Britain and Pakistan

The Shadow Of The Great Game: The Untold Story Of India’s Partition by Narendra Singh Sarila

Tony Blair had to go because his Iraq policy proved deeply unpopular. We have read how Britons disapprove of their military presence in Iraq. But he was only pursuing traditional British policy. The Middle East matters so much to Britain that it even helped to create Muslim states — and not just in the Middle East. We are talking of Pakistan.

Everybody knows India was partitioned because the Muslims wanted a separate state. What’s less known is that a separate Muslim state also seemed to be in the interest of the British, who lent a hand in its creation. Take Kashmir, for instance. Its Hindu maharaja opted for India; Pakistan tried to seize the country by sending raiders across the border; Indian troops fought back; and Kashmir got divided into an Indian and a Pakistani zone. Few people know, however, that it was British military officers who put Gilgit, Chitral and other remote areas in the north under Pakistani control. They were serving with the Gilgit Scouts, part of the Pakistani forces. I read that in The Shadow Of The Great Game: The Untold Story Of India’s Partition.

British officers at the time were still serving on the Indian subcontinent, mostly in Pakistan, and their presence restored an uneasy peace in Kashmir in 1948, it’s said. That’s not the full story, according to the author, Narendra Singh Sarila. The British commander of the Indian army prevented his soldiers from going ahead with the plans drawn up by his Indian subordinates. And he was supported by the British Labour government of the time, headed by Clement Attlee. The Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, could do nothing.

This might seem strange. But Narila should know. He was aide de camp to Mountbatten, the last Briton to govern India.

Now why did Britain help Pakistan? Look at the map. Karachi is the subcontinent’s nearest port to the Gulf. Peshawar is close to Afghanistan. Kashmir extends all the way up to to Sinkiang in China. Hence the strategic importance of Pakistan. Britain needed Gulf oil and wanted to keep out the Soviets, who lay just across the border from Afghanistan.

Britain wanted to retain a military presence in this corner of the subcontinent even if it had to pull out from the rest of India. And Jinnah, the Muslim League leader, was ready to make such a deal in exchange for Pakistan. He collaborated with the British during World War II when Gandhi and Nehru instead of cooperating with the British started the Quit India movement because Britain refused to promise them independence.

The Indian nationalists made a mistake by starting the Quit India movement, says Sarila; Jinnah got what he wanted by cooperating with the British. But he didn’t have a choice. Not even all Muslims wanted Pakistan. The North West Frontier Province — now a part of Pakistan — supported the nationalists. There were divisions even in Jinnah’s own Muslim League. But successive British rulers in India — Linlithgow and Wavell — supported him as a counterfoil to the nationalists who wanted to get rid of them.

Why Jinnah wanted Pakistan has been extensively written about. So I won’t go into that here even though that’s part of the story.

But reading this book, it becomes clear that the British saw the founding father of Pakistan as a willing tool for their colonial interests.

Winston Churchill hated Gandhi and called him a naked fakir. Jinnah, on the contrary, was a brown sahib. He wore three-piece suits, gave speeches in English, smoked and drank and did not follow Muslim religious practices.

Above all, he was not a Hindu. Sarila writes that “an overwhelming majority of Englishmen in India by this time considered the Congress party and the Hindus generally their enemy and the Muslims their friend”. Then he quotes from Wavell’s diary: “The immense gulf between the Hindu religion and mentality and ours and the Moslem is the real core of our troubles in India.”

Poor Wavell, I wonder if he would have felt a similar kinship to the Taleban.

It’s just as well Jinnah got his Pakistan. India has enough problems of its own.

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