Countdown To Partition
Flicker Of Hope
Mountbatten revels in his role as arbiter, the destiny of millions sitting light on him even Churchill is convinced. The lone dissenter: a desperate Gandhi
COMMENTS PRINT
COUNTDOWN TO PARTITION
BY
AJIT BHATTACHARJEA



LORD MOUNTBATTEN was not given to modesty, but the deference with which the British Cabinet and the Indian leaders accepted his plans justified considerable conceit. During his final consultations in London, he encountered only praise, especially from prime minister Attlee. An even bigger achievement was to win over a grumpy Winston Churchill, who as the previous prime minister had sworn that he would never preside over the liquidation of the British Empire, of which India was the jewel.

In a recorded interview to Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, authors of Freedom At Midnight, later, Mountbatten could boast: "I had as great a control over the (British) cabinet as I had over the leaders in India at that time, and I had the most frightful, not so much conceit, but a complete and absolute belief that it all depended on me, and they had to do what I said or else...." He recalled Jawaharlal Nehru crying on his shoulder and Vallabhbhai Patel with tears in his eyes at his departure.

Gandhi remained the only obstacle until he was forced to concede defeat. But in the last fateful days before the Congress officially accepted Partition, he waged a last ditch one-man struggle against the leadership. Nehru continued to insist in public that the Congress stood for a united India and that the concept of Pakistan was impractical. Meanwhile, in Punjab, casualties from communal conflict continued to mount. Disturbances spread to Gurgaon, not far from New Delhi itself.

Churchill was easier to persuade than Gandhi. As leader of the Opposition, his cooperation was essential if the transfer of power Bill was to be passed in record time to enable Mountbatten to accelerate the time-table and take whatever opposition remained by surprise. Churchill was mollified when assured that India and Pakistan would not sever links with Britain and accept Dominion status. The viceroy kept a record of their conversation. Churchill was in bed. Mountbatten noted that when asked by Churchill whether any difficulties were anticipated, he had replied: "Mr Gandhi was unpredictable, but that I doubted whether he would create any difficulties which could not be dealt with by Patel and Nehru."

This turned out to be true. But before he adjusted to the inevitable, Gandhi's distress could not be contained. He could not rest though the summer heat was cruel and there were no cooling facilities in New Delhi's Bhangi Colony, where he chose to stay. On May 25, he wrote to his English disciple, Mirabehn (formerly Madeleine Slade): "I am quite well, though in boiling heat. I must not think of Mussoorie (where Nehru and Patel were resting) or any other similar climate." Then to C. Rajagopalachari (later governor-general of India): "I see no place for myself in what is happening around us today.... I have no wish to live if India is to be submerged in a deluge of violence, as is now threatened." In a letter to a friend two days later: "I am in the midst of a raging fire. Is it God's mercy or irony of fate that the flames do not consume me?"

Gandhi deployed his non-violent weapon—mass communication-for the struggle. The careful record of his pronouncements bear witness. Daily prayer meetings, covered by the press, provided the medium. Deploring the dependence on London, he said on May 25: "The Kohinoor of India's freedom is not going to come to us from the hands of others. We can have it with our own hands."

Next day: "It is not for the British government to change the map of India. All it has to do is to withdraw from India, if possible in an orderly manner, maybe even in chaos, but withdraw in any case on or before the date it has itself fixed (then June 1948). " He appealed to "the British power, irrespective of the worst kind of violence, to leave India under the Cabinet Mission's document of the 16th May of last year. In the presence of the British power today, we are only demoralised by the orgy of bloodshed, wanton killings, arson and worse. After it is withdrawn, I hope we shall have the wisdom to think coherently and keep India one or split it into two or more parts."

On May 27, Gandhi targeted the Congress leadership. He told his prayer meeting that the viceroy should not talk only to Nehru or Patel or Rajendra Prasad. "I wish to tell you that these are not the only persons in the Congress," he said. "All those who have stood by the Congress and worked for it belong to it. Those who do not go on deputations and are not vocal are as much members of the Congress as anyone else."

Gandhi reiterated his case as the viceroy's return approached: "I am not at all worried about what June 2 will bring or what Lord Mountbatten will say on his return.... The Constituent Assembly is sitting in terms of the May 16 paper. It is for the British to hand over power and quit. The government of free Indians formed under the Constitution worked out by the Constituent Assembly can do anything afterwards—keep India one or divide it into two or more parts.... When we stood firm against such a mighty empire and were not afraid of all their arms, when we did not bow down to their flag, why should we falter now?"

