Leon Trotsky
Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Sri Lanka)

The partition of India

9-1. In India, Congress, with the support of the Stalinist CPI, played the central role in aborting the mass anti-imperialist movement that emerged immediately after the war and in restabilising capitalist rule across South Asia. Terrified that a renewed Quit India movement would slip out of their control and increasingly apprehensive before a rising tide of working class and peasant struggles and growing unrest in the princely states, the Congress leadership moved as quickly as possible to reach a settlement with Britain, which had already recognised the unviability of clinging on to its Indian empire. In doing so, Congress jettisoned key aspects of its own program and sought a deal not only with the British but also with the communal parties—the Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha—and with the zamindari landlords and the princes, who formed the conservative base of the colonial state.

9-2. The Muslim League, which represented the interests of the Muslim landlords and capitalists in India had put forward its demand for a separate Pakistan comprising the Muslim majority provinces in 1940. The Muslim elites, whom the British had organised and cultivated as a separate political force through the use of communal categories as a key instrument of their imperial rule, feared both their marginalisation within a unified Indian state and growing social unrest. The demand for a separate Muslim state was the means for the Muslim elite to stake its claim to a substantial share of political power in the anticipated post-war reorganisation of South Asia and to whip up communalism so as to divert and divide the increasingly restless masses. The Hindu Mahasabha, based among sections of the Hindu princes, landlords and big business, justified their own collaboration with the British in communal terms as the means of resisting Muslim “domination.” The Hindu Mahasabhites railed against the Congress for “appeasing” the Muslims and argued that Muslims were alien to the “Hindu nation” and should be denied full citizenship rights. The only means of politically combating communalism was through the mobilisation of the workers and rural masses around their common social needs. Organically hostile to such a strategy, as it threatened the fundamental interests of the Indian bourgeoisie as a whole, Congress increasingly adapted to communalism while containing and suppressing social struggles in which the masses implicitly challenged the communal divide. In the 1945–46 elections, the Congress flirted with an electoral pact with the Hindu Mahasabha in Bengal and elsewhere welcomed Hindu Mahasabhites into its ranks.

9-3. The post-war anti-imperialist upsurge initially took the form of opposition to the brutal repression of the Quit India movement and the trials of leaders of the Indian National Army (INA). INA leader Subhas Chandra Bose, a militant Congress leader, had opposed Gandhi, but sought to fight British rule not by turning to the working class, but to a rival imperialist power. He agreed to head the INA, formed from Indian soldiers who had been captured by the Japanese army, and to fight against the British under Japanese leadership. Despite their misguided aims, the INA leaders were widely regarded as heroes and patriots, and protests calling for clemency began to mushroom across India, in the process unifying Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. In November 1945 and again in February 1946, the BLPI was closely involved with student organisations in leading mass demonstrations in Calcutta against the INA trials. The protests were violently suppressed by police and troops, while the CPI joined hands with the Congress to disperse the crowds in the name of the struggle against indiscipline and disorder.

9-4. In February 1946, sections of the Indian navy in Bombay and Karachi mutinied over pay and conditions, while raising a series of radical political demands, including the release of all political prisoners, the withdrawal of British Indian troops from Indonesia and the slogan of “Quit India.” Their action triggered displays of solidarity and mutinies in other Indian military units and ultimately gave rise to mass worker actions and street fighting in Bombay. The Congress and Muslim League fully supported the British use of force in putting down the rebellion. Gandhi was especially virulent in his denunciations of the Royal Indian Navy mutineers and the cross-communal unity that characterised their struggle, saying he “would rather perish in the flames” than see the triumph of “the rabble” and declaring that a “combination between Hindus and Muslims and others for the purpose of violent action is unholy.” While the BLPI spearheaded calls for protests and a general strike in support of the mutineers, the Stalinist CPI denounced the “mass hysteria”, and sought to break up popular support for the mutiny. As on every other occasion that Congress reined in the mass movement, communalism erupted in the wake of the mutiny’s defeat. A Muslim League call for “direct action” in support of its “Pakistan” demand in August 1946 resulted in violent clashes with Hindus in Calcutta that left 6,000 dead and triggered Hindu communal atrocities on Muslims in return.

9-5. The post-war upsurge also produced a wave of industrial action into which the BLPI intervened aggressively and made significant inroads. In June 1946 and again in March–June 1947, the BLPI, which had won the leadership of the Madras Labour Union (MLU), led major strikes involving the Buckingham and Carnatic Mills in Madras, one of the largest factories in India. The 1947 strike was a bitter three-month struggle during which mass rallies and a hartal involving more than 100,000 workers and small businesses took place. In June, the union was declared illegal, its funds seized and leaders arrested, but government attempts to reopen the B & C Mills failed. The MLU eventually called off the strike but forced management to grant significant concessions.

