Politics behind the scenes

A two-volume compilation of British despatches to London from India and Pakistan in the year after the twin dominions won independence shows the former colonial bosses knew what was going on in both nations.

Published : Mar 15, 2017 12:30 IST

LIONEL Carter was a member of the team that produced the 12 volumes of Documents on the Transfer of Power in India , which the British government published. He brought to bear the same exacting standards of selection and annotation in the 14 volumes on Mountbatten’s Report on the Last Viceroyalty, Reports by Governors of United Provinces and Punjab, Partition Observed (August-December 1947) and the two earlier volumes, companion to these, comprising Weakened States Seeking Renewal . All were published by Manohar with exquisite care. These volumes are sold in a box, as were the ones on Weakened States . One wishes Carter would do a similar work on Kashmir in the British archives for the period between 1946 and 1950—on papers of the British Resident in Srinagar, the High Commissioners in New Delhi and Karachi, and at the headquarters in London. He would render a service hard to estimate, for the discourse is saturated with partisanship all round. His objectivity and integrity are beyond question.

The volumes under review provide a fascinating portrayal of the times. Occasionally, they prod one to ask whether anything has changed fundamentally. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the Congress, communists, secularists, India’s Muslims, Islam in Pakistan and Kashmir form the subjects of the despatches. India’s Governor General Lord Mountbatten was in close touch with the British High Commissioner Sir Terence Shone, and his Deputy, Alexander Symon. So were they with the High Commissioner in Pakistan, Sir Lawrence Grafftey Smith. Through Mountbatten, India’s former rulers knew what was afoot.

Maurice Zinkin, ICS, held that Jawaharlal Nehru was a bad Foreign Minister for India but would have been a good one for the West. He was wrong. Nehru’s ideas were woolly. Shone took a visiting Foreign Office official to Nehru on May 2, 1948.

“On the Japanese peace settlement Pandit Nehru was non-committal and full of doubt. He seemed concerned lest a conference to consider a Japanese treaty should lead to further estrangement between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. On the other hand he had no suggestions to offer as to what should be done if there was no peace conference.” Russia’s Nikita Khrushchev told him that the Soviet Union was wrong in not signing that treaty.

On the CPI There is a detailed report by Shone to London, dated June 18, 1948, on the Communist Party of India’s (CPI) second party congress in Calcutta. “Immediately preceding it in Calcutta was the South East Asia Youth Conference (about which separate reports have already been sent) which was almost entirely Communist in character and was attended by a number of foreign Communist delegates. These later naturally formed the closest contacts with the leaders of the Communist Party of India and played their full share in the complete reversal of former party policy which was the dominating characteristic of the party congress itself. The party’s enthusiastic support for ‘Nehru’s National Government’ gave place overnight to an extremist programme aimed at their immediate overthrow as representing a ‘Government of national surrender and collaboration’ which was supporting the Anglo-American bloc. This volte-face in policy necessitated some scapegoat and it took the form of change in the party’s secretary. P.C. Joshi, a moderate Communist (if such a relative term can be applied to any Communist at all) who had held this office since the period of cooperation with the government during the latter part of the war, was replaced by a complete extremist in B.T. Ranadive. The estrangement between Russia and the Western democracies certainly seems to have been one of the causes of this major change in Communist tactics as was to be seen from the lengthy resolution explaining it.”

Ranadive harmed a powerful CPI, which the brilliant P.C. Joshi had built. “During the CPI’s legal existence for the last five and a half years, it has infiltrated into different organisations, secured numerous sympathisers and supporters, strengthened its position financially and politically and above all has perfected its propaganda ‘apparatus’. Its literature and party organs are printed in almost all the Indian languages and reach the masses in the remotest corners through the party units. In short, it is a mass party having firm bases among the workers, peasants and students and is trying hard, with some measure of success , particularly government servants, to get a hold on the middle classes. The Com. [communists] have succeeded in maintaining a high pitch of discontent and disaffection among the workers. They have been helped to do this by the general conditions prevailing in India. The high cost of living, the great need for reforms, the preoccupation of the Central government with constitutional, foreign and other affairs, inter-dominion relations, provincial jealousy, local maladministration—in fact the birth struggles of a new nation plus difficulties that all countries are experiencing after the war. The CPI’s underground machinery was ready in case of firm action by the government, and they have claimed that all the provincial and district centres had in existence ‘technical apparatus to guard against the government offensive and feed the party’s frontal activities’. As a preliminary measure, they have removed all important and confidential papers of the party to ‘secret dens’.”

The ban on the RSS weakened it only for a while. It had wide support in the country, outside its own ranks.

