Partition truths

Print edition : May 02, 2014

May 1946: Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad with Sir Stafford Cripps after their meeting at Simla. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Mohammad Ali Jinnah signing the Pakistan Constituent Assembly Register. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The partition of India was a consequence of calculations gone wrong, on the part of both the Congress and the Muslim League.

The partition of India must surely rank among the 10 greatest tragedies in human history. Both the main parties, the Indian National Congress and the All-India Muslim League, miscalculated. Since 1937 the Congress, committed to the preservation of India’s unity, pursued policies which made its partition inevitable. India’s freedom was inevitable and was envisaged by the much-maligned Macaulay as far back as in 1833. There was nothing inevitable about a federal India. Its leaders fondly imagined that Pakistan would not last and would, in a matter of months, seek reunion. In this, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, were hopelessly wrong. Their leader, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, bears the prime responsibility for wrecking wantonly the last clear chance for preserving India’s unity presented by the British Cabinet Mission’s Plan of May 16, 1946. The very next day, he asserted a right to “interpret” it as he pleased. Nehru, Patel and Abul Kalam Azad went along with him just as Nehru and Azad had gone along with his reckless gamble in 1942 on the Quit India movement. Just before that, Gandhi sent an emissary, Maleleine Slade, to Viceroy Lord Linglithgow, doubtless to assure him of his good intentions. She was refused an audience.

Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the president of the League, was a late convert to the idea of Pakistan. Recent disclosures suggest that the demand was a bargaining chip. But he miscalculated. It was hard enough that the idea was based on false premises. The Muslim majority areas were not Muslim “homelands”. Only a historical illiterate would say that. Jinnah, like most lawyers, including the Congress leaders, was not particularly educated, though he had a penetrating intellect. In India, Islam arrived first in Kerala. The entire subcontinent was a homeland to all its peoples, Muslims included.

Two terrible factors were injected to render the situation impossible. One was the poison of the two-nation theory, propagated by V.D. Savarkar since 1925, which Jinnah recklessly adopted in 1939 only to discard it on August 11, 1947, in his famous speech to Pakistan’s Constitutional Assembly.

The other factor, which is often overlooked, is Jinnah’s style of leadership with its abusive speech and its hauteur. He rendered himself a singularly unattractive interlocutor. Pakistan was not to be negotiated with the Congress but only under British auspices. Jinnah gravely miscalculated. He thought that the Congress would plead with him not to divide India. By 1942, Nehru was prepared to partition India rather than parley with Jinnah.

Following Gandhi’s lead, blindly as before, the Congress professed to accept the Mission’s Plan while so interpreting it as to rob the one concession it made to the League—the Grouping of Provinces (Balochistan, North West Frontier Province, Punjab and Sindh in Group B, Bengal and Assam in Group C and the rest of India in Group A, all under a federation limited to defence, foreign affairs and communications). Provinces could secede from their group after the first general election, but not from the Union.

Imagine the situation it would have created. Bengal and Punjab, with economically more prosperous and therefore politically stronger Hindus; military cantonments in Karachi, Rawalpindi, Quetta and Calcutta; a Federal Court, and a Parliament in which the Pakistan Provinces would be in a minority. Since separate electorates would be abandoned, the Leaguers would fight among themselves to solicit the votes—and the money from the Hindus. Group A could have had the same powerful Centre for the rest of the subjects which India set up in 1950. Foreign policy would have been shaped by the All-India Centre. Jinnah accepted it. The Congress’ dishonest quibbles forced him to withdraw his acceptance.

As if that was not bad enough, the Congress missed yet another opportunity. Nehru, Jinnah and even Baldev Singh were invited to London for talks. The Lord Chancellor, Lord Jowitt, as well as the Attorney-General Sir Hartley Shawcross gave considered legal opinions against Gandhi’s interpretation. Once again, the Congress professed to accept the proposal—but with the same reservations. This, despite the last paragraph of the British Government’s statement of December 6, 1946, rejecting the Congress interpretation. It read thus: “There has never been any prospect of success for the Constituent Assembly except upon the basis of the agreed procedure. Should the Constitution come to be framed by a Constituent Assembly in which a large section of the Indian population had not been represented, His Majesty’s Government could not, of course, contemplate—as the Congress have stated they would not contemplate— forcing such a Constitution upon any unwilling parts of the country.”

When the Congress resorted to its game of equivocation on January 6, 1947, it knew that it was playing with India’s unity. In contrast, on April 25, 1946, in a talk with Stafford Cripps, Jinnah rejected the proposal for Pakistan with partition of Punjab and Bengal and preferred a federation of the kind the Mission offered on May 16. He had to accept partition under the Partition Plan of June 3, 1947, because the Congress refused to relent in its dishonest stand. The Viceroy Lord Mountbatten’s letter to Vallabhbhai Patel as late as on May 16, 1947, and that of his Private Secretary, Sir Eric Mieville, on April 28, 1947, made it clear that the Congress had not really accepted the Mission’s Plan ( Sardar Patel’s Correspondence; Volume 4, pages 33 and 35).

