March 29, 2020
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The Vox Populi

Gandhi visits Srinagar and insists the people, not the ruler, should decide the future; Nehru submits the list of the first Cabinet of free India to Mountbatten

The Vox Populi
Countdown To Partition
By Ajit Bhattacharjea

TRUE to his word, Gandhi did not address any public meeting in Srinagar after arriving there on August 1. Yet it was a vital visit. For while he did not suggest that Jammu and Kashmir should accede to India, he insisted that the people, not the ruler, should decide the state's future.

Jinnah had offered Maharaja Hari Singh a blank cheque to join Pakistan. But Gandhi had confidence in the communal harmony for which the valley was known, under the leadership of the Kashmir National Conference president, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. He was later to say: "My sole hope and prayer is that Kashmir would become a beacon light in this benighted subcontinent." Abdullah himself was under detention for leading a movement for democratic rule in the state. Gandhi was unable to see him, but conveyed his message by seating Begum Abdullah beside him. Nehru had established close links between the Indian National Congress and the National Conference, which was why he was not welcome for the Maharaja; Gandhi's low-key visit strengthened the links on the eve of the transfer of power.

Though there were no public meetings, thousands gathered at his prayer meetings. He was bombarded with questions concerning the future of the state. People repeatedly urged him to ask the Maharaja to release Sheikh Abdullah from detention. But Gandhi replied that he had not come on a political mission. And he suggested that as a satyagrahi, Abdullah might benefit from his stay in jail; it could make him a more potent force. (Abdullah became prime minister of the state four months later).

During the four days he spent in Kashmir, Gandhi was invited to meet Hari Singh and his Maharani. It was a cordial meeting despite the fears expressed earlier by the Maharaja. Gandhi told the ruling couple that with the departure of the British, the people must determine the future of the state. They seemed to agree. He also met the prime minister, Ramchandra Kak, who had formulated the state's hardline policies. Now he appeared less rigid. Hari Singh needed a more flexible spokesman at this stage and the rigid old dewan was soon discarded.

On his way back from Jammu, Gandhi stopped at the refugee camp at Wah, near Rawalpindi, bursting with bitter Hindu and Sikh families. Their main concern was to be delivered from what was soon to become Pakistan. Despite the strong anti-Muslim sentiment in the camp, he emphasised the inter-religious unity he had found in Kashmir under the leadership of Sheikh Abdullah.

He hoped that the future of Kashmir would be decided by its people "the sooner the better". The question of evolving a procedure to determine the will of the people could be worked out "between the two Dominions, the Maharaja Saheb and the Kashmiris". If they came to a joint decision, much trouble would be avoided.

The refugees were more concerned with their fate after August 15 in Pakistan. Gandhi repeated his advice to accept the assurances by Jinnah and other Muslim League leaders that the minorities would be safe. If the assurances were not honoured, it would mean the ruin of Islam. He had to go to Noakhali, but was leaving his doctor-disciple, Sushila Nayyar, in Wah to dispel their fears.

Refugees did not always take kindly to Gandhi's advice. He had a taste of their hostility when young men carrying black flags chanted nonstop "Gandhi Go Back" while his train was at Amritsar station. He was disturbed by what he felt was the youth's misunderstanding of his mission. Eventually, he said he had to close his ears because he could not stand the noise.

Gandhi had seen and heard enough to realise how serious the situation was in Punjab. When leaving Lahore, he told Congress workers who saw him off at the station: "The real test is soon coming." He advised them to salute the Pakistan flag provided it symbolised equal rights and protection to the minorities. He assured them that he realised the sufferings of Punjab. After revisiting Noakhali, he hoped to return. Even Gandhi could not anticipate the pace of events.

The passions and fears aroused by the acceptance of Partition were taking their inexorable toll of innocents in the province. Sir Cyril Radcliffe had yet to announce the precise boundary between East and West Punjab. Uncertainty promoted conflicting claims and tensions. The Sikhs were threatening violence to secure access to historic shrines like Nankana Sahib. Most contentious of all was Lahore. Its future was still undecided. Though it was generally assumed that it would go to Pakistan, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh extremists tried to maintain their hold.

The latest fortnightly report by the Punjab governor, Sir Evan Jenkins, to the viceroy described the steady deterioration in the situation. Lahore was experiencing a series entire province had been declared a disturbed area.