Radicalism in Pakistan In Pakistan, the mullahs asserted themselves even when Mohammad Ali Jinnah was alive. Grafftey-Smith reported from Karachi as early as on May 5, 1948: “There have recently been signs, particularly in the West Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province, of increasing influence on the part of the Maulvis, and a vocal section of opinion in Lahore and Peshawar has been pressing for the introduction of a fully Islamic regime with the Shariat legal system. I enclose copies of letters received from Stephenson in Lahore and Duke in Peshawar in answer to an enquiry about the real impetus behind this movement and the possibility of it being encouraged by the Pakistan authorities as an offset to increasing discontent among labour and the poorer peasant classes.”

From Rawalpindi a British diplomat reported as early as on June 20, 1948: “If Pakistan is so anxious for British or American assistance it must prove itself capable of benefiting from it. At present the only reasonably effective organisation seems to be the Army, and that is really British-controlled. The civil administration here is corrupt and nepotic and I do not imagine it is much better anywhere else.”

Indian Muslims suffered twice—in 1947 over the partition and in 1948 on Hyderabad. The Muslim League leaders were inept. Comments by Shaffee Mohamed to a British diplomat, on May 8, 1948, revealed a lot: “Although he had been in the forefront of the Congress movement in South India for many years and did not regard himself as suspect by the Congress leaders here, nevertheless he, like a good many other South Indian Moslems, felt some nervousness about his and his co-religionists’ future in India. Moslem influence in politics had gone, and it was much less in business than it had been. Here I should say that whereas Moslems amount to only about 7 per cent of the population in this area their influence in business has hitherto been very much greater. In the hide and skin trade, for instance (which is important in South India) they once had, for obvious reasons, a virtual monopoly. Now however Hindus are creeping in and take about 15-20 per cent of it. Mr Mohammed also said that even Maulana Azad and Rafi Ahmed Kidwai had expressed to him a similar feeling of nervousness about their future, notwithstanding their position as Cabinet Ministers.”

A report from New Delhi on July 27, 1948, said: “Madras is not the only province in which arrests of Muslims for allegedly pro-Pakistan or pro-Hyderabad activities are going on: these have taken place on a considerable scale also in other provinces, notably the United Provinces and Central Provinces and Berar. While we have no evidence that any centrally inspired policy exists for the harassment of Muslims in India (indeed public pronouncements by Pandit Nehru, for example, have been all the other way), there can be little doubt that if the present tension over the Kashmir and Hyderabad issues continues or deteriorates it will furnish an excellent opportunity for the harassment of Muslims by communally minded subordinates, with or without the connivance of Provincial Ministers. Congress governments have in the past acquired a reputation for anti-Muslim activities: in the Central Provinces, for example, the Premier, Pandit Ravishanker Shukla, is known as a bigoted anti-Muslim and even prior to 15 August 1947, the position of Muslim government servants in that province was difficult.”

Punjab and Kashmir Even in 1948 Sikhs had begun to demand a Sikh State, as Shone informed London on May 19, 1948: “From time to time during the last two months Sikh leaders have been stressing the need for the delimitation of the boundaries of the East Punjab, in order to make it a Punjabi-speaking (and thus a preponderantly Sikh) Province.”

Predictably, Kashmir occupies a large part of the reportage. All were agreed that in a plebiscite Kashmiris would opt for Pakistan—British residents in Srinagar (page 178); Indians who spoke in confidence; a visiting British diplomat (ibid); two officials of the High Commission, after a visit (page 242); British and missionaries (page 303). Indira Gandhi was of the same view. Kashmir was never India’s emotionally; both distrusted each other.

In 1948 Nehru decided to renege on the plebiscite. A despatch records what Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, Secretary General of the Ministry of External Affairs, told Canada’s High Commissioner on June 28, 1948: “No Indian government could now afford to relinquish Kashmir in the face of public opinion and Bajpai appeared to think that the offer of a plebiscite might be withdrawn at least for the whole State. Mr Kearney gathered that the Indian government intended to hold firmly to the areas in which they were established, particularly valley of Srinagar and Jammu. If there were a plebiscite at all it could only be held by areas which would presumably result in some going to India and others to Pakistan. Bajpai had also apparently mentioned the independence of the State as a possible alternative.”

As for Sheikh Abdullah’s colleagues, Richard Symonds reported: “Almost all the members of the government both individually and in the groups had told the members of the U.N. [United Nations] party that they were in favour of an independent Kashmir. They were very apprehensive, however, lest their views might become known to the Indian government. On their return from Karachi the main U.N. Commission for India and Pakistan had been considering this possible solution, but almost all of them were very scared about it. The members of the Kashmir government had also told U.N. party that Sheikh Abdullah on behalf of the National Conference would be prepared to meet and talk with Ghulam Abbas on behalf of the Muslim Conference. Sheikh Abdullah himself and Afzul Beg (the Revenue Minister and a comparative moderate) were the prime movers in favour of this.”

Thus even in 1948 no Kashmiri supported accession to India. That included Sheikh Abdullah.

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