16 July 1997 Books Countdown To Partition

While Riots Rage

...Congress objects to treaties with princely states, Conservatives to christening the new dominion India, and Mountbatten to Jinnah becoming
While Riots Rage
Countdown To Partition
By Ajit Bhattacharjea

WITH six weeks to go for the transfer of power, pressures continued to mount. The Punjab government was unable to stop the outbreak of fires that engulfed large sections of Lahore and Amritsar although Nehru urged martial law and Jinnah told Mountbatten that he did not mind if Muslims were shot. The bulk of the army was paralysed as instructions went out to divide units on communal lines. Before the week ended, Mountbatten suffered his biggest personal reverse at the hands of Jinnah. And as referendum neared in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), the Afghan government supported Pakhtun independence and claimed the territory.

The main task facing the British government was to finalise the historic bill designed to end British rule in India. Never had such an important measure been pushed through so fast. Telegrams flew between London and New Delhi. The Labour government was anxious that the bill be passed by both Houses of the British Parliament and receive royal assent by July 18—just under a month before the actual transfer of power. It was an elaborate piece of legislation. But the core was contained in a brief paragraph that brought tears to many British eyes. The resonant words Emperor of India were to be omitted "from the Royal Style and Tiles" of the monarch. For a century, India had been the Jewel in the Crown, the heart of a global empire on which the sun never set. The bill marked the end of an era.

Designated the India Independence Bill, it provided for setting up two independent Dominions of India and Pakistan out of British India. It described their territories and provided for the division of Punjab and Bengal. The British government, it stated, would not be responsible for the governance of these territories after August 15. But a link remained; each Dominion would have a governor-general who, the bill stated, "shall be appointed by His Majesty and shall represent His Majesty for the purposes of government of the Dominion".

For the princely states, the bill spelt the collapse of the umbrella of British paramountcy under which they had been sheltered so long. After its adoption, "the suzerainty of His Majesty over the Indian states lapses, and with it, all treaties and agreements in force". Paramountcy would not be inherited by the Dominion governments, who would have to work out their own relations with the princely states. This would concern India more than Pakistan since most of them fell within, or abutted, Indian territory.

Mountbatten invited Nehru, Patel, Jinnah and Liaquat Ali to the Viceroy's House on July 1 to read the draft bill. He said that since it was contrary to parliamentary practice to show advance texts, they could examine the draft for two hours, but not take it away. The Congress and League leaders would sit in separate rooms and could bring advisors. Nehru, however, insisted that the measure was too important to be treated so casually. His colleagues would also have to see it. Mountbatten had to telegraph Attlee who agreed that Nehru be allowed to take a copy out, on condition that secrecy was maintained.

In Britain Conservative MPs objected to the Dominion of India retaining the name 'India'; they wanted it to be 'Hin-dustan'. They objected even more strongly to the title 'India Independence Bill'. Churchill was so upset that he wrote to Attlee from his sickbed on July 1: "The essence of the Mountbatten proposals and the only reason that I gave support to them is because they establish the phase of Dominion status. Dominion status is not the same as independence.... It is not true that a community is independent when its ministers have in fact taken the Oath of Allegiance to the King." He suggested 'The India Dominions Bill' as title, but the prime minister said it was too late.

In New Delhi, Mountbatten reported to London that Jinnah reacted favourably to the bill. But Congress leaders were unhappy with the clause eliminating all treaties and agreements with the princely states. They pointed out that as a result arrangements for transport, railways, customs, irrigation and other transit facilities through princely states would lose their legal basis. They wanted a provision for standstill agreements to be made in the bill to overcome this deficiency.

A proposal accepted by Mountbatten on June 25 helped. He agreed to set up a States Department in the interim government to liaise with the princely states and negotiate standstill agreements. This was a function hitherto entrusted to the Political Department, headed by Sir Conrad Corfield, who had been using his influence to prevent the larger princely states from joining India. Equally significant was the announcement that the strong man of the Congress, Sardar Patel, who was Home Member, would look after the new department. When Patel persuaded V.P. Menon to leave the Viceroy's staff and become secretary, the team looked formidable. "I am glad to say that Nehru has not been put in charge of the new States Department," Mountbatten commented, "which would have wrecked everything. Patel, who is essentially a realist and very sensible, is going to take it over.... Even better news is that V.P. Menon is to be the secretary. By this means, I think we shall avoid a really bad break with the States with all the endless repercussions that this would have entailed."

