British records on India

Print edition : September 16, 2016

November 1947: Jawaharlal Nehru addressing a gathering in Srinagar. Sheikh Abdullah is seated to his left on the dais. The book discloses for the first time several developments in the Kashmir dispute. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The two volumes contain British documents on Kashmir and Hyderabad, Gandhi’s assassination and other economic and political developments in India and Pakistan.

Lionel Carter has immensely enriched scholarship on South Asia by his painstaking searches in British archives and by editing the documents with exemplary annotation. This is in contrast to the shoddy editing in almost all edited volumes of documents in India and Pakistan. He began by editing Fortnightly Reports by the Governors of Punjab (1936-1947) and proceeded to edit Partition Observed: British Official Reports from South Asia; 14 August – 31 December 1947 (two volumes). The two volumes under review continue the work. Like them, they were all published by Manohar in elegantly produced volumes.

Lionel Carter was part of the team that produced the 12 volumes of documents titled Transfer of Power to India (1942-1947), which were published by the British government. One hopes he will produce another set on British Reports on Kashmir (1945-1949), comprising reports from the British Resident there and those by successive Viceroys, British High Commissioners and senior members of their staff.

The documents in these two volumes bring out all too clearly that the Governor General of India, Lord Mountbatten, and the British High Commissioner in New Delhi, Sir Terence Shone, and his Deputy, Alexander Symon, were in close touch unknown to Indian Ministers and officials, with the possible exception of V.P. Menon, Secretary, Ministry of States, and Vallabhbhai Patel’s right hand. Menon was always for conciliation. Mountbatten showed them confidential papers of the government most improperly.

The volumes cover developments in Kashmir and Hyderabad; Gandhi’s fast and his assassination; and political and economic developments in India and Pakistan. They include the Communist Party of India’s Second Congress in Calcutta in February 1948 where P.C. Joshi was ousted as general secretary by the hardliner B.T. Ranadive in a blow from which the CPI never recovered. The year 1948 still dogs the Communist movement.

The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) is not neglected. Sir Terence Shone reported to Patrick Gordon-Walker, Parliament Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, on January 15, 1948: “It (the RSS) attracts young Hindus who dislike the restraining influence of Gandhi and Nehru and all those who are becoming affected with anti-Muslim bitterness. In fact, the RSS is likely to become the private army of the section of Hindu reaction which wishes to make the Indian Dominion a Hindu theocratic State.”

John Shattock, ICS, who had served in India before Independence and became a senior staff member at the High Commission in New Delhi, wrote in a note on January 7: “Partition and the disastrous troubles coming from it had also caused a great strengthening of the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS while a large part of the Congress was now imbued with a Mahasabhite ideology. If Partition had come to stay Pandit Nehru’s policy of a democratic secular State, assisted by the efforts of Mahatma Gandhi, was a vain dream; and Nehru himself, who had such a small following in the Cabinet, was doomed.” This was proved wrong, Nehru fought back, but the Patelites survived.

The British High Commission was then housed in a building opposite Birla House, where Gandhi was staying. Alexander Symon reported to Gordon-Walker on the bomb explosion at Gandhi’s prayer meeting on January 20: “It is understood that the police believe the attempt was the work of a widespread movement with its headquarters in Bombay, and hope to be able to apprehend most of those implicated.” Morarji Desai forbade the Bombay Police against arresting V.D. Savarkar, who was privy to the conspiracy. Had he not done so, Gandhi would not have been assassinated.

After the murder, Alexander Symon opined to Sir Archibald Carter, Joint Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, on February 27, that “Bourne saw Sanjevi (D.I.B. and I.G. Police, Delhi Province) this morning who gave him following information, which should please be treated as confidential. Assassin was previously a member of R.S.S. and Secretary, Bombay Provincial Mahasabhite [ sic]. His present connections with R.S.S. not known, but he is editor of Poona Hindu Rashtra which had Mahasabhite outlook. There is evidence that bomb attempt on 20 January and Gandhi’s assassination were part of same conspiracy. Sanjevi gave no details of it. 25 arrests have been made, mostly in Bombay.”

The High Commission closely followed the investigations in meetings with high Indian officials. Alexander Symon reported to London on February 6: “Demonstrations were spontaneous acts of indignation provoked too in some places by R.S.S. demonstrations welcoming assassination.… No information is yet available regarding conspiracy except that Punjabi arrested in connection with bomb attempt is understood to have admitted that there were five or six conspirators concerned in Gandhi’s death and he has been sent to Bombay at request of Bombay Police.… Sanjevi said today that it is now believed that Godse has not relinquished either membership of R.S.S or Mahasabha.” Gopal Godse later revealed in an interview with Arvind Rajagopal that his brother Nathuram had not left the RSS ( Frontline, January 28, 1994). He said: “All the brothers were in the RSS. Nathuram, Dattatreya, myself and Govind. You can say we grew up in the RSS rather than in our homes. It was like a family to us.” He dubbed L.K. Advani’s false denials of the Godse-RSS link “cowardice”.

The West Pakistan CID prepared a lengthy note on the RSS from 1947 onwards, which the High Commissioner in Pakistan, Sir Laurence Grafftey-Smith, forwarded to London.

