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At the Stroke of the Midnight Hour


SWADDLED IN JUST a shawl and a dhoti, with a long thin arm clutching a long thin staff, Mahatma Gandhi had quickly become the most recognisable symbol of anti-colonial protest. His flimsy cottons epitomised the defenceless apostle of non-violence, his stout staff declared the unbending champion of national rights. But if it was the near-naked Gandhi who alerted the world to India’s struggle, it was Jawaharlal Nehru, always impeccable even in homespun, who alerted India to world struggle.

During a European tour in 1927 Nehru had attended the Congress of Oppressed Nationalities in Brussels, been elected to the executive committee of the League Against Imperialism and been invited to Moscow for the tenth-anniversary celebrations of the Russian Revolution. A socialist since his Cambridge days, he was already in close touch with the British Labour Party and looked a promising recruit to international Marxism. By making 1930 the year in which Congress ratcheted up its demand to full independence, then backed it with a new programme of civil disobedience, the brooding Nehru showed a keen awareness of how the international scene was changing.

Elsewhere in Asia the struggle against colonialism was also entering its final phase. Sukarno, another young leader of undoubted charisma, was challenging the Netherlands in their East Indies or, as he preferred, ‘Indonesia’. Like the Indian National Congress, the Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI) had lately gained enormous support by demanding full independence. When in 1930 Sukarno stood trial for incitement he used the occasion to deliver one of the keynote speeches of the age. ‘The sun does not rise because the cock crows,’ he declared, ‘the cock crows because the sun rises.’ Emancipation from colonial rule was historically inevitable, the awakening of Asia’s peoples an irresistible phenomenon, not an invention of their leaders. Nehru could not have put it better. On the banks of the Ravi outside Lahore he had saluted India’s new flag at the midnight hour on New Year’s Night 1930. The dawn of the decade presaged a dazzling era of liberation and fulfilment all over Asia. ‘We can just hear the promise it holds,’ Sukarno told his supporters, ‘like the melody of a distant gamelan on a moonlit night.’

In Manchuria it was already daybreak. The ‘Rising Sun’ flew over the start of a southward trail of Japanese acquisitions on the Asian mainland which would eventually engross Sukarno’s Indonesia and reach even Nehru’s India. Also in northern China and also in 1930, the first rehearsal for decolonisation took place when, with minimum publicity, the British hauled down the Union Jack at Weihaiwei, a coastal outpost sometimes known as ‘the other Hong Kong’. It was the first time since the American War of Independence that they had surrendered territory to a nationalist government. In the same year, in Hong Kong itself a group of Vietnamese exiles headed by Nguyen Ai Quoc founded the Indo-Chinese Communist Party. The party would eventually become the main component in the anti-French Viet Minh, and Nguyen Ai Quoc, after ten years underground, would re-emerge with the sobriquet of ‘Ho Chi Minh’.

A year of high hopes for nationalists, for the imperial powers 1930 was darkened by grave doubts about the whole world order which they represented. In Malaya recession so reduced the demand for rubber that indentured Tamil labourers were being repatriated to India and European plantation-managers were said to be begging their passage money home. India’s capitalists were also badly hit, with Bengal’s export-dependent jute industry a notable casualty. Nor were things any better in London and New York. The markets had crashed in 1929; in 1930 the Great Depression bit hard. Dance-halls became soup-kitchens and the streets of the industrialised world filled with the angry armies of the unemployed. Elected governments took heed. Social spending at home assumed a higher priority; and those who championed it, like the Labour Party in Britain, criticised global defence expenditure and warmed to the idea of imperial disengagement. Western capitalism was in crisis, and so too was the colonial system which (according to the imperialists) it supported, or which (according to the Marxists) supported it. Either way, after 1930 the Western empires in Asia began to back off. Gears crashed as the great imperial juggernauts of the nineteenth century shuddered into reverse. Within three decades, but for a bogged American vehicle in Vietnam, all would have pulled out of Asia.

Internationalists like Nehru itched to scale the barricades, but the other-worldly Gandhi seemed indifferent to the march of history and increasingly out of touch with these tumultuous times. For him, if 1920 had meant spinning, 1930 meant salt. Nehru was in despair. ‘Salt suddenly became a mysterious word, a word of power … We were bewildered and could not quite fit in a national struggle with common salt.’1 The Simon Commission had recommended no changes in the central government and had made no mention even of dominion status as demanded by the All Parties Convention and by a constitutional report prepared by Motilal Nehru. It seemed that even the drip-feed of concessions was drying up; hence the new Congress demand for full independence, orpurna swaraj, and the carte blanche given to Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru to implement another programme of action.

But first Gandhi made a final appeal direct to the viceroy Lord Irwin. He wanted the land revenue halved, the rupee pegged, alcohol prohibited, Indian cloth protected, the salt tax abolished, political prisoners released and much else besides. No one expected Irwin to deliver on such a package. The Mahatma, whose twinkle of compassion concealed a steely-eyed cunning, was testing the mass appeal of the weapons at his disposal. In late February 1930 he announced the winner, and therefore the focus of the new campaign, to be salt. Massive civil disobedience was to be launched in the name of man’s inalienable right to the untaxed enjoyment of a common condiment.

