There is yet another book added to the long list dealing with the Partition of the subcontinent. But this book is different. Entitled Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, it is written by Mr. Ishtiaq Ahmed, a Pakistani based in Sweden. Mr. Ahmed is a professor of political science at the Stockholm University. He spent 15 years of research to write this book. The long endeavor is visible in the book. The result is rewarding. The causes of the Partition are not a subject merely of academic interest. The subject continues to have crucial relevance to the unfolding situation today. Why and how the Partition came about has direct bearing on what the future might hold for Indo-Pakistan relations. Was the emotional gulf between Hindus and Muslims unbridgeable to render Partition inevitable? If not, how and why did it occur? And based on the answers to that question how might the issue of Indo-Pakistan relations be addressed today? Mr. Ahmed’s book throws light on this aspect in a unique way.
|Britain departed from the subcontinent six decades ago. But the colonial mindset of the divide-and-rule policy they bequeathed to the governments of India and Pakistan persists till today.
The book does not rely overmuch on analysis. Through painstaking research of media and official reports of that time, reinforced by a large number of interviews of individuals who witnessed the event, the book recaptures the atmosphere and mood of those days as vividly as do media reports of current events. It helps explain why the political leaders of India concluded that the Partition was inevitable. Therefore, going against their most solemn commitments to the public they accepted it. Should they therefore be exonerated? I believe not. They erred. It must be recalled that both Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru vainly attempted to undo their decisions to accept Partition. Does this not indicate that they had realized their mistake? If Partition was inevitable because of irreconcilable alienation between Hindus and Muslims, why did both leaders before death attempt to undo the consequences of the Partition? Mahatma Gandhi after communicating with Jinnah was all set to march to Lahore with fifty refugee families to set up camp there and work for Indo-Pakistan unity. He was assassinated a fortnight before his planned departure. Pandit Nehru sent Sheikh Abdullah to Pakistan to explore the possibility of an Indo-Pakistan confederation with Kashmir acting as the bridge. While the Sheikh was in Pakistan, Nehru died to abort the exercise. Did both leaders realize that they had been overwhelmed to accept the Partition by engineered events that distorted reality?
Consider briefly the sequence of events preceding the Partition. The all India election for the Constituent Assembly was held in August 1945. The Muslim League obtained an exaggerated presence because seats were reserved for Muslims. Not surprisingly it won near total majority of those seats. With its demand for Pakistan already announced, never mind whether its leaders knew what precisely was Pakistan or where precisely would be its borders, the creation of Pakistan was widely perceived as inevitable. The crucial elections to the provincial assemblies were held later in the beginning of 1946. It must be appreciated that the results of the Punjab and Bengal assemblies were to be the key to the creation of Pakistan. The Muslim League launched a virulently communal campaign in Punjab identifying the creation of Pakistan with being Islamic. Overwhelmingly the majority of Muslims in rural areas were persuaded. Even many anti-Pakistan Unionist Party leaders were persuaded to join and support the Muslim League. The League emerged as the largest party but minus a clear majority. The Congress, the Akali Party and the Unionist Party coalesced to form the government. Sir Khizr Hayat Khan Tiwana of the Unionist Party became the Chief Minister. It must be noted that while the Unionist Party was firmly opposed to Pakistan, even the Muslim League leaders of Punjab were firmly opposed to the partition of the Punjab. The British plan was diabolically brilliant. The Constitutent Assembly poll had already created the foundation for Pakistan. In the subsequent assembly polls the Muslims naturally sought the whole of Punjab while the Hindus and Sikhs wanted to partition the province to avoid staying in Pakistan. After the provocative and incendiary election campaign there were sporadic communal riots and killings, but for the most part there was enormous tension, mutual hatred and distrust fanned by speeches of various leaders.
In August 1946 Jinnah declared the Direct Action Day in Calcutta. There were bloody riots and 5000 people were killed within days. The riots spread to Bihar where another 7000 were killed. The riots spread to the Punjab. But here there was more tension than killing. The Muslim League started a concerted campaign against the government demanding the resignation of the Chief Minister. On March 3 Chief Minister Khizr resigned. The Muslim leaders who had decried him earlier now hailed him thinking that he had helped the creation of Pakistan. In fact Khizr like his late leader Sir Sikander Hayat Khan was so violently opposed the division of Punjab that he actually pleaded with Governor Sir Evan Jenkins to delay the British departure from the Punjab even if the rest of India was vacated by them! Jenkins himself was firmly opposed to the partition of the Punjab and considered that it would be an act of lunacy. But he was not heeded by Whitehall. In fact both Viceroy Wavell and the successor of Jenkins, Punjab Governor Sir Bernard Glancy urged Whitehall to announce the Boundary Demarcation Plan to determine which Muslim territories would comprise Pakistan. Both Wavell and Glancy opined that the announcement of the Award would compel the Muslim League to abandon the demand of a separate Pakistan because the Muslims of the Punjab would never accept the partition of their province. Surprisingly, without adducing any reason the British government remained silent on both requests. And thereby hangs a tale.
