Partition of India: One US Diplomat’s Notes

A refugee special train at Ambala Station.

August 10, 2019 B.Z. Khasru

  • Was Jinnah Hindu?
  • U.S. Favored United Indi.
  • Muslim League Distrusted Congress.
  • How Nehru Could Prevent Partition.

The Partition of India in 1947 by Britain to create two independent countries wreaked havoc in human lives and miseries. It killed two million people, according to various estimates, and displaced 14 million. Its legacy, the two siblings of the midnight — nuclear-armed Pakistan and India — are still at loggerheads. Was this inevitable?

An answer comes from an examination of the major factors that led to this fateful outcome. Apart from intricate socio-economic and political reasons, one thing that contributed heavily to the division was mutual distrust of the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League. Congress leaders Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel both doubted the sincerity of their League counterparts Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan. Likewise, Jinnah and Liaquat never trusted Nehru and Patel.

U.S. diplomatic cables from New Delhi on conversations with these leaders during a crucial phase in India’s freedom struggle give an interesting insight into what was behind the tragedy. One such cable came to the State Department on 14 December 1946 from Charge d’Affaires George Merrell, then the highest-ranking American diplomat in India, who reported his talk with Nehru the night before. He interestingly noted that Nehru in his remarks painted Jinnah as a Hindu and identified himself more closely with Muslims.

Jawaharlal Nehru (14 November 1889 – 27 May 1964) was an Indian independence activist, and subsequently, the first Prime Minister of India and a central figure in Indian politics before and after independence. He emerged as an eminent leader of the Indian independence movement under the tutelage of Mahatma Gandhi and served India as Prime Minister from its establishment as an independent nation in 1947 until his death in 1964. He has been described by the Amar Chitra Katha as the architect of India. He was also known as Pandit Nehru due to his roots with the Kashmiri Pandit community while Indian children knew him as Chacha Nehru (Hindi, lit., “Uncle Nehru”).

The United States pushed Britain to leave India soon after London had become weak following World War II. Washington worried that if the British prolonged their rule through repression, Indians might become radicalized. America wanted to keep India united, too. The Soviet Union, on the contrary, supported India’s partition in an attempt to create multiple entry points to spread communism.

Was Jinnah Hindu?

Nehru “embarked on restrained but lengthy attack on Jinnah who he said had Hindu background and lived according to Hindu law, Nehru himself being imbued with more Muslim culture, linguistically and in other ways, than Jinnah,” Merrell wrote.

On the issue of Pakistan’s creation, Nehru was baffled by Jinnah’s posture. Congress had endeavored to learn what Jinnah wanted, but had never been able to receive satisfactory replies. Jinnah had never even adequately defined Pakistan. Nehru believed that Jinnah might have sought some change, but did not want a democratic government. Nehru’s reasoning was based on the assumption that prominent Leaguers were landholders, so they preferred to continue under antiquated land laws— British rule.

The British, on the contrary, believed that Jinnah initially embraced the Pakistan idea primarily for bargaining purposes, but by the mid-1940s the movement had gained such momentum that neither he nor anyone else could apply the brakes. Still, had Nehru accepted Jinnah’s demand for parity in the federal legislature and regional groupings as outlined in the British Cabinet Mission plan, India would have possibly remained united. He could have served India better by following the policy President Abraham Lincoln adopted during the American Civil War:

“I would save the Union’… If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it. …What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union,” Lincoln wrote in an open letter to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, which appeared in the newspaper on 25 August 1862.

Likewise, Nehru’s mantra should have been, “I would keep India united ..I would do whatever it takes to keep India united….”

The crux of the internal problem that India faced before the partition stemmed from differences of opinion between Congress and League as to the conditions under which provinces would join or remain out of sub-federations in northwest and northeast India.

U.S. Favored United India

“I am confident that if the Indian leaders show the magnanimous spirit the occasion demands, they can go forward together on the basis of the clear provisions on this point contained in the constitutional plan proposed by the British Cabinet Mission last spring to forge an Indian federal union in which all elements of the population have ample scope to achieve their legitimate political and economic aspirations,” Merrell wrote to Washington.

Britain wanted the two major political parties to jointly frame India’s constitution as a prelude to independence. This idea resulted from the British Cabinet Mission to India in 1946. The mission proposed a united India, having groupings of Muslim-majority provinces and that of Hindu-majority provinces. These groupings would have given Hindus and Muslims parity in the Central Legislature. Congress abhorred the idea, and League refused to accept any changes to this plan. The parity that Congress was loath to accept formed the basis of Muslim demands of political safeguards built into post-British Indian laws to prevent absolute rule of Hindus over Muslims. Reaching an impasse, the British proposed an alternative plan on 16 June 1946. This plan arranged for India to be divided into a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan.

Did Nehru Foresee Carnage?

This resulted in unprecedented bloodbath and mass migration. In the riots in the Punjab region alone, as many as a half million people perished, and 14 million Sikhs and Muslims were displaced.

No one knows for sure whether Nehru anticipated this carnage. He should have known, though, because his comrade, Moulana A.K. Azad, had cautioned that if India were divided violence might follow. Nehru remained convinced that League would ultimately join the Constituent Assembly.

