February 22, 2020
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Vale Of Secrecy

Kashmir's location makes a case for Pakistan; but its Hindu king, Hari Singh, steers a course for independence; Nehru resists both moves

Vale Of Secrecy
Countdown To Partition
By Ajit Bhattacharjea

WITH less than two months left for Partition, two problems assumed menacing proportions. One was the claim to independence by rulers of larger princely states, encouraged by key British officials. The other was the delay in taking vital decisions on dividing the army and deploying it to protect millions of refugees in divided Punjab and adjacent areas. The resulting wounds would scar the future of India and Pakistan.

Jammu and Kashmir posed the most difficult problem of all, involving as it did the competing ideologies of India and Pakistan: secularism and religious nationalism. It had the best claim to independence as the biggest princely state in the subcontinent. Its location intensified conflict. The state would abut both new Dominions. Other countries were involved, too. The state bordered Tibet and the Chinese province of Sinkiang. And only the narrow Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan separated it from Soviet territory.

Most people of Jammu and Kashmir were Muslims; the ruler was Hindu. Its transport links were mainly with the area that would become Pakistan; the rivers which transported its timber flowed in the same direction. On the basis on which British India was to be divided, the case to include it in Pakistan was hard to rebut, except that Jinnah had earlier endorsed the right of the rulers to decide. He was thinking of Hyderabad, Bhopal, Junagadh and other states with Muslim rulers and Hindu subjects.

But the history of Kashmir was very different from that of the rest of the subcontinent. Islam entered the Valley by persuasion, not by conquest. Its torch-bearers were the gentle, tolerant, eclectic Sufi divines. Its tallest leader, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, had established the secular National Conference and worked closely with the Congress. He was in prison for leading a popular agitation against Maharaja Hari Singh's rule. The previous June, Nehru was detained by the Maharaja for entering the Valley to defend his friend. Earlier, Abdullah had rejected Jinnah's overtures. He had become a symbol of Congress' secular ideal.

Under opposing pressures from the Congress and Muslim League, Hari Singh prevaricated. Mountbatten belatedly realised that unless he decided in favour of joining India or Pakistan before August 15, the consequences could be serious. He flew to Srinagar and spent five days there, from June 18 to 23. But he did not anticipate Hari Singh's wiles.

The Maharaja pleaded colic and calculating that the viceroy would welcome a respite from Delhi's heat, sent him trout fishing. Mountbatten had to be content with discussions with his crusty prime minister, Ramachandra Kak, known for his advocacy of independence. According to the official record of the conversation, he advised Kak to decide soon between joining India or Pakistan. He said Nehru felt strongly about Kashmir and after August 15, he would no longer be able to offer viceregal protection to the Maharaja.

Nehru had written a lengthy letter to Mountbatten before he visited Kashmir. Among the points he made were: "There is every element present there for rapid and peaceful cooperation with India. Communalism has not vitiated the atmosphere as in other parts of India. Abdullah was by far the most outstanding leader. The National Conference has stood for and still stands for Kashmir joining the Constituent Assembly of India." However, when Mountbatten left Srinagar on June 23, all he had to show for his mission was the sunburn he got, and the shock he gave to the locals, by bathing nude in the Thricker river. Hari Singh was steering a course for independence.

Near the other end of the subcontinent, the problem posed by the Nizam's entreaties to the British government was becoming increasingly complex. His insistence that Indian troops be withdrawn from Hyderabad became stronger. Whitehall arranged for a question to be asked in the House of Commons and frame a carefully worded statement in response. Telegrams flew between London and New Delhi before an answer was drafted on June 19. It read in part: "When the transfer of power takes place, paramountcy will lapse. The states will then be completely free to join one of the two contemplated Dominions or to become separate autonomous units. His Majesty's government (HMG) hopes that all states will associate themselves with one or other of the two Dominions, and thus become partners in the British Commonwealth. Should, however, any state or states decide otherwise, HMG would review the situation in the light of the existing circumstances."

