British India was partitioned 70 years ago at the stroke of midnight on August 14, 1947. In the process a million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims perished in internecine killings that accompanied the movement of 12 million people in the biggest forced migration in history. India was the jewel in the British crown but Indian independence was an ugly affair.
The partition of India has been the flavour of the summer on British radio and television on account of the 70th anniversary. There have been numerous programmes on the tragedy and politics of partition. For some reason deep in the nation’s psyche, the last days of the raj will never cease to fascinate the British public.
The British felt partly responsible for most of the bad things that happened in those final days but lack of political leadership was actually the immediate cause of partition in India. It was, after all, in the gift of the political leaders of the time to avoid, but being politicians they balked for their own nefarious purposes as they always do.
In World War II, the British made India a belligerent against the Axis powers without the consent of her representative councils, and when they protested the political leaders were promised independence once the Axis powers were defeated. And so it was that between 1945 and 1946, the British sought to negotiate power sharing after independence. But the political leaders could not agree and serious rioting broke out between Hindus and Muslims.
In March 1947 Lord Mountbatten was sent to India as the last viceroy to manage imperial withdrawal and the mounting crisis as civil war raged out of control across the land. As the film the Viceroy’s House shows, not even members of the viceroy’s own household were immune to the crisis that engulfed the country.
It is not very clear how partition became a way of solving the problem. In the film it is suggested that the plan had been hatched by the British to suit their geopolitical interests, and there is no doubt that partition was proposed by Mountbatten. But there is also no doubt that if the political leaders could have put their differences and ambitions to one side, partition could have been averted.
To be fair, Mahatma Ghandi tried to persuade Jawaharlal Nehru, leader of India’s majority Hindu population, to offer Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League, the leadership of a united India post independence in a magnanimous gesture to keep India in one piece, but Nehru refused. The fact that Ghandi suggested the offer to Jinnah at all, as well as Nehru’s refusal shows how political leaders, even of the calibre of Nehru and Jinnah, always put their own interests first.
India and Pakistan never recovered from partition. They are both nuclear powers now and problems like the disputed territory of Kashmir bedevil their bilateral relations. In 1971 East Pakistan broke away from West Pakistan and became Bangladesh with Indian assistance that still rankles in Pakistan. Like the Arabs and Jews and the Greeks and Turks, the Indians and Pakistanis have become well renowned as favourite enemies.
In contrast to India, partition was banned in Cyprus on independence. Banned in the sense that promoting partition is unconstitutional if done by government agencies. It is prohibited by the Treaty of Guarantee which is an integral and immutable part of the Constitution of Cyprus of 1960. I wish someone would inform Mr Kotzias that it is the Treaty of Guarantee, not Mr Kotzias, that keeps partition at bay in Cyprus!
And yet politically partition is back in vogue after a federal solution was roundly rejected at Crans-Montana. Somewhat perversely it is now, wittingly or unwittingly, being promoted by all the political leaders who are against a federation. Whichever way you look at the failure of the Cyprus talks, there is no doubt that they were doomed from the outset because the majority of the Greek Cypriot population would have rejected a federal solution of whatever hue in the referendum; and voted against the government that would have had to support it in the presidential election that was to follow.
People in Cyprus take the Cyprus problem personally and this aspect of the problem is a lot more important than the UN allowed. More in a fit of pique than anything else people are prepared to risk partition in preference to federation because federation hurts the soul, whereas partition stirs an already hurt soul and what stirs is easy prey for unscrupulous politicians.
The majority of the people are temperamentally unable to take a pragmatic view. They have been fed a diet of emotionalism and nationalism that impedes cold analysis of the pros and cons of a federal solution. A pragmatist would say a federal solution would enable the return of thousands of Greek Cypriots to their land and at the same time stem the flow of Turkish nationals coming to Cyprus. A pragmatist would say why shouldn’t the Turkish Cypriots share sovereignty and power if they were given this by treaty in 1960? Pacta sunt servanda – treaties must be kept – is as much a principle of international law as jus cogens – compelling higher law that overrides treaty law.
A pragmatist would say so what if 650 Turkish soldiers stay on after a solution? It is surely better than 40,000. A pragmatist would say why shouldn’t Turkey have geopolitical interests in its own backyard in the Eastern Mediterranean? Russia had geopolitical interests in Crimea and Georgia and secured them in style. America had geopolitical interests in Cuba and took the world to the brink of nuclear war to secure them. Turkey is a former imperial power that ruled over Cyprus for over 400 years and has a current population approaching 80 million. She requires delicate handling to be kept on side rather than constant vilification. Mustafa Akinci’s greatest achievement has been his ability to do just this, for which he received little thanks from an ungrateful Anastasiades.
Of course Turkey has geopolitical interests in Cyprus. This was determined by geological movements dating back to the time of Noah – as they say in Greek. The question is not to deny such interests but to harness them to mutual advantage.
But like Nehru and Jinnah, the political leaders find it easier to play a heroic rather than a pragmatic role because it furthers their political ambitions. And so it is that we are well on the road to partition. What an ironic journey it has been. Zero guarantees, zero troops and zero obstacles to division. Ke es anotera!
Alper Ali Riza is a queen’s counsel in the UK and a part time judge