March 30, 2020
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Cyril's Scalpel

Cyril Radcliffe, a self-admitted ignoramus on India, gets five weeks to demarcate the boundary; Nehru, Jinnah urge a faster job for a smooth

Cyril's Scalpel
Countdown To Partition
By Ajit Bhattacharjea

ON July 8, a plump British jurist, who had never been to India nor shown interest in Indian affairs, landed in New Delhi. Yet he had been entrusted with the most sensitive and potentially explosive act of socio-political surgery in history—and was given only five weeks to complete it. Sir Cyril Radcliffe had been appointed chairman of the Boundary Commissions which were to divide contiguous Muslim from non-Muslim areas in Punjab and Bengal, demarcating the border between the emerging Dominions of India and Pakistan.

Nothing could illustrate the callous haste with which Partition was pushed through more strikingly than the last-minute arrangements to demarcate the border. The only briefing Radcliffe received before coming to India was an half-hour session with an India House official in London. He knew little of the language, culture, livelihood, history of the people he would separate—or of the risk of igniting a communal inferno. His ignorance was represented as a qualification; the Viceroy maintained that he was bound to be impartial because he knew so little about the country and the parties involved. Even so, the complexity of the job was patent even to Radcliffe. Meeting the Viceroy and the Indian leaders at a reception on his arrival, he dwelt on the size of the country and the need to avoid disturbing integrated communities and joint facilities. It would be a time-consuming job, he remarked.

Till then, it seems, he did not know how little time he had. It was at the reception that he was told by Mount-batten that he had five weeks. Nehru went further, suggesting that it would be convenient if the job was done quicker. Jinnah for once agreed with Nehru. Radcliffe would have no time for niceties. The leaders seemed unaware and uncaring of the human cost of cutting a border through the heart of populous provinces. Their primary concern was that it should not delay the transfer of power.

However, reality could not be shut out. The Sikhs, who were realising how much they would lose from Partition, organised a mammoth demonstration to coincide with Radcliffe's arrival. They threatened violence if forced to surrender their shrines and rich farmlands to Pakistan. They wanted their own homeland. The protest was widespread. In Delhi shops closed their shutters in sympathy.

Three days earlier, the governor of Punjab, Sir Evan Jenkins, had sent a detailed telegram to the Viceroy's secretary, describing the violence threatening the province. Jenkins had spent most of his life in Punjab and was known to be unhappy with the decision to divide the province. Differing with the convenient thesis preferred in Delhi that violence would die down with Partition, he feared the worst. He felt for the Sikhs and listened to their leaders.

The concluding paragraph of his telegram summed up his fears. It read: "Situation here is generally explosive. Hatred and suspicion are universal and undisguised. It seems to me this is inevitable under a plan which in Punjab converts our principal cities into frontier towns and drives boundary through area homogeneous in everything except religion. Explosion may be touched off at any time and I expect trouble when Boundary Commission reports." The trickle of refugees seeking safety across the notional border was swelling into a stream; it would soon become a river. Terror groups had begun forcing the minorities out and seizing their lands and property. Official reports failed to capture the terror and tragedy of thousands of families forced from their homes to seek refuge among distant strangers. They had seen friends and relations butchered, their women raped and abducted. Some became deranged and took an equivalent revenge on the minorities when they reached safety on the other side of the notional border.

Radcliffe realised how deep the communal canker had bitten when he found that the panel of four judges chosen to assist him—two Muslim and two non-Muslim—could not work together. One, a Sikh, found it hard even to share the same room. His wife and children had been killed by a Muslim mob in Rawalpindi a few weeks earlier. The chairman had to take crucial decisions without assistance. He was given a house in a distant corner of the viceregal estate so that he would not seem too close to the Viceroy. But this did not prevent serious charges of complicity from being levelled later by Muslim League leaders.

