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Sordid Saga of Partition of India
by H.N. Bali Bookmark and Share

... and Three Men with Blood of Millions on their Hands

Part I

It was Vladimir Lenin who made the prescient observation that a few years of war unwittingly compress possible peace time developments of decades into cataclysmic changes in a short span. Take the Second World War which ended the audacious bid of Nazi Germany to have a share of the imperial pie. Unknowingly, it brought about the end of imperialism itself. This momentous process was triggered off by the shifting of the centre of world power from London to Moscow in the East, and Washington DC in the West. Therefore, when the Congress leaders detained after the 1942 Quit India movement, were released, the world around them had unrecognizably changed. For example, the rulers they were agitating against were themselves keen to leave as early as possible. The prism in which they purveyed the world was hopelessly dated.

India’s transition to a free country was centered on three characters: John Bull, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

First of all, John Bull! But before I proceed, may I explain my choice of a collective name for all the players in the list of dramatis persona among the British rulers at that time. The name John Bull is the creation of Dr. John Arbuthnot, coined way back in 1712 in a pamphlet called Law is a Bottomless Pit. With time, it became an archetype of the freeborn Englishman. None used the name with more relish than George Bernard Shaw. (Remember his comedy, John Bull's Other Island. And don’t forget GBS was Irish who never pulled well with the English.)
John Bull was represented by Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee, Sir Stafford Cripps (a key player), Leopold Amery, Secretary of State for India in England, and, first Wavell and later and more importantly, Lord Louis Mountbatten. Part I deals with events till the arrival of Mountbatten on the stage. From the Indian side the key players were Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Gandhi had been practically marginalized.

British Realization

Indian leaders agitating for transfer of power hardly realized that the astute Labour leaders were themselves keen to quit. They understood that the end of the Second World War saw Great Britain irretrievably reduced to the status of a second rate European power, incapable of keeping the Indian subcontinent under its control. They realized that the golden age of the empire was over. But they also remembered that when their fortunes were at their lowest ebb during the War, Gandhi had in August 1942 hurled the challenge: "Quit India". The British now had the chance to take their sweet revenge. And this, they did. If, till 1945, the British policy-makers were at all thinking of one India after they left the subcontinent, by the end of the year the policy of Divide and Quit seems to have been finalized. That suited the long-range British strategic interests in the region.

Every country has a strategy – both short-term and long-term. It is we Indians alone who we think nose is merely an organ to breathe and smell, but never to look beyond. British strategic vision precluded a strong united India not amenable to British pressure to retain control of central Asian region to counter-balance a rising Communist regime in Russia. Hence, their decision to divide the country into as many small units as possible while relinquishing power. In all probability, Sir Stafford Cripps, the Labour stalwart, was the author of the partition plan. It is he who broached the idea to Attlee that "we might have to contemplate a division of India into Hindustan and Pakistan as the only solution. It would in that case be necessary to contemplate two Pakistans, one in the west and the other in the east". Whether Attlee and his other Labour colleagues unequivocally accepted Cripps’ prognosis isn’t clear from published records. However, there is little doubt that in the fast-changing political scenario all through 1946, India’s partition was at the back of the mind of all British policymakers who tried to hammer out a political solution to safeguard their erstwhile imperial interests as far as possible.

Hammering the Last Nails

And if there was any doubt in the mind of the Whitehall policy makers that they could hold on for a while, it was removed by an event of far-reaching significance that unfolded in Bombay on February 18, 1946. That was a "strike" – in fact, a mini-mutiny – by the ratings of HMS Talwar. On the following day, the ratings were driving around in the streets of Bombay in military trucks seized by them, shouting pro-Independence slogans. That several officers and petty officers of Royal Indian Navy chose to join the ranks of the "mutineers" was a deeply worrying development for the British administration. Union Jack was hauled down from the ships berthed in Bombay harbour and in its place, flew the Indian national tricolor. Understandably, developments like these sent shivers down the spine of Bombay Governor, John Colville. Only Sardar Patel’s intervention sent the ratings back to surrender themselves, which further proved – if proof was required at this stage – that the days of British rule were henceforth numbered.

Following closely on the heels of the Bombay uprising, there was another similar mini-mutiny in Karachi. Shells were fired from HMS Hindustan in Karachi’s shore establishments. In the riots that followed, eight persons died of police firing. The Sindh Governor – Sir Francis Mudie – was unequivocal in holding Nehru’s "pathological hatred of the West" responsible for instigating the mutiny. Whatever the Government’s public posture, the developments in Bombay and Karachi sent the message loud and clear that the Raj that prided itself on the loyalty of the Indian armed forces, could no longer take that for granted. The mini-mutinies of the ratings in Bombay and Karachi literally drove the last nail in the coffin of the British Empire in India.

