What ifs revisited…

Posted in history by jrahman on August 15, 2009

My last year’s 15 Aug post formed the basis of a Forum article a few weeks ago.  The big takeaway: we have spent a lot of time imagining our nation when there was nothing inevitable about the way things turned out, but we do have a republic that is up to us to shape.

This year, let’s have some quick fun with what ifs.  What are the big ‘what if’ questions of the 20th century South Asia?

I have read enough Harry Turtledove to know that a great ‘what if’ event has to meet two tests.

• It has to be something that had a reasonable probability of actually happenning ­— there was a high probability that India could have lost the 1983 World Cup, there was not much probability that Bangladesh could have won the 2007 World Cup.

• It has to be something that truly could have changed major events ­— not really much would have happened if India hadn’t won the 1983 World Cup.

Implicit from the two is this corollary: questions like what if partition hadn’t happened? are meaningless.  One has to ask why partition happened?  If one believes it was a historical inevitability, then there is no event that could have happened that would have changed it.  If one traces it to specific factors, then the questions are what if even X or Y had (or had not) happened?

With this in mind, here are my picks, with possible outcomes in italics.

What if:

• Gandhi had not called off the non-coperation movement in the early 1920s?  Partition of South Asia could have been avoided.

• Congress formed a coalition government with Fazlul Huq in Bengal in the late 1930s?  Partition of Bengal could have been avoided.

• Pakistani tribesmen captured Srinagar before the Indian troops arrived in 1947?  India could have ignored Pakistan.

• Morarji Desai became the Prime Minister of India in the 1960s?  India could have avoided the Hindu rate of growth.

• Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was executed by the Pakistan Army in 1971?  Maoists could have captured power in Bangladesh, exporting revolution to the neighbours.

• Rao-Singh reforms had not been introduced?  India could have reverted to the Hindu rate of growth.

• India had not nuclearised in 1998?  Pakistan could have continued proliferation without scrutiny, leading to all sorts of nasty events in the post 9-11 environment.

Well, fun as they may be to wonder about, none of these happened.  At the time of partition, life expectancy at birth was around 37 years in our part of the world.  That is, most of the real midnight’s children are long gone. I am sure the generation in this video will write a better future.

7 Responses

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  1. Udayan said, on August 15, 2009 at 10:27 pm

    I think I suggested some last year as well. What a dangerous tradition for Swadhinata Divas. Here are some new ideas:

    1. Suhrawardy decides to stay on in India after his experimental “it doesn’t look like I’m ever going to make it in Pakistan after all but regardless I’m going to safeguard my property” phase in Kolkata 1947-8. Awami League never emerges. Indian Bengali Muslims become power brokers in Delhi.

    2. Fazlul Haq dies in Kolkata during his 1955 visit, and the last thing people remember about him is his speech at Dum Dum airport, “ami kono Hindustan-Pakistan mani na, ei shimana ami mani na, ami bangali …”

    3. India pre-emptively invades Tibet in 1948 while China is in chaos

    4. NWFP exerts its then more pro-India position and India has a border with Afghanistan, and a huge Pashtun population ….

    5. Radcliffe grants India access to it’s eastern most state of Chittgong Hill Tracts through a corridor to the ocean. When Muslims complain, it is pointed out that they have Murshidabad and Purnea.

    6. Radcliffe grants East Pakistan the city of Calcutta as its capital. Howrah is Benapole. Urdu-speaking Muslims are the elite of East Pakistan and, bolstered by the new population of Bihari and UP Muslims pouring into the city along with exodus of Bengali Hindus, demand that their city become the capital of Pakistan instead of the tiny fishing port of Karachi. Bengali Hindus bond with the Sindhis in independent India.

    7. Jinnah makes a successful claim on Arakan for East Pakistan. A national language committee is appointed to develop scripts and materials for the multitude of new languages in East Pakistan alongside Bangla that were previously subjugated by the Calcutta babus: Rohingya, Sylheti, Chittagongian, etc representing the new provinces in the region, and each coming with huge funding for new bureaucracies, local elites etc …

    8. Chittaranjan doesn’t die prematurely

    9. Bengali Muslim leaders like Abdul Rasul who opposed partition in 1905 become more active and nationally rewarded

    10. There is no Bengal Famine or Muslim Day of Action; Bengali Hindus trust Suhrawardy when he proposes United Bengal. The Assamese want a similar proposal. The Tamils … Jinnah and Nehru eye property on neighboring streets in London.

    11. Tagore is asked about Pakistan and what it means for Bengali Muslims on his deathbed. His impromptu speech becomes his epitaph among Bengali Muslims. I’m not sure whether this means that no one dares mention “Sonar Bangla” in East Pakistan, or whether there is no East Pakistan …

    12. Jinnah declares, on a trip to Dhaka prior to the 1946 elections, “Urdu and urdu alone …”.

  2. nikolaykotev said, on August 15, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    New Blog for military history with URL: and name “War “Photoblog – II”
    Nikolay Kotev

  3. Saiful said, on August 23, 2009 at 1:30 am

    You seem to have a problem with Mr Suhrawardy. Perhaps you are unaware he is a hero to all Bangalis, and we regard him as one of the founders of our nationalism that led to our independence!

  4. Udayan said, on August 24, 2009 at 1:03 am


    I am well aware that many regard Suhrawardy as a hero. However, it is not true to say he is a hero to “all Bangalis” – for instance, on the Indian side of the border, particularly among many Hindus, he is viewed with considerable suspicion because of his alleged role in the Direct Day of Action, something he never explicitly denied, and even acknowledged partial responsibility for when seeking Hindu support during the short-lived United Bengal proposal. In the context of this post, when one thinks of the events leading to the eventual partition of Bengal in 1947 and the borders we have today, that one event (Direct Day) had a significant role in shaping Hindu popular opinion.

    Part of what Jyoti was getting at – and which I echoed in my response – was that there was no inevitable path leading to certain monumentous events that continue to shape our lives.

    On a slightly related topic, one reason Suhrawardy is regarded as a hero by some but not by others is the “partition of history” that has come with our general partition as well. In India, one rarely discusses Suhrawrdy post-1946; in Bangladesh, one rarely discusses his record pre-1947 (including his controversial role as Food Minister diuring the Bengal Famine). In Pakistan he is a hero for other reasons – most discussions of him seem to focus on his leadership in 1946 – the elections, and the Direct Day – events, which, incidentally, Sheikh Mujib was also involved with and as an ambitious junior cadre, very significantly so – something we definitely don’t hear much about today.

  5. In a parallel universe « Mukti said, on August 15, 2010 at 11:33 am

    […] the last couple of years, I dabbled in quackery of alternate history to mark partition (here and here).   They say once is happenstance, twice coincidence, but three times and we have a trend, a […]

  6. The other March anniversary « Mukti said, on March 24, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    […] Let’s begin by paraphrasing something I wrote in 2009. […]

  7. Bengal undivided « Mukti said, on August 15, 2012 at 12:01 am

    […] but we shouldn’t ask that question.  As I wrote here: questions like what if partition hadn’t happened? are meaningless.  One has to ask why […]

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