Who was responsible for Partition

  • Jaswant Singh’s latest book has raised a fresh controversy on who was responsible for the partition of India. Some think it was Jinnah while others say it was Nehru/Patel. The truth is that the seeds for Partition were sown atleast eighty years before partition actually took place. 

This article seeks to share some insights and is not meant to be an exhaustive piece on the reasons for partition or the events that led to it. It covers:

  • Former foreign J N Dixit’s views on partition.
  • Cause for 1857 Mutiny in brief.
  • Status of Muslims around 1857. 
  • Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and the two nation theory.
  • Role of British principal of Aligarh Muslim University in encouraging Muslim separatism.
  • Was the idea of a separate nation conceived after 1935 or when? Impact of the Khilafat Movement.
  • Why Dr B R Ambedkar suggested that Hindus concede Pakistan?

1. In his book ‘Anatomy of a Flawed Inheritance’, former foreign secretary J N Dixit wrote, “The partition of the sub-continent, in a manner, has its roots in Islamic ethos. It goes back to the Prophet’s journey from Mecca to Madina in 622 A.D. in the face of persecution and harassment, known as Hezira. The concept of Hezira is generally acknowledged as a norm, to the effect that Muslims do not live in tyranny or oppression from peoples of other faiths. They must remake their lives in order to practice their faith. Where Islam is not dominant, it is Dar-ul-Harb. It is necessary to move to Dar-ul-Islam. This was the sub-conscious logic underpinning the demand for Pakistan by Chaudhury Rahmat Ali of Cambridge, later on endorsed by Allama Iqbal and concretized by Jinnah. 

The demand for Pakistan came from areas where there were sizeable Muslim minorities desiring to escape from anticipated or imagined thrall of Hindu domination. It was, in fact, the concept of Hezira transmuting itself to 20th century sub-continental politics!

A host of prominent Muslim leaders did not buy the two nation theory or the sub-conscious negative theological impulses which gave consent to it.”

Partition was as much a result of what Mr. Dixit wrote as it was the British’s desire to perpetuate the Hindu Muslim divide. The article restricts itself to some key events post 1857 and the British role in promoting separatism. 

2. Dr B R Ambedkar wrote in 1941, “The curious may examine the history of the 1857 Mutiny, if he does, he will find that in part at any rate it was actually a Jihad proclaimed by the Muslims against the British that owing to the occupation of India by the British the country had become Dar-ul-Harb”. Thoughts on Pakistan

This statement is substantiated by Prof Sheshrao More in the book ‘The 1857 Jihad’ published by Manas Publications. It is because the Muslims took an active part in the 1857 mutiny that the British were anti Muslim in the initial years post mutiny.  

By trying to establish Muslim rule over India the community wanted to make India Dar-ul-Islam once again. This reiterates the point made by Mr  J N Dixit above.

With the advent of British rule Muslim insecurity leapfrogged. One wonders why the former rulers were insecure. This is what the next section explores.                                                         

3. Let us look at the condition of Muslims around 1860.

The British had swept away the last vestiges of Muslim rule by annexing Sindh in 1843, Avadh in 1856 and exiling the Mughal kings to Rangoon. The Deccan kingdom had a Muslim ruler in the Nizam but he was more of an ally. 

The condition of Muslims was best stated by a liberal, R M Sayani in his Presidential address at the 12th session of the Congress held in 1896. Excerpts, “Before the advent of the British in India, the Muslims were the rulers of the country. The rulers and their chiefs were Muslims so were the great landlords and officials. The court language was their own (Persian was the official language of India till 1842). Every place of trust and responsibility, or carrying influence and high emoluments, was theirs by birthright. The Hindus did occupy the same position but were tenants-at-will of the Muslims. The Muslims had complete access to the rulers and chief. The Hindus were in awe of them. By a stroke of misfortune, the Muslims had to abdicate their position and descend to the level of their Hindu fellow-countrymen. The Muslims resented the treatment. 

