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Was Partition of India Unavoidable?
by H.N. Bali Bookmark and Share

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Sordid Saga of Partition of India - Part II

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it", warned Santayana in Reason in Common Sense. Since in the conduct of human affairs, reason is scarcely used and common sense more sparingly, we continue repeating the mistakes of the past. Unfortunately, in our society, it’s far more common than elsewhere. Can we learn something from the stupidities of our past? Indeed, provided we don’t forget what happened and how and why thereof.

Dictionary tells us that the phrase square the circle means to find a good solution to a problem when that seems impossible, especially because the people involved have very different needs or opinions about it. And that’s what Wavell had been doing in his Viceroyalty. He bent as backwards as he his midriff allowed, to reconcile the irreconcilable stands of the Congress and the League. Meanwhile, the country was fast plunging into uncontrollable violence.

The Labour Government realized that some drastic steps were necessary to break the vicious circle. On February 20 1947, Attlee announced the replacement of Wavell by Mountbatten. He also committed the British government to withdrawing from India by June 30, 1948 after transferring power to one or more authorities in the subcontinent. This was, understandably, construed to mean some sort of division of the country.

Acceptance of Partition Plan

Even before Attlee’s fateful announcement, the Congress Working Committee had recommended the partition of Punjab into Muslim majority and Hindu majority areas — a proposal that Gandhi was kept uninformed about. This shows how the old man had been completely sidelined in the Congress decision-making processes. His secretary, Pyarelal points it out poignantly in The Last Phase “Such a thing would have been inconceivable in olden days. Even when he was ranging over the length and breadth of India, they did not fail to consult him before taking any vital decision.”

Mountbatten’s "Plan Balkan" i.e., the proposal to partition India was finalized after a series of meetings with the Indian leaders. He carried its draft - which had earlier been shown both to Nehru and Jinnah - to London for the final approval of the British Government. On his return from London, Mountbatten convened a meeting of the leaders of both the Congress and the League and the June 3, 1947 plan to partition India was announced. Thereafter, events moved inexorably to an inglorious chapter of history like the denouement of a Greek tragedy. A Bill was introduced in the British Parliament on July 4, 1947 and just in a few days the Indian Independence Act, 1947 was through.

Even though the Labour Government had fixed June 1948 as the deadline, Mountbatten advanced it to August 15, 1947, which posed formidable administrative and logistic problems, the most important of which was boundary demarcation. As per June 3, 1947 plan, two Boundary Commissions were set up, one for the partition of Punjab and the other for the partition of Bengal. Sir Cyril (later Lord) Radcliffe was appointed, with the consent of both the Congress and the League representatives, as the Chairman of both the Commissions. (Remaining members of the Commissions were all high court judges.) The two Commissions had just one month and nine days to make their awards. Given the climate of deep mutual distrust, both the Commissions were unable to agree on really controversial matters. What is referred to as the "Radcliffe Award" was literally based on one man’s decisions. Radcliffe didn’t stir out in the sweltering heat for verification. He remained confined all through his stay in the air-conditioned chambers of today’s Rashtrapati Bhavan, drawing lines on detailed maps of the subcontinent, arbitrarily deciding fates of hundreds of thousands of affected families. (In the absence of any physical verification, lines of division sometimes separated, especially in Bengal, houses in two halves).

Unprecedented Tragedy

As the two dominions came into being as per the timetable drawn up by Mountbatten, Hindu and Sikh refugees in their thousands were pouring into East Punjab and Delhi. There were widespread reports of shooting, looting and stabbing in Punjab and Bengal. Gruesome massacres of innocent men, women and children occurred in our chequered history whenever the invaders came from the north-west to plunder the land or even to establish their rule. The looting and killing by the marauders accompanying Nadir Shah and the orgy of plunder and rape in 1739 are well documented. But the senseless chaos and fearsome anarchy that India saw in the months preceding and following August 1947, have no parallel in our blood-stained chronicles.

