1946: A fateful year

Published : Dec 07, 2007 00:00 IST

Collections of documents on various aspects of Indias struggle for freedom.

INDIA suffered in 1947 for the mistakes its leaders and the British rulers made in 1946. It won independence but was divided into two states whose feuds continue still, 60 years after Independence. Indias partition surely ranks as one of the great tragedies in human history. That is saying a lot. As Dr. B.R. Ambedkar reminded the leaders, Indias independence was inevitable, its federation was not. It had to be worked for, a task the leaders did worse than neg lect.

In a brilliant analysis, Ambedkar divided British rule into three stages:

The attitude of the British towards Indias claim for freedom has since the Mutiny of 1857 undergone a complete change. There was a time when the British government held the view which was a complete negation of Indias claim for freedom. It was proclaimed by Lawrence whose statue in Calcutta has the motto: The British conquered India by the sword and they will hold it by the sword. This attitude is dead and buried and it is no exaggeration to say that every Englishman today is ashamed of it. This stage was followed by another in which the argument of the British government against Indias freedom was the alleged incapacity of Indians for parliamentary institutions. It began with Lord Ripons regime which was followed by an attempt to give political training to Indians, first in the field of Local Self-Government, and then under the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms in the field of Provincial Government. We have now entered the third or the present stage. The British government is now ashamed to say that they will hold India by the sword. It no longer says that Indians have no capacity to run parliamentary institutions. The British government admits Indias right to freedom, even to independence, if Indians so desire. The British government admits the right of Indians to frame their own Constitution. There can be no greater proof of this new angle of vision than the Cripps Proposals. The condition precedent laid down by the British government for Indias freedom is that Indians must produce a Constitution which has the concurrence of the important elements in the national life of the country. Such is the state we have reached [in 1946]. (What Congress and Gandhi did to the Untouchables; Thacker; 1946; page 177).

Professor Sumit Sarkar, one of Indias most highly respected historians, has edited the volume on 1946 in the series Towards Freedom. Part I covers British India. Part II, yet to be published, will cover the princely states. Two earlier volumes dealt with the years 1943-44 and 1938. Expected before long are the ones for 1945, 1939 and 1940. These are collections of documents on various aspects of Indias struggle for freedom edited by historians of distinction. The series is a service to history.

In his General Editors Preface, Professor Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, a historian of high repute, narrates the genesis of the effort. The documents published by the British government, from 1970 to 1983, The Transfer of Power (1942-47) in 12 volumes, contain British records and reflect British insights. Indian communications do provide the Indian viewpoint. That is altogether different from documents by Indians themselves. Sarvepalli Gopal, the previous General Editor, wrote that the aim of the project was to present, within limits set by the sources, documents relating to the activities, attitudes and ideas of the diverse classes and sections of Indian society, all of which contributed to the attainment of Indian independence with partition.

This volume focusses on different domains economic, social and cultural. It excludes documents published in The Transfer of Power or the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru. The volume avoids exclusive preoccupation with high politics.

The General Editor gently mentions his reservations on the distribution of the work among editors on a purely chronological basis rather than a thematic division of labour. But the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), which launched the project nearly 20 years ago, had already decided on a chronological division of labour.

It may be recalled that during the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regimes tenure in office, a systematic effort was made to rewrite history and subvert the academia. The ICHR came under its sway, and it withdrew this volume from the publishers for its own reasons. No successor was appointed after Gopals death. The details of this censorship are set out in the General Editors Preface as well as in the Editors Introduction. The historians engaged in the project were subjected to a smear campaign.

Sumit Sarkar expresses in his Introduction his own views on 1946, its antecedents and aftermath and writes that he has tried to keep this collection distant from any political or historiographical bias though he is conscious of the fact that no selection can be entirely value free. He has worked hard at it for eight years without neglecting his duties as a teacher.

Sir Stafford Cripps

Sarkars disapproval of the Congress and the Muslim Leagues discouragement to the rebels in the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) mutiny is candidly expressed. Gandhi said on February 23, 1946: A combination between Hindus and Muslims and others for the purpose of violent action is unholy. In his view, it was a bad and unbecoming example for India. Aruna Asaf Ali disagreed. She said in a rejoinder it would be far easier to unite Hindus and the Muslims at the barricade than on the constitutional front. Sarkar agrees with this romanticised, thoughtless recipe and wishes we had radical mass actions forcing an unqualified imperial retreat. Under whose leadership, pray? His view that even in 1946 the British tried to cling to power is palpably wrong as Ambedkar realistically noted. The consequence of mass actions would have been violence and anarchy.

The effort at documentation is enormous. The documents are grouped under five broad heads anti-British protests and movements; political organisations; labour and peasants; communalism; economy and society. The section on communalism explains the BJP regimes ire: while not ignoring the Muslim League, the editor exposes the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) thoroughly. The volume provides invaluable source material for the events of 1946.