9-6. The BLPI took a principled stand against communal politics and the call for a separate Muslim Pakistan. A resolution at the 1944 BLPI conference declared: “The [Pakistan] slogan is politically reactionary and theoretically false. It is politically reactionary in that it constitutes an effort through an appeal to communal sentiments to divert rising discontent of the Moslem masses away from its true enemy, namely, British imperialism and its native allies, against the Hindus. It is theoretically false in that it proceeds from the indefensible contention that the Moslems in India constitute a Nation, which is declared to be oppressed (equally false) by a Hindu nation. There is no basis, whether of common historical tradition, language, culture, or race, or in respect of geographical and economic factors, for the arising of a distinct Moslem nationality. Religion (together, of course, with any common element of culture which that may entail) is the only unifying factor, and is clearly insufficient, on the basis of all historical experience, to produce any sentiment which can constitute a national consciousness.”[1]

9-7. Congress, however, was rapidly moving to a settlement with Britain and its princely and landlord allies. While the Congress leadership exploited its association with the Quit India upheaval to rally support, the radical turn that the Quit India movement had taken following the arrest of Gandhi and the other Congress leaders and the growth of post-war social struggles made it loathe to lead any popular challenge to British rule and determined to get its hands on the colonial state so as to stabilise bourgeois rule as quickly as possible. Consequently, the Congress leaders abandoned their demand for complete independence and accepted Dominion status with continuing ties to Britain. They also gave up their call for a Constituent Assembly based on universal suffrage and sought to prevent a radical challenge to the rule of the princes and landlordism. Most fundamentally, Congress abandoned its program for a unified, secular India and accepted and implemented the communal partition of the subcontinent. While the Muslim League pressed for the full inclusion of Bengal and Punjab in Pakistan, Congress advocated the communal division of these two provinces and had no compunction about working with rabid communalist elements, including S.P. Mookerjee, an ex-Hindu Mahasabha president and future founder of the Jana Sangh (later the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP]). The Congress’ campaign to “save” the Hindus and Sikhs of the Punjab and Bengal from Muslim “domination” was a key factor in the unleashing of communal violence during the 1947 partition in which up to two million people perished and another 12–14 million were rendered refugees.

9-8. This betrayal was aided and abetted by the Stalinist CPI which subordinated the anti-colonial movement to the Indian bourgeoisie—firstly in the form of Congress, then, adapting to the rise of communalism in the final years of British rule, also to the Muslim League. The CPI lent political credibility to the Pakistan slogan, calling it the legitimate expression of Muslim self-determination, and sent its members into the Muslim League to help it build a social base among the Muslim masses. Between 1945 and 1947, as the Congress and the Muslim League stoked a communal conflagration, the CPI issued futile calls for the rival bourgeois parties to come together and lead the national revolution.

9.9. Partition defined and defines the “freedom” and “independence” incarnated in bourgeois India and Pakistan. The communal pogroms that accompanied the birth of India and Pakistan, were only the most bloody and immediately apparent consequence of the abortion of the democratic revolution. The new states defended the wealth and property of the zamindars, princes and big business and retained the key institutions and laws of the British colonial state, adopting at most a handful of meagre, piecemeal reforms aimed at facilitating capitalist development. Six decades on, none of the burning democratic and social problems of the masses have been resolved. On the contrary they have grown ever more malignant as landlordism, caste oppression and other feudal vestiges have become ever more intertwined with capitalist exploitation.

9-10. Far from resolving the “communal problem”, partition has greatly compounded it by enshrining communal divisions in the state structure of South Asia. Addressing students in Calcutta following Gandhi’s murder in January 1948 by a follower of Hindutva ideologue V.D. Savarkar, BLPI leader Colvin R. de Silva explained: “The tragedy of the partition flows particularly from the declared objects of its architects. This gruesome cutting up of the living body of India on the one hand and of two living ‘nationalities’ (the Punjabi and the Bengali nationalities) on the other was put forward as a solution of the communal problem on the one side and as a means of opening up the road to freedom on the other. Both pleas have proved false. Partition has proved in the one respect only a means for reforging chains for the imperialist enslavement of the masses ... In the other respect, it has proved but a means of beguiling two states to thoughts of mutual war as the only means of canalising internal communal feelings away from civil convulsions. The war by the way may yet come (if indeed, it has not already come in Kashmir and Junagadh). But the civil convulsions have come meanwhile in catastrophic fashion.”

9.11. De Silva’s warnings proved prophetic. Partition has given rise to a reactionary geo-political struggle between India and Pakistan that has resulted in three declared wars and countless war crises, squandered vital economic resources, and today threatens the people of South Asia with a nuclear conflagration. The first Indo-Pak war of 1947–48 resulted in a divided Kashmir that has cruelly split the Kashmiri people and has proven to be an intractable political problem within the framework of the communally-divided subcontinent. Incapable of resolving any of the myriad social tensions, the ruling elites in both countries have routinely resorted to communal demagogy to deflect opposition at home. Partition has facilitated imperialist dominance of South Asia by frustrating rational economic development, including the use of water resources, and by providing a political mechanism for the US and other great powers to play one state and ruling elite against the other. Today South Asia is home to the world’s greatest concentration of poor and is the least economically integrated region in the world.


Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India, “Resolution on Pakistan,” in New International, Volume 12, No. 10, December 1946, pp. 300-301, http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/ni/vol12/no10/blpi.htm.