British Imperialism, Religion, and the Politics of ‘Divide and Rule’ in the Indian-Subcontinent

British Imperialism

By Dr. Kalim Siddiqui

I. Introduction

Recently India’s Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi again brought the issues of India’s partition and tried to blame it on Muslim League’s leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Indian National Congress (hereafter Congress Party), especially Jawaharlal Nehru. Therefore, it will be interesting to examine this issue based on historical facts. Modi has chosen August 14 as ‘Remembrance Day’, both countries India and Pakistan suffered loss of life. If Modi wants to remember he should remember on occasion to bind people together not blaming only Muslim and thus dividing Indian people, pointing finger about partition at Muslims. Muslim population is nearly 200 million or 15 % of the India’s population.

Some policies recently introduced by the Modi government seem to be the manifestation of a “long term project of the Hindutva movement” which rests largely on the policy of undermining the democratic rights of religious minorities, particularly Muslims, and “suppressing dissent and protest”. (Siddiqui, 2019; also, 2020a) Modi is systematically dismantling India’s plural structure. Life in India has become fearful and intimidating for minorities, as a muscular nationalism is paraded on the streets by self-appointed custodians of a shallow political morality by the semi-fascist forces known as Hindutva.

Modern India came into being and flourished because of the acceptance of the liberal policies of the politician like Jawaharlal Nehru who had a vision of a modern state resting on the principles of democracy, humanism, and pluralistic society. However, such an idea of India which had made this country great is very much at stake under the BJP/RSS government.

The aim of this article is to examine this issue based on historical facts and in the light of recent information and research. Modi had joined the RSS (Rashtriya Sevak Sangh) at a very young age and remained its member all his life. Therefore, it is useful here to briefly discuss about the RSS. The RSS is a Hindu extremist organisation and organises people based on religion. The RSS, whose leaders and members participated in building a hateful environment and during the partition its members were found to be taking part in attacks against Muslims in Delhi, Punjab, and Bengal. (Siddiqui, 2018a; also, 2018b)

I will also discuss here, that during the struggle for India’s freedom, then the question was after independence is attained, what type of country in the future, these political leaders would like to see. I mean to say whether they would like to make India a modern democratic state based on equal rights for all its citizens before the law, and with respect for diversity and pluralism, or a theocratic Hindu state i.e., ‘Hindu Rastra’.

The RSS, whose leaders and members participated in building a hateful environment and during the partition its members were found to be taking part in attacks against Muslims in Delhi, Punjab, and Bengal.

During the struggle for independence, an intense battle of visions on what ought to be the character of a future free India, and its state structure. A continuous battle between two visions emerged on what must be the political, social, economic, cultural character of the independent state of India. Recognising the Indian reality of rich plurality and diversity, the Congress Party concluded that the unity of India can be consolidated only when the threads of commonality amongst this rich diversity are strengthened and every aspect of plurality such as religious, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural is respected on the basis of equality. On the contrary, the RSS narrative is based on many distortions of history and assertions that are unhistorical and unscientific. The RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha stayed away from the freedom struggle, while focusing on engineering communal conflicts and riots.

The RSS idea of India constitutes a regression away from realizing the ‘Idea of India’ as inclusive nationalism. At present, what is being promoted under the BJP/RSS government is an exclusive Hindutva nationalism to establish their fascistic state i.e. ‘Hindu Rashtra’.

Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist Philosopher, explains how the hegemony of the ruling ideas is not enforced merely by the state and its institutions. The state is only the ‘outer ditch’ behind which stands a powerful system of ‘fortresses and earthworks’ and a network of cultural institutions and values which buttress the domination of the ruling classes with their ideas. This hegemony is mediated and transmitted through a complex web of social relations and the consequent social structures. The family, the schools, the community, caste, ethnicity, religion, its places of worship and its festivals, various forms of cultural expressions like media, TV, theatres, films etc. are the modes that constantly feed the fodder to shape values and opinions. At present in India they are fostering the Hindutva hegemony of ‘ideas’. In the process, they create the ‘myth’ of a ‘common culture’. This ‘common culture’ is nothing but the selective transmission of Hindutva.

This article also explores different dimensions of the ‘divide and rule’ policy, and the use of religion and its practicality in the politics of British India. It is argued that Britain had governed India through ‘divide and rule’ policy and by creating division between Hindus and Muslims. Such policy weakened the opposition against foreign rule. And the Congress Party was unable to challenge this strategy and prevent the nourishment of communalism in the Indian Subcontinent. Here communalism means the division between Hindu and Muslim communities. This article seeks to investigate, the British colonial policy to create rift among the communities to justify their rule in the name of peace or law and order in the region under their possession.

Soon after crushing first India’s independence war in 1857, the British imperialists began to encourage division of India based on religion, and they thought by adopting such a strategy will strengthen and prolong their colonial rule in India. Communal politics was encouraged by the British as their excuse to rule colonies was coming under attack by liberals and others.

Since 1833, Britain’s imperialist policy of ‘Great Game’ always focused on the so-called ‘Russian threat to South Asia’ and denying Russia access to warm water. This policy became more important after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917. Britain thought the division of India by creating a small state in the North-West will benefit British imperial interests to undermine communism and to control the Soviet Union. And they saw that after the independence, the small state of Pakistan would always be dependent on the West for its survival. And exactly this is what had happened in the last seven decades after independence and Pakistan became the frontline state for the West to fight against the Soviet Union after the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.

Although Britain won World War II, its economy was weak and the country was heavily indebted to the US. The US wanted to see India as an independent nation. And prior to 1939 British ignored Muslim League but after that British used Muslim League against Congress Party.

It is argued that Britain had governed India through ‘divide and rule’ policy and by creating division between Hindus and Muslims.

In August 1947, as India gained independence in an atmosphere rife with communalism, Punjab witnessed the bloodletting of Partition on a scale never seen before. Around one million people were killed and over ten million crossed the border – Muslims from East Punjab (in India) to West Punjab (in Pakistan), and Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan to India. Such was the level of communal savagery that there was a near-total cleansing of minorities on both sides of divided Punjab. Even the Indian army, the Baloch, Dogra, and Sikh regiments, not only provoked violence but also got actively involved in the killings and lootings. Similarly, the civil and police administration was openly divided along religious lines and failed miserably to protect millions of innocent people who were desperately seeking safety of their families. However, the situation in Punjab was more complex. As eminent historian Sugata Bose points out in his book published in 2017, The Nation as Mother and Other Visions of Nationhood, the “British colonial scheme of enumeration of religious communities in India and the privileging of religious distinction in defining majorities and minorities for political representation triggered acrid communitarian discourses among those seeking the state’s differential patronage. Punjab with competitive religious landscape was worse affected in the 19th century as it gave rise to politics of communitarian bigotry”.

I would like briefly to emphasise the detrimental effects of colonialism on the economic and social conditions of India. The development of the advanced capitalist countries was inter-linked with the underdevelopment of colonial countries, which continued even after they have nominally become independent. For instance, the Indian economy accounted for about 25 % of global manufactures in 1750, but by 1913 this declined drastically to a mere 1.3 %. During the same period, the output of developed countries went up from 26 % to 92.5 %. (Tharoor, 2017; Siddiqui, 1990b) The colonisers justified their ruthless exploitation by claiming to civilise “uncivilised” peoples and this ‘civilising’ mission was on the grounds of European racial superiority.

