History is a record of what actually happened, supported by credible evidence. Ideally, it should not be tainted by one’s opinions or conjecture. Unfortunately, intentionally or otherwise, this has not always been the case with narratives related to the partition of India.
Perhaps the main reason has been that the British Government did not make the relevant official records available until fairly late in the day. Some of these are still kept under wraps,
like the papers related to Kashmir and the division of Punjab which Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who headed the judicial commission that drew the dividing line, unbelievably claimed to have destroyed.
The documents that were released have been put together in chronological order in twelve volumes by a team of four eminent British historians, the last of which was not published until 1984.
In its absence, much of what was written earlier about the event was unauthenticated, with some of it based on incomplete information and hearsay. There are two issues in particular that have become contentious.
The first relates to the reasons and events that led to the creation of Pakistan. The second follows from the first and concerns about the roles played by various individuals and parties in the process of partition itself.
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India’s geography and demography prior to British era
India was never a united country as such, with clearly defined borders until the advent of direct British rule in 1858. Before that, it was more like a geographic region consisting of
more than 500 small states, each with its own set of laws and boundaries that changed frequently.
It was the same with the people who lived there. They had varying ethnic identities, cultures, religions and spoke 200 or so different languages with 50 different scripts and five hundred dialects. The attributes that define a nation, such as common history, culture, language, and ethnicity were missing.
The nation- state is strictly a European concept that did not apply to India. For much of the time, present-day Afghanistan formed a part of India, whereas the Deccan plateau south of Narbada and Tapti rivers was excluded.
It was the same with the eastern region comprising of Assam and Bengal. The two largest communities, Hindus and Muslims professed different faiths, lived in segregated societies, ate different food, dressed differently, and had different heroes and histories.
They did not intermarry and had incompatible social orders, indeed civilizations. To describe them as belonging to one nation would be absurd.
Inequitable political setup under British rule
Nonetheless, a common political arrangement was agreed upon between the two communities in 1916, known as the Lucknow Pact. It was rendered meaningless after Congress Party adopted the Nehru Committee Report in 1928 on the future constitution, specifying a unitary government and doing away with the existing separate electorates as well as electoral weightage.
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When the Muslims objected and proposed amendments, both Mr. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru said these could be dealt with after independence whenever that may happen. To make matters worse, Congress also repudiated the agreement they had made with the Muslims when forming the provincial governments after the election in 1937.
To the Muslims, it appeared as if independence for them would in essence mean exchanging one master for another. In 1939 Jinnah set up a committee to examine the situation and make recommendations.
It proposed that if Congress did not agree to a loose confederation with the center having only limited powers, the Muslim League must insist on outright partitioning the country. A resolution was accordingly passed at the annual session of the Muslim League in March 1940.
It called for the areas in which Muslims formed the majority to be grouped to constitute autonomous states. It made no mention of Islam, Sharia, the two-nation theory, or partition as such. The word ‘Pakistan’ was also not used. Ironically, it was the Hindu press that first named it the ‘Pakistan Resolution.’
Reaction to the idea of Partition
Contrary to the impression generally found in India, neither the British government nor any of its officials that mattered at the time were in favor of partition. The epithets the last Viceroy, Mountbatten had used privately for Jinnah, when the latter called for separation, included ‘evil genius’, ‘clot’, ‘lunatic’, ‘psychopath’ and ‘bastard’ (‘Eminent Churchillians’, by Andrew Roberts).
It is also not correct that religion formed the basis of the demand for Pakistan. It was always areas where Muslims were in majority, as Jinnah explained on numerous occasions. Paradoxically, all of the Islamic religious parties at the time were viscerally opposed to Jinnah and the creation of a separate Muslim state.
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Muslim League had claimed to represent the Muslims who constituted twenty-five percent of India’s population. This was contested by the Congress Party that considered itself representative of all the Indians.
The issue was decided in the 1945-46 election in which Muslim League won each and every seat reserved for the Muslims in the Central Legislature from every corner of India. For all practical purposes, the Congress Party was seen to represent only the Hindus.
Determining the fate of India after the British withdrawal
Exhausted by war and facing mutinies in some Indian military units, Britain had decided to leave India at the earliest. A mission composed of three British cabinet ministers, Pethic Lawrence, Stafford Cripps and A. V Alexander was sent to India to arrange for early independence, preferably as a single country.
