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What Britain gained by partitioning the subcontinent into India and Pakistan

Raghvendra Singh

Was it not axiomatic that a time should come when the British empire faced a downturn? On a crest in 1945, it was at its widest ever, but after hitting a trough, within twenty years it stood liquidated. Imperial Britain had interests across the globe with India occupying centre stage. It was imperative that Britain follow an agenda that met its strategic requirements when its withdrawal from India became imminent. Was it not in Britain’s strategic interest to partition India? Was it also not in its interest that the NWFP (North-West Frontier Province) and Baluchistan, the two frontier provinces of India, join Pakistan? Why then, even after seven decades of India’s independence, do we still question the inevitability of partition? What were the British strategic considerations?

In February 1946, the India Office in London had circulated an important paper to a select few, like Sir Stafford Cripps and AV Alexander, on the subject of the viability of Pakistan. The paper was based on the assumption that Kalat (a substantial part of Baluchistan) and the NWFP would opt for Pakistan. In the February 1946 provincial elections, the NWFP had returned a Congress ministry to power. The provincial legislature had a comfortable Congress majority. Elections in the provinces had just concluded. It could reasonably and comfortably be assumed that the Congress ministry would last its tenure. So then why would a Congress-governed province opt for Pakistan? Or were the India Office mandarins confident of their ability to change the destiny of the NWFP? In their forecast, however, the British officials were not off the mark. What they perceived to be theoretically possible could well turn into reality with the help of the NWFP governor and the provincial bureaucracy. After all, the NWFP had never much been run along popular lines. Governor George Cunningham ruled the province during the World War II years (1939-45), even though both the Congress and the Muslim League got a chance to form ministries. Baluchistan, bordering Persia and the sea and therefore strategically very important, proved a far easier game for the British.

 Why was the India Office then assuming that the NWFP, a Congress-ruled province, would opt for Pakistan?  The idea mooted in the India Office paper was of at least two Pakistans with no federal union, however loose. The paper was essentially an exercise in assessing the consequences of this division. If India’s economic unity broke, so would the largest free trade area in the world. Calcutta was predicted to emerge as a major bone of contention between India and Pakistan.

Punjab had long enjoyed prosperity because of its predominance in the army and military. At the time World War II broke out, the Punjab had long enjoyed prosperity because of its predominance in the army and military. At the time World War II broke out, there weren’t any prominent industrial or manufacturing areas in either wing of Pakistan. Karachi (a port city in Pakistan) would be the only port of importance in West Pakistan. In the east, Chittagong (Bangladesh’s main seaport and its second-largest city) remained an indifferent port served only by a metre-gauge railway. There was no noticeable railhead except for the one at Lahore. The two divisions of Pakistan were only to be connected by sea, a two or three weeks’ voyage, as long as no hostile power commanded the Indian Ocean. The military commitments and priorities of West and East Pakistan differed greatly. A Soviet-aided Iran, the frontiers with Afghanistan, and the Soviet threat were all serious concerns that the armed forces in West Pakistan would have to contend with.

The paper laid special emphasis on assessing the requirements of the armed personnel, including air force squadrons, necessary to resist tribal and Afghan aggression. This requirement was in addition to the forces needed for aiding civil power. The war potential of Russia being immense, an estimate of the force needed by Pakistan to defeat a Soviet-aided Afghanistan was pointless. Strategically, Pakistan would not be safe even with bases in Afghanistan and Iran. Karachi, its one link with the outside world, stood exposed to air attacks and invasions from the sea. The single line of railway between Karachi and Multan the sole means of communication between Karachi and Punjab—faced similar dangers. Lahore, the rail centre, was well within effective bombing range of Afghan/Persian airfields. Western Pakistan lacked the strategic depth necessary to enable the main bases to be located out of the effective range of enemy bombers. This factor assumed crucial importance because the mountainous NWFP could be an obstacle to the efficient functioning of radars.

The paper further contended that the experience of the two World Wars showed that the Bengalis and the Assamese did not make for good soldiers. The 60,000 Bengali Muslims recruited in World War II were assigned mostly to military labour. As for the Assamese Muslims, only 3,000 had been enlisted. The inhabitants of Sindh and Baluchistan (in West Pakistan) were omitted from the list of potential manpower, as they, even more than the Bengalis and the Assamese, did not take to army life. It was left to Punjab and the NWFP to provide the manpower necessary to meet the needs of a Pakistani army. Punjabi Muslims and Pathans lagged behind in education and it was highly doubtful whether the technical needs of the Pakistani army could be met without a prospective scheme of training, which was both time-consuming and expensive. Nor could Pakistan produce a sufficient number of officers necessary for a large army. Assistance from the United Kingdom would, therefore, certainly be required in the form of technical help and training. This shortage of officers and technicians was to affect the air force more seriously than the army. It was difficult to assemble more than one squadron for Pakistan from within the Royal Indian Air Force. The formation of the Pakistan Air Force was to be a slow and laborious business. An almost complete lack of industry in Pakistan was militarily as serious as the shortage of officers and technicians. Practically everything needed for the clothing and equipment of the Pakistan armed forces would have to be imported.

 Without strong allies, West Pakistan could not be defended against Russia. Britain was to prove just such an ally. The paper inferred that West and East Pakistan had different strategic problems and were separate entities. Assistance from the United Kingdom was necessary to make up for the shortfall in technicians and officers. Practically all arms and equipment would have to be imported, with a 50% increase in the defence budget.

Maintaining oil stakes in the Middle East and securing air routes would become a major task for Britain once India was lost to it. Britain desperately needed a foothold in the Indian subcontinent where it could legitimize its presence as an ally of the newly created state of Pakistan. Leaders of the movement for Pakistan also appreciated the expediency of a British presence in the state. What could a militarily weak Pakistan do but allow British presence on its soil for a substantial period of time? It suited Britain to partition India. Apart from enabling Britain to sustain its position in the Middle East, the creation of the two dominions of India and Pakistan within the British Commonwealth also allowed for a continuity of sorts.

Excerpted from Raghvendra Singh’s India’s Lost Frontier with permission from Rupa Publications.

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