Cities across the Indian subcontinent were gripped by a sombre mood on the morning of April 1, 1937. A far-reaching law had come into force in the country and Indian freedom fighters were staging fiery protests against it, much to the chagrin of the British rulers. “Giant demonstrations and a hartal – a general strike and the closing of all shops – are being organised by Congress in protest against the institution of the new constitution,” a newswire report said. Amid that fracas a major geopolitical event with ramifications for all of Asia largely slipped the attention of Indian leaders: the separation of the province of Burma from India.

In Burma, the split was seen as welcome news. April 1 was declared a holiday and celebrated with festive activities, although Burma continued to remain under the iron grip of the British Empire.

“Today Burma ceases to form part of the Indian Empire,” the British monarch, King George VI, declared. “She passed under the sovereignty of the British Crown in the reign of my great-grandmother Queen Victoria, and during the years that have elapsed since then Burma has advanced greatly in material prosperity and in political experience.” Moving forward, he said, the country would be better served if it followed a course independent of India.

The separation had come after a five-decade period when, for all practical purposes, Burma was a part of India. George Orwell lived there from 1922 to 1927 as an officer of the Indian Imperial Police and made it the setting of his first novel Burmese Days. Labour moved freely from eastern and southern India to the sparsely-populated country, with the result that Burmese Indians became a key part of the administration and economy.

Making a case

By the 1920s, social discontent was brewing in Burma. Ethnic Burmese and other indigenous groups were angry that Indian and Chinese immigrants were financially better off than them and the wealth that was generated from their teak industry was going into the hands of the Europeans.

The Burma question was considered in 1918 when Edwin Montagu and Lord Chelmsford discussed reforms to gradually introduce self-governing institutions in India. On that occasion, however, it was decided that keeping Burma within India would be better for military reasons.

Demands for Burma’s separation began to grow from the early 1920s. Burmese legislator Maung Po Bye made a request in 1922 to form a committee to examine the question of Burma leaving the “Indian Empire”. But his plea was turned down by the Speaker of the Burma Legislative Council, who described it as premature, adding that it could be raised only when a proper constitution was introduced in Burma.

Nevertheless, in 1924, the province’s legislative council passed a resolution calling for an eventual separation from India. The resolution, which was not worded with any hostility towards Indians, stated:

“It is a resolution that has been carefully framed by the Nationalist Party because, as the Honourable Members are aware, even among the Burmans there is some difference of opinion as to when and how to press this question. But we are all unanimous that one day, Burma must be separated from India. I say that not because we have any ill-feeling towards the Indians, not because we are not grateful to the Indians. We have received many advantages from India in the past, but we have learned by experience that as matters stand that it is not advisable for Burma to be forever tacked on to India, and therefore to meet both views – that is to say, there are people who have such a strong view on the separation question that they would like to press straightaway to be cut off entirely from the rest of India, and there is a school among Burmans that this question should go slowly and gradually till we have got some footing with the reforms.”

It was during the 1928 visit of the infamous Indian Statutory Commission, or Simon Commission as it is better known, that the idea of the separation began to gain traction. The seven-member commission of British parliamentarians, which included Clement Atlee, was handed a secret memorandum by the government of Burma that made a case for the province’s separation from British India.

“The Burmese are as distinct from the Indians in race and language as they are from the British,” the memorandum said. Burma’s problems were “altogether different” from those of India.

Distinct people

While making a case for separation, the memorandum provided some perspective: “In historical times (that is, it may be said, from 1044 AD when Anawrata founded the Pagan Dynasty) there seems to have been little or no intercourse between India and Burma until the beginning of the 19th century, and the people of Burma are entirely different from the peoples of India. They come from a different stock, and have a different history, a different religion, different languages, a different social system, different manners, different customs and a different outlook on life.”

There was an “undercurrent of discontent” among the Burmese, the memorandum said – a “general feeling that by reason of its remote position and its alien and relatively small population, sufficient consideration was not given to the special circumstances and needs of the province”.

The British authorities in Burma argued that with democratic reforms being introduced in India, popular sentiments needed to be respected in Burma as well. “And no thinking Burman can overlook the fact that the population of Burma (13 million) is a mere fraction of that of British India (247 million) and that there are obvious disadvantages in a position where a relatively small country with its own traditions, its own social systems and a strongly marked individuality of its own is tacked on to a much bigger and more populous country with which it has no racial or social or religious affinity and from which it is separated by 700 miles of sea and by a wide stretch of hill and jungle, devoid alike of road and railway,” the memorandum said. “It would seem as if such a position could be justified only by some overmastering consideration of economic or national necessity.”

The memorandum questioned the very concept of India as a nation and reflected the thinking of the officials who would push for partitioning the country less than two decades later. “It is more than 700 years since the first Muhammadan dynasty was established in India,” the memorandum said. “Yet there is no real fusion between the communities. On the contrary, the spirit of Islam, both in its religious and its social outlook, is repugnant to that of Hinduism, and as recently as 1925 a prominent Muhammadan leader publicly stated that when he entered the house of a Hindu neighbour he felt himself in an alien civilisation.”

To buttress this argument, the memorandum pointed to caste-based divisions and regional differences in India. “Thus the question inevitably arises whether, when the British troops are withdrawn and representative government exists in India, it will be a mere counting of heads, or whether undue power will not rest with the fighting races and their leaders,” the memorandum said, questioning even whether an independent India could have a united army. “It is difficult for instance at any rate at present to imagine Madrassis, Bengalis, Brahmins, Sikhs, Punjabi Muhammadans and Pathans serving side by side in the same regiment and same company.”

To the officials who wrote the memorandum, the province of Burma had more characteristics of a nation than India. “Its population is only 13 and ¼ million and moreover it is a homogenous population; Burman races (Burmans, Karens, Shans and Talaings) make up 91 per cent of the population, and Burmans proper constitute two-thirds of the whole,” the memorandum said. “Moreover 11 of 13 million profess the Buddhist religion. It is a very tolerant religion, and communal clashes do not occur except between immigrant Hindus and Muhammadans.”

The memorandum conceded that a separation would harm Burma’s economy in the short run, given how integrated it was with India’s. At that time, Burma was dependent on India for labour and commodities like coal and coke, while India needed Burma for rice, paddy, petrol and teak. “It follows that the two countries cannot afford to quarrel, and it is most desirable that if separation does come, it should come by consent and with mutual good-will and should leave no resentment or bitterness behind it,” the memorandum said.

Final decision

After going through the arguments presented to the Simon Commission, the authorities in London decided to go ahead with the separation of Burma from India. But first they decided to put it to a vote in Burma. The outcome was surprising.

The Guardian summed it up best in a report on April 1, 1937: “The election was held. To the distress of the Government the parties opposed to separation obtained a two to one majority. The reasons of the majority may have been misguided, they may have misunderstood the nature of the federation partnership which forms the only alternative to separation, or it may have been a subtle gesture in favour of complete independence; in any case the British Government decided that the Burmese did not know their own mind and went ahead with separation and an elaborate Constitution.”

There was no immediate impact from the separation on the Indians living in Burma. The various Indian communities in cities like Rangoon continued to flourish until the Japanese invasion in 1941-’42. Many of those who fled the country in 1942 returned after the end of the Second World War but were forced out by military dictator General Ne Win in 1962.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.