Documents on the Movement for India’s Independence covers the crucial period from January 1947 to the drafting of the Partition Plan. The task of selecting and editing was assigned to Professor Sucheta Mahajan, Professor of History, Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has done a commendable job, sparing herself no pains. She has written extensively on Partition. Particularly useful to students of the period is her compilation of the documents and proceedings of the Constituent Assembly, especially its Constitutional Adviser Sir B.N. Rau’s Questionnaire to members.

The League seized on the Congress’ refusal to abide by the Mission’s Plan and refused to enter the Constituent Assembly. In private, Rajaji (C. Rajagopalachari) had no hesitation in voicing his differences with Gandhi. On January 7, 1947, he met Viceroy Lord Wavell, who recorded: “He admitted that it might have been better had the Congress acceptance of the Statement of 6 December been quite unequivocal, but stressed the difficulties with their followers and said that it was only Nehru’s personal efforts which had secured acceptance at all.” He might have more candidly attributed the refusal to Gandhi, who told Assam’s leaders on December 15, 1946, that if they entered the “sections” that were to form the groups, “I will say Assam had only manikins and no men.”

V.P. Menon told Wavell on January 9, 1947, that “Gandhi had proposed a most mischievous resolution about HMG [His Majesty’s Government’s] statement of December 6 but that Patel had opposed him strongly and was unpopular with G at present”. Wavell noted repeatedly that Menon had become Vallabhbhai Patel’s spokesman.

The volume has useful documentation on the communal riots in the country. They did not influence the leaders one bit. Maulana Azad cuts a pathetic figure. As Congress president, he had put his signature to letters to the Cabinet Mission professing acceptance of its Plan. His post was taken over by Nehru in July 1946, which Azad resented. On January 26, 1947, Azad claimed that “the Congress has accepted in full the British Government’s Statement of 6 December”. Yet, on March 27, he told Mountbatten that “if he had not been due at that particular moment to leave the Presidency of the Congress, that party would have accepted the Cabinet Mission’s Plan. He said that blame in the first place must be laid on Congress, although it was the Muslim League which was now intransigent.” On April 14, 1947, he asked Mountbatten to decide whether the Congress had really accepted it or not. If Jinnah also agreed, “I am confident that I can persuade the Congress to do the first time”. This was neither the first nor the last that the Maulana had overestimated his influence in the Congress where, except for Nehru, none cared for him. On July 24 Gandhi went so far as to write to Nehru opposing Azad’s inclusion in the first Cabinet of independent India. ( The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 88, 408). Azad’s independence was galling to the unforgiving Mahatma, who himself comes out poorly in the records.

While the riots were raging all over the country, Gandhi’s answer to a question at a prayer meeting at Nandigram in Bengal makes sad reading. Question: “You have been working here [Noakhali] for the last three months. Has there been any appreciable change in the mentality of the Hindus?” Answer: “The question could best be answered by the Hindus concerned.” He flattered himself with the belief that the Hindus had, at least for the time being, shed their cowardice to an extent. Apparently Gandhi had not changed his views in the last 25 years since he had famously proclaimed: “The Musalman as a rule is a bully, and the Hindu as a rule is a coward.” One refrains from spelling out the subtext beneath this remark (Quoted in Mohibbul Hasan’s excellent essay Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian Muslims; in S.C. Biswas (ed.) Gandhi: Theory and Practice; Indian Institute of Advanced Study; 1969; page 138).

Gandhi wrecked chances of unity

Having wrecked the last two clear chances for preserving India’s unity (of May 1946 and December 6, 1946), Gandhi adopted a strange course as the partition seemed imminent. He proposed that Jinnah be made Prime Minister, responsible, doubtless, to a Congress-dominated Parliament. The point is not that the idea was unrealistic and was rejected alike by the Congress and the League. The point is it was a stratagem, as Mountbatten was quick to notice.

At the end of an interview with Mountbatten on April 4, he dictated to Chief of Staff Lord Ismay an “Outline of Draft Agreement”. It read thus:

“Mr Jinnah to be given the option of forming a Cabinet.

“The selection of the Cabinet is left entirely to Mr Jinnah. The members may be all Muslims, or all non-Muslims, or they may be representatives of all classes and creeds of the Indian people.

“If Mr Jinnah accepted this offer, the Congress would guarantee to co-operate freely and sincerely, so long as all the measures that Mr. Jinnah’s Cabinet bring forward are in the interest of the Indian people as a whole.

