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Critical Voices in Critical Times: The Partition of India – Lessons Learned, an interview with Rajmohan Gandhi

Linda Herrera - 16th August 2017
Critical Voices in Critical Times: The Partition of India – Lessons Learned, an

Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi distills the vital lessons from the past, the complicated legacy of independence and partition, and the enduring relevance of nonviolent resistance.

Since the Arab uprisings of 2011, the world has witnessed a stream of popular protest movements, the acceleration of extreme inequality, precarity and migration, unhinged populisms, and a planetary tipping point. What vocabulary, concepts and ideas are needed to make sense of the present moment? This column, informed by principles of critical pedagogy, engages the ideas and works of critical thinkers, artists and activists. It provides a space to think with the thinkers and deliberate about praxis, ways of understanding [or reading] our world and putting affirmative ideas into practice. 

Seven decades ago, the Indian subcontinent witnessed the euphoria of independence, stirred with the devastation of partition. Some 17 million people took part in what would be called, “the greatest migration in human history.” During that formidable movement of humanity, up to half a million people were killed. Many eyewitnesses recall the horrors of “murder, rape, and shattered families,” while still others recollect magnanimous acts of ordinary people who helped, sheltered and protected their fellow travelers, country people, and human beings.

I can think of no better way to kickoff this inaugural column of Critical Voices in Critical Times than with Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, historian, former parliamentarian, international peace activist, and retired University of Illinois professor. As an astute student and eyewitness of history, professor Gandhi has a skill for distilling the vital lessons of the past. His latest book, Why Gandhi Still Matters (Aleph, 2017), deals with the complicated legacy of independence and partition, and the enduring relevance of nonviolent resistance (ahisma and satyagraha), Gandhi’s “gift to the world”.

This interview (with accompanying video) originally took place in Egypt in November, 2012 during the turbulent post-revolution period [1]. At the time, several countries of the North Africa and West Asia region were emerging from the energy and highs of the popular uprisings, only to come crashing down to environments of heightened sectarianism, geopolitical entanglements, and counter revolutions. During our talks, it was tempting to pry Professor Gandhi for advice and predictions, but he would have none of that. Instead he said, “There are many foolish things in the world, and I do not want to add to the foolishness by making some suggestions. But I can certainly relate as a student of history of India and Pakistan.”

Q: What factors led to the partition of India in 1947?

While the British were ruling in the subcontinent, the Indian people and their political figures made the mistake of not building enough of a relationship with one another. They all tried to build a relationship with the imperial power. So, the political parties where the majority were Hindus tried to build a relationship with the British. The political parties where the majority were Muslims tried to build a relationship with the British. Each group tried to build a special relationship with the Empire. The Indians did not build good enough relations with their fellow Indians. So that’s one reality to understand.

The other thing is the Muslim minority. As India was approaching independence, [they] felt that with independence comes democracy, and with that comes one person one vote. The Hindus being a majority, the Muslims felt they might face persecution at the hands of the Hindu majority. The Hindu majority will remember past history when there were Muslim monarchs ruling the Hindu majority. There would be some kind of discrimination against the Muslims.

This was the political reality. And this was a feeling that led to the demand by some people for the Muslim majority parts of India to be made into a separate country.

This was not an essentially religious campaign but it soon acquired a religious aspect. When some political figures said that Islam was in danger, this appeal became quite strong. And it was well received by some sections. So yes, religion was very strongly imported into the political discussion. That created a very deep divide and created passions on both sides.

As the world knows, in the end in 1947, there were great incidents of violence. Maybe half a million people were killed. Hindus were killed, Sikhs were killed, Muslims were killed. So, one can certainly say that importing religion into politics at that stage worsened the situation and led to very great tragedy.

But simultaneously, a great number of ordinary people, whether they were Hindus, Muslims, or Sikhs, protected fellow human beings. Muslims protected Hindus. Hindus protected Muslims. This happened on a very large scale. It is the under-reported story of that time.

Q: In hindsight, how could have the partition and the tragic sectarian violence been avoided?

I already made this remark about each side trying to build a special relationship with the British rather than making a good relationship with fellow Indians, so that was the real tragedy. [In addition], when a section of the population feels aggrieved or disappointed, if those problems are not addressed in time, it’s more difficult later.

The Indian National Congress (est.1885), the Party in which my Grandfather [Gandhi] was actively associated, had many Muslim figures and it has some Muslim leaders also. It was not a Hindu party, but it certainly was a party where the majority of leaders were Hindus. I think one can state that at various points, the Indian National Congress might have been more sensitive to the apprehensions of the Muslim minority. The Congress might have taken steps to meet their genuine grievances. So, when the psychological moment was missed, then it became more difficult later on. But equally on the other side, there were extreme demands and not a willingness to accept something that would have been an honorable compromise for all.

I would just call it a failure of statesmanship, really. But also a failure of statesmanship because there were very strong pressures at the grassroots. So, there were great pulls. It was not so easy. But some psychological moments were missed.

And I have to also say that the British Empire pursued a very vigorous policy of divide and rule and made matters more difficult. The independence movement, which was aimed at the removal of the British Empire, was not taken very well by the British. When the Viceroy in India went to London in 1945 or 46 and met Winston Churchill, Churchill said to him, “Make sure that you divide India into three, four, five pieces. Make sure you do that”. The Imperial power played an unfortunate role.



Linda Herrera, a social anthropologist, is professor in the department of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and director of the Global Studies in Education program. Her work deals with the politics of education, critical democracy, media, and youth policy and movements in North Africa and West Asia.

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Image Credit: Dr. G. N. Kazi Via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)



[1] This interview is an excerpt from the dialogue between Mohamed ElBaradei and Rajmohan Gandhi that took place in Cairo, Egypt on November 19 and 20, 2012, coordinated by the author. She would like to acknowledge the co-interviewer, Dr. Magdy ElAbady. For more information on the ElBaradei-Gandhi encounter see