Gandhi's Role in the Partition of India

Why He Was Partially Responsible for the Division

Mohandas Gandhi and Mohammed Ali Jinnah in Bombay, September 1944. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

When the All-India Muslim League was established in Dhaka in 1906 by leading Muslim figures from around the country, India had just begun to slowly transition to self-rule from the British Raj. From the outset, the political party’s primary goal was to protect the interests of India’s large Muslim minority, especially its elite. Its initial strategy was to use the demographic weight of the Muslim-majority provinces in northwestern and eastern India, particularly the two large provinces of Punjab and Bengal, to secure larger Muslim representation in the legislature, in the executive branch, and in public services in minority provinces, where Muslims were most in need of protection.

In the end, the 1947 partition of India, which the Muslim League later advocated, accomplished exactly the opposite. The separation cut away the Muslim-majority provinces from the rest of India, leaving Muslims in the minority provinces far more vulnerable to the will of the Hindu majority. The division of the subcontinent reduced Muslims’ share of the population from over a quarter in British India to just ten percent in independent India, allowing Hindu chauvinists to openly equate Indian nationalism with Hindu nationalism.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan and the leader of the Muslim League in its final phase, is often assumed to have been the one who brought about partition. But some leading scholars, such as Ayesha Jalal, contend that Jinnah never wanted it. According to Jalal, the demand for Pakistan was a bargaining chip for Jinnah that unfortunately took on a momentum of its own, leading not only to the division of India but also to the partition of its largest Muslim-majority provinces, Punjab and Bengal, into two parts. Partition left Jinnah, in his own words, with a “truncated or mutilated moth-eaten” Pakistan.

Partition, however, cannot be blamed on the Muslim League and Jinnah alone. There had always been an explicitly Hindu majoritarian streak in Indian nationalism that equated Indian identity with Hinduism and defined India in Hindu terms, for example

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