It was a last outburst. In Mahatma Gandhi, The last Phase, Pyarelal, Gandhi's secretary and biographer, conveys his inner feelings by recounting a conversation with a friend (possibly himself) who says: "You have declared you won't mind if the whole of India is turned into Pakistan by appeal to reason but not an inch would be yielded to force. But is the (Congress) Working Committee acting on this principle? You gave us the battle cry of Quit India; you fought our battles; but in the hour of decision, 1 find that you are not in the picture.

Gandhi responds: "Who listens to me today?" When told that people would, he replies: "What is the good? Who knows whether I shall then be alive? The question is: what can we do today? On Independence-eve we are divided as we were united when we were engaged in the freedom struggle. The prospect of power has demoralised us.

Even as Gandhi was addressing prayer meetings in New Delhi, in London the British cabinet was authorising Mountbatten to announce Partition. The minutes of its meeting on May 23: "The extensive discussions that Mountbatten had with various political leaders since his arrival in India had convinced him that there was no prospect of a Union of India, either on the basis of the Cabinet Mission's plan or any other basis, and further that, unless a very early announcement was made of the method by which His Majesty's government intended to transfer power, widespread communal disturbances would be inevitable."

THE cabinet went on to discuss prospects of securing agreement to Dominion status. The minutes are revealing: "Some of the Congress leaders had become increasingly apprehensive about the difficulties which the grant of immediate independence would involve, and a most significant approach to the viceroy was made by Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel, who had suggested that in the event of Partition Hindu India should be granted Dominion status, at any rate as a temporary measure. They had explained that they would hope to secure the agreement of their supporters to this course by arguing that acceptance of Dominion status would enable power to be transferred to Indian hands at a date substantially earlier than June 1948, and that once she had attained Dominion status Hindu India would be free to secede at any time from the Commonwealth. "

The minutes testify to Gandhi's fear that "the prospect of power has demoralised us". His willingness to risk everything to break from the colonial past contrasted with the Congress leaders' appeal to the viceroy for transitional arrangements to smooth the way for transfer of power. Now that the handover was approaching, they preferred continuity to change—a choice that left its mark on the future. The situation in Punjab deteriorated. A confidential report by the governor, Sir Evan Jenkins, gave the official figures. He was countering Liaquat Ali Khan's complaint that the administration was discriminating against Muslims. The report, conveyed to Mountbatten on May 26, stated: "The official figures for deaths caused by the disturbances since March 4 were, on May 23, 3,410. I believe the correct figure (including Rawalpindi deaths not yet registered) to be about 3600. Of this total, probably not more than 600 were Muslims." But there was no sign of the tough measure the governor had been authorised to take.

On May 23, Nehru wrote from Mussoorie to acting viceroy Sir John Colville (Mountbatten was in London), urging martial law in Lahore and mentioning disturbing reports from Calcutta. Two days later, addressing Congressmen in Dehradun, at the foot of Mussoorie, he claimed (as reported in the Hindustan Times): "India is awake and full of life today, and that is why although the country has not attained Independence, it has begun to rank among the greatest countries of the world. The credit for this is due to Gandhi because he is not only a great political leader but one who has infused courage into the people.

"The Congress opposed the demand for Pakistan on principle and stood for a united India. It now demands partition of Bengal and Punjab on the same principle [sic]. Those who are clamouring for Partition will see how impracticable and economically unsound it is....The demand for division of Punjab and Bengal has brought realism to League politics but what is in store for us in the future no one can say.

Equally unsure of the future were the numerous princes, who had been allowed to retain states as long as they remained faithful to Britain. The Nizam of Hyderabad was the richest. On May 27, he sent a telegram to the viceroy in London: "I sincerely trust you will support my request before the British Cabinet for the Membership of the Commonwealth Nation [sic] for Hyderabad... Protection of British [sic] is absolutely necessary for them who are staunch supporters of the British power in India by their unfaltering devotion and loyalty to the British Crown." You fought our battles, but in the hour of decision I find you are not in the picture," a friend told Gandhi. "Gandhi is unpredictable. But I doubt he will create difficulties Nehru cannot deal with. "—Mountbatten.

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