Countdown To Partition
By Ajit Bhattacharjea
From all accounts, Mountbatten reached the peak of his viceregal career in selling Partition combined with Dominion status to the assembled Indian leaders on June 2, 1947. It was a masterly blend of persuasion and authority. Gandhi was not there. He arrived at the viceroy's house after the conference, shielding his agony behind his day of silence, trying to put together whatever he could from the debris of his dreams.
Having secured assent to his plan for transfer of power within 10 weeks of taking over as viceroy, Mountbatten felt free to function as a victorious commander setting his own time-table. The next phase, he decided, should not take much longer. Speed and acceleration was the strategy that had enabled him to confuse and dictate terms to the Indian leaders. The pace had to be maintained lest the British-run administration collapse before the responsibility of governance was transferred to Indian and Pakistani hands.
So, without consulting the bemused Indian leaders or London, he informed the world press, gathered in the viceroy's house on June 4, that the date for transfer of power to the two successor Dominions would be about August 15, 10 weeks away. Nobody knew why he picked on a date so climactically inconvenient, though the probable reason was that August 15, 1947, would be the second anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, in which his South East Asia Command had played a part. But the date had no relevance for India.
Gandhi kept up his opposition to Partition until the last moment. On May 30, he again insisted that only the Cabinet Mission statement of May 16 the previous year could be the basis for settlement and that "even if we have to die or the whole country is reduced to ashes, Pakistan will not be conceded under duress".
Though agonised by the pace of events and the concurrence of the Congress leadership, Gandhi's greatness emerged in the hour of defeat. With Partition conceded, there was no alternative to buttressing Nehru and his colleagues to face the challenge of administering a country facing the prospect of religious warfare. This he proceeded to do, but it did not narrow the distance between them.
His biographer, Pyarelal, writes that Gandhi rose very early on June 1 but stayed in bed and pondered to himself. He then confessed to a friend that he felt alone. Nehru and Patel thought his reading of the situation was wrong and that peace was bound to return if Partition was accepted. They did not like his telling the viceroy that if there was to be partition, it should not be under British rule. They wondered if he had not deteriorated with age. He was particularly anxious about the future of the Frontier province and its leader, Badshah Khan.
In public, however, Gandhi's tone was different. At his prayer meeting that evening, he told his audience: "Your real king is Jawaharlal." That was the essence of his message from then on. Independence was nearly in their hands, he said, the people had to help Nehru face severe problems; among them Kashmir, the recalcitrant princely states, black-marketing, corruption, violence, indiscipline. He mentioned each minister by name to promote confidence in the interim government.
Mountbatten had confessed to his staff that the only person who could upset his plan at this stage was Gandhi. "Judge of my astonished delight," he wrote to London, "on finding him enter the room with his finger on his lips to indicate that it was his day of silence." Gandhi wrote on the back of two used envelopes (which Mountbatten preserved as a memento) that he did not wish to break his silence. But the signal was clear: he would oppose no more.
That was the crowning moment of a historic day for Mountbatten. The leaders' conference lasted two hours. The Congress was represented by Nehru, Patel and Kripalani (who had replaced Maulana Azad as party president); the Muslim League by Jinnah, Liaquat Ali and Abdur Rab Nishtar; the Sikhs by Baldev Singh. The parity between Congress and League and absence of a Muslim congressman (demanded by the League) indicated advance acceptance of what was to come. Including Mountbatten, eight men, sitting round a small table, put their seal on the future of the subcontinent. Copies of the British government's plan were distributed, much of it known before.
After Mountbatten had made the semantic distinction between 'agreement with' and 'acceptance of' the plan, the Congress found little difficulty in accepting Partition. With characteristic finesse, he linked the desire of the Congress leaders for early access to power with Dominion status.
Jinnah technically held out; committed to opposing division of Punjab and Bengal, he insisted that only the League council could endorse the plan. The charade suggested by Liaquat Ali Khan was then rehearsed. Jinnah was called again at midnight. Mountbatten told him that the Congress would reject the plan if it was not accepted simultaneously by the League.