Meanwhile the British introduced English education into the country. This required hard application and industry. The Hindus were used to this, as under Muslim rule, they had practically to master a foreign tongue, and so easily took to new education. But the Muslim had not yet become accustomed to this sort of thing. Moreover, they resented competing with the Hindus, whom they had till recently regarded as their inferiors. The Muslims were gradually ousted from their lands, offices; in fact everything was lost save their honor. To the Hindus it was the opposite. They were soon reduced to a state of utter poverty. Ignorance and apathy seized hold of them while the fall of their former greatness rankled in their hearts.” History and Culture of Indian People published by the Bhartiya Vidya Bhawan volume 10 pg 295

The hostile attitude of Muslims towards the English, their aversion to secular education kept them aloof from English education imparted in schools and colleges. On the other the establishment of the Hindu College in 1817 gave a great impetus to English education amongst the Hindus. For the next fifty years the Muslims made little progress.

This feeling of backwardness was brought to a head at the evidence before the Public Service Commission in 1886. Dadabhai Naoraoji touched the crux of the problem when he observed that the attitude of the Muslims was “based on selfish interests, that because the Muslims are backward, therefore, they would not allow the Hindus and all India to go forward”. History and Culture of Indian People published by the Bhartiya Vidya Bhawan volume 10 pg 330

The Muslim community had to cope with not only the loss of political power but had to deal with an ever adaptable progressive Hindu community. How did the Hindus feel when they lost political power to the Muslims is the subject matter of another article?

This is reflected in Pakistan’s attitude towards India. Their stance is, we are not progressing and shall pull you down as well. It is one of the reasons why Mumbai, the commercial capital of India, is a victim of frequent terror attacks. 

This attitude worked well from 1947 to around 1999. Subsequently, the Indian economy has gone into a different orbit leaving Pakistan far behind. The Pakis can see it so has the world.

How did the Muslim community respond to the change in political equations? Read on.

4. At a critical juncture in the 1870’s came Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. He took upon himself the responsibility of bridging the gulf, bringing about a political rapprochement between the British and Muslims. On the other hand he persuaded the British that the Muslims were not disloyal to the crown. The Muslims got swayed in 1857 by leading the war against the British but a little tact, generous forgiveness by the British could change the Muslims into their supporters. 

He conceived the idea of having a Muslim college like Oxford and Cambridge. The result was the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh, the foundation stone of which was laid by Lord Lytton on 8/01/1877.

Sir Syed is entitled to credit for his endeavor to uplift his community. However one might interpret the speeches of Sir Khan in favor of the peoples of India forming but one nation, the two-nation theory formed the solid basis of the Aligarh Movement.

At a speech at Meerut on 16/03/1888 he refers to the Hindus and Muslims not only as two nations, but as two warring nations who could not lead a common political life if ever the British left India. He said, “Now suppose that all the Brits were to leave India, and then who would be the rulers of India? Is it possible that under these circumstances these nations, the Muhammadan and the Hindu could sit on the same throne and remain equal in power? Most certainly not. It is necessary that one of them should conquer the other and thrust it down. To hope that both could remain equal is to desire the impossible and the inconceivable”. History and Culture of Indian People published by the Bhartiya Vidya Bhawan volume 10 pg 309. To read other speeches by Sir Syed 

Super cop K PS Gill wrote something similar recently while commenting on Indo-Pak relations. He said “The conflict over Kashmir is not, as is widely believed, a quarrel over territory; it is, rather, an irreducible conflict between two fundamentally incompatible ideologies - a pluralistic democratic ideology, on India's part; and an authoritarian-fundamentalist-exclusionary Islamist ideology that asserts that different belief systems cannot coexist within the same political order. A permanent peace in South Asia will only result after one or the other of these ideologies succumbs - and these are crucial to national identity, consciousness, and even the existence of these two nation states”.

1888 and today! Has anything changed?

How did the British respond to the overtures made by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan? The appeal to these overtures came at a very opportune moment. After two generations the Hindus had imbibed Western ideas through English education, showed signs of political development regarded by the Government as anti-British. So they eagerly seized the opportunity offered by Sir Syed, of enlisting the support of the great but politically undeveloped Muslims and holding it as a counterpoise to the progressive Hindu community. This article gives one example in the context of Aligarh Muslim University.