Nehru was presumably not aware of this flurry of telegrams but his concern was expressed in a letter sent the same day to Lord Ismay, chief of the viceroy's office. He insisted that the states either join one of the two Dominions or be associated with them. "It is quite inconceivable," he wrote, "that a state can become independent in the legal sense of the term... That would be a challenge to the security of India which the Indian Union would never agree to." The Maharaja of Travancore was not quite convinced. On June 22, Nehru complained to the viceroy that the Travancore potentate had indicated his intentions by nominating representatives to the Dominions of India and Pakistan even before they were established.

The problems posed by ambitious princes diverted attention from decisions on the division and disposition of the army. Advance planning had been delayed by the reluctance of the commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck, to divide the Indian army, regarded as the best fighting formation in the empire. Others argued that the army should be divided only after the process of Partition was complete. Otherwise, it would not be able to help maintain order. But the future leaders of India and Pakistan insisted that the Dominions must have separate armies under their command on August 15.

Eventually, Mountbatten had to instruct Auchinleck to shed his reservations and begin dividing the army. That he was a mere rear admiral in rank did not help. Resentment came into the open on the issue of scheduling the withdrawal of British troops from India. Auchinleck was anxious that they be positioned to "safeguard British lives" and stay on till January 1, 1948.

Mountbatten advised London to give the future governments of India and Pakistan a choice between requesting British troops to stay on for six months or having them withdrawn soon after August 15. The secretary of state concurred. While Liaquat Ali said Pakistan would favourably consider retention of British forces, Nehru responded: "I would sooner have every village in India put to the flames than keep the British army here after August 15."

BUT he was more accommodating when Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (of Alamein fame), chief of the imperial general staff, arrived in New Delhi on June 23. Montgomery reported to the War Office that Nehru had agreed that British troops should begin withdrawing on August 15 and complete the process by the end of February 1948. Jinnah concurred.

On June 24, Mountbatten conveyed to London Auchinleck's view that British troops begin withdrawing on January 1, 1948, and safeguard British lives. But he himself insisted that withdrawal should begin on August 15 and responsibility for protecting foreign nationals be left to the Dominions. Delay would be unpalatable to the new governments.

Meanwhile, momentous legal and political preparations for Partition continued apace. On June 20, the Bengal legislative assembly voted to partition the province. The process was repeated in embattled Lahore on June 23, with the legislative assembly voting to divide Punjab. Members from the East and the West of the provinces voted in separate groups. The outcome was predictable.

Hopes expressed by Mountbatten and Nehru that the announcement of Partition would reduce violence were already proving false. Though it was known that Punjab would be partitioned, the actual boundary line between was yet to be drawn. Communal mobs battled for control of Lahore. Amritsar was badly affected.

On June 22, Nehru wrote a personal letter to Mount-batten after visiting refugee camps in Hardwar. About Lahore, he wrote: "It is reported that 100 houses were burnt down last night and this morning. During the previous two days, about 250 houses were set afire and burnt. At this rate the city of Lahore will be just a heap of ashes in a few days' time. The human aspect of this is appalling to contemplate. Amritsar is already a city of ruins." He complained that the viceroy's assurance that disorder would be put down with vigour was not being honoured in Lahore, Amritsar and Gurgaon. Urgent action was needed.

But even in this crisis, Nehru sounded apologetic. "Please forgive me for this long letter," he concluded. "I tried to stop myself writing it, but the thought of Lahore burning away obsessed me and I could not restrain myself." Even so, three days later, the interim government ruled against imposing martial law. Punjab governor Evan Jenkins argued that the rioters were too closely intermixed for troops to separate; but the underlying reason could be that British officers did not wish to accept responsibility.

Gandhi, too, opposed martial law; he was concerned with 'repairing hearts'. But what he saw at refugee camps made him more aware of his physical weakness. "Today flames are raging everywhere," he told his prayer meeting on June 24. "My physical powers are waning. I am no longer strong enough to put up with the heat." He spoke with a towel round his head. But he preached self-help even in this situation. He urged refugees to form cooperatives and take other measures to improve their plight. Only he could have advised them: "Crying and complaining will not help."

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