After protracted discussions, it proposed three groups of provinces with the centre having jurisdiction over communications, defence and foreign affairs only. The real power would rest in the groups with each having its bicameral legislature.
It also provided for each group and province to reconsider its position after a specified period. Muslim League went along with the proposal but much haggling followed between Congress and the Mission on the interpretation of the plan and powers of the proposed Joint Constituent Assembly.
It all came to naught when Nehru became Congress President in July 1946 and made public statements that put an end to any further discussion. The Viceroy, Lord Wavell has recorded that the Mission had been ‘unable to remain really impartial’ and had been ‘living in the pocket of Congress’. He further wrote, the agreement ‘might have succeeded had Cripps and Pethic Lawrence not been completely in the Congress camp’.
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In March 1946 Pundit Nehru had gone to Burma and stayed as a guest of Mountbatten, then Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Southeast Asia. According to his biographer, Philip Ziegler, ‘Nehru left Government House in the conviction that he had met an English couple whom he could trust and who understood and sympathized with the needs of India.
’ At this time, there was much that went on behind the scene in London between the U.K Labour Party and Congress that we need not go into. The upshot was that it was decided to replace Lord Wavell with Lord Mountbatten as Viceroy in India.
Mountbatten had no previous experience of India yet, despite this he liked to claim that the British Government had granted him plenipotentiary powers to decide the fate of India. There is no official proof of this to be found.
Even his Secretary, Vice Admiral Ronald Brockman denied it (‘Mountbatten’, p.355). There is little doubt that all of the important decisions were made in London between Prime Minister Attlee and the Labour Party ministers Pethic Lawrence and Stafford Cripps.
After the failure of the Cabinet Mission, in a last-ditch effort, Attlee invited leaders of the main communities in December 1946 to come to London in the hope of finding a solution. When that too failed, he threatened to hand over power to each of the provinces by June 1948 and leave.
His primary interest was to get rid of India as early as possible before the situation there became worse. This took the wind out of the Congress’ sails and at a meeting held on 8th March 1947, they decided to accept partition provided Punjab and Bengal provinces were also divided so that only their Muslim majority areas were joined to Pakistan.
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Mr. Gandhi was not consulted on the issue as he later complained, ‘No one listened to me anymore. I am crying in the wilderness.’ (‘Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope’, by Judith Brown, p. 369).
Collusion between the British and Congress Party
There is little doubt that both the British and the Congress Party were convinced that Pakistan could not survive for long in the severely truncated form and will sooner than later revert to becoming a part of India.
They did everything in their power to make it happen. Mountbatten is on record having told the Provincial Governors’ meeting on 15th. April 1947, ‘Anything that resulted in torpedoing Pakistan was of advantage in that it of Power Documents 1942-1947, Vol. XI’, pp. 242-244 and ‘Shameful Flight’, by Stanley Wolpert, p.85).
Nehru too was similarly hopeful in his letter to K.P.S Menon, India’s representative in China. On April 24, 1947 he stated that he was in no doubt eventually India would have to
become one country, and it could well be that Pakistan was but a stepping stone towards that goal (‘Nehru: The Making of India’, by M. J Akbar, p. 405).
Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, commander-in-Chief of the British India Army later wrote to London, ‘I have no hesitation whatsoever in affirming that the present India Cabinet are determined to do everything in their power to prevent the establishment of Pakistan on a firm basis.
In this I am supported by the unanimous opinion of my senior officers and indeed by all British officers cognizant of the situation’. There are allegations of collusion between the British Labour Party and Congress.
These are mostly based on the observations by Lord Wavell and telephone intercepts of conversations between Congress leader Sardar Patel and their agent, Sudhir Ghosh in London.
It was Mountbatten’s Reforms Commissioner, V.P Menon who produced the final plan that partitioned India. He had been in constant touch with Congress leader Sardar Patel as confirmed in his book ‘Transfer of Power in India’ (p.365).
The plan divided the country into two parts and included the partitioning of both Punjab and Bengal provinces with referenda to be held in the Northwest Frontier Province and Sylhet district of Assam.
Read More: Is prejudice towards Muslims in India paving a way for a “Second Partition”?
It left the two dominions to make their own constitutions. The date of transfer of power was advanced from the end of June 1948 to 15th August 1947, forcing Jinnah to set up a new country in just nine weeks.