5. The British Principal of AMU, Theodore Beck, accentuated the Hindu Muslim divide. He took charge of the Institute Gazette, the literary organ of the Aligarh College and edited it on behalf of SAK. The highlights of his speech were published in the Aligarh College Magazine of March, April, June 1895.

  • A friendship between the Muslims and the British people was possible but not between for e.g. the Marathas and Sikhs who would never agree with the Muslims in accepting Aurangzeb as their hero.
  • Muslims would never accept a system of government in which the Hindus would rule over them.
  • Muslim behavior before and after the Revolt of 1857 had warned them against the agitational policy of the Hindus and they were now on the advice of Sir Syed Khan following loyalty to the British.
  • Muslims were opposed to the holding of competitive examinations for they knew this step would mean the replacement of many impartial British officers by anti-Muslims Hindus.

The differences got accentuated in connection with the legislation for local self-government on elective basis. It is on this occasion that for the first time a demand was made for separate representation of the Muslims. The ball, now or later was set rolling by the British. Said Muhhammad Yusuf on 3/05/1883 “But it would be an advantage and more fit recognition of the claims of the Muslim population if provision could be made in the Bill for the election of Muslims by reserving a certain number of membership for that community”. 

From the above it is clear that the Hindu Muslim divide existed before the British came. They exploited the divide to suit their interests. Muslim apprehension of co-existence with Hindus in independent India existed before 1900 long before Jinnah and Nehru came on the national scene.

It is also reflected in the number and frequency of Hindu Muslim riots particularly, between 1885 and 1893. There were riots in Lahore & Karnal in 1885, Delhi in 1886, Hoshiarpur, Ambala 1889 and Palakod in Salem, Tamil Nadu in 1891. 1893 was a bad year with grave outbreaks in Azamgarh of U.P., Mumbai lasted for six days. Also Swami Dayanand Saraswati founder of the Arya Samaj was in 1883, allegedly poisoned by a Muslim lady while he was a guest of the Maharaja of Jodhpur.

The British role in India’s division is best summed up by Sardar Patel. He said on August 9, 1945, “The British talk of Hindu Muslim quarrels but who has thrust the burden on their shoulders? If they are sincere let them hand over to the Congress, League or international arbitration. Give me just a week’s rule over Britain, I will create such disagreements that England, Wales and Scotland will fight one another for ever”. Patel –A Life by Rajmohan Gandhi

If one were to accept that the Hindu Muslim divide existed before 1900, did a dominating and aggressive Hindu leadership force the Muslim leadership into demanding Pakistan starting the 1930’s or did the idea of Pakistan already exist? 

6. Dr Ambedkar wrote in 1941 – “There is evidence that some of them knew this to be the ultimate destiny of the Muslims as early as 1923. In support of this reference may be made to the evidence of Khan Saheb Sardar M Gulkhan (who was President, Islamic Anjuman, and Dera Ismail Khan) who appeared as witness before the N.W.F Committee to report upon the administrative relationship between the Settled Area of N.W.F.P. & the Tribal Area & upon the amalgamation of the settled districts with Punjab. The importance of this evidence was not realized by any member of the Committee except Mr. N Samarth - extracts from Report illuminates a dark corner in history of the evolution of this new destiny.

“Q – The idea at the back of Anjuman is the Pan-Islamic idea, which is that Islam is a league of nations and as such amalgamating this Province with Punjab will be detrimental. That is the dominant idea at the back of those who think with you? Is it so?

A – It is so, but I have to add something. Their idea is that Hindu Muslim unity will never become a fact and they think that this Province should remain separate and a link between Islam & British Commonwealth. In fact when I am asked what my opinion is – I as a member of the Anjuman am expressing his opinion – we would rather see the separation of Hindus & the Muslims, 23 crs of Hindus to the south and 8 crs of Muslims to the north. Give the whole portion from Kanyakumari to Agra to the Hindus and from Agra to Peshawar to the Muslims, I mean trans-migration from one place to another. This is an idea of exchange not annihilation. This seems impracticable but if it were practicable we would rather want this than the other.” Thoughts on Pakistan

This evidence shows that the idea underlying the scheme of Pakistan has taken birth sometime before 1923.