Colonialism provided Britain with an ideal instrument for controlling land use in India for its own benefit. For example, during the British rule, the revenue demands of the colonial government had to be met by the peasants by certain fixed dates and failing to do those peasants lost all land rights they had. As a result, they took advance money from merchants and traders to meet these demands. Then they were forced to cultivate the crops that the merchants wanted and sold to them at pre-contracted prices. These merchants in turn dictated the cultivation of specific crops, which had been demanded by the markets. For instance, we find peasants were given money in advance which was tied to cultivating opium. This is how the land use was controlled by the British colonial government to cultivate commercial crops like cotton, opium, and indigo, on lands where these crops had never been cultivated before. (Siddiqui, 2020c) The rise in commercialisation in agriculture coincided with the increase in peasants’ indebtedness, and as result, private money lending became a very profitable business. Such development contributed to falling in the land available for the production of food grains and resulted in occurrences of repeated famines during the British rule in India. (Siddiqui, 2020b)

There seems to be similarity of interpretations of Indian history between the “colonial” and “religious/communal” organisations. British colonialism viewed the Indian people as “always divided on the basis of ‘primordial identities’ of religion and caste and these identities were seen as subsuming all other identities or interests, economic, political, social or cultural”. (Siddiqui, 2017a) This view became deeply embedded in the ideology and politics of the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha. Not surprisingly, therefore, the role of these organisations during the anti-colonial struggle showed a distinct propensity to adjust with and oblige the British colonial rulers but never to accommodate or ally with the Muslim “other”. However, in the pre-colonial period, there was no incidence of violence between Hindus and Muslims and both communities lived peacefully. (Siddiqui, 2017b)

II. Utilitarianism

After colonising Bengal in 1757, the British began to colonising people minds in India and began to downgrade its culture and history. In fact, the Britain initially justified colonies by saying that these countries needed modernisation, improving living conditions and economic development i.e., ‘white man’s burden’ as propagated by the utilitarian theorists to modernise colonies. To justify British rule in India, they initially claimed that India was a backward country and hence, their rule would modernise and establish democracy in India.


The utilitarian holds that we should give equal moral consideration to the wellbeing of all individuals, regardless of characteristics such as their gender, race, and nationality. The original and most influential version of utilitarianism is classical utilitarianism, first expressed in the writings of Jeremy Bentham and J.S. Mill. Mill worked as an administrator with the British East India Company and his justification for British rule in India is well known. According to him, India was a backward country and had unacceptable culture, as various superstitious beliefs prevailing in the country and therefore, Britain had a civilising mission in India, which will ultimately transform India into a modern and prosperous nation. To communalise Indian history, he divided Indian history into three periods – Hindu rule, Muslim rule and British rule. He identifies pre-existing ethno-religious divisions in society and then manipulates them to prevent peoples’ unified challenge to rule by outsiders. Both communal conflict and Muslim separatism are seen as being created by such a strategy.

These utilitarian theorists’ argument of modernising of India had been criticised by the Dadabhai Naoroji, and he exposed the exploitation of India by the Britain. Naoroji emphasised that the development in the colonies is not possible under colonial rule. At the same time, other major European powers also began to industrialise, and they also needed raw materials and new markets for their finished products and thus, the demand for colonies was growing.

Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917) was an Indian scholar and politician, who was also the founding member of the Indian National Congress (hereafter Congress Party). He put forward the ‘drain of wealth’ theory where he argued that the Britain was draining India’s wealthand as a result, the resources were not available to Indian people. He showed in detail how the British colonial rulers in India pillaged India’s resources and destroyed its traditional handicraft industries. He explained his arguments in detail in his book published in 1901 Poverty of Un-British Rule in India. Naoroji’s lasting intellectual contribution was to expound on the ‘Drain Theory’. Naoroji was the first Indian Member of Parliament in the Britain’s House of Commons from 1892-1895, represented the Finsbury constituency in London. Prior to the occupation of Bengal, for instance, the East India Company used to bring gold into India to buy Indian cotton, spices, and silk. However, after the conquest of Bengal, the British stopped getting gold into India. They began to purchase raw materials for their industries in England from the revenues (tribute) of Bengal. Thus, began the process of plundering India’s raw material, resources, and wealth to England. (Siddiqui, 2018c)

Shashi Tharoor (2017) provides us with a devastating portrait of how the British decimated the Indian economy through these two centuries. In 1707, India was the world’s richest country, accounting for some 27% of global GDP. But in 1947, when India achieved its independence, India had been reduced to one of the world’s poorest countries, with just over 3% of global GDP. American historian and philosopher, Will Durant, who visited India in 1930, wrote: “The British conquest of India was the invasion and destruction of a high civilisation by a trading company utterly without scruple or principle, careless of art and greedy of gain, over-running with fire and sword a country temporarily disordered and helpless, bribing and murdering, annexing and stealing, and beginning that career of illegal and ‘legal’ plunder which has now gone on ruthlessly for one hundred and seventy-three years.”

In addition to decimating the Indian economy, the British inflicted massive suffering on the Indian people. It is now estimated that nearly 70 million Indians died because of the British government policy of non-interference during the famines. (Siddiqui, 2020c; Davis, 2001) The Bengal famine of 1944 killed of nearly 4 million people, as Churchill ordered to ship food grains from Bengal to Britain to keep reserve stocks for British soldiers in Europe while people in Bengal province were starving to death. When apprised of the consequences of his actions, Churchill retorted: “Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?” Tharoor notes: “in almost all respects British rule in India was profoundly damaging to the subcontinent’s population and economy […] the British state in India was […] a totally amoral, rapacious imperialist machine bent on the subjugation of Indians for the purpose of profit, not merely a neutrally efficient system indifferent to human rights. And its subjugation resulted in the expropriation of Indian wealth to Britain, draining the society of the resources that would normally have propelled its natural growth and economic development.” (Tharoor, 2017: 222)

The British East India Company exported opium to China, and in due course fought the opium wars and it seized an offshore base in Hong Kong to protect its profitable monopoly in narcotics (Siddiqui, 2020c). As Dalrymple (2015) notes: “By 1803 when the company captured the Mughal capital of Delhi, it had trained up a private a security force of around 260,000 – twice the size of the British army – and marshalled more firepower than any nation-state in Asia. …the company’s share price had doubled overnight after it acquired the wealth of the treasury of Bengal, the East India bubble burst after plunder and famine in Bengal led to massive shortfalls in expected land revenues. …The East India Company remains history’s most terrifying warning about the potential for the abuse of corporate power – and the insidious means by which the interests of shareholders become those of the state.”

The British East India Company exported opium to China, and in due course fought the opium wars and it seized an offshore base in Hong Kong to protect its profitable monopoly in narcotics (Siddiqui, 2020c).

There was a unilateral transfer of resources from India to Britain of surplus and potential investable capital by the colonial administration and foreign merchants through excess of exports over imports. It has been estimated that annually 6-7% of the total national income of India was unilaterally taken out of the country. India’s economic policies were determined in Britain and in the interest of British industries and merchants. British colonialism became a fetter on India’s agricultural and industrial development. Agriculture stagnated over the years, resulting in declining yields per acre. For example, there was a decline in per capita agricultural production, which fell by 14% between 1900 and 1945. The fall in per capita food grains was even greater i.e., over 24% during the same period. And the agrarian structure was dominated by absentee landowners, merchants, moneylenders, and landlords. As a result, India during the colonial period, witnessed underdevelopment and its industry and agriculture were denied any state support. Contrary to this, nearly all capitalist countries including Britain, France, Germany, the US, and Japan enjoyed active state support in their early stages of industrialization. The colonial administration refused to give tariff protection to Indian handicrafts and industries as Britain, the US, and other west European countries, including Japan had done. (Siddiqui, 1990b)

III. The ‘Divide and Rule’ Policy

The Indian Mutiny (also known as the First War of Independence) of 1857 forced Britain to transform its policy on India. It meant greater reliance on Indian princes as the bulwark of the British interests against the growing Indian nationalism. The British ruler’s policy towards the Indian people and army meant an emphasis on differences on religion and caste in order to prevent any attack against colonisers. It was realised that as Sir John Strachey noted: “the existence side by side of the hostile creeds is one of the strongest points in our political position.” (Sir John Strachey, 1888, pp.225)

Soon after the 1857 mutiny, the Peel Commission Report (1859) on organisation of the Indian army noted that Indian army could not be abolished because it was not possible to raise such a huge army of entirely British white troops, due to the difficult tropical climate and the cost of white soldier was eight times more than the Indian one. Mixing Indian soldiers with white soldiers was seen to be difficult in regiments to maintain a strict control over the non-white soldiers (known as sepoys). As General Sir Patrick Grant noted: “My opinion is strongly averse to the permanent association in quarters of the natives with Europeans…. a close and intimate association of the natives with the European soldiery … should be avoided as much as possible; the closer the association with the lower classes of our countrymen, the less is inspired by the latter; the closer association with the officer and educated Englishmen, on the contrary, the greater is the respect received.” (Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons, 1859, Appendix, 60)

Roman Empire’s ‘Divide et impera’ was adopted by the British colonisers in India. As the Peel Commission Report advocated that the army in Punjab and other states should be composed of different religions, ethnicity, and castes. Regiments composed of one caste and religion and over the following years the “general mixture” policy was eliminated throughout the army and regiments based on castes and religion was introduced. This system was similar to the separate, communal electoral system in political life, which served the same purpose of dividing the Indian people against each other. The Indian army remained in the hands of the British officers (i.e., white), while the soldiers remained non-whites.

