Partition came sixty years ago, accompanied by untold misery and bloodshed. Two questions have repeatedly been asked since then: (1) was it inevitable and (2) was the bloodshed that accompanied it avoidable? While the first question has been answered in many ways, the second question has seldom been answered, even if raised several times.
I am a victim of partition. I was twelve then. This question has since haunted me. My studies have convinced me that much of the blood that spilled was avoidable if the leaders of the Congress and League variety had been more sagacious and Mountbatten had acted with less vanity and a little more prudence.
After the June 2, 1947 decision on partition, the leaders of the two main Indian parties drifted apart. The Congress considered Jinnah insufferable and the latter the Congress leaders obstinate and obdurate. The meetings of the Partition Council on which sat leaders like Jinnah, Liaquat, Patel and Rajendra Prasad became mud-slinging battles. For the rioting and bloodshed taking place then, they blamed the British administration.
When the Viceroy told the Punjab Governor Jenkins of the Indian leaders’ concerns about communal rioting in the province, Jenkins shot back that if they were indeed sincere about controlling the riots, they would better issue orders to their local units to cease rioting than complaining.
As for the Viceroy, where was the need to rush the partition through? The British Government, on February 17, 1947 had set June 30, 1948 as the target date for the transfer of power. The June 2 Plan approved by the British Cabinet envisaged a two pronged strategy. While unfolding the Plan to the Indian leaders, the Viceroy said: “…the British owed to the Indians, to give them all the help which they required after the transfer of power. This could only be done if it were arranged that the transfer should take place not only before June 30, 1948 but also as long before that date as possible”.
This terse statement of far-reaching consequences was fortified with an assurance that the British assistance would “not be withdrawn prematurely if it was still required,” and that it was the British Government’s duty to continue to help, not to rule India.”
On June 11, London informed the Chief of Staff of the Viceroy, Lord Ismay, that the draft of the “Indian Dominion Bill”, under preparation would include an enabling provision to give the Governor General certain reserve powers, to be exercised without the advice of the Council of Ministers for a certain period after the establishment of the two dominions. In the interest of smooth transfer of power, the idea was to first create two dominions under a common Governor General with certain reserve powers and, finally, before or on June 30, 1948, withdraw the Governor General.
If only this plan had been implemented sincerely, the responsibility for law and order and the control of the armed forces would have remained with the central authority. The British troops, still available along with the large body of the Indian Army under one authority, would have been a formidable instrument to maintain law and order. The abrupt withdrawal led to power vacuum and the goons and lumpens had a free run.
The original plan would have provided the much needed time to the people to decide their future and given a chance to the two dominion governments to sort out their differences and establish a relationship of trust and confidence.
Why did it not happen? There were several reasons. Firstly, the British Government was so convinced of the Viceroy’s all pervading influence on the Indian leaders that it ceased to question his judgement. Secondly, the success attending the acceptance of the Partition plan by the Indian leaders made Mountbatten overconfident. He vetoed the two proposals of London without consulting the Indian leaders. He was confident that both the new dominions would be glad to offer him the job of common Governor General. That Jinnah frustrated him is another story. It is an irony of history that the British Government wasn’t shaken out of its complacency when Jinnah refused to accept the Viceroy as the common Governor General.
Thirdly, Mountbatten hurried the date for the transfer of power to August 15, a date which coincided with the date of his appointment as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in the Southeast Asian theatre during the Second World War and also the date the Japanese accepted the surrender terms to end the war in Asia.
Fourthly, Indian leaders of both parties were in a tearing hurry to see the back of the British. Jinnah knew and others did not, that he would not live long. The Congress leaders, reconciled to the reality of partition, did not wish to wait any longer. Lastly, Mahatma Gandhi had been marginalised.
No wonder some called it partition, some freedom.
The writer is a former director in the Ministry of External Affairs, and author of Some Called It Partition, Some Freedom.