The tragedy of our independence struggle is that in its final phase half a crore lives were needlessly sacrificed and at least one and a half crore people uprooted because of the desperate bid for power by some egoistic Indian leaders and a vainglorious British Viceroy. On whose conscience will this great crime against humanity rest? This formidable price of partition in terms of unprecedented human suffering has been documented by several scholars.
Even when the communal violence was spreading by the hour, Mountbatten was self-convinced that he was presiding over the greatest administrative operation in history, viz, the creation of two dominions as per a prefixed deadline. And how was the deadline fixed? Was it realistic? Had Mountbatten who prided himself on his leadership skills as a military commander, realized the logistic implications of his plans? Years later Mountbatten told to the authors of the new genre of instant history, Freedom At Midnight

The date I chose came out of the blue. I chose it in reply to a question. I was determined to show I was master of the whole event. When they asked had we set a date, I knew it had to be soon. I hadn’t worked it out exactly then — I thought it had to be about August or September and I then went to be 15th of August. Why? Because it was the second anniversary of Japan’s surrender (to him as the Supreme Allied Commander in the Eastern region)

To give him this luxury of two-in-one celebration, more than half a crore Indians — Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs — were butchered. The marauding expeditions of Mahmud, the Sultan of Ghazni, appear, in comparison, a model of rectitude. Even Ayesha Jalal — apologist of the other big egoist in this drama, MA Jinnah, asks:

On behalf of the Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims who were slaughtered in their hundreds of thousands and the refugees who in their millions stumbled fearfully across the frontiers of the two states, the historian has a duty to challenge Mountbatten’s contention and ask whether this great operation was not in fact an ignominious scuttle enabling the British to extricate themselves from the awkward responsibility of presiding over India’s communal madness.

Was Partition Unavoidable?

At least two questions remain unanswered till today and will perhaps always haunt the subcontinent’s collective memory. First, was the partition of India inevitable? Secondly, even if India had to be partitioned, was all that what happened in terms of human suffering, unavoidable? For over sixty years the questions have been discussed and debated without any agreed explanation. One wonders if any categorical answers will be available even when India and Pakistan celebrate the centenary of their Independence.

The backdrop to the tragedy that unfolded with uncontrollable momentum was the public announcement of the decision of the British Government to quit India. Jinnah was adamant about his demand of Pakistan. The British very deftly propped up his obstructionist stand since it suited their grand design. Nehru and Patel were ready to compromise, weighed down by imperatives of the situation. A Machiavellian Viceroy (ably assisted by scintillating Lady Mountbatten) spread his charms and cast his spell. In later years, both Nehru and Patel candidly admitted their mistake. Was a civil war that might have followed the departure of the British in June 1948 with the political problem still unresolved, a better option? And even if the death toll in such a fratricidal conflict equaled the number of dead who actually were the victims of the Partition — at least half a crore — it might have been well worth it insofar as the issue of religious divide haunting the subcontinent could possibly have been resolved once and for all.

Movers and Shakers

Speaking at the last banquet in honour of Mountbatten in June 1948, Nehru said:

Maybe we have made mistakes .... Historians a generation or two hence will perhaps be able to judge what we have done right and what we have done wrong. (And) whether we did right or wrong, the test, perhaps the right test, is whether we tried to do right, or did not....

And historians have feverishly been at work, especially in the last few decades, assessing the role and responsibility of each actor in the political drama that led to the partition of India and the developments thereafter in the subcontinent.