Indian history was rewritten by the colonial rulers. For instance, J.S. Mill divided Indian history as Hindu and Muslim period. According to his interpretations, Indian people have no class consciousness and uncivilised people. After 1857, Britain saw Muslims as a threat to their rule and began to suppress them. But as opposition to British rule increased, they changed their policy and began to woo Muslim leaders by rewarding them if they organise and demand their rights as a religious community. Special favours were extended to Hindu communalists as well. Hindu-Muslim unity was seen as a threat to British rule in India and religious tension between these two communities was seen as best policy tool to justify and prolong British rule in India. During the colonial period, these communal parties were seen strong allies, who focused their energies against each other.

In 1906 Lord Minto, the British Viceroy of India (1905-1910) invited a meeting of Indian Muslim elites and big landlords to Shimla. Afterword, Mohsin al-Mulk had convened a deputation of some 36 Muslim leaders, under the leadership of Aga Khan III, to discuss the British offer of safeguarding the interests of the Muslim community. Encouraged by the concession, the Aga Khan said during the first meeting of the Muslim League in 1906 at Dacca: “to protect and advance the political rights and interests of Muslims of India.” Other resolutions moved at the meeting expressed: “loyalty to the British government,” and support for Bengal partition. Although these elites were not elected by the people but were chosen as Muslim representatives by Lord Minto to protect the British interests in India. After the meeting, Lady Minto wrote a letter British Foreign Secretary that ‘our policy of dividing the Indian community on religious and caste basis will prolong and strengthen our rule in India’. These elites were encouraged to speak about separate electorate for the Muslims. Thereafter, Morley-Minto Reforms was enacted in 1909 and then the colonial administration was encouraged to have more contact with the people. Muslims were granted separate electorates. The Congress Party opposed the introduction of separate Muslim electorates.

Another factor in Britain is a continued failure to come to terms with its colonial history. For centuries the interests of the nation have been conflated with the interest of the rich, while the interests of the rich depended to a remarkable degree on colonial loot and the military adventures that supplied it. In Britain, supporting overseas wars, however, disastrous, became a patriotic duty.

Hindu-Muslim unity was seen as a threat to British rule in India and religious tension between these two communities was seen as best policy tool to justify and prolong British rule in India. During the colonial period, these communal parties were seen strong allies, who focused their energies against each other.

The US historian, Audrey Truschke has criticised colonial historiography and, in her book, published in 2018, Aurangzeb: The man and the myth, has given new insight on this issue. Most of the early historians on Mughal history are dominated by what is best described as the “bad Aurangzeb’’, which was promoted by British historians in the 19th century. According to this theory, Aurangzeb, who ruled India from 1658 to 1707, is seen as a fanatical Muslim who through his bigoted policies brought about the downfall of the Mughal Empire. This very simplistic understanding of Mughal politics and its decline was first put forward by the historian Jadunath Sarkar. In fact, Aurangzeb came to the throne after a bloody civil war, killing his brothers and imprisoning his father. He was a fine soldier and strategist, an expansionist who pushed the borders of the Mughal Empire in his nearly 50 years reign. Professor Habib (2016), an authority on the history of the Mughals, wrote: “We must remember the Mughal Empire attained its largest extent under Aurangzeb, the whole of pre-1947 India, except for Kerala and parts of the Northeast. This strengthened the popular consciousness of India as a country since political unity was now added to the pre-existing cultural unity – a consciousness so strongly displayed in 1857. Also, if you begin examining such things (as cruelty), who will escape? All our ancient rulers believed in the caste system. And if you look at Buddhist tradition, Ashoka is said to have murdered his brothers too”.

Professor Satish Chandra, a prominent Indian historian, wrote in Seminar magazine in 1989 titled ‘Reassessing Aurangzebʼ that the re-imposition of jiziya was both a political and an ideological move. “It was ideological in the sense that it marked out Aurangzeb as an orthodox Muslim king. It rallied the clergy to his side by providing them jobs as amins (revenue collectors) of jiziya… Politically, Aurangzeb hoped that this would help in rallying Muslim opinion behind him, not only in his conflicts with the Rajputs and Marathas, but even more in his looming conflict with the Muslim kingdoms of the Deccan.” Professor Chandra (1989) further noted: “Aurangzeb levied jiziya in 1679, a good two decades after he came to power. There is an argument that he was forced by a financial squeeze the sprawling empire was facing.” Manucci, the Italian traveller, held the view that the motive to impose jiziya was to replenish the imperial treasury. Despite the tax being very regressive in nature, there is no evidence of its imposition leading to conversions. Aurangzeb no doubt departed from the policies of preceding Mughal rulers and, regarding the imposition of the jiziya, there was a serious protest at the court led by no less than Jahan Ara, Aurangzeb’s eldest sister, and many nobles.” Emperor Aurangzeb also had the support of many Rajput nobles, and many Hindus worked for the Empire. “Major figures in the Rajput nobility aligned with Aurangzeb and not with the liberal Dara Shikoh. Mirza Raja Jai Singh and Jaswant Singh were the most trusted, highest-ranking nobles”. Professor Athar Ali’s (1966) study reveals that ‘non-Muslims in the nobility, in absolute numbers as well as in terms of proportion, instead of declining, rose from about 22 % in 1658-78 to 31.6 % during 1679-1701.’

IV. Struggle for Freedom and Independence

Jawaharlal Nehru was a Fabian socialist, educated at Trinity College, Cambridge and was drawn into the Congress Party and the non-cooperation movement by his admiration for Mahatma Gandhi. Nehru aimed to build modern India to scientific development with pluralist ethos under the framework of democracy, and respect for religious, linguistic, and cultural diversities. However, in the 1920s equal rights for all Indian citizens were challenged by the Hindu extremist parties and communal organisations. For them the idea of secular forward-looking India was anathema, which organised people based on religion and conceived Hindu and Muslim as two different communities and constituted two nations. (Habib, 2016)

However, within the Congress Party, some leaders like Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, Govind Ballabh Pant, and others who were well known for their anti-Muslim prejudices and some of them were members of both Hindu Mahasabha (a Hindu extremist organisation) and alsothe Congress Party.

The Congress Party clearly saw then the major contradictions between British imperialism and Indian people and between big landowners and peasantry. In contrast to this, the Muslim League Party, which was led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, saw the major contradictions between Hindus and Muslims.

There was a consensus in the Congress Party to build a progressive, secular, and modern India, which was questioned by the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha. Soon after independence, the constitution of the Indian republic came into force on 26th January 1950, but the Republic’s constitution was rejected by the Hindu extremist leaders such as Golwalkar and Savarkar. Both organizations came out in favour of the Manusmriti (i.e., the Hindu religious holy scripts), and argued that Manusmriti must be India’s constitution. They saw it as an important holy book to maintain male and upper castes’ domination while keeping the women, and low castes under subjugation.

Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru played an important role in the effort to build a modern independent and secular nation. Nehru admired science as a great force in the modern age. While at the opening of the science institute, he spoke: “most people, who talk glibly of science, including or great industrialists, think of science merely as a kind of handmaiden to make their work easier… Of course, it does make their work easier… But surely science is something more than that. The history of science shows that it does not simply better the old. It something upsets the old.” (Cited in Habib, 2016: 31) His scientific understanding began in 1906 at Harrow and soon after he took science at Trinity College, Cambridge. Bhagat Singh, an Indian revolutionary had an appreciation for Nehru’s progressive and scientific ideas and in 1928 he wrote in his famous essay, Why I am an Atheist? “Any man who stands for progress must criticise, disbelieve and challenge… mere faith and blind faith is dangerous. It dulls the brain and makes a man reactionary.” Due to Jawaharlal Nehru’s rational, democratic, and scientific vision, Bhagat Singh supported Jawaharlal Nehru in India’s independent movement and endorsed Nehru, not Bose, as a progressive leader favouring of democracy and democratic socialism.

Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru played an important role in the effort to build a modern independent and secular nation. Nehru admired science as a great force in the modern age.

In 1937, Jawaharlal Nehru was given the task to lead ‘National Planning Commission’ to prepare for science and technology for national development. He wrote: “Our plan for national development must, therefore, be drawn up for a free and independent India. This does not mean that we must wait for independence before doing anything towards the development of a planned economy… All such efforts, however, must be directed towards the realisation of the plan we have drawn up for a free India.” (Cited in Habib, 2016: 31) As a historian, Jawaharlal Nehru authored three famous books namely, Glimpses of World History, Discovery of India, and Autobiography. In Nehru’s own words, religion was too “narrow and intolerant of other opinions and ideas; it is self-centred and egoistic” (An Autobiography; 1971, Allied Publishers, New Delhi). He insisted that religion “does not help, and even hinders, the moral and spiritual progress of a people” (page 378). He further wrote that, “The spectacle of what is called religion not only in India and elsewhere, has filled me with horror” (page 373). The ‘western model’ of secularism maintains an antiseptic distance from God and faith, which emerged only after several centuries of conflict between the Church and the State. In fact, it arose from its bloody wars with a terribly dominating Church that had stifled rationality, science and progress. (Nehru, 1971)

It is well known that Jawaharlal Nehru was extremely impatient with religion. However, his biographer Professor S. Gopal emphasises that Nehru was to change his mind after the communal fury that accompanied the Partition of India. He cites a letter in which Nehru expressed discomfort with the role played by religion in collective life. Nehru would have preferred to see religion vanish from the public sphere. But he had to change his attitude to the role of religion in public life in the aftermath of Partition. In a convocation address to the Aligarh Muslim University on January 24, 1948, Nehru said, “do we believe in a national state, which includes people of all religions and shades of opinion and is essentially secular as a State, or do we believe in the religious theocratic conception of a State that considers people of other faiths as something beyond the pale?…[t]he idea of religious or a theocratic State was given up by the world some centuries ago and it has no place in the mind of a modern man. And yet the question must be put in India today, for some of us, have tried to jump back to a past age”. In pursuance of these objectives, Pandit Nehru further said: “[t]he government of a country like India, with many religions that have secured great and devoted following for generations, can never function satisfactorily in the modern age except on a secular basis.”

Mahatma Gandhi with Nehru and Maulana Azadvisitation

In fact, Jawaharlal Nehru was not responsible for the division of India. Mahatma Gandhi choose Jawaharlal Nehru rather than Sardar Patel because Nehru soon after entering Indian freedom movements defended progressive policies, especially in the 1920s openly sided with the global struggle against colonialism and imperialism. He advocated in favour of land reforms and industrialisation and the active role of the state in building the nation. During the partition, he stood very clearly for Hindu-Muslim unity, and he mobilised people in favour of secular India and appealed to stay calm during India’s partition and communal violence, while Sardar Patel did have some prejudices against Muslims which was well known. Therefore, Gandhi decision to favour Jawaharlal Nehru was based on what type of India’s future he had in mind. During the partition communal riots began in North India and Mahatma Gandhi rather than celebrating independence, went to villages and campaigned for restoring peace and stood in support of Hindu-Muslim unity, which he saw as the soul of India. He said, ‘if India’s soul is lost no use for independence.’

However, there are widespread misunderstandings about Sardar Patel and sometime is seen as critical of Jawaharlal Nehru’s policies. There was no doubt that Patel was leader of the right wing, while Nehru was leader of the left-wing section of the Congress Party. But both fully-shared the key objectives of the national movement: commitment to secularism, democracy, equal rights to all citizens, independent economic development, and national planning. Sardar Patel stood for abolition of feudalism, and land reforms to reduce rural inequality. Patel said in 1950: “Ours [India] is a secular state…. Here every Muslim should feel that he is an Indian citizen and has equal rights as an Indian citizen. If we cannot make him feel like this, we shall not be worthy of our heritage and of our country.”

Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of nation building was a difficult and long process. It seems that Mahatma Gandhi support for Jawaharlal Nehru to become India’s first Prime Minister was a very wise decision. Gandhi favoured Nehru to lead India was a well-thought the decision, which proved crucial during the difficult period of a building nation as a modern secular and democratic nation. Jawaharlal Nehru was a firm believer in secularism and modernisation and was more broadminded on religious issues than other Indian Congress Party leaders during that period. Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru strongly stood for Hindu-Muslim unity by their action and statements.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was very prominent Islamic scholar and began to support the freedom struggle at a quite young age and he launched an Urdu weekly newspaper in 1912 called Al-Hilal. After Al-Hilal was banned by the colonial authorities in 1915, he started another newspaper called Al-Balag. The main purpose of the newspaper was to criticize British colonial policy and extended support to the cause of Hindu-Muslim unity. The paper quickly became highly popular among the in the Muslims for its anti-British stance, notably for its criticism of those Muslim elites who were loyal to the British Empire. He devoted all his life to the struggle against colonial rule and in favour of Hindu-Muslim unity. He was bitterly opposed to the creation of any country based on religion, which he predicted would be very weak and could be controlled by the British imperialists for their own narrow interests. If created, such a state would serve the interests of feudal and elites and would be prone to ethnic conflicts. Azad wrote several books on Islam and politics.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was one of the prominent leaders of India’s independence movement and he was also a strong believer in diversity and unity among the people of India. Maulana Azad said that for him Hindu-Muslim unity is more important than achieving independence from the British colonial rule. According to him, British rule will end sooner or later, most importantly due to changes in the international situation, but if Hindu-Muslim unity is not achieved that would undermine the cause of humanity and peace andwould have a long-term adverse impact on the Indian sub-continent. (Azad, 1988)

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Mahatma Gandhi became close politically when Mahatma Gandhi extended support to Khilafat Movement (1920-24). Azad was also involved in Mahatma Gandhi’s various civil-disobedience campaigns, including the ‘Salt March’ in 1930. He was imprisoned several times between 1920 and 1945, including for his participation in the anti-British ‘Quit India’ campaign during the World War II. Maulana Azad was president of the Congress Party in 1923 and again in 1940-1946, although the Congress Party was largely inactive during much of his second term, since nearly all its leadership was in prison. He strongly opposed the partition of British India into India and Pakistan. (Azad, 1988)

Muhammad Ali Jinnah joined Indian National Congress in 1909 and was seen as an important leader of the Hindu-Muslim unity, but his approach was for a long-time constitutional struggle rather than turning independent movement into mass movements. He opposed the partition of Bengal in 1905in the name of religion by the colonial authorities. Mahatma Gandhi began a mass struggle against British rule in the early 1920s by supporting the Khilafat movement and supporting peasants’ Champaran struggle against colonial policy of indigo production. Muhammad Ali Jinnah opposed it and then briefly withdrew from politics and returned to England. While other prominent Muslim leaders such as Hasrat Mohani who participated in the struggle for Indian Independence and extended full support to Mahatma Gandhi’s mass struggle. He was the first person who demanded ‘Complete Independence’ in 1921.But at the same time the Hindu extremists within the Congress Party, although in minority, often spoke against the Muslim minority about the issues such as banning cow slaughter and against the promotion of the Urdu language.

During the first quarter of the 20thcentury, leaders like Badruddin Tayabji, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Maulana Shibli Noumani, and Rahimtulla M. Sayani helped to shape the Congress Party politics in its early days. However, when Pakistan came into existence in 1947, many people crossed over borders, but a far greater number of Muslims chose to remain in India for various reasons, including the fact that they preferred to live in a democratic and pluralistic India than a nation-state based on religious identity.

However, the Muslim League leaders envisaged that after the British leave India, the Hindu majority will undermine the interests of the Muslim minority. Jinnah joined Muslim League in 1913, and then members of the Congress Party were allowed to keep the membership of either Hindu Mahasabha or Muslim League.

The fact of the matter is that when the Muhammad Ali Jinnah-led Muslim League raised the demand for Pakistan in 1940, it met with vehement ideological opposition from Maulana Abul Kalam Azad representing the Congress Party, among others. The role of the ulema[Islamic scholars],such as Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi and Mahmud-al-Hasan, the principal of Darul Uloom Deoband, in seeking Azadi[struggle for independence] for India from Britain by forging an international alliance in the 1910s is well documented in the Silk Letter Movement.

