effort disintegrating, the British hoped a formal declaration supporting Zionism would gain American Jewish support for U.S. intervention as well as help persuade Jewish Bolsheviks to encourage Russia’s continued participation in the war.  A Jewish state in Palestine annexed to the British Empire would also provide a check on French power in the region, ensure continued British presence in Egypt, secure land-based access to India, and provide a buffer zone for the Suez Canal.  Thus, the British Empire's post-war regional hegemony would be preserved.

But, as in India, the British were ultimately more concerned with exploiting Arab oil resources and placating millions of Arabs.  In 1922, the British gave away 77% of the land designated for the Jews to the Hashemite Kingdom to form Transjordan and transferred the Golan Heights to Syria.  Ultimately, it was British strategic interests that took precedence over the promise to the Jews of a national homeland, a return to the Kingdom of Israel.

The creation of the modern State of Israel and the role of the British in carving up the Middle East are well-known.  Sarila’s research and book on India provide a welcome, in-depth focus on another post-World War II hotbed with an insightful examination of the British role and the resulting legacy in Central Asia.  In both instances, political actions pursued by a crumbling empire failed to secure that empire’s continued influence.  Instead, the results were a far cry from the intent and have contributed to political instability, Muslim expansionism, and armed conflict.

The Shadow of the Great Game:  The Untold Story of India’s Partition
by Narendra Singh Sarila

Harper Collins, 2005
437 pp., $43.39

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