Mr. Ishtiaq Ahmed in his book has rightly refrained from speculating the possibility of a conspiracy by elements in Britain to divide India. But for any credible understanding of the underlying causes of the Partition the circumstances suggesting that cannot be ignored. The interviews of eyewitnesses to the Partition recorded in Mr. Ishtiaq Ahmed’s book contain a running thread of observations suggesting an official hand that fomented the riots.
A Pakistani Christian Mr. AT Chaudhri, interviewed by the author, said: “There was a British CID officer, Mr. Savage, who instigated Muslims to attack Hindus, and vice versa.”
Mr. Syed Khurshid Abbas Gardezi told the author: “There seemed to be a hidden hand at work that led the situation to worsen.”
Mr. Ranjit Singh Bhasin who fled with his family from Pakistan to settle in Kapurthala, India said: “My hunch is that the whole problem of 1947 was created by the British. How can you explain the fact that it took so long for the troops to arrive in the affected villages when they were only an hour away from the military headquarters in Rawalpindi?”
One can go on. There are innumerable incidents recorded to suggest that the riots were allowed to happen and escalate with tacit official encouragement. But all these observations related to the ground. The evidence of British conspiracy is reinforced by the manner in which the top Indian and Pakistani leaders were charmed and influenced by the British to do their bidding. Reference to this is omitted in the book.
The book records that Reforms Commissioner Mr. VP Menon had worked on the transfer of power long before Lord Mountbatten arrived in India. The author writes: “We have no way of ascertaining on whose behalf VP Menon had been working with such an idea.” Decades after the Partition answering a question Mountbatten said: “Don’t forget Krishna Menon and VP Menon were my…spies is the wrong word; they were my contacts, my links…” That should answer Mr. Ishtiaq Ahmed’s question. VP Menon was working on the transfer of power on behalf of the British. Indeed, as early as 1940 Viceroy Lord Linlithgow had commissioned Mr. Zafarullah Khan to prepare a memorandum explaining how two dominions might be created. Zafarullah was assured that full secrecy would be maintained. This is revealed in a letter written by the Indian Viceroy to the British Secretary of State on March 12, 1940.
Not evaluated in this book is the nature of relationship that existed between the British government and the top leaders of India and Pakistan. British influence exerted on Nehru is too well known to bear repetition. Long before the arrival of Lord Mountbatten, Viceroy Wavell had complained that often Nehru was informed by Whitehall before he was. Maulana Azad in his memoirs noted the exceptional influence Lady Mountbatten exerted on Nehru. Nehru’s interaction with Edwina Mountbatten was not merely romantic. Mountbatten admitted to an interviewer that whatever he wanted his wife succeeded in having it delivered, including the Viceroy’s post in India. Lady Mountbatten, after all, was the grand-daughter of one of Britain’s most powerful bankers, Sir Ernest Cassel who was the personal banker of King Edward VII. Sir Ernest was a prominent member of the Cliveden Set and Britain’s Round Table, powerful quasi-secret societies that dictated British policy. It should not surprise therefore that after his first visit to the Soviet Union after Independence Prime Minister Nehru recorded his confidential impression about Stalin’s Russia and sent his note to the Indian President, American President Eisenhower and thirdly to Lady Mountbatten. Not a particularly romantic subject, was it?
Less known is the relationship Jinnah had with Britain through its war time Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Their closeness was even more spectacular. Sir Martin Gilbert recently wrote a biography of Winston Churchill. He revealed that Churchill had arranged with Jinnah secret correspondence. Jinnah was asked to address letters to Elizabeth Giliat, Churchill's former secretary. This secret interaction continued for years. Jinnah's key decisions between 1940 and 1946, including the demand for Pakistan in 1940, were taken after obtaining approval from Churchill or Lord Linlithgow and Wavell, both acting on the British PM’s behalf. Jinnah admitted that he had been receiving advice from London during the Simla Conference in 1945. In what manner therefore might the decisions of Nehru and Jinnah, among a host of other leaders of that time, be considered independent?