Mahatma Gandhi began a mass struggle against British rule in the early 1920s by supporting the Khilafat movement and supporting peasants’ Champaran struggle against colonial policy of indigo production.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s demand for partition of India was also opposed by another prominent leader from the Muslim majority province Sindh, namely Allah Bakhsh, who led the ‘Itihad Party’ (Unity Party), extended support to Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘Quit India’ movement of 1942. He was bitterly opposed to the Muslim League in the Muslim majority province of Sind, but tragically he was murdered on May 14, 1943, in Sind. He had huge followings among Muslim masses beyond Sindh. Moreover, Allah Bakhsh was a great secularist and his opposition to the partition of India proved to be the greatest stumbling block in the formation of Pakistan. Allah Bakhsh spent all his life countering the communal politics of the Muslim League and its two-nation theory. His great contribution was to organise poor sections of the Muslim community against partition. He organised a conference in Delhi on 27th – 30thApril 1940 to counteract Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan, which was attended by delegates from all provinces. The conference passed a resolution that the partition plan was, “impracticable and harmful to the country’s interest generally, and of Muslims in particular.” The conference called upon Muslims of India, “to own equal responsibilities with other Indians for striving and making sacrifices to achieve the country’s independence.” He was bitterly opposed by the Muslim elites and big landlords. (Ahmed, 2020)

During the concluding stage in the struggle for independence, two trends were personified by two political leaders: Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who led the Muslim League and supported the partition of India, while Abul Kalam Azad, an outstanding Islamic scholar, and leader of the Congress Party, stood for Hindu-Muslim unity. Maulana Azad was dissatisfied with the traditional interpretation of the Quran, and he looked for new ideas by reviving what he considered the original teaching. First in his newspaper’s articles and letters, and later in his translation of the Quran into Urdu and his commentaries, he also considered the social aspect of mercy and maintained that the Quran did not isolate the notion of mercy from that of justice. Maulana Azad was one of the front-ranking leaders of the freedom struggle and as an Islamic scholar and a prominent Congress Party leader; he always firmly stood for the cause of Hindu-Muslim unity.

The deep irony of Indian history is that the two leading figures of the religious nationalism, namely Muhammad Ali Jinnah and V.D. Savarkar – were socially and culturally very liberal and were non-believers. For example, Professor Ashis Nandy (2010) on Savarkar’s paradoxical relationship with religion wrote: “Savarkar’s atheism was not the philosophical atheism associated with Buddhism and Vedanta, but the anti-clerical, hard atheism of fin-de-siècle scientism, increasingly popular among sections of the European middle class and, through cultural osmosis, in parts of modern India.”

Muhammad Ali Jinnah was educated as a barrister in England and had impeccable liberal credentials in the early years of India’s independent movement. The Congress Party leader, Gokhale called Jinnah the “best ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity”. Professor Ayesha Jalal in her book, The Sole Spokesman (1985) writes that in the wake of the Khilafat movement in 1920, Jinnah “derided the false and dangerous religious frenzy which had confused Indian politics, and the zealots, both Hindu and Muslim, who were harming the national cause”. But that did not stop him from using religion to advocate Muslim separatism. As Nandy points out, “Jinnah kept the ulema [Islamic scholars] at a distance throughout his life but was perfectly willing to use them to advance the cause of a separate homeland for South Asian Muslims. Exactly as Savarkar, despite all his anti-Muslim rhetoric and passion for united India, not only established coalitions in Sindh and Bengal with the Muslim League, fighting for Pakistan, but was proud of these alliances.” However, a year later, after Pakistan was created, Jinnah in his famous speech in the Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947, where he spoke of a secular and inclusive Pakistan, Jinnah tried to put the religious genie back in the bottle. However, the damage had already been done.

In fact, after 1937, the demand for a separate state for Muslims began to be more forceful and Hindu-Muslim differences became more prominent in Muslim League’s meetings than land ownership, land reforms, and rural inequality or class differences. Hindu communalists, most of them were organised under the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS, but a small minority of them were remained inside the Congress Party, especially Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, Govind Vallabh Pant, and others. These right-wing Hindu leaders raised issues like the ‘protection of cows’ and the promotion of the Hindi language after India gains independence. This was seen as a threat by the Muslim League leaders.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah was an elitist to the core, and he was opposed to taking politics to the street. This explains in substantial parts of his disillusionment with the Congress Party once Mahatma Gandhi became the undisputed leader of the party and adopted the strategy of mass mobilization. Moreover, the refusal of the Congress Party to accept the Muslim League as a partner in the UP government after the 1937 elections, which was the turning point that led to Jinnah’s move towards the demand for a separate state for Muslims. Jinnah besides being a very successful barrister was also a great tactician. However, history shows that he had little or no long-term strategy or vision for the new state. He worked tirelessly to achieve his objective of creating Pakistan. But still, he remained deliberately ambiguous about the nature of the future of the state. (Ahmed, 2020)

The RSS leaders were involved is attacking Muslims during the partition and they saw organising people on a religious basis could increase their popularity. (Siddiqui, 2009a; also, 2009b) Karan Thapar, a prominent Indian journalist, recently wrote about the mass violence against Muslims of Jammu during Partition. According to him, attacks against Muslims in Jammu in 1947, eventually led to the mass displacement of the community from the region. “The 1947 violence against Jammu’s Muslims that unfolded over a period of three-four months in 1947 is well-documented and has been historically accounted for. It is something that no one can contest”. He further notes, “the massacre that turned Jammu from a Muslim-majority to a Hindu-majority city…” Karan Thapar (2021) wrote in his column headlined ‘Horrors of 1947 Partition: A selective remembrance?’ “At the time, Jammu was a Muslim-majority city. Yet literally in weeks communal riots, mass killings and forced migration turned it into a Hindu-majority one. Both contemporary accounts and those of historians put the numbers killed or expelled in hundreds of thousands,” Nearly a half-million Muslims were killed, and many more displaced in Jammu, in violence allegedly perpetrated by Hindus and Sikhs with tacit support from the state authorities.

Both, the Hindu Mahasabha, and the RSS opposed ‘Quit India’ movement of 1942, which was launched by Mahatma Gandhi. The RSS said our real struggle will begin after British rule ends and they wanted to make India as a ‘Hindu Rastra’, where Muslims will be treated not as equal, but as a second-class citizen. V.D. Savarkar, the leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, during the prison made a deal with the prison authority that he will not indulge in any anti-British activity and put all his energy to organise Hindus. And after being released from the prison, he fully engaged in organising Hindus against Muslims and thus undermining Gandhi’s campaign of Hindu-Muslim unity.

In contrast to Hindu communalism, Mahatma Gandhi strongly believed in the mass movement and organising people on social, economic, and political issues and he strongly disagreed with Savarkar, and he explained his ideas in his book (1909) Hind Swaraj. Here he expressed his views on Hindu-Muslim issues. Jawaharlal Nehru too has described this in his book Discovery of India, ‘India is an ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously.’ He further acknowledges that Mughal and Afghan rulers, who settled in India and greatly contributed to Indian culture and history. Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru strongly opposed Hindu nationalism and defended secularism. India’s well known philosopher, Rabindranath Tagore said: ‘Aryans and non-Aryans, Dravidians and Chinese, Scythians, Huns, Pathans and Mongols, all have merged and lost themselves in one body.’ And, this body is India.

Mahatma Gandhi’s decision was well thought favouring Jawaharlal Nehru as India’s First Prime Minister. History has proved his decision was the correct one. History is to examine carefully what has happened in the past. During India’s partition through speeches, mass meetings, and writings Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru stood in favour of communal harmony and Hindu-Muslim unity.

