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

What Goes Around Comes Around

Highly recommended, very well researched, and equally well written and presented. This book uses recently discovered papers and documents, stitched together by the author, a former ADC to Lord Mountbatten, to put forth the point that there was much more going on behind the scenes during India’s Independence struggle and the partition of the country that happened than has generally been known or believed.

Specifically, the author makes the following points:

1. The Congress Party made some serious mistakes in its fight for freedom – the biggest perhaps being its decision to resign from government at the outset of the Second World War. This created a power vacuum into which the British were able to inject Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The second being to launch the Quit India movement in 1942, which helped build world opinion in favor of the British – because the British were able to quell it in a fairly short order of time, and also because the movement helped create the impression that India was against the war movement.

2. The British very much wanted to have Pakistan get control of certain territories during Partition, because, in their opinion, it was necessary to have these territories in the remain possession of a country that would be more amenable and friendly to the British. This would help the British create a geo-political buffer against the Soviets and help protect their strategic oil interests in the Persian Gulf (every piece of historical villainy in the last hundred years seems to go back to oil, or so it seems). This led to decisions that seem almost tragic in the light of recent events. Hence the title of my review; ‘what goes around comes around’.

“‘It would have been natural for Kashmir to eventually accede to Pakistan on agreed terms.‘ This was the pith of British policy on J & K: the state had to go to Pakistan but with India’s agreement, as was done with the NWFP. … This did not happen. However, the two areas of the state that Britain had absolutely marked out for Pakistan – one in the context of Britain’s world strategy and the other to ensure Pakistan’s security – were successfully kept out of Indian control and so they remain even after more than fifty-five years. These were the Northern Areas of the state along the Chinese and Soviet frontiers and the strip of territory in the west with a common border with Pakistani Punjab. The Northern Areas consisted of the Gilgit Agency, with its dependencies of Hunza and Nagar and the principalities of Swat and Chitral… ” [pages 330, 331]

3. Jinnah was a stout nationalist to begin with – against religious extremism, but also ambitious and egocentric. Partition for him turned out to be a way of fulfilling these ambitions. He was helped along the way by Congress Party intransigence and British connivance.

“… (Jinnah) continued … ‘We are all sons of this land. We have to live together. We have to work together and whatever our differences may be, let us at any rate not create more bad blood’.” [pages 85]

“Gandhiji, in fact, was making this offer [of Mr Jinnah forming the new Interim Government and to have the new cabinet be named entirely by him] some twenty years too late. If, in 1928, he had offered Jinnah the Congress Party’s presidency, instead of to the younger Nehru, Jinnah – an old Congress Party stalwart, at heart no fundamentalist, and hungry for attention – might have grasped it and not thrown himself into the British lap. He was a more intelligent and a more disciplined negotiator than the others.” [page 277]

Gandhiji’s offer to Jinnah was probably driven by a last, desperate desire to avoid Partition at all costs, but that is a different story.

4. The British were at pains to ensure that the world see the Congress Party agreeing to partition on its own volition, even while it worked furiously to negotiate, trick, cajole, and out-maneuver the Congress party to form post-partition boundaries to its maximum advantage. Their dealings post-Partition were quite dishonourable, especially when it came to the issue of the Kashmir accession.

Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, comes across as a hard working, honest person who did his best to convince the 350+ Indian princely states to accede to India, working with Sardar Patel, to ensure that independent India emerged as united as possible. This is perhaps a more sympathetic assessment of the Viceroy than is deserved, but that, again, is a separate story. It also in Britain’s interest to avoid a Balkanization of India, lest it be accused of incompetence or worse. Mountbatten’s role in the Kashmir imbroglio, was however not as straightforward.

Some other nuggets on information that come out are that Winston Churchill, the lion of England, and who is credited with turning the tide of the Second World War against the Germans, was a scurrilous rogue and racist imperialist when it came to his dealings with India.

