What is now happening in India has rightly held the attention of the civilized world. Here is a country containing a fifth of the inhabitants of the entire globe and occupying a highly strategic position, which—suddenly, as it must seem to a world preoccupied with grave questions of national and international politics—emerges from a position of political subordination to the status of a fully autonomous member of the family of nations. Quite apart from the powerful repercussions which such a development is bound to produce upon the equilibrium of human society, the dramatic quality of the events which have accompanied the last stages of India’s transition from tutelage to self-government is such as to arrest the imagination of all spectators. That must be the justification for such a review as is attempted here.

The roots of the Indian problem lie deep in history, and recent events are the outcome of a long chain of contributory causes. For the decision of the British Government to relinquish its control over the Government of India is no arbitrary decision reached in haste, and most emphatically it is not the outcome of weakness or the abandonment of any of the ideals through which the British Commonwealth of Nations has grown, and for which it stands today. On the contrary, this decision of His Majesty’s Government is the natural fruit of a century and a half of political, social and economic development in India, and, so far from being alien to the present spirit and purpose of the British Commonwealth, it may in fact prove to be the most striking realization of them which has so far been achieved. The world wars have but speeded up a process which has been under way for many decades.


Let us first see what it was that His Majesty’s Government decided. Briefly it was that after a fixed date in the near future, India should be completely free to work out her own destiny under a constitution of her own choosing; and that by August 15, 1947, India, whether still united or partitioned, should enjoy the same status as other self-governing members of the British Commonwealth. To this end His Majesty’s Government declared that if the predominantly Moslem areas so desired, India should be partitioned to form two new states, one predominantly Moslem, the other predominantly Hindu.

The areas in question are Bengal and a part of the neighboring territory of Assam in the northeast of India, and, in the northwest, the Punjab, the Province of Sind, the North-West Frontier Province and British Baluchistan. In regard to Sind, no troublesome questions arise because its population is overwhelmingly Moslem and all but a small minority of these wish to be included in the Moslem state, to be known as Pakistan. Bengal, the Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province are more difficult. In both Bengal and the Punjab, Moslems have only a narrow majority over Hindus and others, and to include these two vitally important provinces en bloc in Pakistan would be felt as an intolerable hardship by the many millions of Hindus in Bengal, and by Sikhs as well as Hindus in the Punjab. It was decided therefore to give the legislatures of these two provinces an opportunity of declaring, first, whether they wished them to be partitioned into predominantly Moslem and predominantly non-Moslem areas, and if, as has in fact happened, both the legislatures declared for partition, then the members representing constituencies in the predominantly Moslem and the predominantly non-Moslem areas, meeting separately, would declare whether they wished to belong to what is to be termed India or to Pakistan.

The case of the North-West Frontier Province is different from that of either Bengal or the Punjab, for there the great majority of the population is Moslem but nonetheless has hitherto supported a government allied to the Congress Party. And the Congress Party, of course, has always bitterly opposed the determination of the Moslem League and its leader, Mr. Jinnah, to partition India. The people of the Frontier Province were therefore given the opportunity, through a plebiscite, to declare their wishes for the future allegiance of their province.

Finally, as soon as the wishes of the peoples of these disputed areas had been made known, boundary commissions were set about the very delicate business of demarcating the actual dividing lines between the contiguous Moslem and non-Moslem areas in Bengal and the Punjab. In the latter case, a new and large complication is introduced by the presence of the Sikhs who are a separate community, neither Hindu nor Moslem. Although only about 4,000,000 all told, they were masters of all the Punjab, except its extreme south, and practically all the present North-West Frontier Province, until the conquest of the Punjab by the British a hundred years ago. Martial qualities, a proud tradition of past dominion, communal solidarity—all these combine to give the Sikhs an importance quite disproportionate to the fewness of their numbers. Yet no dividing line in the Punjab which the Moslems would ever accept could do other than leave a material proportion of the Sikh community inside Moslem Pakistan. And this is only one example of the kind of difficulty that is bound to arise in greater or less degree over the practical issues of delimitation and demarcation.