In the Indian sub-continent, Hindus and Muslims have lived for more than thousand years peacefully and developed Bhakti movement and Sufi saints, whom both religious communities revered greatly. We should not generalise few incidences of minor violence and prejudices and ignore another great positive contribution was made towards the Indian history and culture during the Khiljis, Tuglaqs, Afghans and Mughals.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the European countries witnessed the huge rise of violence while trying forcefully nation-building based on one religion and one language. In contrast to this in India during the same period, diversity was celebrated in religion and languages. There was no forceful conversion and pluralism was tolerated and even encouraged. Even Aurangzeb (1618-1707), who was known to be personally very religious, the powerful Mughal ruler had ruled India for nearly fifty years, and most of his military generals and government officials were Hindus. During his rule, there was no incidence of Hindu-Muslim violence. Moreover, at his death in 1707, the Indian economy was one of the world’s largest economies and contributed 27% to the global economy. India was then the worlds’ largest trading nation and exported cloths and spices to Africa, China, and Europe. This would not have been possible without peace between these two communities. During the pre-colonial period, the state in India had played a very critical role in promoting Hindu-Muslim unity and supported diversity.

V. Hindutva, RSS, and Mahatma Gandhi

The term Hindutva is a far-right-wing ideology and it was first used by V.D. Savarkar, who defined it in his book Hindutva: Who is Hindu?, published in 1925. Since then it has become the core philosophy of the RSS, whose political front is India’s current ruling party the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Hindu Mahasabha, another right-wing Hindu nationalist outfit, was formed by Savarkar in 1917. A few years later in 1925, another Hindu right-wing organisation was formed called RSS. Both organisations had very similar ideas, worked together and they declared their primary objectives were to protect Hindus and only Hindus were allowed to become members of these organisations. A person could be a member of both organisations,(i.e., RSS and Hindu Mahasabha), at the same time.

The Hindu Mahasabha, another right-wing Hindu nationalist outfit, was formed by Savarkar in 1917. A few years later in 1925, another Hindu right-wing organisation was formed called RSS.

The Hindutva founder V.D. Savarkar during imprisonment in Andamans submitted six mercy petitions in 1911, 1913, 1914, 1915, 1918, and 1920 and offered for collaboration with the British authorities. Savarkar on July 6, 1911, just six months after being imprisoned at Andamans, submitted his first petition for mercy. He submitted his second mercy petition on November 14, 1913: “I am ready to serve the Government in any capacity they like. If the government in their manifold beneficence and mercy release me, I for one cannot but be the staunchest advocate of… loyalty to the English government.” In other mercy petitions in 1915 Savarkar and his brother wrote to the British authorities that: “I and my brother are perfectly willing to give a pledge of not participating in politics for a definite and reasonable period that the Government would indicate…”In another mercy petition in 1918, Savarkar stated that: “I for one cannot but be the staunchest advocate of constitutional progress and loyalty to the English government which is the foremost condition of that progress… Moreover, my conversion to the constitutional line would bring back all those misled young men in India and abroad who were once looking up to me as their guide.” In his sixth mercy petition, dated March 30, 1920, Savarkar told the British that under the threat of an invasion from the north by the “fanatic hordes of Asia…. he would heartily and loyally co-operate with the British.” (Cited in Majumdar, 1975, “Penal Settlement in Andamans”)

In September 1939, the Congress Party declared it could support Britain’s war efforts only if the colonial government recognised India’s independence, which was rejected by the colonial government. In contrast to this, Savarkar as leader of Hindu Mahasabha met the British viceroy, Lord Linlithgow. In the report about the meeting sent to the secretary of state, Lord Linlithgow wrote: “The situation, he [Savarkar] said, was that His Majesty’s government must now turn to the Hindus and work with their support….” He further described: “Our interests were now the same and we must therefore work together… Our interests are so closely bound together, the essential thing is for Hinduism and Great Britain to be friends and the old antagonism was no longer necessary.” When Second World War started in 1939 and the ‘Quit India movement’ of 1942, Savarkar stood firmly on the side of British rulers and there is documentary evidence on this matter. Savarkar said in India, not British but Muslims are the chief foe. He saw Muslims as enemies and opposed giving equal rights to the minorities.

British Imperialism

Moreover, V.D. Savarkar was the first to come up with the two-nation theory at a session of the Hindu Mahasabha in 1937 in Ahmedabad, and where he was elected president of the Hindu Mahasabha. While addressing the 19th session of the Hindu Mahasabha in the Ahmedabad, he said: “There are two antagonistic nations living side by side in India”, underlining, “India cannot be assumed today to be a unitarian and homogenous nation. On the contrary, there are two nations in the main: the Hindus and the Muslims, in India.”

V.D. Savarkar defined nationalism based on religion, and he said Muslims and Christians are outsiders. He identified Muslims as an internal enemy and saw it as more dangerous than the external power of British colonialism. For him and other ideologues of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), the fight against Muslims was far more necessary than removing the British. It was this political commitment that led Savarkar to pledge loyalty to the British. (Siddiqui, 2018a; also, 2018b)

However, Mahatma Gandhi was totally opposed to such views and wanted equal rights for all Indians including Muslims. Mahatma Gandhi, spoke in a public meeting in Bombay in August 1942 where he gave the call for ‘Quit India’, declared unequivocally: “Those Hindus who, like Dr Moonje and V.D. Savarkar, believe in the doctrine of the sword may seek to keep the Muslims under Hindu domination. I do not represent that section. I represent the Congress. The Congress does not believe in the domination of any group or any community…. Millions of Muslims in this country come from Hindu stock. How can their homeland be any other than India?” Mahatma Gandhi also put his position very clearly in his very early years in his book Hind Swaraj or India Home Rule, published in 1909. In this book, he emphasized his vision for India, as a plural society and fully supported Hindu-Muslim unity. Mahatma Gandhi said in 1948 few days prior to his murder: “I see the Muslims of Delhi being killed before my very eyes. This is done while my own Vallabhbhai [Sardar Patel] is the Home Minister of the Government of India and is responsible for maintaining law and order in the Capital. Vallabhbhai [Sardar Patel] has not only failed to give protection to the Muslims, he light-heartedly dismisses any complaint made on this count. I have no option but to use my last weapon, namely to fast until the situation changes.” (Khare, 2022)

The Congress Party and its leaders, such as G.K. Gokhale, Motilal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Badruddin Tayabji, Maulana Shibli Noumani, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Dr M.A. Ansari, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar, Maulana Mahmud-ul- Hasan, Rajendra Prasad, Subash Chandra Bose, C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji), Sardar Patel, J.B. Kripalani, and Jawaharlal Nehru, stood in favour of ‘Secular India’ and opposed ‘Hindu Rastra’ (i.e., Hindu nationalism). For Congress Party after independence, India would be for all, not just for Hindus. The Congress Party declared that the nationalism should continue to encapsulate the identity of a people living in a territory claiming equal rights, and these rights should exclude discrimination on any ground and include the well-being of all people. The primary identity is that of being a citizen of India, over and above all other identities of religion, caste, ethnicity, and language. The Congress Party during the freedom struggle repeatedly stressed during its annual party session that nationalism does not allow the Hindus in India to claim any privilege as a citizen based on being members of a religious majority community and declared Hindus, Muslim and Christians are all equal citizens. (Thapar et al, 2016)

At the time when Subash Chandra Bose was raising his Indian National Army (INA) to confront the British in India, Savarkar helped the colonial government to recruit thousands of Indians into British armed forces against Bose’ INA. Savarkar supported Hindutva ideology, which deepened the communal divide between Hindus and Muslims at a time when a united front against colonial rule was needed. Savarkar as a young boy along with his friends attacked and vandalised a mosque in his hometown.

In the 1942, when the Congress Party leader and workers were imprisoned for launching a movement asking the British to leave India, Savarkar wrote to the British Viceroy offering his party support. He also encouraged his party leaders to join provincial ministries in coalition with the Muslim League. Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, who was a leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, became a minister in the Fazlul Haq ministry in Bengal. The Hindu Mahasabha also formed coalition governments with the Muslim League in Sind, in NWFP and in Bengal 1941. Savarkar not only refrained from participating in the freedom struggle after the British released him from prison on account of his several mercy petitions, but also actively collaborated with the British rulers. Savarkar’s dislike of Mahatma Gandhi was never concealed, and he could never accept Hindu-Muslim partnership.

