Reading the Writing on the Wall

... Patel’s Role in the Partition of India

Continued from “Three Questions That Defy Simple Answers”

In the famed Hans Christian Andersen tale everyone believed that he might be wrong in the thinking that the Emperor had nothing on — how could he be stark naked? – till a guileless child too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurted out the blunt truth: “The Emperor has no clothes.”

All those in the thick of independence struggle after the end of the Second World War realized, without daring to say it aloud, that the Congress had blundered to invite imprisonment in the wake of Quit India movement, leaving thereby the Muslim League completely free for three years to disseminate unchallenged the virulent virus of separatism.

Patel’s Share of Responsibility

Several interpreters of the developments leading to Indian independence deem Vallabhbhai Patel as the one Indian leader most responsible for the partition of India. He indeed was one of the first Congress leaders to read the writing on the wall and accept the partition of India as a solution to the irresistibly rising Muslim separatist movement spearheaded by . (How the movement had built momentum in the last half a century very actively and extremely ably aided and abetted by the British imperialists, was, my readers will recall, dealt with in the previous piece.)

In the crucial couple of years before the Partition, everyone knew things had reached a point of no return. The choice was between a prolonged communal tangle – even a civil war – in the wake of Independence to have one county or several divisions? It was a darkly ominous writing on the wall. Everyone read it but none had the courage to say it aloud. Patel did. And that has since been the gravamen of the charge against him.

Patel had been deeply outraged by Jinnah’s Direct Action campaign, which gruesome drama was played out in the streets of Calcutta (as present Kolkata was then known) by the connivance of Wavell, the then Viceroy. Understandably, therefore, Patel was severely critical of the Viceroy’s induction of the League Ministers with blood of thousands of innocents on their hands, into the Interim Government, and the revalidation of the grouping scheme by the British without Congress acceptance. Although further outraged at the League’s boycott of the assembly and non-acceptance of the plan of May 16, despite entering the Government, he was also aware that Jinnah did enjoy popular support amongst Muslims, and that an open conflict between him and the nationalists could degenerate into a Hindu-Muslim civil war of disastrous consequences. The continuation of a divided and weak Central Government would, in Patel’s reckoning, disastrously result in the wider fragmentation of India by encouraging more princely states towards independence than were getting ready for.

Over December 1946 and January 1947, Patel worked with V. P. Menon who emerged as an adviser to the Viceroy on the latter’s suggestion for a separate dominion of Pakistan to be created out of Muslim-majority provinces. Communal violence in Bengal and Punjab in the first quarter of 1947 further convinced Patel of the unavoidability of partition. He, a fierce critic of Jinnah’s demand that the Hindu-majority areas of Punjab and Bengal be included in a Muslim state, obtained the partition of those provinces, thus blocking any possibility of their inclusion in Pakistan. Patel’s decisiveness on the partition of Punjab and Bengal won him many supporters.

June 3 Plan

When Lord Louis Mountbatten formally proposed the Partition Plan on June 3 1947, Patel gave his approval and lobbied with Nehru and other Congress leaders to accept the proposal. Knowing Gandhi’s deep anguish regarding proposals of partition, Patel engaged him in frank discussion in private meetings over the perceived practical un-workability of any Congress-League coalition, the rising violence and the threat of civil war. At the All India Congress Committee meeting called to vote on the proposal, Patel was forthright as typical of the man:

I fully appreciate the fears of our brothers from [the Muslim-majority areas]. Nobody likes the division of India and my heart is heavy. But the choice is between one division and many divisions. We must face facts. We cannot give way to emotionalism and sentimentality. The Working Committee has not acted out of fear. But I am afraid of one thing, that all our toil and hard work of these many years might go waste or prove unfruitful. My nine months in office have completely disillusioned me regarding the supposed merits of the Cabinet Mission Plan. Except for a few honourable exceptions, Muslim officials from the top down to the chaprasis (peons or servants) are working for the League. The communal veto given to the League in the Mission Plan would have blocked India’s progress at every stage. Whether we like it or not, de facto Pakistan already exists in the Punjab and Bengal. Under the circumstances I would prefer a de jure Pakistan, which may make the League more responsible. Freedom is coming. We have 75 to 80 percent of India, which we can make strong with our own genius. The League can develop the rest of the country.