While the constitutional problems involved in the transfer of power were being addressed, fires raged uncontrolled in Lahore and Amritsar. Mountbatten reported to London on June 27: "If we cannot stop this arson both these cities will soon be burnt to the ground." Nehru and Jinnah had asked him to impose martial law, but the local authorities felt it would not help. According to the Punjab governor, Sir Evan Jenkins, troops would not be able to prevent the "cloak and dagger operations" responsible for setting fires.

Tempers ran high. At the meeting of his Cabinet, the Viceroy continued: "Nehru, as usual, completely lost control of himself and demanded the sacking of every official, from the Governor downward, the same day. I had to reprimand him publicly... Patel then ranted against the British saying that in the days when they were putting down Congress and freedom movements, they had no difficulty in keeping law and order."

IN any event, the army was dislocated by division. On the same date, procedures were authorised for dividing the army on a communal basis. Units were to be moved from and to Pakistan depending on their religious composition. Stores were to be divided and separate administrative headquarters created. The commander-in-chief estimated that the process of reorganisation would take at least two or three years.

The British chiefs of staff were not too unhappy about this. They were hopeful that India and Pakistan would have to seek retention of British troops during the interim and this would further their strategic objectives. But their effort to retain the Andamans and Nicobar Islands proved infructuous. The British government accepted Mountbatten's view that no special provision should be made in the Independence Bill that would separate them.

But Mountbatten was less successful with Jinnah. Since the talks on partition began, the Viceroy had assumed that he would be invited to be governor-general of both Dominions. He argued that this would help tide over the impact of separation. The Congress formally invited him to stay on. But the Muslim League leader was evasive.

Then, on July 2, Jinnah said he wanted to be governor-general of Pakistan himself. Mountbatten's frustration was reflected in his personal report to London. He wrote: "He (Jinnah) is suffering from megalomania in its worst form, for when I pointed out to him that if he went as a constitutional governor-general his powers would be restricted but as prime minister he could really run Pakistan, he made no bones about the fact that his prime minister would do as he said: 'In my position, it is I who will give the advice and others who will act on it'." One of the Viceroy's arguments was that a common governor-general would help ensure that Pakistan would get its due share of the common assets. When asked if he rea-lised what his decision could cost, Jinnah replied, "It may cost me several crores of rupees." Mountbatten responded: "It may well cost you the whole of your assets and the future of Pakistan." But Jinnah was obdurate.

The approach of a referendum in NWFP enabled Afghanistan to revive old claims to the border area. The Afghan minister in London handed over a note stating that Britain had annexed the area during the Anglo-Afghan wars. More seriously, the note went on: "In view moreover of the change in the status of India, the obligations created by the Anglo-Afghan treaties in respect of these territories will in future no longer be regarded as binding." The Afghan government rejected the NWFP referendum as unjust "as it debars the province from choosing either to form a separate free State or to rejoin its motherland Afghanistan".

On June 30, the British lion roared for the last time over the Khyber Pass. "Neither the present government nor its successors can afford to surrender any vital interest or right," London replied. "It is to be hoped that the Afghan government will be persuaded that, in being firm, we are not being unfriendly and that, at this juncture in her history, India is more entitled to expect Afghan goodwill than Afghan intervention in her internal affairs." Badshah Khan's Red Shirts (Khudai Khidmatgars) had decided not to participate in the NWFP referendum because the option of voting for their own constituent assembly, which would decide whether to join India or Pakistan, had not been conceded. Badshah Khan feared that a direct vote between the two Dominions would inevitably become communal. His demand was interpreted by British officials as favouring independence or Afghanistan, though Gandhi was sure that his friend had no such intention. In the event, the Red Shirt withdrawal from the referendum ensured that the NWFP would go to Pakistan.

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