Even more fascinating and significant to the subcontinent’s fate was the division within Britain itself. It should be recalled that after the Holocaust and the victory of the allies in war, the moral influence of the Jewish community was exceedingly strong. For centuries they had been subjected to discrimination in Europe and had been struggling to recreate their homeland in Israel. To establish Israel, British Palestine had to be partitioned. There was opposition to that within Britain itself. Historically the British had close relations with powerful sections of the Arab world. The Partition of the Indian subcontinent would have created a precedent to partition Palestine. That sealed India’s fate. The United Nations Resolution to partition Palestine was passed less than 4 months after British India was partitioned.
The conflict within Britain regarding Palestine explains the difference in approach between Churchill on the one hand and the British cabinet and Mountbatten on the other. Churchill on 29 March 1945 met Viceroy Lord Wavell in London. Wavell recorded: “He (Churchill) seems to favor partition of India into Pakistan, Hindustan and Princestan.” Churchill played the divide and rule policy to the hilt and wanted to prolong British presence in India after the war until such time as war ravaged Britain recouped. The British quite likely envisaged an eventual orderly transfer of populations in order to create a wholly Muslim Pakistan. Years before Independence British Intelligence had anticipated the need to create an Islamic crescent to contain the Godless Soviet Union after the war. But they did not want the subcontinent’s mass killings that will always remain a blot on Britain’s reputation.
The British Parliament had announced the impending departure of Britain from India by June 1948. Criticizing that decisiom in a parliamentary debate, Churchill said: “The government by their 14 months’ time limit have put an end to all prospects of Indian unity…How can we walk out of India and leave behind a war between 90 million Muslims and 200 million caste Hindus…? Will it not be a terrible disgrace to our name if we allow one fifth of the population of the globe… to fall into chaos and carnage?” In fact the likely compulsion to partition Palestine hastened even that 14 month deadline. That explains probably Mountbatten’s inexplicable decision to transfer power as early as August 1947. It facilitated the creation of Israel. The transfer of populations also had to be instant. That is why the bloodiest riots and the biggest transfers of populations in modern history were allowed to occur.
The British under Mountbatten’s orders announced the boundary award only on August 17, two days after Independence when the legal responsibility of governing the nation rested with the Congress government while real power continued to be exercised by the British. People did not know whether Lahore would come to India or go to Pakistan. Well known journalist Mr. Inder Malhotra, a college student at the time, recalled to this writer that Sardar Baldev Singh, a Minister, would happily assure people that Lahore was “in his pocket”. No wonder the bloodiest riots in modern history occurred. Despite the tension, hatred and riots engineered earlier the total number of death casualties in the Punjab up till August 2 did not exceed 5000. And yet, Congress leaders accepted Partition on June 3rd! Between August 17 and the end of December 1947 an estimated million people had been slaughtered and ten million rendered homeless refugees in both India and Pakistan.
This briefly is the story of how the bloodiest riots occurred after the Partition of the Punjab. One need not denigrate the leaders of India and Pakistan for being naïve. They became the prisoners of a context created by arguably the most sophisticated power of the last two thousand years. Nor should one denigrate the British or the Israelis. Political leaders tend to resolve their immediate problems. The British might have masterminded the riots and the transfer of populations. They could not in their wildest dreams have anticipated the scale of the mass killings. Years later recalling the events Mountbatten sadly confessed: “I f++++d it up!”
So where does this leave us today? Britain departed from the subcontinent six decades ago. But the colonial mindset of the divide-and-rule policy they bequeathed to the governments of India and Pakistan persists till today. Former Indian diplomat Mr. Moni Chadha recalled to the author of this book his experience when he visited his ancestral village in Pakistan. Without exception the people were overwhelmingly friendly. But the ISI security relentlessly hounded him wherever he went. The gulf between the government and the people could not have been starker. The myth that religion can be converted from a spiritual message into a political device to achieve consolidation is shattered in Pakistan. Although one fourth the size of pluralist India the polity of Muslim Pakistan is more bitterly divided between Shias, Sunnis, Pashtuns, Punjabis, Sindis and Mohajirs as they battle for turf and power. If people want to reclaim their cultural nationalism by normalizing relations between India and Pakistan the new generation must get rid of the political mindset that prevails in both countries. That implies a replacement of the prevailing political class and political culture. That would require nothing short of a democratic revolution. That in a real sense would be the subcontinent’s second freedom struggle.