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Princely Threats

Several of the 602 rajas, nawabs and other rulers seek independence after the British withdrawal; Congress stems the move to 'balkanise' the country

Princely Threats
Countdown To Partition
By Ajit Bhattacharjea

THE haste with which the Congress leaders had accepted the June 3 plan involving Partition did not commend itself to the entire party. As the All India Congress Committee session called on June 14-15 to endorse the decision approached, there were rumblings of discontent from groups who felt that the leaders had betrayed the cause. Prominent among them was the socialist group headed by Jayaprakash Narayan. They argued that the Congress leaders had lost their revolutionary zeal and the party was becoming a constitutionalist status quo party.

At the AICC session, JP and Rammanohar Lohia clashed repeatedly with Nehru and Patel. JP said Gandhi had been kept in the dark about the negotiations with the viceroy. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad expressed unhappiness over the manner in which Partition had been accepted. But Gandhi didn't want to weaken the Congress on the eve of the transfer of power. When the leaders asked him to intervene, he agreed though it meant endorsing the plan for Partition which he had opposed until the last moment. The reason, he explained, was that neither he nor the other dissidents were strong enough to take over the party. There was no practical alternative now to supporting the leadership.

Turning to those opposing the resolution, he asked pointedly if they had the strength to take over the party and the government if the resolution was defeated and the Congress Working Committee obliged to resign. "You have a perfect right to do so (vote against the June 3 plan), he told them, "if you feel you have the strength, but I do not feel that strength in us today." Then the agony came through. "If you had the strength," he repeated, "I would also be with you, and if I felt strong enough myself I would, alone, take up the nag of revolt. But today I do not see the conditions for doing so." The resolution was passed by 153 votes to 29, with 36 abstentions.

Gandhi had not recovered his health fully since his release from detention in 1944 when the viceroy was told he was near death. Since then he had faced reverse after reverse and knew he no longer had the support of his former proteges. Now he was approaching 78. This did not prevent him from continuing to work to further whatever remained of his hopes for India.

Much required to be done. High on the list were moves by the bigger of the 602 maharajas, rajas, nawabs and sundry other princely rulers to seek independence when the British withdrew. They were supported by key British officials. Since they possessed two-fifths of the land area of the subcontinent, the threat of balkanisation was real.

Though summoned to endorse Partition, the Arce regarded the threat as serious enough to find time to adopt a resolution protesting against moves to "balkanise" the country and challenging the British view that India and Pakistan could not inherit the Crown's relationship of paramountcy over the princes. The resolution flatly rejected the right of any princely state to declare independence.

Gandhi, too, felt he must speak out. The day before the AICC resolution, he criticised Travancore which had opted for independence and banned public demonstrations. He told his prayer meeting on June 13: "While there was British Raj, Travancore was required to pay homage to the British. Now that India will be a free democracy, how can it do what it likes? The state now is ours, that is, it is a part of democratic India." The same was true of Hyderabad, which was also considering independence.

He went on to criticise British policy: "If he (Mountbatten) is an honest man, can't he--a competent commander-see that to allow some 600 princes, who were not able to make the slightest move without permission before, to do· as they like, is to make a mockery of freedom?"

Most of the princes lived in medieval luxury, free to fleece their unhappy subjects under the protection of British paramountcy. Despotism nurtured eccentrics and perverts. Among them was Nawab Mahabatkhan of Junagadh, who neglected his subjects but maintained 150 pet dogs in luxury, each with a kennel-room equipped with bath, bed, attendant and telephone. Maharaja Hari Singh of Jammu and Kashmir retained an even more expensive bevy of concubines at home and abroad. The Maharaja of Patiala managed with a harem of 365 wives. Records of numerous perversions and cruelties were locked in the cupboards of the British Residents in the states.

A few enlightened rulers stood out. The people of Mysore enjoyed more democracy and a higher standard of living than those of British India. The Maharaja of Travancore was the first to abolish untouchability. But none of the princes wanted the British to leave. The Congress had announced its intention to curtail their privileges. A week after the viceroy announced that power would be transferred on August 15, the Maharaja of Travancore proclaimed his intention to become independent. Next day, the Nizam of Hyderabad followed suit with a firman statihg that with the departure of the "Paramount Power, I shall become entitled to resume the status of an independent Sovereign."

The Nizam had a powerful ally in Sir Conrad Corfield, head of the Political Department which dealt with the princely states. Corfield was among the many British officials who resented handing over power to the Congress. He advised the bigger princes to seek independence and the smaller to band together and resist Congress rule. Justifying his attitude later, he said: "My job was to look after the interests of princely India. It was no part of my job to make things easier for India."

Sir Conrad was distrusted by Nehru and Patel who maintained that the princes had never been independent and had survived only because of British protection. The Congress strategy was to encourage state subjects to demand democratic rights. The campaign was coordinated under the umbrella of the All India States Peoples' Conference, whose president was Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah (later to become prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir).

Even so, many princely states may not have finally acceded to India before independence if Mountbatten had taken the same line as Corfield. In fact they disliked each other. The viceroy was furious when he discovered that while he was in London, Corfield had begun destroying confidential records concerning the princes and given orders to cancel rights and facilities enjoyed by British Indian authorities in the princely states. These included the military cantonment in Hyderabad. If Indian troops were obliged to pull out, it would be easier for the Nizam, who had his own forces, to claim independence.

A crucial top-level meeting took place at the viceroy's house on June 13. Nehru lost his temper with Corfield. He had been writing letters about the Political Department's actions for four months, he said, and got no response. Turning to the Political Advisor, he said: "I charge the Political Department and Sir Conrad Corfield particularly with malfeasance. I consider that a judicial inquiry at the highest level is necessary." Sir Conrad responded smoothly: "I have nothing to hide. Everywhere I have acted under the instructions of the Crown Representative (viceroy) and with the approval of the Secretary of State." It was clear he didn't regard himself answerable to Nehru. But Nehru had the last word. He announced the Congress had decided to set up a States Department to deal with the princes. Corfield objected that this could not be done before transfer of power, but got no support.

Mountbatten was apt to underplay problems arising from the haste with which he was proceeding and emphasise the advantages. His personal report to the British government on June 12 was typical. He claimed that the June 3 statement "has eased the tension throughout the country and the real fear of communal war on a large scale has disappeared." This myopic self-serving approach, shared by the Congress leaders, contributed to the high human cost of Partition.

In his report, the viceroy referred to the Indian leaders in the most patronising terms. Describing a rowdy Cabinet meeting, at which Nehru and Liaquat Ali exchanged hot words, he wrote: "I had to call the principal offenders to order by name. I then looked round at each of them. I was still faced with two or three sulky faces, and then I said 'I am not going on to the next item until I see a tow of smiling faces in front of me'. This had the desired effect: everybody laughed and the tension was broken."

Mountbatten was prone to exaggerate his role, but the episode underlined once again the subservient attitude of the Indian leaders. At the same time, he made up for his egotism by sensitivity to Indian concerns. In the same report, he opposed London's move to retain the strategic Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It would "cause an absolute flare-up throughout the length and breadth of India," he wrote. "My own position would be undermined." But the British chiefs of staff were insistent.

Only Gandhi was concerned with the fate of minorities as Partition approached. He was particularly unhappy with statements made by some members of the Congress Working Committee. On June 16, he drew attention to the report of a speech by the premier of the Central Province (Madhya Pradesh), Pandit Ravi Shankar Shukla, suggesting that Indian Muslims might be treated as aliens in return for ill-treatment of Hindus in Pakistan. "If you go for the principle of tit for tat," he said, "both faiths will be destroyed. Islam will be finished, as also Hinduism."

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