“In 1924 Mahommed Ali is said to have suggested (for reference see Lala Lajpat Rai’s Presidential Address to the Hindu Mahasabha held at Calcutta on 11/4/1925 in the Indian Quarterly Register vol 1 pg 379) that the Muslims of the Frontier Province should have the right of self-determination to choose between an affiliation with India or Kabul. He also quoted a certain Englishman who said that if a straight line be drawn from Constantinople to Delhi, it will disclose a Muslim corridor right up to Saharanpur. It is possible that M Ali knew about the whole scheme of Pakistan which came out in evidence of the witness referred to by Mr. Samarth and in an unguarded movement what the witness had failed to disclose, namely, the ultimate linking of PAK to Afghanistan.” Thoughts on Pakistan

Thus the seeds for Pakistan were sowed sometime in 1923. Some may wonder! Why did the idea not come earlier?

Many believe that the Khilafat Movement (1919), a protest by Indian Muslims against the abolishment of the Caliph, religious leader of the Arab world, in Turkey to be the first step towards India’s partition. Gandhi spearheaded this movement but failed to realize that the Pan-Islamic idea cut at the very root of Indian nationality. After all, why Indian Muslims should be concerned with events in Turkey! What did the movement achieve? 

First Muslim fanaticism secured a position of prestige in Indian politics, thereafter; their religious loyalty took precedence over national loyalty. Two the Muslim population so far was divided among various groups and political pulls now became one solid force. Three a new fanatic leadership riding on the crest of the Khilafat wave came to wield the reigns of the Muslim leadership.

A Patwardhan, a former Socialist stalwart in the Congress in a candid analysis of the Congress policy vis-à-vis Khilafat wrote in 1968, excerpts “The Congress movement placed the Muslims of India under the spell of orthodoxy and religious superstition by their support to the Khilafat leadership”. This had disastrous consequences on Hindu Muslim relations later. Fifthly it led to a series of Hindu Muslim riots between 1920 and 1939 details of which are given in Dr Ambedkar’s book.

It is possible that after the Khilafat Movement the Muslims began to view themselves, not as a community but as a nation. A separate nation might have been a dream in the 1920’s but the movement sowed the seeds for one although the support for Pakistan was publicly voiced much later. 

Could the Hindus have avoided partition? Or should the Hindus have avoided partition – not if you read two insightful reasons by Dr Ambedkar. 

7. One the British had ensured that the Armed Forces consisted primarily of Muslim soldiers and that too from the North West, the area that is modern day Pakistan. They sought to justify this predominance by saying that men of the North-West belonged to the Martial Classes. 

Mr. Chaudhari (see his articles on ‘The martial Races of India’ published in the modern Review of July-September 1930, Jan-Feb 1931) study shows that the predominance of the men of the Northwest took place as early as the Mutiny of 1857 some 20 years before the theory of martial and non-martial classes were projected in a distinct form in 1879. Their predominance had nothing to do with their alleged fighting qualities but was due to the fact that they had helped the British suppress the Mutiny in which the Bengal Army was completely involved. The Mutiny blew up the old Bengal army and brought into existence a Punjabized army. This table shows how the British changed the composition of the Indian Army between 1914 and 1930.  

Changes in the Communal Composition of the Indian Army#


Area & Communities

% in 1914

% in 1930


Punjab, NW.F.P & Kashmir




         Of which Punjabi Muslims & Pathans




         Of which Sikhs




Nepal. Kumaon, Garwhal




Upper India




          Of which Hindustani Muslims




South India







# Thoughts on Pakistan

Note that the Sikhs are reduced from first to third place.

