Countdown To Partition
By Ajit Bhattacharjea
LOOKING back 50 years, the haste and self-delusion of Congress and Muslim League
leaders that contributed to the bloodiest religious cleansing in history emerges with
distributing clarity. They found it convenient to believe that communal discord would fade
once the political objectives for fanning it were achieved. They were so blinded by the
desire to inherit power that they overlooked the transformatory aims of the freedom
movement. Gandhi was keen to wage a final struggle and discuss Partition after the British
quit, but was isolated. The records show the last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, dominating
discussions and persuading leaders to retain the apparatus of colonial administration with
close links with Britain.
More was at stake than the smoother ride to power preferred by Jawaharlal Nehru,
Vallabhbhai Patel and other Congress leaders. With the focus on securing centralised
control, Gandhi's vision of decentralised polity, village-based economy and non-elitist
education became peripheral. The Westminster style of democracy was perpetuated, as was
the colonial top-down ICS style of administration. The abrupt acceleration of transfer
procedures put a premium on continuity under threat of mounting violence.
As late as May 15, 1947, uncertainty reigned. Whether the subcontinent would be
partitioned or not; where the line would be drawn if it was; what would happen to the
minorities--mounting speculation sparked fear and unrest. June 1948 had been announced as
the latest date for transfer of power by British prime minister Clement Attlee. Britain
officially favoured the loose federation of Muslim-majority and non-Muslim majority
groupings of provinces, with a weak Centre, proposed by its Cabinet Mission. Nobody knew
how soon the schedule would change.
Uncertainty intensified communal conflict, principally in undivided Punjab. The
Congress and Muslim League were at loggerheads. British officers lost interest in
preserving peace. But the joint Congress-League interim government set up under the
Cabinet Mission plan was still in office in New Delhi. The Constituent Assembly,
established on December 9, 1946, was in session. The Muslim League kept out. Even so,
alternative ways to keep the country united were mooted. There was much wishful thinking;
pitiably little contingency planning by Indian leaders.
Yet the principal actors responsible for Partition were outstanding personalities.
Jinnah converted Pakistan from a slogan into reality in seven years. A brilliant, vain,
solitary figure, he fell out with the Congress because he preferred a constitutional
approach to Independence rather than Gandhi's mobilisation of mass sentiment. He turned
his talents to securing recognition of a separate Muslim identity. In 1940, the campaign
developed into the Muslim League's demand for a separate homeland under his leadership.
Jinnah played upon the fears of his community to achieve power but was far from a
fundamentalist. He kept a distance from his followers, refusing to conform to rigid
practices. He spoke in English and affected the manners of a British aristocrat, complete
with Savile Row suit, tie and monocle (in his youth he had yearned to be a Shakespearean
actor). When Pakistan was achieved, he embarrassed fundamentalists by advising its new
citizens to forget religious differences. This was the theme of his first address as
governor-general. It was blacked out by his successors.
Jawaharlal Nehru wore Indian dress in India but his thinking was set in Fabian England.
When the transfer of power neared, he was easily persuaded to retain links with Britain he
had sworn to sever earlier. Together with Patel, he changed the meaning of Independence
from the Gandhian version of a non-violent break with the past to a phased transfer of
power from British to Indian hands. The process had already begun. Nine months earlier,
Congress and League leaders had accepted office in the Viceroy's Executive Council,
flatteringly renamed interim government. Now they were considering Dominion Status under
the British Crown, a halfway house they had sworn to reject.
Nehru's lack of touch with grassroots reality was evident in his justification for
Partition: that it was the only way to reduce violence. His self-delusion went further in
maintaining that Pakistan would be compelled by its limitations to return to the greater
Indian fold. Though not stated publicly, this assumption was a factor in the negotiations
and was expressed to the viceroy and in letters to friends.
Nehru wrote to K.P.S. Menon on April 29: "I have no doubt whatever that sooner or
later India will have to function as a united country. Perhaps the best way to reach that
stage is to go through some kind of partition now." This typified the inherent air
of superiority, more obvious in Patel, that infuriated Jinnah, and stiffened Pakistan.
Sardar Patel, the pragmatic ironman of Congress, became the strongest proponent of
Dominion Status and Partition. His link with Mountbatten was V.P. Menon, the viceroy's
constitutional adviser. The first step towards Partition was taken in March '47 when the
Congress Working Committee asked the League to cooperate in "making a Constitution
for an Indian Union" and proposed "a division of Punjab into two, so that the
predominantly Muslim part may be separated from the predominantly non-Muslim part."