However, these conflicts of incompatible claims are well understood by the Indian peoples and their leaders, and no useful purpose will be served here by trying to suggest solutions in advance. It is something to the good that, now that the principle of partition has been accepted, both Governments in India will assume the status of self-governing members of the British Commonwealth, without prejudice to the right of their respective populations, once the boundaries have been finally settled and partition is complete, to decide for themselves whether they will retain their membership in the Commonwealth or leave it altogether.

The scheme for India’s future is thus drawn on large lines, and, having regard to the place that India holds, and will hold, in the world, the world cannot be indifferent to the success or failure of it. Every Britisher who has served India—and vast numbers of Indians outside the Congress Party will share their feeling—must deplore the necessity of disrupting India’s hard-won unity. As the Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, said in his broadcast to India on Tuesday, June 3: “For more than a hundred years, four hundred millions of you have lived together, and this country has been administered as a single entity. This has resulted in unified communications, defense, postal services and currency, an absence of tariffs and customs barriers, and the basis for integrated political economy.” That nation-building unity, temporarily at least, now disappears. We must understand why it has not been found possible to preserve it.


The reasons are older than even the establishment of British rule. Many foreign students who have no first-hand knowledge of India and its affairs have been puzzled by the Moslem League’s bitter opposition, expressed through its leader and spokesman, Mr. Jinnah, to any scheme for a union of all India based on the cardinal democratic principle of majority rule. Their attitude has been represented as the attempt of a minority in India to dictate to the majority. Such judgment is not perhaps unnatural, but is certainly too harsh, and takes insufficient account of the realities of human life.

It is true that the Moslems form approximately only one-quarter of India’s population, and that the Hindus outnumber them roughly by three to one. Nevertheless, the Moslems are conscious of deep traditional, historic and emotional differences between themselves and the majority community. They can never forget that they once ruled India as alien conquerors, and, although many Indian Moslems today are the descendants of Hindu converts to Islam, the great majority nevertheless now identify themselves with the Moslems who entered India in successive waves of invasion from the eighth century of our era onwards. And their thoughts constantly turn back to the great period of their rule, the Mogul Empire of Babur and his successors, the greatest of whom was Akbar, a contemporary of our English Queen Elizabeth. But from the last quarter of the seventeenth century onwards, as the Mogul Empire fell into decay, India became the battleground of rival potentates carving out kingdoms from its derelict dominion. Mahrattas in the center, Sikhs in the north, the Viceroy of Bengal in the east, the rulers of Hyderabad and Mysore in the south—all these were setting up successor states, and it looked as though India might sink into her old condition of uncertain equilibrium and intermittent domestic war. At this point the British, partly to establish order for the trade which had led them to India in the first instance, and partly in pursuit of their world-wide clash with the French, began their hundred-year conquest of India, which, beginning at Plassy in the east, ended at Gujerat in the northwest.

In place of chaos the British thus gave the Pax Britannica. During this hundred years of conquest, nearly three-quarters of the whole country came under direct British administration, while the remaining quarter was left under the rule of Hindu and Moslem Princes of innumerable gradations of strength and prestige, responsible for the domestic affairs of their states but having no foreign or military policies of their own. In a word, the British “froze” the situation as it was in the eighteenth century and though, as will be shown later, the seeds of subsequent constitutional development were being steadily sown, it remained largely frozen until the end of the second decade of this century.

The Government of India Act of 1919, better known as the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms, with its declared goal of responsible self-government for India, was recognition of the extent to which the eyes of Indians—Hindus, Moslems and Sikhs alike—had caught the vision of wider political horizons. The more far-reaching reforms of the Government of India Act of 1935, with its autonomous Provinces of British India and provisions for a Federation of all India between British India and the Indian States, were a further long step forward, and but for the war might have been hoped to solve the problem of how to fit the Indian States into the larger mosaic of all India. For that is another, and a very difficult, element in the Indian conundrum of which much more is likely to be heard. The obstacles on the one hand to anything in the way of enforced adhesion of the Indian States to Hindustan or Pakistan, or on the other to the enjoyment by the States of complete independence of either, are alike formidable.

On British India the effect of the approach to the time when power, hitherto exercised by an outside authority, was to be transferred to Indian hands, was immediately to raise the question, “Into whose hands?” And as this debate proceeded, marked at times by savage outbursts of popular feeling, many old ideas, conditions and aspirations which men had long since thought dead and buried began to raise their heads. Of such sort were the Moslem and Sikh traditions of dominion, and with their resurrection came the revival of the ambitions of certain of the greater States to play once more an independent part in the life of India.