Controversies in the Radcliffe Award
All of Jinnah’s pleas, proposals and protests were rejected out of hand. Among other things, he had called for the division of Bengal and Punjab to be done under the auspices of the United Nations.
In its place a commission composed of the British lawyer, Sir Cyril Radcliffe was appointed to be assisted by both Hindu and Muslim judges. The latter were soon dispensed with. Radcliffe, who had never visited India alone drew the line which he later changed under pressure from Mountbatten.
Subsequent events indicate that he did not act independently but followed a brief given to him in London, most likely predicated on giving India land access to Kashmir State. There were only four individuals, other than Radcliffe, who were privy to this perfidy – Mountbatten, his Chief of Staff General ‘Pug’ Ismay, Private Secretary George Abell, and the Secretary to Radcliffe, an ICS officer named Christopher Beaumont.
All four of them agreed not to reveal the truth (‘Eminent Churchillians’, p.98). Much later, after all the rest had passed away, Beaumont made a deposition in which he revealed the truth to be shown only after his death and only to individuals approved by the Permanent Under-Secretary of the Foreign Office as well as the Warden of All Souls College, Oxford.
However, after some persuasion, he let the writer have a copy. This is a separate issue discussed in detail in the writer’s books, ‘Muslims and the Partition of India’ and ‘Pakistan: Roots, Perspective and Genesis’.
To cut a long story short, four districts of Punjab province – Gurdaspur, Amritsar, Jalandhar and Ferozepur, where Muslims were in majority, were awarded to India for reasons that were never officially revealed. Not only that, a portion of Lahore District was also given to India, according to one story, because a Sikh veteran sent an application to the king for this favor.
Apart from Hindus and Muslims, there were other communities, including Sikhs who constituted a little over ten percent of the population of Punjab but had demanded that most of the province, from Ambala to Jehlum, should be handed over to them – a ridiculous proposition at best.
Read More: Why Allama Mashriqi opposed the partition of India?
Mountbatten claimed, ‘I found it was mainly at the request of the Sikh community that Congress had put forward the Resolution on the partition of Punjab’ (Transfer of Power Documents, Vol. XI, p.112).
When Mountbatten raised the Sikh question with Congress’ Sardar Patel, he replied, ‘These imbecilic people have slit their own throats. They have missed the boat and not much can be done about it’ (Sachi Sakhi, by Sardar Kapoor Singh). Jinnah felt they had been let down by their leaders (Transfer of Power Documents 1942-47, Vol. X, p. 280).
Betrayal and bloodbath
When the plan for partition was made public on 3rd June 1947 the Sikhs felt betrayed (the actual boundary line was not revealed until August 17, two days after independence). They vented their anger on the Muslims which turned into a killing spree in the part of Punjab that was awarded to India.
It lasted until there was hardly any Muslim left alive in the province. It provoked revenge killings of mostly Sikhs on the Pakistan side. More than a million people lost their lives in the holocaust and more than fourteen million were rendered homeless.
Exact figures are not available largely because there was no functioning government in the Indian part of Punjab and the Boundary Force set up by the British for maintaining peace in the province was disbanded at India’s insistence.
Mobs, consisting of hundreds and sometimes thousands of Sikhs armed with swords, spears and daggers went on a rampage of killing, looting and burning among Muslim communities in villages, towns and cities.
The local police and soldiers from the armies of Sikh princely states with automatic firearms often joined these ‘balwaees’ (mutineers). It was as if an open season had been declared on Muslims in the Indian Punjab. No one came to their rescue as they made their way, mostly
on foot to Pakistan in caravans (kafilas) that often stretched over twenty miles.
In the end, Pakistan received and settled more than nine million destitute, battered, wounded and diseased refugees at a time when there was no functioning central government. The story in India was not very different.
To say that the entire process was botched would be an understatement. Unimaginable tragedy and misery came to be inflicted on millions of innocent people. It affected not only the survivors but their succeeding generations as well.
Could it have been managed better? Most certainly, but only if there had been honesty, wisdom and compassion. Unfortunately, there was only political expediency, chicanery and deceit. Sadly, the future holds little hope and chances are the people of the subcontinent
will continue to pay the price for how the partition was mismanaged for a long time to come.
K. Hussan Zia is a retired naval officer and is the author of ‘Pakistan: Roots, Perspective and Genesis’ and Muslims and the West: A Muslim Perspective’. He can be reached at :firstname.lastname@example.org.