March 31, 2020
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Invisible Crown

Gandhi and Nehru exchange sarcasm-tinged letters; Jinnah ups the League ante with his 800-km corridor demand; disquiet breeds on

Invisible Crown
Countdown To Partition
By Ajit Bhattacharjea

LAST hopes that the Indian subcontinent would remain united faded in May 1947 as final plans for Partition and British withdrawal were readied in New Delhi and London. Only Mahatma Gandhi had not given up. Communal tension was mounting in Punjab to the extent that the viceroy informed the governor, Sir Evan Jenkins, that the British Cabinet had approved "use of maximum force (including air bombing if necessary), if there should be any outbreaks of violence."

On May 15, the viceroy was summoned to London by prime minister Attlee to complete the formal declaration of his government's decision on India's future. His discussions with party leaders before leaving three days later indicated that the course was set for Partition though Punjab, Bengal and the North-West Frontier Province posed problems. Technically, the option of the loose federation proposed by the British Cabinet Mission was still open.

Further details of Mountbatten's objectives emerged at the British Cabinet meeting held when he arrived in London. (The minutes are included in the Transfer of Power documents published by the British Government.) He planned to hurry the process of handing over power as a bait to persuade Indian leaders to accept Dominion Status; it would also limit British responsibility for the mounting disturbances. The British chiefs of staff wanted the successor government or governments of the subcontinent to be persuaded to remain in the Commonwealth to further their East of Suez strategy.

The Congress leaders functioned independently of Gandhi; he distanced himself from New Delhi. Nehru complained to Mountbatten that Gandhi was losing touch with developments by persisting with his peace mission. He was worried about his health. On May 15, Gandhi returned to Patna, travelling third class as usual. Exhausted after his long pilgrimage, he had been checked in Calcutta by Dr B.C. Roy (later chief minister of West Bengal). He could no longer walk from village to village in the May heat and was obliged to limit his itinerary. Yet he persisted; the contrast between his priorities and those of the Congress leaders surfaced in an exchange of letters.

After Gandhi's return to Patna, Nehru wrote from Delhi: "Mountbatten is going to London on Sunday next and is likely to be away for nearly two weeks. I understand you intend arriving here on the 25th. Vallabhbhai and I feel that it would be a very good thing if you would come to Mussoorie for a few days before coming to Delhi. This would suit us and it would also no doubt give you a few days of rest. Nothing much is likely to happen in Delhi until the viceroy returns. I was in any event thinking of going to Mussoorie for a few days... If you could come to Mussoorie I could stay on a few days longer. Vallabhbhai is also going to Mussoorie."

 A trace of sarcasm tinged Gandhi's response. To Nehru, he wrote on May 17: "I must deny myself the pleasure of going to Mussoorie. I am quite fixed up here and can easily delay coming to Delhi till 31st May or even a day later." He was more direct with Patel: "I got your letter and Jawaharlal's. I don't feel like going to Mussoorie at all. Whatever days I get here will be spent usefully; if, therefore, you agree, I shall reach Delhi on the 31st; or any time you wish. I should like you to take complete rest in Mussoorie."

Attlee had called Mountbatten to London after Nehru objected to certain clauses of the draft announcement on the final phase of British withdrawal as promoting "balkanisation" of the subcontinent. The viceroy was summoned to discuss the revised draft. The alternative Cabinet Mission plan for a united federal India remained on the agenda, but the League's demand for Partition went through.

Nehru's letter to Mountbatten on May 17 was conclusive: "We have discussed various schemes and proposals which involve a Partition of India. With great regret and considerable agony of spirit we have agreed to these proposals because we earnestly desire a peaceful settlement of our problems and the least compulsion on any group or area." The way to Partition was open, though not to peace.

Punjab and Bengal posed problems because the two principal communities were almost equally divided. An additional obstacle in Punjab was that the militant Sikh community faced division in the only province in which it had a significant presence. The Muslim League claimed both provinces for Pakistan in their entirety. But the viceroy's meeting with Liaquat Ali Khan, then finance member in the interim government, showed that the Congress had no monopoly over the art of equivocation. Asked if he would accept Partition of the two provinces, the future prime minister of Pakistan replied: "We shall never agree to it, but you may make us bow to the inevitable." The charade was duly played out between Mountbatten and Jinnah later.