Between the Moslem religion and way of life and that of the Hindus a deep gulf is set. Their notions of social, political and even economic affairs are deeply divergent. The Sikh religion, too, with its complete denial of caste, which is the pith and marrow of the Hindu way of life, sets barriers between them and the majority community. But between Sikhs and Moslems also there are long generations of conflict, for it was under the hammer blows of Moslem persecution that the Sikhs first became a militant and then a conquering community.

So from all these different angles—religious, communal, historic, social and political—we catch a partial glimpse of the centrifugal forces which, today at any rate, seem to be moving in India, and which, if wise counsels for the general good were not to prevail over smaller hopes and fears, might come near to reviving some of the conditions of the eighteenth century. Such in brief are the reasons why it has not been found possible to preserve the political unity of India after the passing of the Pax Britannica.

But against such background we can measure the merits of His Majesty’s Government’s principal proposals of June 3. For instead of an anarchic struggle between a multiplicity of warring claimants, as happened when the Mogul Empire fell into decay, and on other occasions in India’s history, it is hoped to secure a controlled division of India, agreed between Moslems and non-Moslems, with the rulers of the Indian States invited to come to peaceful and friendly terms with one or other of the two Indias which are now emerging. Moreover, as we have seen, these two Indias are offered full autonomous membership of the British Commonwealth of Nations, which means that, if they choose to accept it—and their choice will be absolutely free and uncontrolled—they will at once in this atmosphere of complete freedom become inheritor beneficiaries of the incentive and practice of friendly cooperation, which every member of the British Commonwealth today enjoys.

I have no doubt that these considerations are present to the minds of Indian leaders; and friends of India the world over, British and foreign alike, may well hope that both the new Indias will walk together along this path. For thus they would retain, in addition to many advantages which are far from negligible, the priceless asset of common citizenship, and salvage for the India of the future a creative principle out of which other formal attributes of unity may grow.


It is strange how little place has been given by historians of British India to the cardinal truth that the political development of India during the past 150 years has been the product, not only of her connection with Great Britain, but of her membership of the British Empire and Commonwealth. In the case of the other self-governing members of the British Commonwealth, the molding influence of the inclusive association to which they all belong is generally recognized, and it is therefore reasonable to assume that India is not likely to be a solitary exception to this rule. Nor does this general assumption lack support from the facts of history. I suppose the greatest event in the history of the British Empire is the secession of the American Colonies, which left so deep a mark upon the history of the Mother Country and all her daughter nations. It generated a ferment of feeling and a searching of heart, of which the great Reform Bill of 1832 in British domestic politics, and the Durham Report some years later in imperial politics, were two outstanding consequences. Pitt’s India Act of 1784 may be regarded as a repercussion on India of the great event. For in Pitt’s own words the Act was meant “to give to the Crown the power of guiding the politics of India with as little means of corrupt influence as possible.” In other words, the doings of the employees of the East India Company, whose forces had already conquered large and important territories, were in the last analysis to fall under the scrutiny of Parliament. Here was an invaluable safeguard. The Charter of the East India Company, under which it carried out all its operations, became due for renewal every 20 years, and the renewal provided the occasion for a review by Parliament of the whole conduct of the Company. Thus when the Charter came up for renewal in 1833, the first year of the reformed Parliament, it was laid down as a result of the discussion in Parliament that the great principle of equality of opportunity and equality before the law of all British subjects should be extended to India. A quarter of a century later, after the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the administration of India by the East India Company was taken over by the Crown, and Parliament thus became directly responsible for the Government of India through its agent, the Secretary of State for India.

With the transfer of authority came revision of the system of government, and in 1861 Parliament accepted the principle of representation of the people of India in the Indian Legislative Council. The Council of that day was small and its powers restricted, as was the degree of representation established; but a principle vital to future development had been introduced. For between 1833 and 1861 a beneficent revolution was occurring in British imperial policy. The colonies, later to bear the name of Dominions, and led by Canada, the oldest of them all, had achieved, or were on the high road to achieve, responsible self-government, which in the case of Canada had already become complete autonomy in her domestic affairs. By curious accident, Lord Elgin was Governor-General of Canada during the fateful closing years of the 1840’s, which saw this transformation, and in 1861 he was Viceroy of India. Whatever may have been his direct connection with the framing of the India Councils Act of 1861, the new conception of imperial relationship which was growing up in the older colonies can hardly have failed to exert decisive influence upon the policy adopted in regard to India.

