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Visions Of Doom

Gandhi tries to prevent Punjab being repeated in Bengal; Mountbatten delays the Radcliffe award till Independence celebrations to salve British

Visions Of Doom
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553
Countdown To Partition
By Ajit Bhattacharjea

AS the daily countdown calendar devised by Mountbatten on June 3 thinned to its last pages, the mood at the Viceroy's House was very different to the confidence it radiated on the day Partition was announced. Now he was faced with the time-bomb placed under Punjab by the impending Radcliffe award. Troops were fanning out but they seemed ineffective. Mount-batten himself was trying desperately to delay the inevitable explosion until his term as viceroy was over. Meanwhile in Calcutta, Gandhi was trying to prevent Punjab being repeated in Bengal, which was also being divided.

Though Mountbatten was as impeccably uniformed as ever, and spent hours overseeing arrangements for the August 15 transfer of power, the strain was telling. Official reports left no doubt that Punjab would erupt when the new border between India and Pakistan was announced. The vague demarcation guidelines had encouraged rival communities to mobilise support for their claims. Every suspenseful day that passed raised passions higher.

Under pressure, Mountbatten took a decision that would leave an indelible stain on his viceroyalty. He decided to delay publication of the award until the independence ceremonies were over. More important, the responsibility of dealing with the disturbances expected after the award would fall on the new governments of India and Pakistan. Though he had earlier asked Radcliffe to expedite the awards, the viceroy now sought delay. Radcliffe was reluctant but agreed to hand over three awards—on Punjab, Bengal and Sylhet—together on August 13. He had earlier offered to give the Punjab award on August 9. Mountbat-ten received them before leaving for Karachi on the 13th to preside over Pakistan's independence celebrations. The next day, August 15, would be India's Independence Day. This meant that the awards need not be announced until August 16 when he would not be viceroy.

This convenient schedule enabled Mountbatten to salve his conscience. But the price was paid by Punjab. If the Punjab award had been known on August 9, the authorities could have taken measures to protect families caught on the wrong side of the border and deploy forces accordingly. Punjab Governor Evan Jenkins had repeatedly asked for early information on the awards for this purpose.

A British writer on Partition, Leonard Mosley, later estimated that "millions of people died or lost everything" due to the delay in announcing the Punjab award. The estimate was perhaps excessive for many soldiers and policemen had themselves been infected by communal passion, but hundreds of lives could certainly have been saved.

Mountbatten's motives emerged at his staff meeting on August 9. When it became known that Radcliffe would be ready to announce the Punjab award that evening, he ruled that publication should be delayed. "Without question," he is quoted as saying, "the earlier it was published, the more the British would have to bear the responsibility for the disturbances that would undoubtedly result."

When an advisor pointed out that early publication would make it possible to take administrative measures in troubled areas, the viceroy insisted that the expected controversy should not be allowed to mar Independence Day celebrations. Yet Jenkins had been sending daily telegrams to the viceroy on the deteriorating situation. On August 12, he reported that "very serious disorders in Lahore appear to be due". Muslim League National Guards were appearing in uniform and the police were unsteady. The strength of the Punjab Boundary Force was not adequate. The railways were unsafe. A mine had derailed a special train to Pakistan near Bhatinda. Two telegrams were received from the governor next day. The first gave details of mounting casualties in Lahore, Amritsar, Gurdaspur and other areas, with Sikh jathas on the offensive in the countryside. The second simply stated "Lahore urban area and Amritsar district are out of control".

Field Marshal Auchinleck, supreme commander of the armed forces, commented: "The delay in announcing the award of the Boundary Commission is having a most disturbing and harmful effect. It is realised, of course, that the announcement may add fuel to the fire, but lacking an announcement, the wildest rumours are current, and are being spread by mischief-makers of whom there is no lack." The last-minute hassle over the disclosure of the awards had serious political repercussions as well. At the viceroy's staff meeting on August 9, a note by a secretary in his personal diary seemed to confirm speculation that he was trying to influence Radcliffe. The secretary noted that Mountbatten was "in a tired flap and is having to be strenuously dissuaded from asking Radcliffe to alter his award".

Next day, the prospective Pakistan prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, conveyed to the viceroy that he had heard that Gurdaspur district had been awarded to East Punjab, and this was a political decision. The matter was vital because Gurdaspur would provide India a surface link with Jammu and Kashmir.