“After hearing him speak at a cabinet meeting, Lord Wavell, the future viceroy, noted in his diary: ‘Churchill hates India and everything to do with it.’ Churchill himself is no record as saying: ‘I hate Indians – they are a beastly people with a beastly religion.'” [pages 53, 54]

“While Gandhiji’s life hung in the balance, he [Churchill] wired to Linlithgow: ‘Have heard that Gandhi usually has glucose in his water when doing his various fasting antics. Would it be possible to verify this?’ And was heard to remark: ‘I do not think Gandhi has the slightest intention of dying and I imagine he has been eating better meals than I have for the last week.'” [page 139]

Those who have seen the girths of Gandhiji and Churchill can only wonder as to the extent of derangement of the noble Englishman.

“The Intelligence Bureau’s view was that communal disorders were an antidote to the agitation taking an anti-British course.” [page 193]

“As soon as Maharaja Hari Singh acceded to India, Brown [Major Alexander Brown, British officer of the Gilgit Scout] got the Gilgit scouts to surround the Residency, and, after a short gun battle in which he lost a scout, he imprisoned Governor Ghansara Singh. Peshawar was then informed by Brown about the accession of Gilgit to Pakistan. [page 333]

5. The Americans were a lot friendlier to the Indian independence cause than is generally acknowledged or made known by historians in India. They had leverage and influence over Britain far in excess of what was generally believed at the time. Furthermore, and this is somewhat surprisingly so, they supported India at the UN when it came to the issue of Kashmir, and held that the princely state of Kashmir had acceded legally to India.

One reason why this aspect of American support for India has not received its due mention in Indian history texts is probably because Indian historical research post-Independence has mostly been in the control of communists and people with strong leftist leanings, which may have prejudiced them against acknowledging US contributions.

“Roosevelt replied to Churchill the same day (11 April 1942):

‘… The feeling almost universally held is that the deadlock has been caused by the unwillingness of the British Government to concede to the Indians the rights of self-government.’ “[page 112]

“Attlee frankly admits in his autobiography that Britain could not continue to hold on to India because of ‘American pressure against the Empire’.” [page 189]

“Throughout 1948, the US insisted that J&K’s accession to India could not be brushed aside …. and, meanwhile, Pakistani forces that had entered the state had to be withdrawn. It was this US stand that prevented J&K’s accession to India being negated, at Britain’s behest, by the UN Security Council.” [page 404]

6. Muslims in India by and large were against the concept of partition. There are several reasons listed for this, all of which seem to make a lot of sense.

Of interest to the western reader will be the pieces on the North Western Frontier Provinces, now part of Pakistan, and which are home to the Swat Valley, that has been in the news so much recently for the hunt for terrorists hidden there. The NWFP was headed by a Congress Party government. The NWFP had Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan as its leader. This person was also known as the Frontier Gandhi (or Sarhadi Gandhi), for his pacifist ways, and for his belief in Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence.

This province, in 1947, did not want to accede to Pakistan, but through the machinations of the British and because of the Frontier Gandhi’s aversion to violence, which he feared would be unleashed by pro-Pakistani extremists of the Muslim League, voted, to become part of Pakistan by the thinnest of margins. That a region that followed a leader like Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan in 1947 should now have become one of the world’s most dangerous regions and a veritable hotbed of jihadi terrorism is tragic, and ironic to an extent, because this is what the deliberate policies of the British have wrought.

Whether partition was inevitable, whether it was desirable, is something left best to speculation, informed or otherwise. The author does seem to lean more against partition, but he does list some of the arguments why partition may have been a necessity, an inevitability. Whether a country 4.2 million sq kms, a combined population of 1.5 billion, with 900 million Hindus and 500 million Muslims, would have been viable as a single entity is debatable, or not, but that is for a separate discussion.

There are references listed at the end of each chapter, and some chapters have as many as 60 references, sometimes more. They probably total 500, not necessarily distinct references. Needless to say, the author has done much research to prepare this book.

The book is very well written, neatly organized into short chapters, each of which deals with a specific aspect of the Indian independence movement, and backed by copious research. Very highly recommended.

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Abhinav Agarwal

Abhinav Agarwal

Son. Husband. Father. IIM-B gold medalist. Analytics product manager. Reading and photography hobbies.