Looking back, we may judge it to have been inevitable that India should follow at her own distance and her own pace after the other members of the British Commonwealth. The process was cautious, but the general trend is unmistakable. The India Councils Act of 1892 asserted the principle of election for the Indian legislative body, and in 1908 the Morley-Minto Reforms greatly widened both representation and election, and the scope and powers of the Indian Legislature. In a true sense, 1908 was the direct precursor of 1919, the date of the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms, just as these sign-posted the road to the great Act of 1935. To these two last reference has already been made, and it is inevitable that they should have somewhat overshadowed what was done in 1908. But the date 1908 is significant for its close correspondence in point of time with one of the most fruitful acts of all British imperial statesmanship, namely, the grant of responsible self-government to the then recently annexed Boer Republics of South Africa.

Other examples might be given to illustrate how intimate has been the interaction between developments in British Commonwealth relations and the system of government in India. But the broad picture is clear enough. As the conception of equal partnership in the British Commonwealth took root, India moved naturally and inevitably along the track already blazed by the constitutional pioneers which was to lead on to Dominion status. And during all these years, the strong centralizing rule of the British was investing India with the material apparatus and many of the formal attributes of a united nation. Law and order were impartially enforced. The strong arm of the Pax Britannica gave India security from external menace. From end to end the country was linked together by modern communications—railways, roads, telegraphs, shipping, and, latterly, wireless and aircraft. Great irrigation schemes were developed; famine no longer took cruel and all too frequent toll of the population; departments of public health, education, industry and commerce, and all the other activities of modern government came into operation; until to all outward appearance, India was a single and united nation.

The achievements of British and Indians working together on the material plane should not be underrated, for they were indeed remarkable. Speaking in the House of Commons on the Charter Act of 1833, Macaulay described the task of the British in India as “the stupendous process of the reconstruction of a decomposed society.” He did not exaggerate, as many narratives of travellers, historians and officials can testify, and the India of today, despite many shortcomings in material equipment and in social and economic conditions, is a visible record of one of the most surprising administrative achievements in history.

But the unifying of India went much deeper than the outward evidences of material activity. And there could be no more impressive symbol of the deep unity achieved under British auspices than the Indian Army, in which Indians of all creeds and communities have been proud to fight side by side twice in a generation for a common cause. The system of education, particularly of higher education imparted through the medium of the English language, accomplished on the spiritual plane much of what communications, medicine, law and order, and the rest had accomplished on the material. The English language has been a great nation-building force in India. Not only has it unlocked for Indians the storehouse of the world’s learning, a task which no Indian language could have performed, but it gave them for the first time a common language suitable both for politics and learned intercourse. In and through English the ideals of Indian nationalism have found expression. Without English no nationwide nationalist movement could have come to birth or flourished in India, for there would have been no universal medium of communication and no heaped-up stores of inspiration and experience on which to draw. For English is the language of freedom, the most potent of all the weapons in freedom’s armory.

It is well that we should remember these things now, for in them we may detect mighty unifying forces below the surface, which may be powerful in the years to come. The political ideals which animate both Hindu and Moslem leaders are those which they have inherited as their birthright, like their fellows elsewhere in the British Commonwealth. The English language will never be completely displaced from the education of the Indian people, although Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Ooriya, Bengali and other Indian languages will undoubtedly be more important media of instruction than they have been hitherto. For the English language and all that it means for the human spirit have become an imperishable part of India’s heritage, and will impel unseen hands to reach out towards each other from both component parts of the India we have known. May it not perhaps be that the experience of free participation in the Commonwealth, with all that this implies, will prove itself a potent and unifying instrument?

