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Reviewed by:
  • India’s Partition: The Story of Imperialism in Retreat
  • Kaushik Roy
India’s Partition: The Story of Imperialism in Retreat. By D. N. Panigrahi. London and New York: Routledge, 2004. ISBN 0-714-65601-1. Illustrations. Maps. Notes. Glossary. Biographical data. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xx, 371. $135.00.

This book is not about traditional military history. Instead of operational details or comments on generalship, the volume under review focuses on the political impact of World War II on British colonialism in South Asia. So, broadly, the monograph could be categorized as a product of the war and state approach. D. N. Panigrahi in this work argues that partition of British India was not a foregone conclusion. Wartime politics gave rise to the separate states of India and Pakistan.

While Nationalist historiography as represented by Bipan Chandra, S. Gopal, and others has put the onus of partition on the long-term British plan of "divide and rule," the Cambridge School asserts that partition was inevitable due to the inherent fissures within Indian society. In recent times Ayesha Jalal's The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League, and the Demand for Pakistan (Oxford, 1985) blames the Hindu dominated, power hungry Congress politicians for division of the subcontinent in 1947. Jalal's view challenges the Nationalist position that while the Congress stood for religious unity, Jinnah's Muslim League wanted division of the subcontinent on the basis of religion.

Panigrahi accepts the Nationalist position that the Muslim League was mostly built up by the British government. However, he differs from the Nationalist view in claiming that the British support for the Muslim League was confined to a few individuals who were able to steer imperial policy in that direction due to the circumstances generated by the global war.

During the war, the British government required cooperation from the political parties in order to mobilize the manpower and economic resources [End Page 550] of India. Mishandling of the political situation by Lord Linlithgow, the representative of the British polity in India, pushed the Congress into the anti-British position. Had Linlithgow been more accommodating, asserts Panigrahi, then Congress might have cooperated with the British government in India. During the war, the Labour Party was willing to compromise with Congress. But, the attempts of Clement Attlee and Stafford Cripps to negotiate with Congress were sabotaged by the reactionary elements within the British ruling class. In fact, Linlithgow was encouraged by Winston Churchill to sponsor the Muslim League as a counterbalance to Congress. Pushed to the extreme, the Congress launched the "Quit India" movement in 1942.

"Quit India," claims Panigrahi, was a mistake on the part of the Congress. This move further strengthened the ties between the Muslim League and the British government. To gain the League's support, the British encouraged separate representation of the Muslim community and Jinnah's demand of a separate homeland for the Indian Muslims. Optimistically, Panigrahi concludes that if instead of the arch imperialist Linlithgow, India had had a liberal Viceroy, and if instead of "Quit India," Congress had cooperated with Britain in wartime, then there would have been no necessity on the part of the British government to support Jinnah and partition might have been avoided.

One could raise one's eyebrows about the ifs and buts in Panigrahi's argument. Nevertheless, determinism and the consequent concept of "inevitability" in history ought to be challenged. To sum up, based on the primary papers of the chief protagonists of wartime Britain, the author has constructed an interesting and argument.

Kaushik Roy
Presidency College
Kolkata, India


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pp. 550-551
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Archived 2010
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