I’m not a historian. I have only read (fully and partly) different versions by several commentators on the roles played by the key players in the developments that led to the partition of India on August 15, 1947. The twelve volumes of the Transfer of Power edited by Prof Nicholas Mansergh deal with the documents of the Viceroyalties of Wavell and Mountbatten. The publication, in 1973, of Wavell, The Viceroy’s Journal (edited by Sir Penderel Moon) details the part Wavell played in trying to hammer out a constitutional arrangement by bringing the Congress and the League together to form the interim government in 1946. Philip Ziegler’s biography Mountbatten evaluates the part Mountbatten played in finalizing the division of the subcontinent. Interestingly, the year (1985) in which the official biography of the last Viceroy was published, Ayesha Jalal came out with The Sole Spokesmen, Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan. According to her, Jinnah’s advocacy of a separate Muslim state was a mere bargaining counter to get the maximum possible for the Muslims of India from the departing British (almost like a lawyer ready to cut a deal, extracting maximum benefits from the opposing party in a case). She has quoted chapter and verse to support her thesis. This view is in sharp contrast to the cogently argued case against Jinnah as the architect of India’s partition in the three articles that Arun Shourie wrote in October-November 1985 in the (now defunct) Illustrated Weekly of India.

Forlorn Figure

Gandhi was the only national leader who steadfastly opposed the partition of the country almost till the very end. As late as March 3, 1947, he had said: "If the Congress wishes to accept partition, it will be over my dead body". His thinking went through a metamorphosis in the next six months. The tragedy of Gandhi’s life was very similar to the tragic end of Bhishma in the Mahabharata. The paterfamilias, honoured and revered by all, lay, after the famous battle of Kurukshetra, on a bed of shafts waiting for his self-chosen hour of departure from the world. Looking back at his eventful past he must have introspected on all what he did and why. Was his concept of loyalty to the throne of Hastinapur (as per the vow he had taken to defend it) too narrowly conceived? Were his canons of accountability justified? Didn’t his unflinching support to the Kurus — Dhritrashtra and his son Duryodhana — run counter to the imperatives of Dharma? Wasn’t he — and why? — a helpless spectator to the public humiliation of Draupadi at the hands of Dushasana — a disgraceful event that sowed the seeds of permanent discard? Was he, above all, right in suggesting (and getting it implemented) the division of the kingdom into two separate States: (Hastinapur for Kauravas and Indraprastha for Pandavas)? What leadership did he provide? What were his regrets?

Self-questioning not dissimilar to Bhishma must have been haunting Gandhi too in the last months of his life. From August 15, 1947 (when he was in Calcutta licking the wounds of partition) to January 30, 1948 (the day he fell victim to the assassin’s bullets), Gandhi would have, in moments of reflection, wondered at the role he had played in the political developments that led to the partition of the subcontinent. He had — till March 1947 — steadfastly opposed the idea of dividing the country. At the historic June 14 and 15, 1947 AICC session (summoned to endorse the Congress Working Committee’s approval of the Plan Balkan), perhaps the saddest man was Gandhi. All that he had striven for in his life was in a shambles. He had, finally, accepted the country’s partition, weighed down by two factors, namely, the absence of any other viable alternative and the deep regard for his erstwhile colleagues (i.e., Nehru and Patel) who were the pillars of his strength in the freedom struggle and who had veered round to the vivisection of the country as inevitable. There was also the pathetic figure of the redoubtable Pathan leader Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan who cried his heart out on being "thrown to the wolves". Could Gandhi disown the comrades of yesteryears and start all over again? Wasn’t it too late? Driven to the corner, tears welling up, he pleaded with the AICC delegates:

The members of the Working Committee are old and tried leaders, who are responsible for all the achievements of the Congress hitherto and in fact they form the backbone of the Congress. It would be most unwise, if not impossible, to remove them at this juncture ... Out of evil sometimes good came out. (Italics added)

Gandhi made no bones about his helplessness in the situation and went even to the extent of admitting that "sometimes certain decisions, however unpalatable they might be, had to be taken". The most one could, therefore, hold against Gandhi’s acceptance of the June 3, 1947 partition plan is that with no choice in sight, he merely acquiesced into it with a deep wrench in his heart. His instinct told him that the decision was wrong. (He described Mountbatten plan as "a wooden loaf" formidably difficult to eat and certainly impossible to digest). The following statement from his last letter to Mountbatten sums up Gandhi’s stand:

My life’s work seems to be over. I hope God will spare me further humiliation ... I shall perhaps not be alive to witness it, but should the evil I apprehend overtake India and her independence be imperiled, let posterity know what agony this old soul went through thinking of it. Let it not be said that Gandhi was a party to India’s vivisection. (Italics added)

Mountbatten’s Role

By all accounts, Mountbatten had been assigned the job of pulling the imperial chestnuts out of raging communal fire as deftly as he could. And he had a penchant for quick-fix solutions to achieve short-term selfish ends. His Faustian strategy aimed at choosing whatever suited to deal with today’s exigencies without any concern for their impact on tomorrow. Remember Lee Kuan Yew described him as "the greatest fixer of all time"! And it has been amply documented. Mountbatten knew Nehru’s inordinate sentimental attachment to Kashmir whose accession to India — of course on his terms (i.e. immediate transfer of effective power to Sheikh Abdullah) — he was extremely keen on. Personally, he favored this Muslim-majority state to accede to Pakistan and perhaps instinctively realized that if it decides to throw its lot with India, it would create several intractable problems for both the Dominions. Yet in order to ensure smooth sailing for his immediate plans of transfer of power, Mountbatten brought to bear his persuasive powers (that he was amply endowed with) on Lord Radcliffe to ensure the award of Ferozepur and Zira Tehsils of Punjab (despite their Muslim majority) to India. As Christopher Beaumont’s Testimony (dated September 20, 1989) puts it: "Mountbatten cheated and Radcliffe allowed himself to be overborne". (Italics added) As private secretary to Radcliffe, Beaumont recorded that the whole sordid episode "reflects great discredit to Mountbatten". The result was what can best be called the genesis of a tragedy that continues to haunt the sub-continent.

Mountbatten’s conduct as Viceroy in suppressing Radcliffe’s Punjab Award (given on August 9, 1947) is one of the numerous examples of his preferring falsehood to truth for self-glorification. As Ziegler notes, Mountbatten never rejected as unworthy plain "manipulation and even chicanery" to achieve his ends.


Man of Many Seasons

Perhaps the greatest riddle of the subcontinent in the twentieth century has been the life — and work — of Mohammed Ali Jinnah. What type of person was he behind the various masks he wore and the roles that he played: an extremely successful barrister (who minted money at the bar); a street smart Bohra businessman who knew how to multiply his earnings (by buying and selling real estate); a committed nationalist who once swore by Hindu-Muslim unity; the "sole spokesman" for the Mussalmans of India who in his personal life defied all Qur’anic injunctions about food and drink; never said his namaz fearing that the crease of his trousers would be spoiled; the architect of India’s vivisection; the creator of Pakistan — the homeland of the "pure" — where he would always be remembered as the Qaid-e-Azam whose life as well as deeds are unquestionable.

Jinnah had, above all, a gargantuan ego. Under no circumstances was he prepared to play a second fiddle to Nehru, whom Gandhi had anointed his political heir. Once the June 3, 1947 proposal to partition India emerged as the only viable solution of the political imbroglio, it was Mountbatten’s ambition to be the Governor-General of both the dominions of India and Pakistan. Nehru readily endorsed the plan. Jinnah, however, was not at all agreeable to be a mere Prime Minister of Pakistan under Mountbatten. In fact, he wasn’t prepared, as pointed out by Wali Khan in Facts Are Facts to be a notch lower in rank and position to the Viceroy and Governor General of India. For instance, when on August 14, 1947 Lady Edwina and Lord Mountbatten reached Karachi to administer the oath of office to the first Governor-General of the new State of Pakistan, he was not received at the airport by Jinnah or Liaquat Ali (who took over as Pakistan’s first Prime Minister). It was, in fact, the Governor of Sindh who received the Mountbattens on behalf of the Government of Pakistan.