Jenkins was concerned with the difficulty of reaching agreement on the division of assets between the two Pun-jabs, though time was running out. He had opposed Partition. Now it was a fortnight away and he commented: "It would have been difficult enough to partition within six weeks a country of 300 million people even if all concerned were friendly and anxious to make progress." That they clearly were not. To make things worse, there was little rain and the kharif harvest was threatened.

On August 4, Nehru wrote to the viceroy that he had been informed by Punjab Congress leaders that the situa -tion in Lahore was deteriorating and trouble was expected on August 15. (He had earlier assumed that things would improve after Partition was announced). He suggested that military pickets be posted in the city in addition to police pickets to reassure the frightened citizens.

The suggestion was conveyed by Mountbatten to Jenkins who turned it down. He replied the same day that one brigade had been posted in Greater Lahore, with one battalion in the city. The army commanders posted their men in platoon strength; they did not want them spread out thinly. He did not think it advisable to interfere with their discretion since they knew best how to deal with the situation.

INTELLIGENCE reports involving the Akali leader, Master Tara Singh, in plans to blow up special trains carrying Pakistan staff to Karachi and even kill Jinnah were placed before a special meeting convened by the viceroy on August 5. Jinnah himself was invited together with Liaquat Ali and Patel. Gerald Savage, an English officer of the Punjab CID, said he had evidence that Tara Singh was committed to taking revenge on Muslims and was collecting arms through sympathetic Sikh army officers. In view of Master Tara Singh's hold on his community, the meeting was reluctant to order his arrest. Savage himself felt that the arrest would cause unrest. Liaquat Ali said that special precautions would be taken for Pakistan specials. In his opinion, "the Sikhs were likely to rise in any case on the announcement of the Boundary Commission award."

 Ultimately, Mountbatten decided to ask the Punjab governor to arrest Master Tara Singh and his aides when the Boundary Commission's award was announced. Jinnah was silent; Patel said intelligence reports were not always credible. After the meeting, Jinnah informed the viceroy that he favoured immediate action against extreme Sikhs, before the Boundary Commission award was declared. He did not want to say so before Patel.

Tension continued to mount with Radcliffe expected to hand in his report in a few days. The consequences of Mountbatten's haste were now apparent. Even if he got the report on August 9, there would be little time to take precautions before August 15. He was showing signs of fatigue, with forgetfulness and flashes of ill temper, according to his staff. Key members of his staff were themselves laid up with various ailments attributed to strain.

There was tension, too, in the North-West Frontier Province. The Congress government, headed by Dr Khan Sahib, was refusing to resign. Though the referendum had been lost, it still claimed a majority in the provincial legislature. Dr Khan Sahib was willing to cooperate with Pakistan provided it was given autonomy except for Foreign Affairs, Defence and Communications (on the model of the Indian princely states). Mountbatten suggested to the governor, Lt Gen. Lockhart, that he persuade Dr Khan Sahib to resign before the transfer of power. He was anxious to avoid any conflict with the Pakistan government.

The interest taken by Afghanistan in the NWFP continued to worry the British government. When the Afghan prime minister visited London in early August, he met Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary, and reiterated the complaint that the Pathans should have had the choice of joining Afghanistan or an independent Pathanistan in the referendum. However, Bevin noted that the prime minister did not repeat previous claims to the tribal areas.

Jinnah assured the Afghan government on behalf of Pakistan that all agreements with the tribes would continue after August 15: "We have every intention and desire to have most friendly relations with Afghanistan, our immediate neighbour, and other Muslim countries." On August 4, Jawaharlal Nehru submitted to Mount-batten the names of the first Cabinet of free India who would take office on August 15. He had been heading an interim government so far. The list included: Vallabhbhai Patel, Abul Kalam Azad, Rajendra Prasad, John Matthai, Jagjivan Ram, Baldev Singh, C.H. Bhabha, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, B.R. Ambedkar, Shyama Prasad Mookerji, Shanmukham Chetty and N.V. Gadgil.

Meanwhile, Mountbatten continued to be optimistic about persuading the princes to accede to India. On August 1, he hosted a lunch for those holding out. He wrote to his daughter, Patricia, two days later: "It may not be realised at home but I am in the act of bringing off a coup second only to the 3rd June plan, and sincerely hope that by 15th August I shall be able to turn over power to only two central governments for the whole of India." As before, however, Mountbatten's conceit exceeded his admittedly outstanding abilities.

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