Grief in Pakistan

There was universal grief in Pakistan on Gandhi’s death. Dawn’s editorial bears quotation in extenso. “They have killed Mahatma Gandhi at last. Ten days ago they tried with a hand-grenade and failed. Yesterday they left nothing to chance. Thus has fallen one of the world’s greatest men—a martyr to his convictions. Thus has ended the life of the greatest Hindu of modern times—at the point of a Hindu’s revolver.

“Gandhi has died for the cause of his country which he was determined to save from collapse into primitive savagery on the morrow of freedom. Gandhi has died, too, for the Muslim minority of India on whom that savagery was being practised with increasing relentlessness… not only the Muslim minority of India for whom Mahatma Gandhi, in the last few days of his life, had stood out so fearlessly, but all Muslims in Pakistan are bowed with grief at the ghastly ending of so great a life. Should the Mahatma’s supreme self-sacrifice in the cause of peace and amity lead to a genuine stirring of the conscience of the Hindus of India, Muslims on this side of the frontier will not fail to respond with all sincerity.” Jinnah’s response was disgraceful. He called Gandhi a great “Hindu leader” which Sir Laurence Grafftey-Smith sharply criticised.

Objective reports

In those days, the CPI was the principal opposition party. The socialists left the Congress to be on their own. There is a comparably detailed documentation on matters economic and on such developments in Pakistan. The reports are, for the most part, objective.

Some of the reports astonish one. “The following information, given to a member of the staff today by a responsible British press correspondent here, regarding the attitude to the Kashmir dispute of two prominent Indian industrialists, Sri Ram and G.D. Birla, is interesting. The former expressed his strong desire to see an early settlement of the dispute and considered that it might be arranged on the basis of Pakistan getting Kashmir and Hyderabad, as a quid pro quo, going to India. Birla thought it was useless going on throwing good money after bad, that India might have Jammu, but that the rest of the State including the Vale of Kashmir, would have to go to Pakistan. He added that he had no real faith in Sheikh Abdullah who would be of no permanent value to the Indian Union.” Foreign correspondents report to their missions far more than is suspected.

The British were well informed of the rift in the Cabinet. Sir Terence Shone recorded: “The next morning (January 9th) we met the Governor General at 10 a.m. (Mr Malcolm Macdonald also being present). Lord Mountbatten began by telling us, in the utmost confidence, that the rift between Nehru and Patel was becoming so wide as to cause him grave concern. (He mentioned, inter alia, that Nehru had been giving orders for supplies of money, vehicles etc. to Kashmir—without consulting the Ministries concerned—while Patel was concerning himself with appointments to Indian Embassies. High Commissioners etc.) He thought it possible that Patel might leave the government and go into opposition—with the Birla money bags behind him. In that event, he seemed to think Nehru would still be able to carry on for a time at all events, but that a situation would develop which the Communists would be able to exploit. (We have heard before, more than once, that Nehru’s backers in the present Cabinet are very few in number.) Lord Mountbatten felt he must warn Mr Henderson of this before he saw Nehru and Patel and he suggested that if opportunity offered, Mr Henderson might emphasise—particularly to Patel—the importance of maintaining unity in the present Cabinet.… Lord Mountbatten emphasised that he has, from the moment the accession of Kashmir was accepted, insisted that it should be on a temporary basis and subject to a plebiscite taking place as soon as possible; and that India’s attitude, both as regards Junagadh and Kashmir, had been based on a plebiscite to determine the popular will.”

The documents, from both sides, India and Pakistan, provide detailed accounts of the course the Kashmir dispute took. They establish clearly that the Kashmiris stood not a chance of voting in a plebiscite. Nehru had set his face against it as early as in the beginning of 1948, if not, indeed, earlier.

There were also developments which these documents disclose for the first time. The Deputy High Commissioner at Peshawar, Charles Duke, reported to the High Commissioner in Karachi on March 13 that Sheikh Abdullah “according to Mr Alexander (a Quaker), seemed to be anxious for discussions with Ghulam Abbas, the President of the Kashmir Muslim Conference who has recently been released from jail (by Abdullah) and is now, I understand, in Karachi with a view to conversations with Mr Jinnah. Sheikh Abdullah was apparently not particularly enamoured of accession to India, his preference would be for an independent Kashmir, with friendly treaty relations with both India and Pakistan. He suggested that Kashmir should be politically, as it is scenically, ‘the Switzerland of Asia’—a small neutral country maintaining friendly relations with all her powerful neighbours.… Sheikh Abdullah seemed to think it possible that he might be able to reach a compromise solution with Ghulam Abbas and Sirdar Ibrahim, particularly the former if they could be brought together in a dispassionate atmosphere for friendly discussion.

“Mr Alexander seemed to feel that a possible solution might be reached on the lines of a division of Kashmir, perhaps only a temporary division; Poonch and Gilgit to be free to join Pakistan if they did not feel confidence in the new Kashmir administration, while the Jammu Province would be similarly free to join India, and the decision in regard to Srinagar and the Kashmir Valley itself to be reached by a plebiscite, which might be organised by a joint interim administration representing both the National [Muslim] Conference and the National Congress, i.e. including both Sheikh Abdullah and Ghulam Abbas and Sirdar Ibrahim, with possibly neutral observers or advisers to be provided by the United Nations.” They met in Pakistan in1964 when it was all over.

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