25 June 1997 Books Countdown To Partition

10 Week Scramble

Like 'goldfish out of water', Nehru, Jinnah End the rest are shocked to find that they have to sort out the administrative aspects of division in only 73 days
Countdown To Partition
By Ajit Bhattacharjea

REALITY dawned after the June 3 plan was announced. Only 73 days remained for the transfer of power and the partitioning of the subcontinent. A note entitled Administrative Consequences of Partition, prepared by the viceroy's staff, was handed to the Indian leaders. They looked like goldfish out of water, an observer commented; they had taken the decision but never anticipated the problems that would follow. Mountbatten reported to London: "Perhaps this is lucky, since it will enable us to hold the initiative in the viceroy's house during the coming difficult period." He was right. The leaders continued to be led. By reducing the time-table for transfer of power by 10 months, Mountbatten tempted the Congress into complaisance. He confused Gandhi. But the people of undivided Punjab and the neighbouring districts, and later of Bengal, paid a heavy price for the haste and lack of preparation.

Mountbatten dramatised the need for speed by distributing calendars with one-day tear-off pages counting the days to August 15. They read like a countdown for the start of a military offensive. But dividing a huge, emotionally charged subcontinent was far more complex than the combined military operations he had conducted before. Neither the viceroy nor the Indian leaders faced up to the human consequences. They continued to suggest that rioting would ease after the announcement of Partition.

Gandhi faced a cruel dilemma. At his prayer meeting on June 5, he referred to a telegram addressed to him. The sender asked why he did not go on a fast now that Pakistan had been conceded despite his declaration (on May 30) that not an inch would be yielded under coercion. His explanation revealed the depths of his agony. He said: "What is there now left in India that can gladden my heart? But I am still here because the Congress has now grown into a great institution and I cannot go on a fast in protest against it. Hut I feel as if I was thrown into a firepit and my heart is burning. God alone knows why I continue to live in spite of this. Whatever I am, I am after all a servant of the Congress."

But agony and disappointment did not prevent Gandhi from trying to avert the impending tragedy in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). He approached the viceroy to ask Jinnah to discuss the future with the Congress' Khan Sahib Ministry there and evolve a settlement that would avert a referendum. He was not successful.

The Congress itself was preparing to dump the NWFP. On June 7, Gandhi wrote frankly to Nehru: "The oftener we meet, the more convinced I am becoming that the gulf between us in the thought world is deeper than I had feared. He [Patel] is of the opinion that Badshah Khan's influence is on the wane. Badshah Khan has not left any such impression on me. Whatever he is today, he was always.... I also feel that Dr Khan Sahib and his colleagues would be nowhere without the Badshah. He alone counts in so far as the Congress influence is concerned." But his words were in vain.

Two days later, Gandhi wrote to Abdul Ghaffar Khan: "Here is a note from Jawaharlal. It is the result of the difference of opinion between him and me. In the circumstances, I must not guide you.... You have now to act as you think best." Nehru's note endorsed the referendum and suggested that the Congress participate. The Frontier leader's demand that the choice not be limited to joining India or Pakistan but a third option of voting for an independent Pathanistan be included in the referendum was rejected as impractical.

Preparation of the note on the Administrative Consequences of Partition had begun a month before June 3 and was presumably meant to be implemented by the original target of June 1948. Even so, it was a formidable document. New national and provincial boundaries had to be demarcated; the armed forces and civil departments had to be divided; files would have to be copied; the assets and liabilities of the government of India and the Reserve Bank had to be divided; the jurisdiction of the superior courts had to be determined; diplomatic representation had to be arranged for both new nations. And now it all had to be completed in 10 weeks.

The breakdown for division of assets and liabilities indicated how complex the task would be. The items to be divided would include fixed installations and stores of the Defence Services, assets and property of all civil departments, public debt funded and unfunded, pensions, provident fund, currency, securities, bullion, foreign exchange and the rest. A Partition Council was set up consisting of two Congress and Muslim League representatives each, with the viceroy as chairman. The detailed work was done by teams of civil servants headed by then cabinet secretary H.M. Patel and Chaudhuri Mohammed All, financial advisor (later prime minister of Pakistan). They worked amicably together.