Again, at the swearing-in ceremony, Jinnah demanded a chair higher than Mountbatten’s on the plea he was the Governor-General of Pakistan and the President of its Constituent Assembly. The other great egoist, Mountbatten proved to be a notch cleverer. He tersely reminded the Qaid that it was only after the Viceroy of India had administered him the oath of office, that Jinnah would assume the office of the Governor-General of Pakistan. Jinnah had, therefore, to remain content with sitting in a chair at the same level with the Viceroy who — much to Jinnah’s chagrin — looked trifle taller by virtue of his physical frame.

Was Jinnah’s relentless advocacy for a separate homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent an article of faith for him or merely a means to achieve the personal end of grabbing power? There is an interesting parallel between the roles played by Jinnah and Aurangzeb. Did Aurangzeb’s profession of true Islamic faith flow from his deep-rooted convictions or they were merely ploys to deprive Dara Shikoh the Mughal throne after Shah Jahan? Since Dara — his father’s favorite to succeed him — advocated a broad-minded Catholicism in religious matters, Aurangzeb had to strike a posture of fanatic faith to win over the constituency of the well-entrenched clergy. And once he had mounted the tiger of fundamentalism, he could not dismount the beast. The purpose, really, was to capture power; serving the Islamic faith was, in all likelihood, incidental to it. Not dissimilar to this was Jinnah’s compulsion.

And once Pakistan became a reality and Jinnah was firmly settled as its founder Governor-General, the man’s unbridled ego came into full play. He did everything possible to undermine the office of the Prime Minister, held by Liaquat Ali Khan, his steadfast supporter during the movement for a separate state for the Muslims of India. Jinnah went to the extent of getting passed in a Cabinet meeting presided over by him on December 30, 1947 that:

no question of policy or principle would be decided except at a Cabinet meeting presided over by the Quaid-i-Azam and that in the event of any difference of opinion between him and the Cabinet — not just the PM — the decision of the Quaid would be final and binding.

How the history of world is determined by overvaulting personal ambitions of men clothed in gaudy garb of lofty ideals? How conveniently did Jinnah agree to be an instrument of Churchill’s ambition of dividing India! For instance, the correspondence recently declassified by the British government indicates a close link between Jinnah and Churchill. These letters relate to the second half of 1946, when Churchill, having lost the 1945 election, was leader of opposition. In these Churchill played counselor to Jinnah. He advised Jinnah that they should not meet in public. Instead, correspondence was to be addressed to Miss EA Gilliatt, 6 Westminster Gardens, London. Ms Gillaitt was Churchill’s private secretary. This is corroborated by Sir Martin Gilbert, the British biographer of Winston Churchill. Jinnah’s key decisions between 1940 and 1946, including the demand for Pakistan in 1940, were taken after getting the nod from Churchill or Lord Linlithgow and Wavell, both Churchill’s admirers.

Unanswered Questions

There indeed are some hitherto unanswered questions about the partition of India. Some pertinent ones are the following.

Why was the date of transfer of power announced by Attlee i.e., June 30, 1948 advanced by Mountbatten to August 15, 1947 and was struck to despite extremely wide-spread rioting and killing during which the British remained indifferent to maintenance of law and order that they so adroitly enforced otherwise. What was the sanctity of early transfer at any cost? Why was Jinnah in tearing hurry to have his Pakistan?

May I hazard my explanation?

The British intelligence, I’m sure, was aware of Jinnah’s cancer on account of which he could die any time. It must have been an overriding consideration to have the partition plan executed before Jinnah passed away simply because the mass hysteria among the Muslims that he had whipped up, might, after him, wither away. Hence, it was imperative to execute the June 3, 1946 partition plan as expeditiously as possible.

Another factor that compelled Mountbatten was the desire to get back to his naval assignment lest he too, like his father, should miss being the First Sea Lord of Admiralty. (Louis Mountbatten’s father missed the chance to head British Navy because of his German descent, his name being Battenberg which he later changed to Mountbatten.) Mountbatten’s above-referred explanation that the date chosen i.e., August 15, 1947 was just to coincide with the date of Japan’s surrender, was typical of the man playing with facts to suit his purpose. In any case whatever Mountbatten did, had the approval of Whitehall and it fitted in the overall strategic interests of Britain.