Such equivocation was typical of the two-faced Congress posture. Behind its policy was
the assumption that with Punjab and Bengal divided, Jinnah would reject what he described
as a 'motheaten Pakistan'; and even if he accepted it, an unviable Pakistan would be
forced to return to India. In fact, violence escalated after the Congress resolution.
Minorities were attacked and forced out of their homes. Those who survived initiated the
greatest mass migration in history. Their bitter memories cemented the walls of Partition.
GANDHI was not consulted; he read about the Congress resolution in the papers while
trying to douse communal flames in Bihar. On March 20, he wrote in anguish to Nehru and
Patel that he opposed Partition's communal logic. Nehru replied that it represented
"the only answer to Partition as demanded by Jinnah". Patel's irritated reply
speaks for itself: "It is difficult to explain to you the resolution about the
Punjab. It was adopted after the deepest deliberation. Nothing has been done in a hurry or
without full thought. That you had expressed your views against it, we learnt only from
the papers. But you are, of course, entitled to say what you feel right."
Even more frustrated than Gandhi was Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. As Congress president
during talks with the Cabinet Mission, he believed that the British federal plan was the
best solution. Azad remained loyal to the Congress, though isolated. His agony was akin to
Gandhi's as he saw his dream of a united India slipping away. Unlike Gandhi, his
bitterness spilled over into criticism of colleagues, particularly Patel.
Congress impotence can be traced to June 1945, when the leaders emerged from nearly
three years' detention. They were facing a Britain exhausted by World War II. It could no
longer rule a global empire and sought to replace imperial dominance with mutually
acceptable political associations. Gandhi urged another push, if necessary, to gain
independence, followed by discussions on the terms of Partition with the Muslim League,
which had been strengthened by siding with the imperial government during the war. He was
willing to risk disorder. But Congress leaders preferred the safer route to power. They
waited on the viceroy, who dangled the prospect of early access to office before them. In
a dispatch to London on March 29, Mountbatten "emphasised that the psychological
effect of coming to the right decision very quickly would be great, including the
possibility of establishing some form of Dominion Status for India."
Years later, a British author, Leonard Mosley, recounted a conversation with Nehru that
rings true. The prime minister told him in 1960: "The truth is that we were tired
men, and we were getting on in years too. Few of us could stand the prospect of going to
prison again--and if we had stood out for a united India as we wished it, prison obviously
awaited us. We saw the fires burning in the Punjab and heard of the killings. The plan for
Partition offered a way out and we took it... We expected that Partition would be
temporary, that Pakistan was bound to come back to us."
The last viceroy was suited to the part. Cousin to King George V, Mountbatten came to
the scene after a distinguished naval career that saw him heading the South-East Asia
Command. When Nehru visited Singapore, Mountbatten cultivated him. He may not have known
that he would be appointed viceroy, but he did know that Nehru was slated to be prime
minister of India, divided or undivided.
When Mountbatten was chosen to replace Field Marshal Archibald Wavell as Britain's last
viceroy on February 20,'47, his friendship with Nehru was a consideration. But he was no
mere show-boy. He had a reputation for meticulous planning. The only Indian grudgingly
included in his staff was V.P. Menon who had risen from a clerk; but his advice to the
viceroy played a greater part in shaping procedures for the transfer of power than any
Gandhi, for all his rapport with the people, could not counter the lust for easy access
to power that his proteges developed. On June 21, 1946, during the discussions with the
Cabinet Mission, he had warned the Congress that they "would gain nothing by entering
on their new venture on bended knees." But his approach was rejected when two days
later, as aptly described by Pyarelal, his secretary and biographer, "they dropped
the pilot." Gandhi distanced himself from Congress leaders, while they moved into the
Unlike Congress leaders, Gandhi had premonitions of disaster. Unable to influence the
negotiations, he turned to stemming the violence of Partition. On November 6, 1946, he
began a peace mission through riot-stricken Noakhali (now in Banglaadesh). In four months
, he walked from village to village checking Muslim fanatics. He could not stay as long as
he intended. On March 2, 1947, he left for Bihar where Muslims were threatened by Hindu
Gandhi repeated this miracle in Delhi and Calcutta. yet his mission was also an escape
from failure. At times, he seemed confused, even bewildered. He had not been well since
his detention for the Quit India Movement; he was further strained by Noakhali. He kept
busy, but faced by the defeat of his dreams, the agony occasionally came through.
Gandhi was in Noakhali in early 1947. On January 2, he wrote in his diary what was to
become a refrain: "Have been awake since 2am. God's grace alone is sustaining me,
cause of all this. All around me is utter darkness. When will God take me out of this
darkness into His light?"
(This is the first in the Countdown to Partition series that Ajit Bhattacharjea will
write weekly till August15)