What further complicated matters for the Government was the ill-advised, ill-timed trial of a few selected INA officers. The cry of revenge was in the air. Most Indians didn’t know that some 20,000 INA men had already been set free. The British Government chose to put only a handful of them on trial. And the fact that one of the "ring leaders" was a Hindu (Sehgal), another, a Muslim (Shah Nawaz Khan) and yet another, a Sikh (Dhillon) added the much-needed fuel to the nationalist fire. A wave swept the land – a wave of sympathy and support for Netaji Subhas Bose’s brave boys. Wavell and Auchinleck were deeply apprehensive of the situation. They could not figure out as to what the typical soldier in the army (popularly called the jawan) who had been the bedrock of the Raj, thought about the political goings-on. It must have given the Viceroy and his Commander-in-Chief some sleepless nights to think what would happen if the jawan decided to revolt.

Parliamentary Delegation

The British Government was in no doubt left that they had to quit. Hence, the decision to move fast forward their long-term plan. Their public response to end the political stalemate in India was to send in early 1946 a ten-member parliamentary delegation led by Prof Robert Richards. Whatever its declared intention, the delegation, in fact, came to test the political waters being vigorously churned by Nehru and others who, after their long terms of imprisonment, had altogether lost their patience to work out a step-by-step solution of the complex problem that the British spared no effort to further complicate at every turn of events Nehru thought the delegation was one of the British ploys to further delay the transfer of power. The delegation actually wanted to ascertain how far the Muslim demand for division of India had struck roots among the Muslim masses between 1942 and 1945 when the Congress leaders were in jail and the League had, egged on by the British, a field day to inculcate divisive ideology among the Muslims.

The delegation’s confidential report to the British Cabinet must have recommended a course of action that the result of the December 6, 1945 election corroborated. The Congress tally at 55 was four less than its previous strength. But all the thirty seats reserved for Muslims were won by the Muslim League. Fortified with the electoral verdict, Jinnah now called, Quaid-i-Azam, announced triumphantly to his followers: "The day is not far off ... when Pakistan shall be at your feet". (Jinnah hadn’t yet learned to interlace his statements with Inshallah!) The writing on the wall was, however, there to read for anyone who cared to have a look. The League had, cleverly aided and abetted by the British Government, swayed the popular Muslim opinion in favor of a homeland for the Muslims in the Muslim majority provinces. Nehru still thought otherwise. He was still living in the world of fantasy. The irreverent remark of Jinnah – quoted by Stanley Wolpert in his little-read and very sparsely distributed publication – Jinnah of Pakistan – that the "imperious Pundit ... never unlearns or learns anything and never grows .... (like) Peter Pan", isn’t altogether fatuous.

Nehru and Jinnah in Hurry

With Gandhi’s influence on the wane and Subhas Bose off the scene – reported dead in an air crash in Formosa – Nehru came to usurp the centre-stage in the unfolding political drama. He appeared to have decided to take head-on the enemies of India’s Independence. His (now-languishing) Lucknow-based daily newspaper National Herald launched a frontal attack on the Governor of UP, Maurice Hallett, who had threatened to "pulverize" the Congress Party in UP. "If Sir Maurice and his political tribe", thundered a National Herald editorial on December 4, 1945, "will not quit India ... there will have to be a revolution".

Jinnah was the other major actor in the drama. Unknown to others – except the British intelligence – he was painfully aware that his smoke-saturated lungs were on the brink of collapse and his mouth cancer was further compounding his tuberculosis. He knew that time was running out for him and that he must, therefore, play his cards most dexterously to clinch the game in his favor as early as possible. Expectedly, his stand was unambiguous: Muslim League alone had the right to nominate all Muslim members to the proposed Viceroy’s Council. Accordingly, he suggested that it should consist of fourteen members: two of them should be English; five Hindus (to be nominated by the Congress); five Muslims (to be nominated by the League i.e. himself); one Sikh and one Scheduled Caste (Despite Gandhi’s historic 1934 fast on the issue, both the British and the League were desperately keen to have Scheduled Caste Hindus counted as a separate entity out of the Hindu fold so as to perpetuate the social divide of Hindu society).