Mountbatten's chief of staff, Lord Ismay, replied that the viceroy had kept himself aloof from the boundary awards. But he conceded that political gossip believe otherwise with the comment that "some uniformed sections of public opinion imagine that the award will not be Radcliffe's but the viceroy's". Mountbatten's friendship, and that of his wife, with Nehru was widely known. In the circumstances, the suspicion that the viceroy had persuaded Radcliffe to ensure that India had a land link with Nehru's beloved Kashmir was hard to dispel.

Pakistan's suspicions were strengthened by the strange episode of the telephone map. In response to Jenkins' appeals for some information about the proposed alignment of the border to help him deploy his forces, an aide to the viceroy phoned some details to Jenkins' secretary on August 8, the day before Radcliffe was to complete the Punjab award. When the award was published, it was found that a salient giving Ferozepur to Pakistan had been eliminated, placing it in India.

ACCORDING to Jenkins, a message was received on August 11 from the Viceroy's House containing the words 'eliminate salient'. The original map was discovered in his desk in Lahore and is held by Pakistan as evidence of a last-minute change in favour of India. The inference was that because of his friendship with Nehru, his dislike of Jinnah and his rejection as governor-general of Pakistan, Mountbatten used his influence with Radcliffe to harm Pakistan.

Everything did not go India's way, however. News leaked out that the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a tribal Buddhist area, had gone to East Pakistan. Patel wrote an angry letter to the viceroy on August 13 describing the decision as monstrous since the people were not Muslims. He described resistance to the decision by the people as justified and promised them "our maximum support in such resistance". But Mountbatten countered that Gurdaspur and Chittagong showed how even-handed Radcliffe was.

The approaching end of British paramountcy on August 15 led to a flurry of activity among princely rulers who had failed to accede to India. They sought guarantees and assurances, but Patel's State Department would not go beyond the offer of accession in three subjects—Defence, Foreign Affairs and Communications—evolved by V.P. Menon.

The two biggest states, Hyderabad and Kashmir, showed no desire to accede. Instead, the Nizam's influential legal advisor, Sir Walter Monckton, accused India of Nazi tactics. Another holdout was the Nawab of the Kathiawar state of Junagadh, a Muslim with predominantly Hindu subjects. He acceded to Pakistan, but India marched in troops later to claim the territory. On the other hand, the Nawab of Bengal, who had organised opposition to accession and whose state was in the heart of India, climbed down before the deadline. Patel praised him for his decision. Among the others who signed the Instrument of Accession on or before the deadline were Kolhapur, Baroda, Dholpur and Indore. But without Kashmir and Hyderabad, the map of the Dominion of India would look foreshortened.

Gandhi arrived in Calcutta's Sodepur ashram on August 9. He had intended to go on to Noakhali but Calcutta Muslims told him that they were feeling insecure because the Muslim police had been replaced by Hindus. He felt this was a reflection on the Congress ministry and stayed on. He told his prayer meeting that he would happily give his life if he could contribute to the quenching of mob fury, little realising how close he was to anticipating the future.

Two days later, Gandhi involved Shahid Suhrawardy, a former chief minister, in the campaign to save Calcutta. Advised that Suhrawardy was not regarded as a particularly reputable character, he remarked, "the same has been said of me". He needed a well-known Muslim Bengali partner to get across to the people. The tactics he evolved emerged in his conversation with Suhrawardy.

They would have to live under the same roof, he insisted. It would not be easy, for "we shall have to work till every Hindu and Muslim is safe and continue our effort till our last breath." Suhrawardy took a day to decide. Then they moved into a dirty, abandoned building, Hydari Mansions, in the heart of a Beliaghata slum with a mixed population of Hindus and Muslims.

Gandhi was repeatedly taunted, "Why do you come here to protect Muslims; go to Noakhali and save Hindus." When he was joined by Suhrawardy, who was called murderer, stones followed. Gandhi showed himself to the crowd with his arm around Suhrawardy's shoulders. Gradually, the noise faded. He did not underestimate the danger. To Patel he wrote: "I am stuck here and now I am going to take a big risk. Suhrawardy and I are going to stay together in a turbulent area from today. Let us see what happens." What did happen was that 10,000 people attended Gandhi's prayer meeting next day. Groups shouting Hindu-Muslim unity slogans toured a transformed Calcutta. Mountbatten paid tribute to the "one-man boundary force". "In the Punjab," he wrote, "we have 50,000 soldiers and large-scale rioting on our hands. In Bengal, our forces consist of one man, and there is no rioting." But Gandhi knew it was a temporary reprieve. He declared he would fast on August 15, the day of Partition. He would not call it a day of mourning, however; it was a day of liberation from foreign rule.

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