On 30th January 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was killed by Nathuram Godse, who was a member of Hindu Mahasabha. Godse, as investigations after Mahatma Gandhi’s murder were to reveal, appears to have been close to Savarkar, who was then the leader of the Hindu Mahasabha. Godse was certainly a frequent visitor to Savarkar’s home and was inspired by his ideas of Hindu nationalism. He murdered Mahatma Gandhi to change the course of India’s freedom movement. Nathuram Godse told during the trial that ‘he killed Mahatma Gandhi because Gandhi favoured Muslims, and to end Gandhi’s pro-Muslim and pro-Pakistan policy, he decided to eliminate him’. (Noorani, 2002) In fact, Mahatma Gandhi never promoted his children into politics or took advantage for his family and remained committed to the cause of peace and justice and even sacrificed his life in support of Hindu-Muslim unity.

Following the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the then India’s Home Minister, Sardar Patel, banned the RSS activities and arrested its leaders, and said that ban could be removed with the acceptance of the National Flag. When the constitution of India was adopted in 1950, the RSS opposed it and the national flag. The RSS promised to forsake politics and keep its functioning limited to “cultural” activities. However, after the ban was lifted its agenda remained unchanged. Sardar Patel was also convinced of Savarkar’s involvement in Mahatma Gandhi’s murder and Patel in a letter to Jawaharlal Nehru on February 27, 1948, stated that Savarkar had masterminded the murder. Sardar Patel wrote: “It was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that [hatched] the conspiracy and saw it through.”

There is irrefutable evidence of ‘the RSS connection’ with Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. For instance, Gopal Godse, the brother of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram, in his book (1993), Why I Assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, said they had both been active members of the RSS. Further, in an interview with Frontline on January 28, 1994, he said: “We grew up in the RSS rather than in our home. It was like a family to us. Nathuram had become an intellectual worker in the RSS…and he did not leave the RSS.” Moreover, in 1961 then the Jansangh Party (now called BJP) leader Deen Dayal Upadhyaya said: ‘With all respect for Mahatma Gandhi, let us cease to call him ‘Father of the Nation’. If we understand the old basis of nationalism, then it will be clear that it is nothing but Hinduism.’ He further said ‘So, Nathuram Godse represented ‘the people,’ and the murder he perpetrated was an expression of ‘the people’s wrath’. Furthermore, after denouncing the Communists, Golwalkar turned against the Congress Party. He said: ‘The other movement led by Congress Party has had more disastrous and degrading effects on the country. Most of the tragedies and evils that have overtaken our country during the last few decades and are even today corroding our national life are its direct outcome’. (Cited in Noorani, 2021)

In January 1948, when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, Savarkar was arrested as he was suspected of being the mastermind behind the conspiracy. Sardar Patel, as the home minister was personally convinced of Savarkar’s guilt, otherwise he would not have agreed to put him up for trial. He told the Prime Minister, Nehru, in unambiguous terms, ‘It was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that (hatched) the conspiracy and saw it through’. (Durga Das, Sardar Patel Correspondence, 1945–50, Vol. VI, p. 56) Patel wrote to Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, the Hindu Mahasabha leader, on May 6, 1948: “…we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that an appreciable number of the members of the Hindu Mahasabha gloated over the tragedy and distributed sweets…. Further, militant communalism, which was preached until only a few months ago by many spokesmen of the Hindu Mahasabha, including men like Mahant Digbijoy Nath, Ram Singh, and Deshpande, could not but be regarded as a danger to public security. The same would apply to the RSS, with the additional danger inherent in an organisation run in secret on military or semi-military lines.” (Sardar Patel Correspondence, Vol.VI, p. 66) Patel further wrote to Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, ‘The activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to the existence of government and the state’. (July 18, 1948, Sardar Patel Correspondence, Vol.6, p.323)

V.D. Savarkar was eventually not convicted in the Mahatma Gandhi murder trial due to a technical point of criminal law: for lack of independent evidence to corroborate the testimony of the approver. Moreover, on February 22, 1948, Savarkar in a written statement to the Commissioner of Police, Bombay, to avert prosecution for Mahatma Gandhi’s murder stated that: “I shall refrain from taking part in any communal or political public activity for any period the Government may require.” Justice Kapur Commission Report published in 1969, which led the investigation of Mahatma Gandhi’s murder, implicated Savarkar in Mahatma Gandhi’s murder. (Noorani, 2002)

Hindu extremists believe that India should be a ‘Hindu Nation’. For example, the founder Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), V.D. Savarkar said in Calcutta in 1939, that ‘Indian Muslims as a traitorous people not to be trusted’. The RSS leader, M.S. Golwalkar also wrote in 1939 that Germany’s “purging the country of the Semitic Race – the Jews” was “a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by”. The RSS, which serves as the chief organizer for a range of Hindu extremist groups, shapes the BJP policy, which was founded as and remains today a paramilitary organization. (Jaffrelot, 1996)

Hindu nationalism is a political ideology that advocates Hindu supremacy, specifically over Muslims. The Hindutva has a factual problem of their claims about pre-modern India, which are incorrect. Their falsehoods about history centre around an imagined Hindu golden age of scientific progress interrupted by Muslim invaders, which has largely a clear political goal of projecting a modern Hindutva identity as an ancient bulwark of Indian culture and maligning Muslims as the ultimate Other. Hindutva is the cornerstone of BJP’s ideology.

The RSS was inspired by the Nazi idea of Aryan supremacy and their leaders such as V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar made this idea a central feature of the Hindutva ideology. And thus, incorrect history for India was written which created deep misunderstanding among Hindus and Muslims. In fact, history must be defended and protected against communal and divisive forces. The communal distortion of history by the BJP/RSS government is doing immense damage to the country and its people in the field of education and communal harmony and prospects of the building peace in India.

The RSS says very little about British colonialism, a brutal period of Indian history, because doing so does not serve their political purposes. Hindutva’s early ideologues were British sympathizers, and the Hindu extremist organisations decided to keep themselves out of India’s struggle for independence.

The RSS believes that India should be an ethnic Hindu state, rather than a secular nation. India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, led by the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has pushed forward a Hindu extremist’s agenda, under which India’s 200 million Muslims have faced discrimination and attacks. Alarmingly, in recent years, much of this hate has been sponsored by leaders and activists that are close to the Indian government. Within India, Muslims remain the chief targets of mounting bigotry and violent assaults and they have suffered disproportionately in the riots in the past. In fact, for Indian Muslims daily abuse, physical attacks, mob lynching, hate speeches have been normalized. They have been made second-class citizens. It seems in today’s India, if you are a Muslim, you are liable to be attacked and humiliated.

Muslim polarisation is much deeper than ever in the past. Somehow the bourgeoisie propaganda and the ruling elites have created myth that Muslims have been favoured in India and Hindus are victims of the Muslim appeasement, which is false. The majority (i.e., Hindus) has led to believe that they are under siege. Despite the fact, that the official statistics are indicating the general social and economic deterioration of the Muslims in India.

The historians strive for accuracy to understand the past on its own terms, the advocate of Hindutva seeks to invent a past that justifies it. Hindutva followers have a similarly symbiotic relationship with their once colonial masters regarding history. The two centrepieces of the Hindu extremists’ view of the Indian past – the demonization of Muslim-led rule and idolization of Hindu-led rule – both stem from the colonial period, during which modern Hindu-Muslim communal conflict was born. (Thapar 2016) For the British, these ideas assisted their strategy of ‘divide and rule’. Also, demonizing India’s Muslim rulers, the direct predecessors of the British in ruling over significant portions of the subcontinent, furthered the argument that British rule was needed in India. While ignoring the British rule in India (1757-1947), the RSS blame seemingly all wrongs in Indian history on Muslim rulers. Since Hindutva ideology seeks Hindu supremacy, the enemy that serves as their foil must be constructed as equally flat and politically homogenous in its identity. Hindu nationalists avenge their imagined grievances through very real oppression of present-day Indian Muslims, who have been the victims of increasing government-led and extrajudicial violence since 2014. Muslims have been demonised by the RSS/BJP leaders and the mass media.(Filkins, 2019)

The historians strive for accuracy to understand the past on its own terms, the advocate of Hindutva seeks to invent a past that justifies it.

