Geopolitics of Indian partition – Part 2

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By: Arindam Mukherjee
Updated: 21 December, 2022 3:03 pm IST
Crores of people were displaced during Partition in 1947. (file photo)

By 1945, England realised that their time for military projection around the world was over. They had no choice other than to leave their resource-dead colonies behind. They did not have the financial bandwidth to sustain that big an overseas periphery, especially when the periphery had been reduced to a consumer depot. And a reluctant depot by its nature; because by the 1950s, Japan had far superior products to offer compared to the UK. Indians, and subjects of other colonies over the world that had access to Japanese goods, did not want to pay for the overpriced uselessness that England was producing.

But with this compulsion to leave, there was an equal measure of compulsion to stay back. That was in the shape of a single state – The Soviet Union.

Reenergized by the Soviet triumph over Germany and a resultant physical penetration deep into the heart of Europe, Stalin had resumed hammering on his pet plan of spreading communism all over Asia (including English, and French colonies) within his inner circles. The mention of the phrase ‘Iron Curtain’ by Winston Churchill while he was addressing a crowd somewhere in the USA in 1946, made quite a grim vision of the universalist, expansionist nature of Communism; there was little illusion in London about the probable impact of it on its colonies. A spread of Communism in Asia could mean satellite states popping up here or there. And that was not all. Along the geography of the south of Turkestan, the USSR was perilously close to reaching the warm waters of the Arabian Sea through Afghanistan and Northwestern Provinces.

As a global expansionist power, England was finished towards the end of WWII, but it was still an important constituent of the leadership of the potential bipolar world; it housed the century-old, already-complex web that literally controlled the global finances by then. Geopolitically speaking, a Soviet empire from the North Pole to the Indian Ocean could mean the actualization of a political scientist and geographer Halford Mackinder’s Heartland-World-Island theory which says, ‘whoever controls the Heartland controls the World Island; whoever controls the World Island controls the world.’

The plan

Given the shrewd nature of English colonists, and their vast experience in politics at the global level, my suspicion is that they sensed the coming of their future back in the 1930s. There is no other reason for someone like Lord Linlithgow to reach India and work overtime to establish an alternative power framework by careful nurturing of the Muslim League. And since fortune favours the enterprising, a major help that he found was in the shape of an outstanding level of daftness displayed by the Indian National Congress under MK Gandhi. By the 30s, Mr Gandhi had begun demonstrating a kind of behaviour that, while being regularly ferried to faraway London just for laughs, was also used to create a permanent impression about the political ignorance of the largest party of India. Narendra Singh Sarila has painstakingly tracked the entire series in his milestone book ‘In the Shadow of The Great Game’ [a highly recommended read].

I do not think that there is a way of finding out exactly at what point the Brits decided that a separate outpost to prevent Soviet access to the Arabian Sea could be an idea (an outpost that remained completely insulated from the erratic nature of the INC). But, I can make a guess. A decision was taken when a) the unpredictability of INC’s behaviour coincided with b) the calculated compliance of the Muslim League.

The factors that originated outside India were three. The first one was the tremendous status that England enjoyed in the Muslim world, for granting statehood to the different pockets in the Gulf and the Middle East. Readers might recall that it was through holding the UK’s hand that America made an entry later in that region – an entry that would not otherwise be possible. Such was England’s influence. And not just the Arab world, the Brits by then began to lay the foundation of a great relationship with the Iranian government too. This status was sure to elevate further were they to approve a certain Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s idea of a separate state for Indian Muslims. In real terms, this translated to global clout for the ‘new’ West, because the Middle East was promising to become the global energy hub already.

The second point originated from a name: Nicholas Spykman – an American political scientist known as the Godfather of Containment. Spykman was the one who built on Alfred Mahan’s Primacy of Maritime Routes, and Halford Mackinder’s Heartland Theory. One of the crucial keys to his theory of containment was what he called the Rimland – the outside lining of the Heartland. Spykman’s contention was that the West’s control of access to Rimland held the promise of a reduction of the potency of a land expansionist power by way of reducing its maritime capacities.