But what about Nehru? What were his compulsions to accept advancing the date of transfer of power? I personally think he knew more about the alleged disappearance of Subhas Bose than he was prepared to go public with. One thing is absolutely certain. He was hell-bent to take over as Prime Minister. He firmly believed that he was the sole anointed heir of Gandhi. That’s why he made a bid to assume the Presidentship of the Congress. It was indeed Patel’s magnanimity to let him take over. Had there been an election he certainly would have lost to Patel who controlled the Party machine as is evident when it came to the election of Dr. Rajendra Prasad as India’s first President. Nehru’s choice, of course, was Dr. S Radhkrishnan.

Nehru had a mortal fear that Subhas Bose may suddenly surface and make a bid for the office that he had set his heart on. Allow me a slight diversion to explain the prevailing situation.

The officially circulated story was that Subhas Bose (then and even now popularly addressed as Netaji) accompanied by a General of the Imperial Japanese army, Tsunamasa Shidei were flying to Tokyo, Japan when the craft they were flying in allegedly crashed at Matsuyama airport (now called Songshan Airport in Taipei, northern Formosa (now renamed Taiwan). This version was highly suspect and scarcely believed by the public. In fact the disappearance of Subhas Bose has been a subject of dispute ever since. It is worth noting that when Archibald Wavell, the then Viceroy heard of it he reposed in his Diary "I wonder if the Japanese announcement of Subhas Chandra Bose's death in an air-crash is true. I suspect it very much, it is just what should be given out if he meant to go underground."

There have been three Government of India sponsored commissions and umpteen number of private investigations to ascertain if Bose at all died in the crash. The last commission concluded in its report tabled in parliament in May 2006 that the news about Bose's "death" was staged to facilitate his escape from Japan to the USSR. (This report was tabled in Indian Parliament in May 2006.)

There have been allegations that in order to oblige the Government, the Indian Intelligence Bureau had doctored an intelligence report to "prove" Bose's death. The official view of the Indian government has been formed based on this doctored document.

It is very likely that from Japan Bose was transferred to the USSR and that the British egged the Russians on to send him to Siberian labour camps for his crime of associating with the Nazis during the war. The British any day preferred Nehru to Bose. Netaji was known for his strident nationalist stand. Nehru had a soft corner— fondly nourished by Edwina Mountbatten –for Britain and things British. Nehru knew more about Bose’s fate than he publicly acknowledged. It was his fear that the Springing Tiger may make a sudden appearance. Hence, his desperate hurry to acquiesce into the expediting of the date of transfer of power even if millions died in the bargain.

Who, then, should be held responsible for the half crore who died gory deaths and another one and half crore who lost their hearths and homes? And from whose blood-stained hands will you see the dripping the blood of one of our near and dear ones if you lost them in what appears to be the world’s first pre-planned ethnic cleaning of unwanted minorities?

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Comments on this Article

Comment What is more important today is to try to avoid another partition of 'secular' India. I cannot blame those who think it is 'inevitable'.

08/15/2013 07:51 AM

Comment Thank you for the info on Edward John Thompson's book where your quotations come from. This book is out of print!


12/11/2012 21:18 PM

Comment Gandhi, Nehru, Patel etc big names could not handle single Jinnah who was product of Bombay. Now question is if another Jinnah is produced, will he be able to handle.

12/10/2012 00:25 AM

Comment Omindian:

Your suggestion is simply too fantastic to comprehend! If only we human beings could turn the time clock by 65 years, we could have done lot of things differently ie: turn India into Ramarajya!

I knew we couldn't, for I was there growing up in 1947 as a young person.

12/09/2012 14:26 PM

Comment When we realised that partition is inevitable, it should have been a 10 year plan when all the then Hindus were relocated to India and all Muslims to Pakistan. India must be a Hindu Rashtra and Pakistan an Islamic one.

12/08/2012 00:40 AM

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