Bengal proved harder to divide than Punjab. The governor, Sir Frederick Burrows, wrote to the viceroy on May 15 that he favoured the Shahid Suhrawardy-Sarat Bose-Kiran Shankar Roy group proposal for a sovereign, united Bengal. He felt they could form a stable government and avoid violence. When Suhrawardy, then chief minister of Bengal, called on him, Mountbatten made it clear that Nehru did not favour a sovereign Bengal because he thought that "Partition now would anyway bring East Bengal into Hindustan in a few years." Nehru also feared to promote the process of balka-nisation. That and the possible loss of Calcutta port tipped the balance against the survival of a united, secular Bengal.

The North-West Frontier Province posed the thorniest problem to the Congress leadership. Khan Abdul Ghaffar (Badshah) Khan, one of Gandhi's closest disciples, was known as the Frontier Gandhi. A Congress ministry, headed by Dr Khan Sahib, was in office. The province symbolised Muslim acceptance of secular ideals. But because it was Muslim, the NWFP was claimed for Pakistan by the Muslim League. Having asked for division of Punjab and Bengal on communal lines, the Congress was finding it difficult to resist the demand for a referendum on the NWFP's future, though aware that a referendum would arouse communal passions. The province was also separated from the rest of India by Punjab. (Later, Kashmir would pose similar problems).

On May 21, Jinnah suddenly issued a statement demanding an 800-mile corridor through India to link the western and eastern halves of his proposed Pakistan. Alan Campbell-Johnson described the statement correctly in his diary as a "carefully timed and placed bombshell" calculated to place maximum pressure on London at this critical stage. The demand was later dropped, but it testified to Jinnah's ability to retain the initiative.

MOUNTBATTEN'S report to the British Cabinet on May 19 envisaged no alternative to Partition and placed the responsibility on the Indian parties. "It had become clear," he wrote, "that the Muslim League would resort to arms if Pakistan in some form were not conceded. In the face of this threat, the Congress leaders had modified their previous attitude; indeed, they were now inclined to feel that it would be to their advantage to be relieved of the responsibility of the provinces that would form Pakistan, while at the same time they were confident that those provinces would ultimately have to seek reunion with the remainder of India."

The viceroy urged acceleration of the pullout timetable with the argument that the Congress could be persuaded to accept Dominion Status provided it was offered transfer of power "substantially earlier than June 1948". Though he did not mention it then, he was known to be eager to become governor-general of both successor Dominions. But when the time came, Jinnah's egotism proved more than a match for his. Mountbatten never liked Jinnah. At staff meetings, he called him a "psychopathic case", among other epithets.

While in London, the viceroy received intelligence reports of increasing violence in Punjab. On May 21, the governor, Sir Evan Jenkins, reported: "Muslims seem determined to burn Hindus and Sikhs out of greater Lahore and are concentrating on incendarianism. Hindus and Sikhs are retaliating in kind but are concentrating mainly on acquisition of arms with a view to personal vengeance.

" Newspapers reported outbreaks of violence in Lahore and Amritsar, but the casualties were lower than the headlines suggested. A report headlined 'Pitched Battle Between Rival Mobs in Lahore' in the Hindustan Times on May 16 gave the casualties as eight killed, 39 injured. Rumours pitched the figures much higher, setting off a mounting spiral of violence and counter-violence.

Though official handouts from London suggested that it was the Indian leaders who were yet to determine their future, a despatch in the New York Times came nearer the truth. Reproduced in the Hindustan Times on May 15, it read: "In the hope of avoiding chaos and civil war, the British Government will agree to quit India sooner than June 1948 provided that the Hindu and Muslim communities can compose their political differences. This is the main feature of the new plan for India which would be announced on June 2, which also contains acceptance of Pakistan and partition of the Punjab, Bengal and Assam provinces. 

"All sides in India now want a treaty of mutual defence between India and Britain, whereby the British navy and air force would guarantee the defence of India. Also, as things are going, India's trade relations with Britain will remain as strong as ever. 

"These astonishing developments demonstrate the extent to which the Labour Government's policy of voluntarily giving up a great Empire has succeeded in saving the heart and soul of that Empire."

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