Mountbatten was particularly anxious to be seen to distance himself from Radcliffe. He felt he had to go out of his way to appear even-handed after Jinnah announced his decision to be governor-general of Pakistan. Mountbatten had assumed that he would be governor-general of both Dominions after August 15. After Jinnah's announcement, he wrote to Attlee that he was uncertain whether to accept the Congress invitation to be governor-general of India because his impartiality as Viceroy might be questioned. Attlee told his cabinet on July 8 that Mountbatten's departure from India on August 15 "would seriously endanger the process of transferring power". If a Hindu became governor-general, he suggested, prospects of a conflict with Pakistan would heighten; it was in the interest of both Dominions that he stay on in India. The prime minister followed up with a personal message to Mountbatten: "I would ask you most earnestly to accept governor-generalship of India during this transition period. You need have no fear that it is improper for you to be governor-general of a new Dominion or that it would reflect on your impartiality."

Mountbatten's high prestige at the time was reflected in messages from King George VI as well as Winston Churchill urging him to stay on. He accepted, but remained unsure, and confessed in a letter to an old India hand, Sir Stafford Cripps: "I am most uneasy at joining up with one of the two sides after August 15 when hitherto I have been at such pains to be completely impartial."

The embarrassment he had suffered caused his opinion of Jinnah to plummet further. "My private information," he said to Cripps, "is that Mr Jinnah's immediate followers and advisors are horrified at the line he has taken (in choosing to become governor-general) and it seems most incredible that a man's megalomania should be so chronic." He added that Nehru agreed with this view, but that Patel felt that Jinnah intended to set up a fascist dictatorship with designs against India.

GANDHI was suspicious of British intentions, especially in relation to the princely states. He was still  finding it hard to accept Partition. On July 5 he told his prayer meeting that the Bill in the British Parliament contained poison. "That poison we have drunk and so has the Congress," he said. "The British carried on their rule in India for 150 years and the British government accepted the fact that politically India was one nation.

Having unified the country, it is not a very becoming thing for them to divide it. It is true that both the Congress and Muslim League gave their assent to the Bill. But accepting a bad thing does not make it good." Next day, he emphasised the tragedy of India and Pakistan planning to build their armed forces against each other and foretold the future. "The result will be war," he warned. "The question is, shall we spent our resources on the education of our children or on gunpowder and guns? To me the future appears dismal." This did not prevent Gandhi from continuing to stress his vision of India's future. On this occasion, he criticised the civil service for keeping a distance from the people. "If civil servants could change with the times and run the administration to serve the people, then a truly democratic regime could be brought about," he said.

Earlier, he reiterated his village-oriented economic philosophy. Heavy machinery would increase unemployment and economic differences. "The real India does not live in Bombay, Delhi or Calcutta but in seven lakh villages. If we wish to make those villages self-reliant, the human machines must be activated." But it was a cry in the wilderness. As the transfer of power approached, Nehru made it clear that his approach to development was entirely different.

On July 5, Sardar Patel began his crucial mission to persuade the princely states to accede to the Dominion of India. The Congress had been hostile to the princes, but Patel tried to win them over. Some had already resolved to accede on the basis that the Centre would be responsible for foreign affairs, defence and communications; they would enjoy domestic autonomy. He now assured them: "We ask no more of them than accession in these three subjects, in which the common interests of the country are involved. In other matters, we would scrupulously respect their autonomous existence." Most of the princes were gradually won over. They knew that after the British withdrew, no help would be available to counter domestic unrest unless they acceded to India. They also knew that popular movements in their states could be promoted by Patel via the Congress-backed States Peoples Conference.

On July 9, however, a letter from the Nizam of Hyderabad to the Viceroy made it clear that securing the accession of the bigger states would not be easy. It expressed regret that the Independence Bill "not only contains a unilateral repudiation by the British government of the treaties which have for so many years bound my states and my dynasty to the British, but also appears to contemplate that, unless I join one or other of the two Dominions, my state will no longer form part of the British Commonwealth. I feel bound to make this protest to Your Excellency against the way in which my state is being abandoned by its old ally, the British government, and the ties which have bound me in loyal devotion to the King Emperor are being severed." The Nizam insisted that his letter be placed before the British government. Mountbatten did not reply until the Bill repudiating treaties with the princely states was passed by the British Parliament. But it did not repudiate the option of seeking independence. The Nizam was set on the same course as Maharaja Hari Singh.

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