“The sole reference of what is or is not in the interest of India as a whole will be Lord Mountbatten, in his personal capacity. Mr Jinnah must stipulate, on behalf of the League or of any other parties represented in the Cabinet formed by him that, so far as he or they are concerned, they will do their utmost to preserve peace throughout India. There shall be no National Guards (of the League) or any other form of private army.

“Within the framework hereof Mr Jinnah will be perfectly free to present for acceptance a scheme of Pakistan even before the transfer of power, provided however, that he is successful in his appeal to reason and not to the force of arms which he abjures for all time for this purpose. Thus, there will be no compulsion in this matter over a province or a part thereof.

“In the Assembly the Congress has a decisive majority. But the Congress shall never use that majority against the League policy simply because of its identification with the League but will give its hearty support to every measure brought forward by the League Government, provided that it is in the interest of the whole of India. Whether it is in such interest or not shall be decided by Lord Mountbatten as man and not in this representative capacity. If Mr. Jinnah rejects this offer, the same offer to be made mutatis mutandis to Congress.”

On April 10, he discussed another formula with the Congress Working Committee and gave it to Mountbatten the next day, writing on it in Hindi, “Gandhi’s draft”. It proposed inter alia that ‘’the Frontier province is with it (Congress) and the Eastern part of the Punjab where the Hindus and the Sikhs combined have a decisive majority will remain out of the Pakistan zone. Similarly in the East, Assam is clearly outside the zone of Pakistan and the Western part of Bengal including Darjeeling, Dinajpur, Calcutta, Burdwan, Midnapore, Khulna, 24-Parganas, etc., where the Hindus are in a decisive majority will remain outside the Pakistan zone”.

V.P. Menon’s comments on this were scathing. “It is Gandhi’s habit to make propositions, leaving many of their implications unsaid, and this method of negotiation has put him and the Congress in difficult positions in the past. For example, there is no reference here to the Muslim League participation in the Constituent Assembly. If Jinnah were to accept his proposal, Gandhi probably takes it for granted that the Muslim League would enter the Constituent Assembly. It seems to me clear therefore that the present proposals do not expose his full mind…. It is suggested that if Jinnah rejects the offer the same offer is to be made mutatis mutandis to the Congress. It should be borne in mind that all the factors which have been mentioned as working to the disadvantage of Jinnah will for the same reason work to the advantage of the Congress. HE’s main task is to find a solution to the present deadlock between the League and the Congress. It is no solution to suggest that power should be transferred to the Congress to the exclusion of the Muslim League. If the propositions were as simple as that, it would have been solved long ago” (emphasis added, throughout).

This is precisely what his famous offer to Jinnah in 1944 envisaged—power to the Congress which would work out the partition. Ambedkar called it “a snare” ( Pakistan or Partition of India; page 410). Gandhi withdrew his proposal on April 11, 1947. The next day he spoke to Mountbatten. “He then said that he advised me to go on strengthening the Interim Government and making them function correctly for the next 14 months; after which he considered I should hand over power to the Interim Government. This staggered Lord Ismay and myself and we both pointed out that meant handing over power to one party, namely Congress, to the grave disadvantage of the other party, the Muslim League, which would not fail to produce strife, possibly leading to civil war.

“Mr Gandhi, with a wily smile, pointed out that if Mr Jinnah indeed signed the paper we were sending round to him (joint statement denouncing violence) he could not again use force for political purposes. I must say I was speechless to find that he proposed, if Mr Jinnah indeed meant to both sign and stick to the statement, to take advantage of this to impose a Congress Government over the Muslims. Here again I find it hard to believe that I correctly understood Mr Gandhi.” It was cleverness all the way, never statesmanship.

Even after the Partition Plan of June 3 was accepted by both sides, the Congress and the League, Gandhi persisted. He wrote to Mountbatten: “You startled me again by telling me that, if the partition had not been made during British occupation, the Hindus being the major party would have never allowed partition and held the Muslims by force under subjection. I told you that this was a grave mistake…. It is physically impossible for millions of caste-ridden Hindus to hold well-knit though fewer millions of Muslims under subjection by force…. The caste Hindus who are the bugbear are, it can be shown conclusively, a hopeless minority. Of these the armed Rajputs are not yet nationalists as a class. The Brahmins and the Banias are still untrained in the use of arms. Their supremacy where it exists is purely moral. The Sudras count, I am sorry, more as scheduled class than anything else. That such Hindu society by reason of its mere superiority in numbers can crush millions of Muslims is an astounding myth.

“This should show you why, even if I am alone, I swear by non-violence and truth together standing for the highest order of the courage before which the atom bomb pales into insignificance, what to say of a fleet of Dreadnoughts.” As ever, strategem was combined with expressions of piety.