Cabinet Mission

In a grim situation which threatened to spin dangerously out of control, Secretary of State for India Lord Pethick-Lawrence, decided to make another bid to salvage Britain’s imperial interests by resolving the issue of Indian independence. He himself led the Cabinet Mission, which included Sir Stafford Cripps and A. V. Alexander, the first Lord of Admiralty. This was a desperate bid to deal with the political impasse. These "three wise men", as they were called – wily, in fact, would be a more appropriate adjective – reached India on March 23, 1946. The weather – both political and meteorological – had started getting hot. Pethick-Lawrence, on arrival, announced to the press that the purpose of the visit was how best to "to complete the transfer of responsibility with pride and honor" - whose "pride" and whose "honor", he didn’t bother to clarify. Before meeting Indian leaders, the Cabinet Mission members had detailed discussions with the Viceroy and the Governors. Cripps who met Jinnah on March 30 found the Quaid "completely firm on the demand for Pakistan" – something that must have a gladdened Cripps’ heart, considering his own plan to partition India.

Nehru’s Impatience

Meanwhile, the one person whose patience was wearing thin by the day was Nehru who was (almost) literally hell-bent to end the Raj and take over. In a statement in Allahabad (where Nehru was always in his best form) he said: "a political earthquake of devastating intensity will sweep the entire country ... We are sitting on the edge of a volcano which may erupt at any time".

After the results of December 1945 elections, Nehru’s assessment of Jinnah and the havoc that an un-reconciled League could wreck, borders on a simplistic appraisal of the situation. Nehru, it seems, was self-convinced that the British after the War were sick of the mess India was in, and they wanted him to bail them out. At any rate, given a choice between Nehru and Jinnah, they would, in all likelihood, have preferred to hand over the reins of the Raj to him. That their plans were far more devious than that, didn’t occur to Nehru whose grasp of the realpolitik was, as proved time and again, woefully inadequate. Meanwhile, V K Krishna Menon, keen on a position of power under Nehru, was doing his best to sell Nehru to Labour MPs, whom he personally knew, especially Cripps (who was far more shrewd than Nehru’s alter ego).

Gandhi’s Meeting with Cabinet Mission

In the post-1945 period Gandhi was losing his grip over the Congress leadership. His unwavering emphasis on non-violence was in utter contrast with the note of stridency that rent the political atmosphere. Gandhi appeared like an archetypal seventy-five plus elder – well past his usefulness – in an extended Indian joint family whose involvement in decision-making was barely tolerated. His own personal equation with Wavell, the then Viceroy was far from cordial.

The meeting that Gandhi had with the Cabinet Mission on April 2, 1946 was crucial indeed. He explained to them that Jinnah couldn’t give him a concrete idea of his proposal (for Pakistan) during his 18-day parleys in 1944. He thought that Jinnah was possessed by a "mania" to cure him of which the Mahatma suggested a startlingly novel solution: "Let Mr. Jinnah form the first Government and choose its personnel from elected representatives in the country ... If he does not do so then the offer to form a Government should be made to the Congress". This was Gandhi’s suggestion – a breathtakingly unexpected one – to save the country the trauma of partition and all the death and destruction that, he intuitively realized, would precede and follow it. Gandhi was naive enough to think that Jinnah’s sense of duty and fair play will help him overcome his maniac obsession with the idea of Pakistan. It is interesting to note that in those fateful meetings that day Nehru’s name didn’t figure at all. It is nowhere recorded how impatient Nehru – now turned into a firebrand politician – reacted to his mentor’s gambit. It is reasonably certain that Nehru mortally feared the idea of Jinnah swallowing Gandhi’s bait.
In his meeting with Wavell on April 4, 1946, Jinnah repeated his familiar, oft-repeated stand: there had never been a single government in India before the British came... Muslims are different from Hindus in their way of life... They have nothing in common with the Hindus... Pakistan was a must for them (Pakistan of Jinnah’s dream at that time was still a five-province state, economically viable with Calcutta as part of the eastern wing).

The Cabinet Delegation also met some of the rulers of princely states to discuss the rather involved relationship they had with the British Crown and how to include them in the constitution-making process. Nehru was, meanwhile, fretting and fuming at the procedure the delegation had adopted.

Nehru as Congress President

Waiting in the wings, Nehru had decided to take over as the President of the Congress – an office that he had earlier discarded. He seemed to have realized that the only way to the office he had set his heart on, was through the presidentship of the Congress Party.

The Congress Party met in New Delhi in mid-April 1946 to elect a successor to Maulana Azad who had continued as Congress President since 1942. It was on the cards that the next Prime Minister of India, in the fitness of things, will be the Congress President. The choice was between Nehru and Patel. Even though most of the provincial Congress Committees had recommended Patel’s name, he withdrew to avoid election. Azad too supported Nehru – a decision that he regretted in his later life. In his memoirs, India Wins Freedom, he reflected:

I acted according to my best judgment but the way things have shaped since then has made me realize that this was perhaps the greatest blunder of my political life. .... We (i.e., Patel and Azad) differed on many issues but I am convinced that if he (Patel) had succeeded me as Congress President he would have never committed the mistakes of Jawaharlal which gave ... Jinnah the opportunity of sabotaging the (Cabinet Mission) plan.

