The element of tragedy here is arguably implicit in the whole imperial project. Ever since Rome conquered and partitioned Gaul, the best-known colonial precept has been divide et impera—"divide and rule." Yet after the initial subjugation the name of the task soon becomes the more soothing "civilizing mission," and a high value is placed on lofty, balanced, unifying administration. Later comes the point at which the colonized outgrow the rule of the remote and chilly exploiters, and then it will often be found convenient for the governor or the district commissioner to play upon the tribal or confessional differences among his subjects. From proclaiming that withdrawal, let alone partition, is the very last thing they will do, the colonial authorities move to ensure that these are the very last things they do do. The contradiction is perfectly captured in the memoir of the marvelously named Sir Penderel Moon, one of the last British administrators in India, who mordantly titled his book Divide and Quit.
The events he records occurred beyond half a century ago. But in the more immediate past it was Lords Carrington and Owen—both senior graduates of the British Foreign Office—who advanced the ethnic cantonization of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was Lord Carrington who (just before Nelson Mandela was released from prison) proposed that South Africa be split into a white Afrikaner reservation, a Zulu area, and a free-for-all among various other peoples. It was Sir Anthony Eden who helpfully suggested in 1954 that the United States might consider a division of Vietnam into "North" and "South" at the close of the French colonial fiasco. Cold War partitions or geopolitical partitions, such as those imposed in Germany, Vietnam, and Korea, are to be distinguished from those arising from the preconditions of empire. But there is a degree of overlap even here (especially in the case of Vietnam and also, later, of Cyprus). As a general rule it can be stated that all partitions except that of Germany have led to war or another partition or both. Or that they threaten to do so.
Pakistan had been an independent state for only a quarter century when its restive Bengali "east wing" broke away to become Bangladesh. And in the process of that separation a Muslim army put a Muslim people to the sword—rather discrediting and degrading the original concept of a "faith-based" nationality. Cyprus was attacked by Greece and invaded by Turkey within fourteen years of its quasi-partitioned independence, and a huge and costly international effort is now under way to redraw the resulting frontiers so that they bear some relation to local ethnic proportions. Every day brings tidings of a fresh effort to revise the 1947-1948 cease-fire lines in Palestine (sometimes known as the 1967 borders), which were originally the result of a clumsy partition of the initial British Mandate. In Northern Ireland the number of Catholic citizens now approaches the number of Protestant ones, so that the terms "minority" and "majority" will soon take on new meaning. When that time arrives, we can be sure that demands will be renewed for a redivision of the Six Counties, roughly east and west of the Bann River. As for Kashmir, where local politics have been almost petrified since the arbitrary 1947 decision to become India's only Muslim-majority state, it is openly suggested that the outcome will be a three-way split into the part of Kashmir already occupied by Pakistan, the non-Muslim regions dominated by India, and the central valley where most Kashmiris actually dwell. In all the above cases there has been continuous strife, often spreading to neighboring countries, of the sort that partition was supposedly designed to prevent or solve. Harry Coomer (Hari Kumar), the Anglo-Indian protagonist of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, sees it all coming when he writes to an English friend in 1940,
I think that there's no doubt that in the last twenty years—whether intentionally or not—the English have succeeded in dividing and ruling, and the kind of conversation I hear ... makes me realise the extent to which the English now seem to depend upon the divisions in Indian political opinion perpetuating their own rule at least until after the war, if not for some time beyond it. They are saying openly that it is "no good leaving the bloody country because there's no Indian party representative to hand it over to." They prefer Muslims to Hindus (because of the closer affinity that exists between God and Allah than exists between God and the Brahma), are constitutionally predisposed to Indian princes, emotionally affected by the thought of untouchables, and mad keen about the peasants who look upon any Raj as God ...
This is the fictional equivalent of Anita Inder Singh's diagnosis, in The Origins of the Partition of India 1936-1947:
The Labour government's directive to the Cabinet Mission in March 1946 stressed that power would only be transferred to Indians if they agreed to a settlement which would safeguard British military and economic interests in India. But in February 1947, the Labour government announced that it would wind up the Raj by June 1948, even if no agreement had emerged. Less than four months later, Lord Mountbatten announced that the British would transfer power on 15 August 1947, suggesting that much happened before this interval which persuaded the British to bring forward the date for terminating the empire by almost one year. Also, the British have often claimed that they had to partition because the Indian parties failed to agree. But until the early 1940s the differences between them had been a pretext for the British to reject the Congress demand for independence ...
Sigmund Freud once wrote an essay concerning "the narcissism of the minor differences." He pointed out that the most vicious and irreconcilable quarrels often arise between peoples who are to most outward appearances nearly identical. In Sri Lanka the distinction between Tamils and Sinhalese is barely noticeable to the visitor. But the Sinhalese can tell the difference, and the indigenous Tamils know as well the difference between themselves and the Tamils later imported from South India by the British to pick the tea. It is precisely the intimacy and inwardness of the partition impulse that makes it so tempting to demagogues and opportunists. The 1921 partition of Ireland was not just a division of the island but a division of the northeastern province of Ulster. Historically this province contained nine counties. But only four—Antrim, Armagh, Derry, and Down—had anything like a stable Protestant majority. Three others—Monaghan, Cavan, and Donegal—were overwhelmingly Catholic. The line of pro-British partition attempted to annex the maximum amount of territory with the minimum number of Catholic and nationalist voters. Two largely Catholic counties, Fermanagh and Tyrone, petitioned to be excluded from the "Unionist" project. But a mere four counties were thought to be incompatible with a separate state; so the partition of Ireland, into twenty-six counties versus six, was also the fracturing of Ulster.