He, however, doubted that League would ever work constructively in a coalition government in free India. Congress never liked the Cabinet Mission proposal, but in the interest of a peaceful and fair settlement had formed the interim government. This decision was based on an understanding that League would cooperate, but League members said they joined the cabinet to fight. If they entered the Constituent Assembly, where Muslims held 73 seats against Congress’ 208, “it would be with the purpose of wrecking it,” Nehru vented.

One sticking point in the partition plan was the division of Bengal and Punjab. Regarding Bengal’s status, on 11 December 1946, Merrell talked with Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, an interim cabinet member and a favorite of both Nehru and M. K. Gandhi, India’s paramount independence leader. Rajagopalachari told the envoy that “Congress could not possibly agree to [the] interpretation of cabinet proposals which would inevitably place millions of Hindus under Muslim rule, particularly in [the] Bengal-Assam group.” Asked how the basis for a democratic government could be established as long as mutual distrust between Hindus and Muslims exemplified by this view persisted, Rajagopalachari evaded the issue.

How Nehru Could Prevent Partition

The United States favored India’s early emancipation and pushed Britain toward this end. Washington strove to persuade Nehru to accept the Cabinet Mission plan that envisaged a weak federal administration and strong regional governments for free India. Had Nehru accepted the British plan, he could have prevented India’s partition.

“We have found that a central [government] initially with limited powers gradually acquires, as experience demonstrates necessity therefor, the additional authority which it must have to meet problems of the Federal Union,” the State Department said in a message to Nehru. “Our hope that Congress accept clear implications Brit Cabinet Mission plan…on reciprocal undertaking by Muslim League to work loyally within [the] framework [of] Indian Federal Union, subject only to reopening constitutional issue after 10 years of experiment.”

The Muslim League was the original successor of the All-India Muslim League that led the Pakistan Movement achieving an independent nation. Five of the country’s Prime Ministers have been affiliated with this party, namely Liaquat Ali Khan, Khwaja Nazimuddin, M. A. Bogra, Chaudhry Muhammad Ali, and I. I. Chundrigar. The Muslim League was defeated in the 1955 elections to the Constituent Assembly by a political alliance known as the United Front. However Prime Minister C. M. Ali and Prime Minister Chundrigar were appointed to lead a minority government. The party was dissolved in 1958 after the declaration of Martial Law by General Muhammad Ayub Khan, the Commander-in-Chief of Pakistan Army.

Muslim League’s views on its difficulty with Congress were articulated by Liaquat Ali Khan during a discussion with Merrell on 27 December 1946. Muslims, Liaquat said, “would not agree to independence [from British rule] unless adequate safeguards for minorities were provided.”

He expressed grave doubts whether Congress would accommodate Muslims.

“Liaquat …discussed at length his conviction that Congress leaders have no intention of trying to work Cabinet mission plan conscientiously but are determined to seize power without regard for Muslim rights,” Merrell wrote.

Muslim League Distrusted Congress

As evidence of Nehru’s lack of interest in Congress-League cooperation, Liaquat pointed out that Asaf Ali was appointed India’s first ambassador to the United States without any consultation with League members of the interim government. Liaquat came to know about the appointment when he read press report in London. Asaf Ali, he said, did not command respect or confidence of Muslim Indians.

Furthermore, Liaquat added, as soon as League joined the interim government, he proposed two League representatives— Begum Shah Nawaz, a Punjab lawmaker, and Mirza Abol Hassan Ispahani, a Constituent Assembly member who later became Pakistan’s first ambassador to Washington—be appointed to the UN delegation. But Nehru refused on the ground that the number was limited to five and the appointment of these two would mean replacing the two who had already prepared themselves for work at the UN.

When League joined the interim government, Liaquat continued, he proposed that in the interest of efficiency and cooperation, questions concerning more than one department be discussed by ministers concerned prior to full cabinet meetings, regardless of whether these ministers were Congress or League members. Nehru again refused to agree on the ground it was preferable to thrash out all questions in full cabinet meetings. When Merrell asked whether all votes in cabinet meetings were along party lines, Liaquat answered in the affirmative.

In reply to a question from Merrell, Liaquat said he was convinced Gandhi had no desire for Hindu-Muslim cooperation, but was working for Hindu domination of India — to be attained through violence, if necessary. When the envoy further asked whether Liaquat believed Gandhi’s activities in East Bengal were a deliberate attempt to embarrass the Bengal government and to divert attention from Bihar, where communal violence had killed thousands of Muslims, he said “there was no question about it.”

Gandhi had gone to East Bengal on a mission to restore communal harmony after a series of massacres, rapes, abductions and forced conversions of Hindus as well as looting and arson of Hindu properties by Muslims in October–November 1946, a year before India won freedom from British rule. However, the peace mission failed to restore confidence among the survivors, who couldn’t be permanently rehabilitated in their villages. Meanwhile, Congress accepted India’s partition, and the peace mission and other relief camps were abandoned, making the bifurcation a permanent feature in South Asia.

The article appeared in the Communal News on 10 August 2019


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