30 July 1997 Books Countdown To Partition

Notional Divide

With a month for transfer of power and the formal Radcliffe award, confusion reigns as millions wonder on which side of the border they will end
Notional Divide
Countdown To Partition
By Ajit Bhattacharjea

ON his first visit to Lahore on July 14, Sir Cyril Radcliffe found the heat appalling. It felt like the mouth of hell, he commented later. The political atmosphere was no less fiery. Stabbings continued;

Hindu, Muslim and Sikh leaders angrily differed on where Punjab should be partitioned. The undefined option given to the Boundary Commission to take "other factors" into account encouraged claims based on a wide range of considerations. Lahore became the main victim of the haste to demarcate the border. As it was the intellectual, cultural, financial and historic capital of the region, each community claimed to have contributed to its status and prosperity. Radcliffe was inundated with memoranda urging him to consider a wide range of "other factors", not only religion, in demarcating the border.

The Muslim League wanted only religion to be taken into account. This prompted Jinnah and Liaquat Ali to call on the Viceroy to express their indignation against a statement in the British Parliament that "special factors were being allowed to take account of the circumstances of the Sikh community in the Punjab so that the location of their religious shrines could be taken into account". The Viceroy promised to communicate their protest to Radcliffe.

Since an international border was being demarcated, strategists suggested that natural features relevant to defence should be taken into account. A proposal on these lines from Radcliffe came before the Partition Council. As usual, the Council was unable to come to an agreement and left it to the discretion of the Commission. Radcliffe also suggested that the extensive canal system of Punjab be run as a joint venture since the rivers originated in India and the canals mostly irrigated Pakistan. Political tension was too intense for any such cooperation to be considered. It was promptly shot down by Nehru and Jinnah as beyond the Boundary Commission's terms of reference.

The 'notional' line before the formal border was demarcated placed Lahore in Pakistan. Governor Jenkins complained to the Viceroy about the impact of uncertainty. Officials were expected to be transferred to the dominion of their choice before August 15, but could not be moved because they did not know where the border would be. He feared the situation would deteriorate further if the Boundary Commission report was delayed till August 15 or later.

Jenkins sent a separate appreciation of the situation to the Viceroy which described the minorities as feeling threatened throughout Punjab. The Sikhs were the most uneasy and threatened a violent uprising unless their claims were recognised by the Boundary Commission. The higher administrative services had 'disintegrated', with senior officers taking communal sides.

Jenkins feared that in view of the numerous documents that Radcliffe would have to study, the report was unlikely to be completed before August 15. With uncertainty about disputed areas stretching to the last minute, disturbances were inevitable. He warned that talk of forcible exchange of populations had begun. The Sikh community was particularly embittered at the prospect of losing their fertile lands to Pakistan. He drew attention to the views of two leaders, Giani Kartar Singh and Jathedar Mohan Singh. They had spoken to him of driving out Muslims from the eastern districts as they had been driven out of Rawalpindi Division. The governor himself felt that Sikhs had a good claim to Montgomery district (which went to Pakistan) since they had established the rich canal colonies there.

New Delhi had been reluctant to recognise the seriousness of developments in Punjab, but Jenkins' messages could not be ignored. Mountbatten brought them up at a viceregal staff meeting on July 14. Referring to the governor's fears that the Radcliffe report may not be ready bef -ore August 15, he said he expected it to be available on the night of August 11, but admitted that that would not leave enough time to make administrative adjustments before the 15th. For once, he appeared on the defensive.

He did not take the reports of a Sikh uprising too seriously, remarking that it could be put down more effectively than isolated cases of arson and stabbing. He had already warned the Maharaja of Patiala that the armed forces would be used against the Sikhs if they showed signs of fight. V.P. Menon, however, pointed out that the Sikhs could destroy canal banks and resort to other forms of guerilla warfare which would be difficult to contain. Except for Jenkins, nobody in a position of authority was willing to recognise the mounting threat in Punjab.

An equally threatening problem was posed by the continuing defiance of the recalcitrant princes. Though relatively smaller, the coastal state of Travancore became more vociferous than others in demanding independence. Its veteran, authoritarian dewan, Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyer, knew that with direct access to the sea (unlike Hyderabad and Kashmir) and a valuable export trade, a source material for the atomic fuel thorium heightened his bargaining position. An export agreement with Britain for monazite had been signed.

