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India - Independence and Partition

The British Empire once thrived on Britain’s one-sided trade with its colonies. India had supplied textiles and gold, and cotton for Lancashire factories. But by the end of World War II, Britain was broke and the Empire was too expensive. At the same time, from the 1930s, Indian politicians had been agitating for independence with growing mass support - huge crowds supported Gandhi’s protests against the Salt Tax.

But in 1947, when Mountbatten – war-hero and cousin of the King – finally announced India’s independence, he also gave independent status to the Muslim provinces as a separate state, Pakistan. In the 1940s, Churchill and later Attlee supported the setting up of Jinnah’s Muslim state, Pakistan. Probably they expected this state to favour the West against the Soviet Union, supporting continued British influence in a part of southern Asia which is also a close neighbour to the oil-rich Arab and Gulf states. Geography and strategic issues made north-west India a key ally, all the more so since India’s Nehru seemed to favour the Soviet Union as against ‘imperialist’ Britain.

This partition of the Indian sub-continent on religious lines copied the 1920s partition of Ireland. The Republic of Ireland, largely Roman Catholic, had fought for independence from British rule. But Northern Ireland was mainly Protestant, ‘loyal’ to London, and included Belfast’s shipyards. As a strategic naval asset the British government needed to hold onto Belfast.. After independence, for decades Eire suffered from unemployment and emigration. In Northern Ireland, Protestants discriminated against Catholics – in jobs, housing and politically.

And the violence and terrorism which had helped to force the British out carried on down the generations, and is still only just beneath the surface.

The Indian sub-continent too has suffered from inter-communal conflict. Even before 1947 and independence, with the British rulers’ policy of ‘Divide and Rule’, the political climate was being poisoned by inter-communal hostility fomented by Jinnah and the Muslim League. In Calcutta in August 1946, after a Muslim League rally calling for a separate Muslim homeland, Muslims started to attack Hindus, and the violence escalated, unchecked, lasting for 3 days, with thousands killed on both ‘sides’.

And just a year later, in August 1947 the announcement of Independence acted as a signal for the start of massacres all over the sub-continent. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and others fled their homes in all directions, so that hardly a family was untouched by this terrifying tragedy. In Calcutta and the Punjab the atrocities were especially horrific.

In subsequent decades, India has had many episodes of inter-communal massacres. Although India was set up as a secular state, in recent years an extremist sectarian Hindu party, the BJP, has become dominant, led by Prime Minister Modi. Under both successive Congress governments and now the BJP, India’s governments have been noted for corruption. Hinduism has tolerated or encouraged. by ‘cow vigilante’ groups and enforcement of the archaic Hindu caste system.

Partition also had an economic impact. For once wealthy Bengal, partition meant a lasting impoverishment due to the dismemberment of its valuable economic asset, the jute industry.

In (Muslim majority) East Bengal, jute was grown; this was processed in West Bengal’s factories, and then exported to British carpet factories and shipbuilders.. Partition ended this economic co-operation. By the time East Pakistan had become independent from Pakistan, as Bangladesh, it was extremely impoverished. Its version of Islam has become very extreme –there are reports of atheists being murdered by vigilantes, and of women being subject to acid attacks, forced marriage, and so on.

Pakistan has had a series of incompetent or corrupt governments, periodically replaced by military dictatorship. Pakistan’s Army – like Egypt’s – has a privileged role in the economy. Since 1947, India and Pakistan have fought at least 3 wars, are still fighting over the disputed province of Kashmir, while both have nuclear weapons, and between these feuding states travel and trade is almost nonexistent.

Down the generations, nationalism has been fuelled by religion. Ideologies like these have been used all over the world to divide the working class against each other.

A similar pattern was played out in Ireland. The intransigence of Northern Ireland’s Unionist politicians, with their hostility to any lifting of the barriers between their ‘Loyalist’ core and all others, is oddly reminiscent of Pakistani and Hindu hostility, in both parts of the Indian sub-continent. This is ‘identity politics’ at its worst.

Yet the fact is that, like the Irish from both sides of the border and from any or no religion, Indians and Pakistanis, when settled as immigrants in England, Wales or Scotland, do not indulge in fratricidal inter-communal murders and massacres.

They have mostly decided to discard those irrelevant political animosities. However all too many remain divided by the pull of religions. There are still Hindu women who fancy they see the face of a god in their chapatti; there are still patriarchal Muslim families who would murder a daughter as an ‘honour killing’.

Mountbatten had lines drawn on the map to divide India into different states, divided by ‘religion’. But from outer space, all that astronauts can see is land and sea – a beautiful planet, home to all humankind. They cannot see these artificial political and religious divisions, or the wars which come from divisive hatred and animosity.

In the modern world, religion – especially Islam - is still the main motivation for Middle East terrorist groups. Like nationalism and racism, these beliefs, these ideologies and ‘false narratives’ are cynically exploited to divide workers, setting them against each other. But the real interests of the working class are opposed to capitalism, and fantastic fairy tales and religious myths are of no relevance to us.

We need to come together, to unite against the worldwide capitalist class system, and this cannot be done effectively while we allow ourselves to be split by religion, racism and nationalism. The history of the Indian sub-continent over the last century or so is a lesson in the deadly dangers of such divisive ideologies.

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