The same cannot be said of their political masters. Nehru insisted that the Dominion of India would inherit the rights of the successor government; the task was to make provision for areas that were seceding. Jonah objected angrily. Eventually, the issue was slurred over.

The differences could be relatively petty. When future Pakistani prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan suggested that one of the government of India's six printing presses in Delhi be moved to Karachi, Patel replied: "No one asked Pakistan to secede. We do not mind their taking their property with them, but we have no intention of allowing them to injure the work of the government of India." In the event, one press was temporarily made available to meet the urgent needs of the Pakistan government until a new one was installed in Karachi. But the press remained in Delhi.

Junior officials were reluctant to divide departmental property. Typewriters, stationary, pens, even inkpots, were hidden to avoid distribution. Among the items listed for division were officers' tables and chairs, clerks' tables and chairs, hat-pegs with mirrors, bookshelves, iron safes, table lamps, fans, clocks, bicycles, inkstands, staff cars, sofas and chamber pots. It was soon evident that every step in the process of Partition would leave a legacy of bitterness for the future Dominions.

The All India Muslim League Council met at New Delhi's Imperial Hotel on June 9 to ratify the Partition plan. It was a vital session since Jinnah had only nodded his head to the viceroy on June 3. Jinnah kept his options open as long as possible and this was reflected in the council's resolution. It opposed the division of Punjab and Bengal, but authorised Jinnah "to accept the fundamental principles of the plan as a compromise and leave it to him, with full authority, to work out all the details of the plan in an equitable and just manner."

While it was evident that this was an exercise in face saving, as usual, Jinnah was able to infuriate the Congress leaders. Nehru complained to Mountbatten that, in effect, "the council itself has not accepted the plan as a settlement but has given authority to the president to do so." He insisted that Jinnah be asked to accept the plan in entirety in writing. Patel sent a copy of the proceedings of the council (obtained secretly) to the viceroy with a covering letter interpreting the speeches as showing that Pakistan would "merely be a springboard for action against Hindustan.... The position is such as is bound to fill us with grave apprehension."

Many speeches were provocative, demanding that the June 3 plan be rejected and the campaign for the original non-truncated Pakistan continue. Some talked of an armed Pakistan taking revenge for wrongs done to Muslims anywhere. But this was bluster; when the vote was taken, the plan was endorsed by 460 votes to eight, with Jinnah empowered to negotiate the details.

Despite some fiery speeches, the proceedings were orderly. But the delegates got a taste of violence from an unexpected quarter. A group of fanatical spade-bearing Khaksars (servants of the dust) broke into the hotel and tried to assault them, including Jinnah. A few League National Guard volunteers were injured and much hotel property damaged before the police arrived. Followers of the extremist Islamic leader Inayatullah Mashriqui, the Khaksars condemned the Muslim League for betraying the cause by failing to claim the entire subcontinent, "from Karachi to Calcutta", for Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the first signs of strain between Indian and British officials began to surface. On June 9, as Home Member, Patel wrote to the viceroy urging transfer of the deputy commissioner of Gurgaon, a Mr Brendon. "Stories have gained currency," Patel complained, "that he gloats over events probably because he is entirely out of sympathy with the scheme of transfer of power and feels that troubles such as have afflicted Gurgaon would demonstrate the utter folly and impossibility of the policy of 'quit India'." After some delay, the Punjab governor, Sir Evan Jenkins, agreed to transfer Brendon. The reason given was that "he needed rest".

Another area of discord surfaced on June 10, when the India Office in London insisted that Britain should retain control over the strategic Andaman islands, as suggested by the British chiefs of staff. Next day, the controversial governor of NWFP, Sir Olaf Caroe, reluctantly accepted Mountbatten's advice that he take leave, but that did not end complaints of British bias. Nehru had repeatedly complained that Caroe was siding with the Muslim League.

These were merely a sampling of the problems that would follow in the next 10 weeks. Among them was the future of the princely states covering two-fifths of the subcontinent. Also, the confusion over the division of the army, which would have disastrous consequences.

 

Botham's Ifs & Butts Fading Red
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