‘Trotsky attitude’

Finally, Mountbatten despaired of Gandhi. In his personal report to the King dated June 5, 1947, he wrote: “Since Gandhi returned to Delhi on the 24th May, he has been carrying out an intense propaganda against the new plan (for partition) and although I have always been led to understand he was the man who got Congress to turn down the Cabinet Mission Plan a year ago, he was now trying to force the Cabinet Mission Plan on the country. He may be a saint but he seems also to be a disciple of Trotsky.” One wonders if Mountbatten knew much of Trotsky or Tolstoy, for that matter.

On July 2, 1947, the Viceroy wrote to Prime Minister Clement Attlee, “My private opinion is that Gandhi is adopting his usual Trotsky attitude and might quite well like to see the present plan wrecked, so he is busy stiffening Congress attitude.” This is what gave birth to the myth of Gandhi being the last brave opponent of the partition. It was in truth a tragedy which his dangerously “clever” tactics made inevitable.

On July 4, Mountbatten repeated his, by now favourite, expression in his personal report to the King: “The attitude of Gandhi continues to be quite unpredictable and as an example of what I have to contend with I attach as appendices ‘A’ and ‘B’ a copy of a letter I received from him dated 27th June, together with the reply I sent him on the next day. Needless to say everything he wrote in his letter was a complete misrepresentation, either deliberate or otherwise, of what I had said to him. He is an inveterate and dangerous Trotskyist.”

One wishes the editor of the volume had given more space to the H.S. Suhrawardy-Sarat Bose Pact for a United Bengal independent of both India and Pakistan. Documents on this episode are not easy to come by. Bose forwarded to Gandhi as “a tentative agreement” under a covering letter dated May 23.

Gandhi replied on May 25: “There is nothing in the draft stipulating that nothing will be done by mere majority. Every act of Government must carry with it the co-operation of at least two-thirds of the Hindu members in the executive and the Legislature.”

Let alone legislation, every executive action, such as a grant of licence, would have been subject to a communal veto. Gandhi would have rejected out of hand any suggestion of such a veto to Muslims in a united India. Rightly so. It is palpably wrong and destructive. Jinnah accepted the United Bengal idea in a talk with Mounbatten on April 26 (“I should be delighted”). Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel joined Gandhi in rejecting it. They agreed with the Hindu Mahasabha leader Shyama Prasad Mookerjee in demanding partition of Bengal even if India remained united.

In Bengal, the Muslims enjoyed only a slender majority over the Hindus. Separation from Pakistan would have had a salutary effect. The two-nation theory would have been decisively laid to rest. The Congress leaders never cared to envisage a future beyond their immediate preoccupations with a monopoly on power.

Gandhi’s desperation was shared by his adversary, albeit for opposite reasons. Jinnah was aghast at the consequences of his miscalculations. Tactical skill is not synonymous with statesmanship. A letter he wrote to Winston Churchill on August 5, 1947, reveals that the Quaid-e-Azam had shed his realism. After quoting at length virulently communal remarks by a second rank Congressman in United Provinces, he wrote: “It brings out the picture of what India is going to be. There will be no toleration of any kind. In the interest of humanity, it is essential that the intermigration should be started on scientific lines. Areas in both zones be acquired and developed to accommodate refugees. The boundaries to be so adjusted as not to leave the residual population the same percentage or proportion on both sides.

“In order to meet with above, the boundaries of Bengal and Punjab to be kept as before, a corridor through U.P. and Bihar be provided through Tarai belt. It should be of sufficient depth. Lucknow and districts of Gorakhpur and Chapra be linked with the corridor to serve as strong points in the long link of communications. This corridor will absorb the Muslim population of U.P. and Bihar. A corridor be provided for Hyderabad State as well. It will give contiguity to Pakistan through sea. The State will absorb the Muslim population of Madras and Bombay. The above could be accounted in section 9 of June 3 Plan under ‘other factors’. The boundary on the above lines between Hindustan and Pakistan will prevent cramping which is bound to happen if the division is carried out on purely communal line.”

Count the obvious flaws. Churchill had not the power to implement this hare-brained and utterly belated proposal. Leak of this indiscreet letter would have further alienated Prime Minister Attlee, who was hostile to Jinnah any way. Azad was a weak, even irresponsible, politician; but he was a far-sighted sage. He alone foresaw the consequences of Pakistan and accurately spelt them out. His predictions came true. But he was not cut out for the leadership of the Muslims and always hated Jinnah for the failure of his ambition to be the Imam ul Hind.

Jinnah was ever a statesman from 1906 right upto 1939. Gandhi, Nehru and Patel’s arrogant refusal to meet him halfway drove him to extremes. Even so, in 1946 he was prepared to accept a United India. The Congress trio rejected the very idea of power-sharing with the Muslim League.

Nelson Mandela’s greatness lay not only in liberating the blacks of South Africa but in taking along the whites and the rest with him. None of the leaders of India had that quality. In the hour of their trial, they all emerged as small men, indeed.

India suffered because it could not produce a Mandela or a Gokhale after Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s death.

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