[A map detailing Europe and Asia would come in handy here.]

Spykman propounded his theory in the 1940s. Rimland to him was what Mackinder called the Marginal Crescent: European Coast, Middle East, Indian Peninsula, and East Asia. By the time WWII ended with the USSR being one end of the bipolar world, there was no way for them to access the East Asian lands with a geographical giant like China blocking the land access to sea ports along east and southeast Asia. South Europe remained technically difficult the same way with NATO and other pacts and treaties between the different European nations. USSR’s only access to the Mediterranean Sea and thus open shipping lanes was through their old presence in the Black Sea. With the Middle East and Iran aligned with the West, and the Himalayas (and China) separating the subcontinental peninsula, the only sliver of real estate that could allow them unfettered access to the Arabian Sea was if they expanded straight through Afghanistan and the northwest frontier, and kept marching till they reached the shores. This would not just save them massive costs and logistical headaches of operating from the Russian far-east, but also increase their area of influence in Asia.

This is where the third factor dovetailed brilliantly. An Islamic nation conceptualised and executed by England – a country already high in the eyes of the Muslim ummah – as a part of Spykman’s Rimland could permanently shut that warm-water access dream of the USSR. And since Islam was principally opposed to atheist communists, there were minimal chances of them aligning with each other in the foreseeable future.

With Karachi at the one end, the other factors that came into consideration in favour of customizing a piece of real estate in the NWFP-Punjab-Sindh were as follows:

The top pick of the British Indian Army usually remained stationed there (frontier land). There was a small but handy military infrastructure in place there in the shape of the Khyber Bolan Railroad, and a highway connecting Gilgit and Hunza to Kashgar via Tashkurgan (we know it now as the Karakoram Highway). There was the mighty Himalaya with the Brits having secured access to all the passes along that part of the alternate silk route from Leh to Kashgar. Then there was the buffer called Afghanistan – a perfect wasteland for any power that dared to overstay their welcome. Finally, a sizeable Muslim population was there, to be used as and when (referendum) required.

Geopolitically speaking, the rest of the subcontinent was of no special value anymore. Politically too, India radiated mixed vibes. It had the experience of prevailing as a singular unit under different empires, from Chandragupta Maurya to Chatrapati Shivaji. But it was inexperienced in surviving under a centralized authority as a nation-state, and the general verdict in London was lined with indifference: it would not matter if the state did not survive; if it did, then within limits, INC could be rigged to remain a fairly pliable proxy.


Thus, it was never about India post-WWII. It was more about Anglo-Muslim friendship, which other than Anglo-Iranian Oil, the constant propping up of pliable dictators and kings in the Middle East, or the continuous trickle of Pakistani immigrants filling up England, saw itself as a bulwark against the communist expansion in Asia. Pakistan was a piece on the Eurasian chessboard that was crucial to blocking the Soviet ambition towards the Arabian Sea.

It was a special piece indeed — one that the Brits wanted to preserve as their client and as a garrison town. Therefore, as is the nature of a garrison town, Pakistan was to develop into a giant army outpost in the later days – one that had a tremendous utility to the West time and time again, till the end of the Cold War. India was that residual stretch – one that was of no value to the crown. Had enclaves like Hyderabad gone to Pakistan, it would have delighted the Brits some more, but one they did not lose their sleep over.

This is the geopolitics behind the partition. All the incidents – the riots, the propaganda, the prying open fault lines, the ignorance of the INC and our political leaders – all religiously dovetailed in an appropriate fashion knowingly or not, to result in what the subcontinent had to face during its independence. This bears the hallmark of English geopolitical cunning; and it would have been a perfect execution from their point were it not for some pesky Maharaja of Kashmir that remained indecisive, which cost them the access to Indus – the main river that irrigated their garrison state. But they had a subservient INC that was to later follow up with an ambiguous water treaty which made sure that the crown remained happy even in its afterlife.

[Arindam Mukherjee is a geopolitical analyst and the author of JourneyDog Tales, The Puppeteer, and A Matter of Greed.]

[Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own.]

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