There are some signs that the above may not be just pious aspirations. For some months past a Constituent Assembly representative of the different communities and interests of India, but at first boycotted by the Moslem League, has been meeting to consider the framework of the Constitution for the new self-governing India. Now that partition has been decided upon, the Moslem League, while having its own Constituent Assembly, will also be represented in the other, in order to hold a watching brief for Moslem interests outside Pakistan. A number of committees were set up by the Constituent Assembly, and one of the most important of these, the Constitution Committee, had as its task consideration of the fundamental structure of the Constitution. In the last days of June that Committee, having considered the respective merits of the American and British systems, decided in favor of the parlimentary system common to the United Kingdom and all the other self-governing Dominions. Moreover, it recommended that the official languages should be Hindi, Urdu or English. Hindi is an Aryan language spoken over a great part of India, mainly by Hindus, while Urdu, with its strong admixture of Arabic, is a lingua franca of the Indian Moslems. But in Hindu India there will be many who can speak neither Hindi nor Urdu, and English is bound to maintain a strong position alike in the law courts, in the legislatures, and in higher education. It is probable that when the Pakistan Constituent Assembly meets, it will come to similar decisions on these two vital points, for the Moslem objections to a system of government based on the fundamental democratic principle of majority government apply only to a government of all India, in which they would be in a permanent minority. Thus the nation-building forces of the English language and the British parliamentary democratic system will in all likelihood remain operative after the two Governments in India have set out upon their separate ways.


So as we cast up the credit and debit balance of the partition of India, we see that the debits, although they are visible and tangible enough, receive some offset from invisible but weighty credits. There are others which may properly be included. One of the greatest is the disappearance of the age-old suspicion of British motives on the part of Indians, in the face of a British-proclaimed policy that is so unmistakably clear and unconditional. In the difficult days which lie ahead this will be a great asset to Indians, because, with the actual process and details of partition, the most difficult and dangerous of all the stages of their political revolution has been reached. And both sides now know that in the British Government and people they have friends who will put their unrivalled political experience and their unstinted help at the service of the two Indias which are emerging. There will be no hidden purpose and no self-seeking behind such advice and help, and assuredly the Indian people will draw on it.

It is easier now than it was a few years ago to see that to expect Indians to reach full agreement among themselves on their political future before they had full power in their own hands to implement whatever they might decide was not the right approach. Now such power has been put into Indian hands, and, as nearly always happens, the acquisition of power has been followed by the growth of a sense of responsibility. As we read the dispatches from India today, we see deep searchings of heart, not only among Indian political leaders, but among the best of their followers, concerning the partition of their country. If the Moslems have insisted uncompromisingly on the creation of Pakistan, they nevertheless feel deeply the division of India between themselves and their Moslem compatriots. And this, too, is an item to be set on the credit side of the balance because, as nostalgic hopes of a united Punjab and a united Bengal continue to be held by Moslems (as they will be held) it will surely be seen that such union can be had only within the wider shelter of a united India. And so long as Hindustan and Pakistan remain members of the British Commonwealth of Nations, they can never be foreign to each other.

India stands today face to face with destiny. The choice that will make her future lies solely in Indian hands. Great Britain, with more than 200 years connection with India, is happy to have it so, for everything that is passing into history as I write is the logical and natural issue of the history of the last two centuries. That Great Britain has through those long years made mistakes no Britisher would deny. But where mistakes have been made they have either been honest mistakes of judgment or mistakes which the rising standards of a later generation have been quick to criticize and condemn.

And I would not hesitate to make two assertions: first, that on any impartial appraisement the British record in India is something of which the British people may rightly be proud; and second, that greater than anything which they have done or not done in India is the fact that they have by their contact with India introduced to that immense portion of Asia the principles of freedom and justice which are the foundation of the life shared by the English-speaking world.

Here is the taproot by which the new Governments in India will be fed. Here, too, is the source and inspiration of a policy that will leave to India the choice, free and unfettered, of her continued partnership in, or departure from, the British Commonwealth. Here too, perhaps, may be the key to open one more, and perhaps the greatest, chapter in the long story of our Commonwealth of Nations which began—where it might well have ended—at Boston 170 years ago.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • THE EARL OF HALIFAX, Viceroy of India, 1926–31; Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, 1938–40; British Ambassador in Washington, 1941–46; also formerly Secretary of State for War, Lord Privy Seal and Lord President of the Council
  • More By The Earl of Halifax