Azad’s criticism

However, the most persistent of all of Patel critics is Mauala Azad. In India Wins Freedom he put on record how he thought Patel as the one Indian nationalist most responsible for the Partition of India.

It must be placed on record that the man in India who first fell for Lord Mountbatten’s idea was Sardar Patel. Till perhaps the very end, Pakistan was for Jinnah a bargaining counter, but in fighting for Pakistan, he had overreached himself. His action had so annoyed and irritated Sardar Patel that the Sardar was now a believer in partition.

In fact, Sardar Patel was fifty per cent in favor of partition even before Lord Mountbatten appeared on the scene. He was convinced that he could not work with the Muslim League. He openly said that he was prepared to have a part of India if only he could get rid of the Muslim League.

Lord Mountbatten was extremely intelligent and could read into the minds of all his Indian colleagues. The moment he found Patel amenable to his idea he put out all the charm and power of his personality to win over the Sardar. In his private talk, he always referred to Patel as a walnut – a very hard crust outside but soft pulp once the crust was cracked. Sometimes in a jocular mood he (Mountbatten) used to tell me that he had spoken to Walnut, and Walnut had agreed with him on every question.

When Sardar Patel was convinced, Lord Mountbatten turned his attention to Jawaharlal. Jawaharlal was not at first ready for the idea and reacted violently against the idea of partition. Lord Mountbatten persisted till Jawaharlal’s opposition was worn down step by step. Within a month of Lord Mountbatten’s arrival in India, Jawaharlal, the firm opponent of partition had become, if not a supporter, at least acquiescent to the idea.

I have often wondered how Jawaharlal was won over by Lord Mountbatten. He is a man of principle but he is also impulsive and very amenable to personal influences. I think one factor responsible for the change was the personality of Lady Mountbatten. She is not only extremely intelligent but has a most attractive and friendly temperament. She admired her husband very greatly and in many cases tried to interpret his thoughts to those who would not at first agree with him.

I was surprised and pained when Patel said that whether we liked it or not, there were two nations in India. He was now convinced that Muslims and Hindus could not be united into one nation. There was no alternative except to recognize this fact. In this way alone could we end the quarrel between Hindus and Muslims.

I was surprised that Patel was now an even greater supporter of the two- nation theory than Jinnah. Jinnah may have raised the flag of partition but now the real flag bearer was Patel.

Patel’s Thinking

How do we of this generation determine Patel’s share of responsibility for the vivisection of India?

Let me take another historic example. A few months before Abraham Lincoln was tragically assassinated at the beginning of his second term as President of the USA, some of his friends asked him about his views on the system of slavery. Lincoln’s candid reply was: his first concern was the Union, and to keep it steady and if to that effect he was required to support slavery he would do that and if he was required to oppose it he would do that. If therefore he abolished slavery it was less to do with his personal conviction that it was an abominable institution and more with a view to ensuring that the Union survives. Earlier on August 22, 1862, just a few weeks before signing the Proclamation he wrote a letter in response to an editorial of the New York Tribune which had urged complete abolition. Lincoln differentiates between “my view of official duty” – that is, what he can do in his official capacity as President – and his personal views. Officially he must save the Union above all else; personally he wanted to free all the slaves:

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution….. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.

I maintain that something to this effect was Patel’s underlying thinking. He desired nothing more than that the Indian nation-state should persevere and flourish. Even Nehru’s biographer, S. Gopal, no sympathizer of Patel conceded that Patel’s major concern was national unity.” Patel was thus prepared for an amputation surgery to avoid gangrene setting in the whole system.