Was the Cabinet Mission trying to save the unity of India or offering a more disruptive alternative to partition? If accepted in their entirety, the proposals would have created more problems than they might have resolved. In all probability, the Cabinet Mission plan was a ploy (Unfortunately, there are no existing records – nor would these ever be available – to prove the mala fide intent of the Cabinet Mission plan).

Cascading Violence

Meanwhile, Jinnah’s conviction grew by the day that Muslims are a separate nation who can’t under any circumstance exist in a Hindu India. Edward Thompson captures this dilemma in a conversation with Jinnah as recorded in An Indian Day:

"Hindus and Muslims are two different nations who could never live together", said Jinnah.

Thompson cried out: "Two different nations, Mr. Jinnah, confronting each other in every province, every town, every village of India"?

"Yes, two different nations confronting each other in every province, every town, every village of India. It is indeed, unfortunate, but it must be faced. That is the only solution".

"That is a terrible solution, Mr. Jinnah".

"It may be a terrible solution, but it is the only solution".

That there were some two crore Hindus and Sikhs in the would-be Dominion of Pakistan (calculated as per tentative demarcation) and about 4.5 crore Muslims in the Indian Dominion, didn’t matter to Jinnah. He just wanted his pound of flesh and that too at any cost. There was, alas, no Portia to make sure that Jinnah had it (if he must) sans blood.

After August 1946, the situation started deteriorating fast, assuming alarming proportions. And the main responsibility for that was of the Muslim League which unleashed, with the connivance of British administration, an unprecedented wave of communal violence. One city after another was ablaze after the Direct Action sponsored and executed by the Muslim League Ministry on August 16, 1946, that led to the infamous Great Calcutta Killing, which witnessed scenes of human bestiality undreamed of even in Rudyard Kipling’s "City Of Dreadful Night".

Gandhi was the only voice of sanity in that fast-spreading madness of communal frenzy. He did what he could to stem the tide. Politically, he had been marginalized by his own colleagues in the Congress Working Committee. His plea for calm in fast deteriorating conditions wasn’t much more than a cry of helplessness in political wilderness.

While the homicidal maniacs were at work both in Bengal and Punjab, Wavell persisted in his efforts to bring into being a provisional National Government of India. On September 2, 1946 he invited Nehru and other Congress nominees to take oath of office. Nehru was appointed as vice president of the Viceroy’s Executive Council (To give the title of "interim government" to this constitutional arrangement was reportedly Wavell’s idea). Even when the League had assumed a blatantly aggressive posture, Wavell bent over backwards to induct its representatives in the Executive Council. Finally, the League agreed to nominate five members. The Congress Party discovered much to its profound frustration that the real purpose of the League joining the government was to wreck the administration from within while carrying on its vituperative campaign from without. Meanwhile, communal violence continued to spread primarily because the British administration, though still theoretically in control, hardly cared to intervene to bring the situation under control.

Gandhi chose for himself the role of bringing the message of harmony both to the Hindus and the Muslims who had succumbed to barbarism. After doing what he could to assuage the feelings of the Hindu victims of League’s hooliganism in Noakhali, he rushed to Bihar where the Hindus had started killing Muslims to avenge the killing of their co-religionists in East Bengal. He did what he could to convince the Hindus that rape and arson of innocent Muslims could in no way set right the wrong done to the Noakhali victims. His was, however, a voice in the wilderness.

Continued to "Was Partition of India Unavoidable?"

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Comments on this Article

Comment Edward John Thompson whom I quoted was one of those Englishmen who, like CF Andrews, was very sympathetic to the cause of Indian independence. He knew intimately practically all the nationalist leaders. His book An Indian Afternoon contained his interview of MA Jinnah. I read the book some fifty years ago when it was published in Penguin books. Have lost my copy to give you the full citation. I quoted from my notes.
Thompson was also very proficient in Bengali which he studied at Shantineketan. Later, he taught the language at Oxford.
He also authored A Farewell to India,

Thompson was exposing Jinnah’s ridiculous claim that Hindus ans Muslims are two nations who have nothing in common and cannot therefore live together.

H N Bali

H N Bali
12/03/2012 02:29 AM

Comment Sir: I was a young person and witnessed the Partition of India. I know quite a bit of what happened during those dreadful days.

That said, would you be kind to give me the exact reference or details when," Edward Thompson captures this dilemma in a conversation with Jinnah as recorded in An Indian Day:..." please?

Thank you.

12/02/2012 17:11 PM

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