The viceroy was determined to get result. He is on record as telling Jinnah: "I do not intend to let you wreck all the work that has gone into this settlement… I will take the risk of saying that I am satisfied with the assurances you have given me, and if your Council fails to ratify the agreement you can place the blame on me. I have only one condition and that is when I say at the meeting in the morning, 'Mr Jinnah has given me assurances which I have accepted and which satisfy me', you will in no circumstances contradict that, and when I look towards you, you will nod your head in acquiescence."
Next morning, the pre-rehearsed charade was enacted when the leaders reassembled to endorse the plan. The Congress letter of assent had been delivered the previous evening. Only the League's assent was required. All that was needed to partition the subcontinent was the nod of Jinnah's head. The charade was a sop to his ego. The Pakistan that emerged was not the one he had promised. It was the moth-eaten version he had rejected, with no corridor between the two halves.
The next steps followed as scheduled. On June 3, in London, Prime Minister Attlee announced acceptance of the plan in the House of Commons and congratulated Mountbatten. As leader of the opposition, Churchill went along. Dominion status was, after all, an attenuated version of the Raj.
Attlee's statement to Parliament expressed regret that the Cabinet Mission plan had not been accepted by Indian leaders. Accordingly, his government had decided on a procedure to ascertain the views of members of provincial assemblies on whether they wanted their constitution to be framed by the existing Constituent Assembly or by another one. In other words, to choose between union and Partition.
Though Attlee's statement gave the impression that the choice between a united or divided India was still open, in fact the basis was laid for Partition. He insisted that the Indian people would decide their future. In fact, the decision would be taken by members of provincial assemblies, elected on a limited franchise of about 10 per cent of the population. North West Frontier Province was the only Muslim province that sent its representatives to the existing constituent Assembly, which the league boycotted. By agreeing to a referendum, the Congress leaders sacrificed the Frontier Gandhi together with Gandhi.
MOUNTBATTEN'S triumph was broadcast simultaneously to India and Britain on the radio the same evening. He made the opening broadcast, followed by Nehru, Jinnah and Baldev Singh. The viceroy held out the possibility of power being transferred "within the next few months" and sounded sincere in regretting the prospect of Partition. "Nothing I have seen or heard in the past few weeks," he said, "has shaken my firm opinion that with a reasonable measure of goodwill between the communities a unified India would be the best solution for the problem." But since he was unable to obtain agreement, Partition was the only alternative to coercion. This confession of failure, however, did not come in the way of reminding Indians what Britain had done for them in terms that Churchill would appreciate. "For more than a hundred years," he proclaimed. "400 million of you have lived together and this country has been administered as a single entity."
Nehru's broadcast voiced the anguish of many: "It is with no joy in my heart that I commend these proposals to you, though I have no doubt in my mind that this is the right course. For generations, we have dreamt and struggled for a free and independent united India. The proposal to allow certain parts to secede, if they so will, is painful for any of us to contemplate. Nevertheless, I am convinced that our present decision is the right one from the larger viewpoint." But he had to admit: "My mind is heavy with the thought of suffering of our people in the areas of disturbance, the thousands who are dead and those, specially our womenfolk, who have suffered agony worse than death."
Jinnah continued his practice of avoiding commitment. He expressed mixed feelings about the plan and insisted that the Muslim League Council would take a final decision on June 9. But this was play-acting; everyone knew he had the final say and would endorse the arrangements.
On behalf of the Sikhs, Sardar Baldev Singh endorsed the plan, but not without regret. "It does not please everybody, not the Sikh community anyway. But it is certainly worthwhile. Let us take it." As Defence Member in the interim government, he was sure that large-scale troop deployment would ensure peace. In the event, Baldev Singh's assurances proved as ineffectual as those of other leaders. Except to protect refugee camps and refugee trains, the army, itself partitioned, could do little to prevent the atrocities accompanying the exchange of populations in north India and later in Bengal. His community was the worst hit.