The Great Game - Why Britain partitioned India?

Updated: Aug 25, 2020

Rich in every aspect, India is a land that has always been coveted by every power and wealth hungry empire and despot. Empires came and went plundering what they could, but it was the wily British who institutionalised empire for exploitation.

It was the 'Jewel in the crown' of the British Empire, and every effort was made to retain, expand its hold on India.

The Great Game nowadays means something else today, but beginning in 1830 it was the rivalry between Russia and the British for control of all lands that could impact British trade and power.

In 1830  the Muslim Ottoman Empire was visibly in terminal decline and the Russian Empire was in ascendant. The British feared the invasion of India by Russia and the loss of its lucrative trade,

The British lost the 4 major wars it fought with the Sikhs and the Afghanistan and eventually Afghanistan became a buffer state between the two empires.

Compelled by the Americans as per the Atlantic Charter a reluctant Britain had to give up its colonies and set the lands free after the end of the second World War.

Britain now fretted that if they vacated India, nothing could stop a victorious and strong Soviet Union confident after its achievements in World War II, from simply marching into India.

Britain wanted to retain bases with troops and equipment in India to prevent such an eventuality. Both Nehru and Gandhi flatly turned that request down.

On the other hand Muhammad Ali Jinnah an astute man with a much better understanding of geopolitics than did Nehru and Gandhi accepted the request unconditionally.

He offered the British 'Carte blanche' unconditional support and bases if they appointed him the first Prime Minister of independent India.

There was however, a small problem, Jinnah had almost no say in the Congress party.

The problem was easily solved, partition India into two.

A Hindu majority Secular India with Nehru as PM and and a Muslim majority Pakistan and appoint Jinnah the Prime Minister of Pakistan. West Pakistan is the area that was contiguous with Afghanistan and where Britain wanted to have bases and troops, thus create an openly pro British buffer state.

The die was cast, now to implant the plan. The British government had given a mandate to Louis Mountbatten to grant India independence by July 1948.

Suddenly the plan was in danger. British intelligence had reliable information that Muhammad Ali Jinnah was suffering from tuberculosis and unlikely to survive another year. The deadline had to brought forward.

Then there was the question, 'what if the people of India and Pakistan decide to reunite?' After all, barring the occasional riot the people of all religions and communities within British India coexisted in relative harmony.

So not only was partition essential to post independence British plans but to do so in such a manner that they would remain bitterly divided for a long time.

The task of demarcation of the boundary between India and Pakistan was assigned to two different boundary commissions.

Each commission consisting of small group of eminent lawyers, without a survey, knowledge nor expertise, nor background information nor advisors for the great task of trisecting a subcontinent. The notorious demarcated line came to be known as the Radcliffe line.

Sir. Cyril Radcliffe an English lawyer was summoned and assigned the job of trisecting most of India. He was appointed joint chairman of the two  boundary commissions (One for Bengal and one for Panjab).  It is shocking to know, that Radcliffe had never visited India earlier, never read about or studied India until he was assigned the task. He was given  just 5 weeks to complete the assignment. Arriving in India on July 8th 1947 he spent two weeks in bed recovering from 'Delhi Belly'( a bad case of dysentery). Radcliffe merely rubber stamped a plan that had been given to him by British authorities. We shall never know for certain, because Radcliffe destroyed all papers and records related with the decision of partition before he left India, and he never spoke about it for the rest of his life. 

Independence was granted at midnight on 15th August 1947. The exact map of Partition of India was announced on 17th August 1947. India had been partitioned into 626 parts.  India, East Pakistan, West Pakistan and 623 independent kingdoms. It was a disaster for the Indians.  Many Indians found themselves on the wrong side of the boundary and now prey to violent gangs intent on spreading terror, looting, raping and destroying.

L to R - Louis Mountbatten, Jinnah and Edwina Mountbatten