After 1930 there is no information available on the communal composition of the Indian Army. This obstinacy on the part of the British to provide this vital point gave rise to all sorts of speculation as to the proportion of Muslims in the Indian army. Some believed it was between 60-70 %. Obviously it was high enough to cause alarm to the Hindus.

Veer Savarkar was probably one of the few leaders who kept exhorting Hindus to join the Indian Army in large numbers. He said in 1940, “Since the days of the First War of Independence in 1857, it has been the policy of the British to keep the army out of politics. Our politics must be to carry politics into the Indian army and once we succeed the battle of freedom would be won. Till the day of Savarkar’s whirlwind propaganda for Hindu militarization, military career was the monopoly of the Muslims, who formed three fourths of the Indian army. The effect of this propaganda was seen everywhere. The Muslim plans for preponderance was effectively checkmated and brought down and the % of the Hindus in the army went up as high as seventy”’. Life of Veer Savarkar by Dhananjay Keer

Therefore, how could the Hindus feel protected against foreign invasion when the Army was predominantly Muslim from Punjab and N.W.F.P.? More so if the invaders were Afghans singly or in combination with other Muslim states!

The only way for Hindus to get rid of a predominantly Muslim army was by the creation of Pakistan. Dr Ambedkar buttressed his argument by stating that the Pakistan area which is the main recruiting ground for the then Indian army contributed very little to the Indian exchequer.

Revenue Contribution to Exchequer – Pakistan area and Hindustan#



Rs crs

Rs crs


Pakistan Area




Punjab, N.W.F.P. & Baluchistan



















Bengal (only ½ revenue shown based on population)







# Thoughts on Pakistan

The main contribution comes from the provinces of Hindustan. Not only do the Pakistani provinces contribute very little to the Central Government but they receive a great deal. Out of the total central government revenues of Rs 121 crs Rs 52 crs is spent on the army annually. The bulk of this amount which is spent on the army is spent over the Muslim army drawn from the Pakistan area. The bulk of the Rs 52 crs is contributed by the Hindu provinces and is spent on an army, from which the Hindus, who pay for it, are excluded!”

The best way for Hindustan to stop taking this risk was the creation of Pakistan. A safe army is better than a safe border.

If you consider the size of the Indian and Pakistani economies today the above argument makes eminent sense. Brand India is used by Pakistani and Bangladeshis for their benefit for e.g. most so called Indian restaurants in London are run by Bangladeshis. We went to an Indian restaurant in Nice South France whose main theme was Indian food and Bollywood; it is run by a Pakistani who kept on saying Our India tell told him we are Indians and asked if he was a Pakistani. (See photo above).

While these arguments were well founded, a series of events between 1940 and 1947 including Direct Action Day and the inability of the Congress/Muslim League to work as part of one government, probably forced the Congress to accept partition.

Surely there are many events prior to and after 1941 that accentuated the Hindu Muslim divide which eventually resulted in Partition. It is not possible to cover all of them in this article. A summary of the points made above are:

  • It is a myth that Nehru, Jinnah or Patel were responsible for Partition. They were actually implementing the partition plan that was scripted in the 19th century.
  • The Hindus were apprehensive that the Muslims wanted to rule India again. The Muslims feared that under the principal of one man one vote, it would be a government for and by the Hindus.
  • Separate electorates for Muslims, reservations, caste and religion based divisions are some of the tactics used by the British to divide India
  • The Muslims realized that by virtue of having a larger population, the Hindus would have a larger say in the Government. Hence they insisted on equality, parity with Hindus. To this day Pakistan wants to have parity with India on all key matters, size of population and economy notwithstanding.

I sincerely wish that Indians read, understand the underlying thoughts behind Partition and correlate them with contemporary issues concerning India and Pakistan, Hindus and Muslims.

A back to back reading of Dr B R Ambedkar’s book ‘Thoughts on Pakistan’ is a necessity to achieve this objective. 

Also read

1. Thoughts on Pakistan  

2. Khilafat Movement

3. Words of Muhammad Iqbal

4. Aligarh Movement  

5. History of Urdu  

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