Aiyer rivalled US Senator McCarthy in his obsession with communism. He used it to oppose links with India, as evident from his letter to Attlee on July 14: "Travancore cannot be forced to join a dominion whose leaders have at this critical juncture in world history established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Republic. (Vijaylakshmi Pandit had been posted to Moscow.) This step cannot but be followed by the establishment of Russian embassies and consulates all over India with results that need not be detailed. Within 50 miles of Travancore are the main cen-tres of communist influence in India." Nehru complained to Mountbatten about Aiyer's remarks about India's diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union. The basic problem with C.P., Nehru said, was that he had a very inflated opinion of his own importance. The Viceroy promised to persuade him to accede.

Aiyer sounded firm but less pugnacious after the British Parliament adopted the India Independence Bill. "In law as well as in fact, Travancore will become an independent country from (August 15)," he announced. But he was willing to "work in cooperation with the rest of India" on common facilities. However, Travancore would issue its own currency.

Travancore's importance was underlined in a Cabinet note by Earl Listowel, secretary of state for India. He said its economic and geographical position enabled it to assert independence. It had a range of exportable products and its own ports. Listowel advised against Britain doing anything that could help Travancore assert independence. However, if the state was able to do so on its own, British policy could be reconsidered.

THE minister for supply, John Wilmot, differed. He noted that the richest deposit of monazite—source material of thorium—was in Travancore. And thorium was comparable to uranium as a source material for atomic energy. It would only be to Britain's advantage, therefore, for Travancore to be independent. "Our chances of getting monazite from Travancore," he concluded, "ultimately depend on the goodwill of the state government, and the dewan in particular." British interests were also involved in Hyderabad. On July 15, the Ministry of Defence discussed a letter received from Air Chief Marshal Christopher Courtney that he had been approached to raise an air force for Hyderabad. Although advised by the India Office not to visit Hyderabad, Courtney argued that it might be in the best interest of Britain to retain a foothold in the largest Indian state.

The policy statement eventually put out by the Defence Department did not close the door on entering into military arrangements with viable princely states. It argued that it would be contrary to Britain's strategic aims to conclude military agreements with the princely states "so long as there is a chance of obtaining our defence requirements from Pakistan and India". But if this was not accomplished, the door should not be closed on agreements with the states. It was also noted that it would be undesirable for the states to "turn to a foreign power, not excluding USA".

Another aspect of Hyderabad's plans to build up its armed forces was noted by Nehru in a letter to Patel detailing con-fidential information that the Hyderabad government had placed an order for ammunition worth Rs 4 crore with Karel Kral, a Czech national. The commander-in-chief of the Hyderabad army, General El Edroos, had flown to Europe to make transport arrangements. The threat from Hyderabad was serious. It had an army of 45,000 men. The Czech government confirmed to New Delhi that Hydera-bad had approached it for arms and ammunition worth Rs 3 crore. The Government of India replied that complying with the order would be regarded as an unfriendly act.

Hari Singh of Jammu and Kashmir was more concerned with subduing any domestic agitation that would weaken his authority on the eve of the transfer of power. Jinnah had promised to respect his right as maharaja to determine the future of his state. He had jailed Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah and other National Conference leaders for demanding democratic rule. Now he was trying hard to dissuade Gandhi and Nehru from visiting the state, lest their visits reactivate the movement. The National Conference was insisting that power be transferred to the people, not the Maharaja, when the British withdrew.

On July 8, Hari Singh wrote to Mountbatten that he was reluctant to admit "outside leaders" into Kashmir. If Gandhi insisted, he could come after autumn (ie, after August 15). Nehru was not acceptable; the Maharaja had ordered his arrest on the state border the previous June for trying to defend Abdullah. But on July 11, Gandhi wrote to Mountbatten to remind the Maharaja of his desire to visit Kashmir; adding that if he could not go, Nehru would.

A month before the transfer of power, the rulers of Travancore, Kashmir and Hyderabad were preparing for independence. A few lesser princes were sitting on the fence. The future map of India was still unclear.

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