The latest volume of The Jinnah Papers includes material from The Transfer of Power volumes besides other documents from the archives, which are published in this volume for the first time. There are some very interesting documents. One correspondent, a Delhi lawyer, S.M. Rahman, wrote to Jinnah a year before Partition, on April 5, 1946, a long and angry letter. Parts of it were wild. But in some others he wrote sense.

Have you not seen all the Christian people in Europe having the same civilisation, religious faith and social customs, conflicting among themselves and cutting off each others head? How can you bring the theory of Islamic culture and religion in social unity as an excuse for Muslim separation from political unity? Do you think Muslims of NWFP [North-West Frontier Province] shall tolerate [the] culture of Punjabis or Sindhis or Bengalis or Assamese? Do you know that a Bengali Muslim shall think a Bengali Hindu nearer to his culture and habits than a Punjabi or Sindhi Muslim? Do you know Pakistan shall have as many nationalities and cultures as you claim about India? Every district of the Punjab has its own culture, customs and even the language that is spoken. Have you ever been to Kangra in the north and D.I. [Dera Ismail] Khan in the west and Ferozepore in the south and Karnal in the east of Punjab? What have you to say about their nationalities and cultures? How can it be possible that Hindus who have lived [for] millions of years in Pakistan-defined area, can ever start thinking that the name of their motherland (place of birth not only of theirs but that of their hundreds of forefathers), is Pakistan when they know well it [is] Bharat or Hindustan or India and they know it long before you got the new invention of Pakistan saying that there are two nations and countries [sic] in India.

Do you know that Hindus have started now taking very seriously the danger of your political stunt and that underground preparations are going on for a civil war to finish the Muslims? Do you know that so long as there is one Sikh in the Punjab, he will not allow it to be ruled by your majesty? He will take the full toll of yourself and your comrades in arms before you can reach the seat of your fascist govt. in the so-called Pakistan.

Cannot you think, how foolish it is to assume that the two zones of Pakistan Eastern and Western can ever have any connection with each other unless there is a corridor? You might be thinking, let you have the Pakistan conceded, and then you will again put [sic] Islam in danger and demand a corridor. You must know that once Pakistan is conceded, the Hindus are not going to sit calm and digest your Pakistan easily. With the creation of Pakistan there shall be permanent ending of Hindu-Muslim political inter-relationship. Hindus shall be far bitter in their feelings against the Muslims. Their resolve shall be to build military strength far more than that of Pakistan. Their natural development in science and industry shall be a net asset to them in achieving their success. The result will be that when your majesty raises the issue of a corridor, which you will and must, a clash will occur. The result is evident and that is the death of Muslim community. There were not a few thinking Muslims who opposed the partition of India.

Another correspondent from Calcutta (now Kolkata) pointed out that the two wings of Pakistan could not form one state and that Bengal would have to be partitioned into two parts. The Premier of Bengal, H.S. Suhrawardy, introduced the Jharkand leader Jaipal Singh to Jinnah as a supporter of the Muslim League.

A brutally frank letter of July 12, 1946, from Syed Ali Bux to Jinnah, after the latters disastrous meeting with the Nizam of Hyderabad, records Jinnahs clumsy and arrogant behaviour, for which the Nizam duly ticked him off. It also reveals Jinnahs reliance on people in the State who were not worthy of trust. Jinnah indiscreetly discussed matters with two such persons before meeting the Nizam. The letter was written while Jinnah was still in Hyderabad. It was a sincere attempt to bring about a compromise. It foreshadowed Jinnahs suicidal policy towards the princely states generally.

There are some interesting nuggets; for instance, Ambedkars request to Jinnah to persuade Ramkrishna Dalmia to donate at least Rs.3 lakh for the college he proposed to set up in Mumbai. The letter was written because Dalmia told Ambedkar that he would have to consult Jinnah in that matter.

The seeds of Jinnahs disastrous policy towards Kashmir were sowed in 1946. On May 23, 1946, Agha Shaukat Ali wrote to Jinnah from Srinagar mentioning Sheikh Abdullahs overtures to the Muslim Conference. The Congress was not pleased with his slogan Quit Kashmir, which alienated the Maharaja. The Muslim Conference was in a pathetic state. Jinnah simply had no policy worth the name. Pandit Prem Nath Bajaj also sought Jinnahs advice. Ironically, the League press in Lahore supported Sheikh Abdullah while Jinnah did not. In 1947 he expected the Maharaja to accede to Pakistan. Jinnah insisted that the decision on accession belonged to the ruler and not to the people as Nehru rightly asserted.