Since its inception, the RSS and Hindu extremists had focused on the so-called protection of ‘Hindu-interests’ and its leader spoke of Hindu nation and tried to identify religion as nationality. While Muslim League was formed by the Muslim Nawabs, feudal and big landlords in 1906 to safeguards their interests in a case if British leave India as Congress Party came out in favour of land reforms and distribution of land in order to break the monopoly of landownership. And only in the late 1930s did the salaried and educated middle-class Muslims began to join the Muslim League as they saw the separate country would provide them better progression opportunities. (Siddiqui, 2016a; and, 2016b) From the 1930s onwards Muslim League strongly advocated for the establishment of a separate Muslim-majority nation-state, Pakistan. And only in the 1940s the League began mass contact among Muslims. On March 23, 1940, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League, formally endorsed the “Lahore Resolution,” calling for the creation of an independent state in regions where Muslims constituted a majority.

The British rulers encouraged Muslim League leaders; especially after Mahatma Gandhi launched the ‘Quit India movement’ in 1942, while the Congress Party leaders and many party workers were imprisoned. The British were desperately looking for some support within India during World War II and Congress Party refused to support the War. Therefore, they began to rely more on the Muslim League and thus, attempted to weaken the independent movement. The Hindu extremist organisations did not take part in the anti-colonial struggle and emphasized on safeguarding Hindu interests.

The idea of Pakistan was embedded in the two-nation theory that Jinnah espoused by which he viewed Hindus and Muslims as belonging to ‘two different religious philosophies, social customs and literary traditions. At present, with the drive towards globalisation, a nation-state does not have to be uniform and homogenous. However, between 1940 and 1947, Jinnah and the Muslim League leaders were able to mobilise masses that increased the support of the demand for Pakistan. By 1946, the Pakistan movement had gathered such momentum that it seemed impossible for even Mahatma Gandhi to bridge the growing mistrust between the two communities. As the British proposed to leave India, the actual process of partition and boundary making was a hurriedly done job.


VI. Conclusion

In 1857, the Indian people (i.e., both Hindus and Muslims)fought against colonial rule, which was suppressed by the British. Afterward, Britain considered Indian Muslims as the main enemy of their rule. As a result, the colonial rulers made efforts to suppress the Muslim community, especially systematically removing them from government administration and undermining their educational institutions. Moreover, they tried to weaken Muslim-Hindu community relations with the help of falsifying history. For example, Lord Edward Ellenborough, the governor-general of India at the time said, “It cannot be ignored that the Muslim nation is, due to the nature of its religion, our serious enemy. So our real plan is to please the Hindus”.

The British had been horrified, during the Revolt of 1857, to see Hindus and Muslims fighting side by side and under each other’s command against the foreign oppressor. The rebellious Indian soldiers of the British army consisted of both Hindus and Muslims, approached the Mughal King Bahadur Shah Zafar to lead their fight against British rule in India. In 1857 the last of the Mughal emperors had served as a rallying symbol for the Indians opposing British colonial rule. The diverse anti-British forces participating in the joint rebellion were aligned through their shared acceptance of the formal legitimacy of the Mughal emperor as the ruler of India.

This unity posed a threat to British colonial rule in India and thus they systematically planned to break the unity among Indian people. When the restricted franchise was granted to Indians, the British created separate communal electorates so that Muslim voters could vote for Muslim candidates. The seeds of division were sown, to prevent a unified nationalist movement that could overthrow the British.

The demand for Pakistan was against the composite nationalism that, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subash Chandra Bose, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Ubaidullah Sindhi, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Maulana Mahmud-ul-Hasan, Hussain Ahmed Madani, and Dr Zakir Hussain vowed to protect India’s unity.

The colonial rulers projected themselves as saviours for Hindus because they said the previous rulers ,i.e., Muslims, were cruel and unjust towards Hindus. Of course, historically this is not true. British colonialists viewed the Indian people as always divided based on ‘primordial identities’ of religion and caste. This view also became deeply embedded in the ideology and politics of the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha. That was the reason these extremists’ organisations did not take part during the anti-colonial struggle, while focused their energies on identifying the distinction between Hindus and Muslims. (Siddiqui,2020c)

In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi launched the ‘Civil Disobedience Movement’, which meant any cooperation with the British colonial authorities was discouraged and people were asked to boycott the courts and should not join the army. This was overwhelmingly supported by the Muslims. The ‘civil disobedience movement’ showed the Hindu-Muslim unity and it was realised that this unity could help the Indian people to achieve independence.

However, neither the Hindu extremist organisation extended their support to India’s struggle for freedom against British colonial rule and did not participate in the ‘Civil Disobedience’ movement of 1930 or the ‘Quit India movement’ of 1942. Under the leadership of Savarkar, the Hindu Mahasabha was opposed to Mahatma Gandhi’s gestures to Muslims and towards the Muslim League president Muhammad Ali Jinnah. (Noorani, 2002)

The demand for Pakistan was against the composite nationalism that, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subash Chandra Bose, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Ubaidullah Sindhi, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Maulana Mahmud-ul-Hasan, Hussain Ahmed Madani, and Dr Zakir Hussain vowed to protect India’s unity. The communal riots (religious violence) were rising in the mid-1940s, while the colonial police and administration either did not control it or wanted to prove that these two communities cannot live in peace therefore their presence and rule are important to maintain peace.

In fact, the British colonial policy of ‘divide et impera’ (divide and rule) fomented religious antagonisms in India to facilitate continued imperial rule and reached its tragic culmination in the 1947 partition of India. The very religious identities of Hindus and Muslims in the sub-continent were constructed by the British, and as such, the subsequent strife between these groups was a function of this policy.

The main problem of ‘religion as a political tool’ is that it is obsessed with power in the public domain. India had witnessed the politicisation of religion since the latter part of the 19th century. The British colonial government had begun to define Indians based on their religion in the census. In fact, in India, religion was politicised in the late 19th century by the British rulers. Every census identified Indians by their religion. The colonial government counted how many Hindus and how many Muslims formed part of the governed, and how benefits such as limited representation can be portioned between them. As religious identities hardened, they became the basis of competitive nationalism that culminated in the Partition of India.

Religious identity came to play an important role in competition for limited representation in legislative councils in India under colonial administration. Competing religious nationalism culminated in the Partition of India. Religion had been catapulted from the private into the public sphere as a form of pure politics.

The British imperialist policy of ‘divide and rule’ focusing previously indistinct Hindu-Muslim differences had its disastrous outcome in the Hindu-Muslim bloodshed and massacres of Partition. The British rulers tried to undermine the anti-colonial movement by encouraging the Indian community to be organized on the name of religion and castes and their leaders to focus on building and safeguarding their communities.

During the famines in India under the British rule, the colonial administration failed to respond adequately to the food shortage or subsequently to acknowledge responsibility for the resulting mass starvation and deaths. (Siddiqui, 1990b; also, 2020c)

Although Britain won World War II, but the war left Britain economically poor and ‘with largest external debt in history’, money owed to the United States for its help during the war was huge. As a result, Britain was in no position to maintain its empire, as it was militarily very weak. For Britain, the overseas commitments were no longer sustainable, and leaving India appeared to be the only viable option, and then the question was what they would leave behind, a weak and fragmented India. The task of dividing the two nations (i.e., India and Pakistan) was assigned to Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a lawyer who had never been to India before and knew nothing of its history, society, culture, or traditions. Radcliffe drew up his maps in less than five weeks, dividing provinces, districts, villages, homes and promptly scuttled to Britain, never to return to India again.

The study concludes that British colonialism was prime responsible for the partition of India, but of course, supported by the communal forces. As the modernization arguments were collapsing and the poverty and exploitation was increasing in India, (Siddiqui, 2021) and then by the end of the 19th century, the British rulers had to find other arguments to justify colonial rule. They found religious divide important tools to justify and prolong their rule. It was said that since Hindus constituted the majority of then India’s population, and thus Hindus would undermine and exploit the Muslim minority. It was claimed that only British rule could maintain peace between these two religious’ communities. The British saw themselves as a neutral empire and the tension between these two religious groups were important to justify their rule. They had to prove that Indian people were divided based on religion in the past.

About the Author

Kalim Siddiqui

Dr. Kalim Siddiqui is an economist, specialising in International Political Economy, Development Economics, International Trade, and International Economics. His work, which combines elements of international political economy and development economics, economic policy, economic history and international trade, often challenges prevailing orthodoxy about which policies promote overall development in less developed countries. Kalim teaches international economics at the Department of Accounting, Finance and Economics, University of Huddersfield, U.K. He has taught economics since 1989 at various universities in Norway and U.K.


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