Work for Refugees

Following Gandhi’s and Congress’ approval of the June 3 Plan, Patel represented India on the Partition Council, where he oversaw the division of public assets, and selected the Indian council of ministers with Nehru. However, neither he nor any other Indian leader had foreseen the intense violence and population transfer that would take place with partition. Patel worked hard in organizing relief and emergency supplies, establishing refugee camps and visiting the border areas with Pakistani leaders to restore peace. Despite these efforts, the death toll is estimated at about a crore. The estimated number of refugees in both countries was in the region of one and a half to two crores. Understanding that Delhi and Punjab policemen, accused of organizing attacks on Muslims, were personally affected by the tragedies of partition, Patel called out the Indian Army with South Indian regiments to restore order, imposing strict curfews and shoot-at-sight orders. Visiting the Nizamuddin Auliya Dargah area in Delhi, where thousands of Delhi Muslims feared attacks, he prayed at the shrine, visited the people and reinforced the presence of police. He suppressed from the press reports of atrocities in Pakistan against Hindus and Sikhs to prevent retaliatory violence. Establishing the Delhi Emergency Committee to restore order and organizing relief efforts for refugees in the capital, Patel publicly warned officials against partiality and neglect. When reports reached Patel that large groups of Sikhs were preparing to attack Muslim convoys heading for Pakistan, he hurried to Amritsar and met Sikh and Hindu leaders. Arguing that attacking helpless people was cowardly and dishonorable, Patel emphasized that Sikh actions would result in further attacks against Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan. He assured the community leaders that if they worked to establish peace and order and guarantee the safety of Muslims, the Indian government would react forcefully to any failures of Pakistan to do the same. Additionally, Patel addressed a massive crowd of approximately 200,000 refugees who had surrounded his car after the meetings:

Here, in this same city, the blood of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims mingled in the bloodbath of Jallianwala Bagh. I am grieved to think that things have come to such a pass that no Muslim can go about in Amritsar and no Hindu or Sikh can even think of living in Lahore. The butchery of innocent and defenceless men, women and children does not behove brave men... I am quite certain that India's interest lies in getting all her men and women across the border and sending out all Muslims from East Punjab. I have come to you with a specific appeal. Pledge the safety of Muslim refugees crossing the city. Any obstacles or hindrances will only worsen the plight of our refugees who are already performing prodigious feats of endurance. If we have to fight, we must fight clean. Such a fight must await an appropriate time and conditions and you must be watchful in choosing your ground. To fight against the refugees is no fight at all. No laws of humanity or war among honourable men permit the murder of people who have sought shelter and protection. Let there be truce for three months in which both sides can exchange their refugees. This sort of truce is permitted even by laws of war. Let us take the initiative in breaking this vicious circle of attacks and counter-attacks. Hold your hands for a week and see what happens. Make way for the refugees with your own force of volunteers and let them deliver the refugees safely at our frontier.

Following his dialogue with community leaders and his speech, no further attacks occurred against Muslim refugees, and a wider peace and order was re-established soon over the entire area. Despite this, Patel was criticized by Nehru and self-declared secular Muslims over his alleged wish to see Muslims from other parts of India depart. While Patel vehemently denied such allegations, the acrimony with Maulana Azad and other secular Muslim leaders increased when Patel refused to dismiss Delhi’s Sikh police chief, who was accused of discrimination. Hindu and Sikh leaders also accused Patel and other leaders of not taking Pakistan sufficiently to task over the attacks on their communities there, and Muslim leaders further criticized him for allegedly neglecting the needs of Muslims leaving for Pakistan, and concentrating resources for incoming Hindu and Sikh refugees. Patel clashed with Nehru and Azad over the allocation of houses in Delhi vacated by Muslims leaving for Pakistan – Nehru and Azad desired to allocate them for displaced Muslims, while Patel argued that no government professing secularism must make such exclusions. However, Patel was publicly defended by Gandhi and received widespread admiration and support for speaking frankly on communal issues and acting decisively and resourcefully to quell disorder and violence.

May I sum up Patel’s stand on Partition to a famous retort of the great cartoonist

Sir David Low, which my esteemed writer-cartoonist friend, Rajender Puri will readily recall. Let me first give you the background.

Tuesday, the second day of June, 1953 witnessed the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in the Abbey Church of St Peter, Westminster. (Actually, the Queen succeeded to the Throne on the 6th February, 1952 on the death of King George VI. She was in Kenya at the time and became the first Sovereign in over 200 years to accede while abroad.)

The Coronation service used for Queen Elizabeth II descends, the British press reminded Her Majesty’s loyal subjects, directly from that of King Edgar at Bath in 973. The original fourteenth-century order of service was written in Latin and was used until the Coronation of Elizabeth I.

The Queen, with The Duke of Edinburgh, was driven from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey in the Gold State Coach, which was pulled by eight grey geldings.