A long letter by Jinnahs staunch follower Shaukat Hayat Khan, dated July 11, 1947, should serve as an eye opener to Pakistanis. It was written after a trip to Kashmir only a month before Independence and bears quotation in extenso: I went underground to meet Ghulam Mohiuddin, their [the National Conferences] underground leader. He has achieved considerable amount of popularity. He is not at all averse to Pakistan but says he is handicapped by our silence. If, he says, a little sympathy was shown to them they would see that Pakistan issue is not decided upon adversely. They feel that the interests of thirty lakhs of your subjects were being sacrificed at the altar of Hyderabad and Bhopal. Though they understood that your moves have greater strategy in view on account of various repressions, they were impatient of delay and may be reluctant to make greater sacrifices required of them. It was suggested that even a little bit of sympathy from us, in the form of a statement for release of Abbas, Shaukat of the Muslim Conference, and Sheikh Abdullah of the National Conference, in addition to a recommendation for the grant of basic civil rights to the people would give an excuse for them to support Pakistan openly. They discounted the news of Abdullahs assurance to the Maharaja and said that he was in favour of a referendum. My impression was that this party is still most powerful and had the support of the intelligentsia. They had advantage of having a good many honest workers. I did not think that they were in the pay of the Congress.

The People: They are hounded, hunted and hungry. Officials are playing havoc into [sic] them. Each day they are being oppressed by illegal arrests and their food is being taken away under a system of most cruel taxation; and worst of all their women-folk every day are being molested with impunity. They are very bitter and look upon you as their saviour and are confident that you will rescue them.

They are curiously torn between two loyalties, one to Pakistan and the other to Abdullah. They are indeed bewildered. They pray for Pakistan and for the release of Abdullah in almost the same breath. If Abdullah fights against Pakistan it would be a very hard test for these poor people and God knows what the result is going to be. My impression, however, is that we will probably win (emphasis added throughout).

That was not to be. Jinnah rejected Mountbattens offer, at Lahore on November 1, 1947, of a plebiscite in all the three disputed states Kashmir, Junagadh and Hyderabad. He wanted Hyderabad excluded, a perverse idea India could not possibly accept. In truth, Jinnah wanted Kashmir and ignored Sheikh Abdullah while Nehru wanted Abdullah but ignored the people of Kashmir. We are paying for their mistakes still.

The documents on Jinnahs parleys with the Cabinet Mission show that on April 16, 1946, he was offered two alternatives the Pakistan of today and a Centre confined to defence, foreign affairs and communications. He preferred the latter. Jinnah was asked to give his own plan, which he did on May 12. It was for an all-India confederation not partition. He accepted the Missions Plan of May 16, 1946, which envisaged a federal India based on groups of provinces. It was wrecked by the Congress at the instance of Gandhi who demurred at the proposals from the very outset. Jinnah said in Nehrus presence on May 11 that if the Congress would agree to Groups of Provinces as desired by the Muslim League, he would seriously consider a Union.

Peter Clarkes biography of a member of the Mission, Stafford Cripps, narrated the story of the destruction of the last chance for preserving Indias unity (Cripps and Indias Partition; Frontline; August 2 and 16, 2002). He has now written a history of the last days of the British Empire as seen from London. The chapters on Palestine and India are particularly useful. Both were partitioned, but with a difference.

One difference was that it was demanded by a religious minority in India with the price to pay of receiving a moth-eaten Pakistan; whereas partition was demanded by a religious minority in Palestine with the evident ambition of leaving the moth-eaten fragments to the Arab majority.

At the end of a careful survey, Clarke concludes: The work of the Cabinet delegation in 1946, which has usually been derided, surely offered the Indian parties independence on the basis of a historic compromise which they would have to make themselves. It was, by definition, hardly the best solution in the eyes of either side; but each side needed to reconcile itself to a second-best solution if hasty partition and predictable bloodshed were to be avoided. Unfortunately, this is not how Gandhi, still the most powerful man in India, looked at the world. His failure to rise to the political challenge in 1946 emerges as the most significant missed opportunity in the whole story In the final months, Gandhis response was heroic on a personal moral level, but that need not blind us to the degree of his own responsibility for engendering this situation.

A tell-tale document in Sarkars collection exposes the Congress game. It was a letter by Vallabhbhai Patel in reply to Ambedkars memorandum of demands, which he wrote as a basis for a pact with the Congress. Patel cited difficulties. One of them, incredibly, was the grouping provisions of the Missions Plan, which he had helped to sabotage. Read this: For instance, the provincial Constitution will be settled by the sections and the Congress will not be in a majority in Sections B (NWFP, Balochistan, Punjab and Sindh) and C (Bengal and Assam). This was to fob off Ambedkar. For, to the League and the authors of the Plan, the Congress insisted that the provincial Constitution would be drafted by the province alone; not by the Section or Group. In December 1946, Gandhi said the Assamese would not be men but mannequins if they joined Section C (with Bengal).

Not Nehru alone by his famous outburst in July 1946 but the entire Congress rejected the Plan under Gandhis determined leadership.

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