Let me skip more details. Finally, Elizabeth took the Coronation Oath as administered by the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the lengthy oath, the Queen swore to govern each of her countries according to their respective laws and customs, to mete out law and justice with mercy. She proceeded to the altar where she stated “The things which I have here promised, I will perform, and keep. So help me God,” before kissing the Bible. (You know how scrupulously Her Majesty has kept the promise.)

Are you bored reading all these trivial details? Indeed, so were they who had to bear the torture of witnessing all the melodrama laced with hopelessly outdated medieval anachronisms.

The day after the coronation, Sir David Low had a cartoon on the coronation ceremony showing the Abbey littered with fairy tales. The readers of the Daily Herald – as far as I recall – which carried the cartoon on the next day were aghast at the cartoonist’s audacity to show the whole coronation ceremony as childish fantasy like a modern fairy tale. Thousands of the paper’s readers wrote angry letters protesting against the cartoon, and the cartoonist.

So the day after the protests, Low published another cartoon, showing the repentant caricaturist of the exercise with tears of repentance perched on his cheeks. The heading read: “Guilty of telling the truth too soon.”

Patel did what the cartoonist Low had done: telling his colleagues and his countrymen the truth too soon that the time to negotiate with the League and Jinnah was over and to let them have their pound of flesh to save the body politic.

Weren’t all those who finally accepted it, also accomplices in the crime?

Continued to “Dared to Call a Spade a Spade”


More by :  H.N. Bali

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Views: 3455      Comments: 3

Comment Instead of a dog Pavlov could find a better medium for his experiments, Mr. Ashby. And your reply to my comments on the earlier installment is still pending. You may like to read Penderel Moon's book on Partition. Moon was one of the British ICS officers who were working in Punjab at the time of partition. His book disproves your claim. Let me quote from my article on Curzon -

'In his farewell speech Curzon had said, ‘Let India be my judge’. Today that judgement is – he harmed both himself and the empire, the very opposite of what he had intended to achieve; he unwittingly infused with new vigour the very freedom movement he wanted to suppress. And India cherishes a bitter memory of his lasting contribution in politics – the use of communalism as a political weapon, which ultimately led to the partition of India. He was more a petty politician than a statesman. To compare him with the great is to insult the great. He totally lacked that large vision of great rulers like Akbar and others who have worked for harmony and not for chaos among the people they ruled. He was unable to avail of the opportunity which is rarely granted by destiny to any ruler to achieve greatness by cementing with cultural unity the unprecedented political unity which the British had achieved in India. Instead he permanently poisoned the relationship between the two major religious communities of this country. He also exacerbated the racial hatred and enmity between the Indians and the British. A small man as he was it was not given to him to realize the poet’s conception of India as a place of pilgrimage for nations where various races and religions have met through the ages to commingle in a single body of humanity.'
This also applies to Mountbatten who ultimately got his due reward from the IRA.If the British stayed on after 1947 the fight would have been between the Indians and the British and not between the Hindus and the Muslims. None knew this better than the British and they left as soon as possible. The role of the INA had shown it very clearly.

18-Nov-2013 05:56 AM

Comment Any insinuation that the partition of India was a British scheme 'to divide and rule' is plainly nonsensical, since the British were leaving India. Mountbatten's motives could only be altruistic synonymous here with academic. As if playing a trump card, you specify the substantial role of V Patel in seeing the good sense of partition as pre-emptive resolution of impending conflict. In the event of partition, the unforeseen factor of mayhem as a consequence on trans-migrating populations on both sides, with the terrible tit-for-tat human tendency in any confrontation involving opposed parties, is also expeditiously tackled by the same man, at least proving the will for tolerance with some good effect. I don't see how the truth can ever be told too soon: if it is the truth. The cartoonist was wrong/false in his assessment of the fairy tale role of the monarchy, since it is the sustainer of excellence in the realm that is no fairy tale, by which royal standard all achievement by Britons in war and peace is inspired, recognised and honoured for posterity, even internationally; and V Patel was no cartoonist.

04-Nov-2013 20:51 PM

Comment What would have been the politico-social reality for 850 million Hindus in the undivided India with its 500 million Muslims in our 'Islamic fundamentalist' times? In the 'informed' intellectual imagination lies the answer as to whether the British partition had turned out as a boon or proved to be a bane.

BS Murthy
03-Nov-2013 01:19 AM

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