Salt had traditionally been produced in coastal salt-pans whence it was traded inland. Since at least Mughal times production had been regarded as a state monopoly and a suitable subject for taxation. In the eighteenth century, East India Company employees had claimed that Emperor Farrukhsiyar’s farman entitled them to exemption from local salt duties. By extending this exemption to their agents, they had acquired a monopoly of the salt trade in Bengal even before Plassey. Clive had reclaimed this monopoly for the Company itself and, ever since, the government had enjoyed a salt revenue. The rate of tax was low; Curzon had tried to reduce it further and, although recently increased, it still came to less than a quarter of a rupee per head per year. The yield accounted for no more than 4 percent of government revenue. But its application was wide; everyone ate salt. And it was deeply resented. As Gandhi explained, ‘there is no article like salt, outside water, by taxing which the state can reach even the starving millions, the sick, the maimed and the utterly helpless. The tax constitutes therefore the most inhuman poll tax the ingenuity of man can devise.’ Long a dispensable anachronism, it had suddenly become a deliberate iniquity; and since the salt monopoly had legal sanction, all who flouted it could expect to be prosecuted.

With this in mind, Gandhi assembled his followers, alerted the press, and in one of the great set-pieces of the independence struggle staged a month-long salt march from his Sabarmati ashram near Ahmadabad to Dandi on the Gujarat coast. There, ‘on 6 April 1930, by picking up a handful of salt, Gandhiji inaugurated the Civil Disobedience Movement, a movement that was to remain unsurpassed in the history of the Indian national movement for the country-wide mass participation which it unleashed.’2

Other marches were staged all over the country, from the north-west frontier to east Bengal and Tamil Nadu; some concentrated on industrial salt plants, where protesters in their thousands were beaten back by police and arrested. The government, pleasantly surprised that something as innocuous as the salt tax had been singled out, had at first responded cautiously. But active civil disobedience, as opposed to passive non-co-operation, directly challenged the law. As the movement spread to the non-payment of rents, of revenue and of taxes, distraints on land and property became commonplace and were bitterly contested. The movement also coincided with a startling revival of terrorist activity in places as far-flung as Chittagong and Peshawar. Less sensationally but much more effectively, there was mass participation in a host of non-violent activities like picketing liquor shops,swadeshi boycotts, commercial hartals, and rural satyagrahas (designed to contest forest restrictions). Jawaharlal Nehru later reckoned the number of those gaoled in 1930 at over ninety-two thousand (the official figure was nearer sixty thousand). He, Motilal, the rest of the Congress leadership and eventually Gandhi himself were amongst the detainees. Congress committees were declared unlawful, and special ordinances muzzled the press and restricted picketing.

However, the campaign was comparatively short-lived; it barely lasted into 1931 and, although revived in 1932–4, would never regain its full momentum. Moreover, if ‘primarily designed to strengthen and unite Indians [and] to influence them rather than in a direct way to weaken the administration’,3 its success was limited. Unlike the 1919–22 Rowlatt-Khilafat protests, the 1930–1 protests did not enjoy Muslim support. The common condiment proved to be of less universal appeal than Gandhi had hoped, and Muslims seemingly preferred to take the government’s salt to that of Congress. In fact in late 1930 Jinnah and other Muslim leaders were amongst those heading for London. There, as with the ‘Montford’ reforms in 1919–20, protest was lending urgency to a new cycle of constitutional discussion.

To offset the negative effect of the Simon Report, Viceroy Irwin had reinterpreted the goal of the ‘Montford’ reforms as eventual dominion status, and had proposed a Round Table Conference at which all parties and interests would be represented. Its discussions were not to be limited by the Simon Report. In fact the British hope was that it would lift critical Indian eyes from the contentious scrutiny of minor reforms to the nobler prospect of India’s future status and constitution as an autonomous member of, and dominion within, the British empire. In effect the participants were being invited to forget the trees and, standing back, to map out the shape of the whole wood.

Congress, with most of its leading lights in gaol, declined to participate; it regarded dominion status as an unacceptable alternative to purna swaraj, and would remain deeply suspicious of all else that emerged from the Round Table Conference. The first session was thus, as Gandhi put it, much like Hamlet without the prince. But when the conference reconvened for its second session in 1931, Gandhi had undergone another of his sudden changes of heart. Following personal discussions with the viceroy – which prompted a piqued Winston Churchill to sneer at the King-Emperor’s representative stooping to parley with a ‘half-naked fakir’ – Gandhi and Irwin had signed a pact which brought the release of detainees and other concessions. Gandhi now trusted Irwin and was ready to join the Round Table Conference when it reconvened in late 1931.

The first session had been attended by representatives of various Muslim parties including the League, and by those of the Hindu revivalist Mahasabha, the Sikh and Christian communities, the Harijans, the Anglo-Indians, various liberal nationalists, numerous professional groups and a strong contingent of British parliamentarians. It was an impressive cast even without the prince. There were, besides, other princes, plus a veritable army of Round Table knights. For it was at this point that representatives of India’s princely states, most of whom held honours from the British Crown as well as Indian titles, were for the first time brought into the constitutional equation – and thereby greatly complicated it.


Hyderabad, Jammu-and-Kashmir, Mysore, Travancore, the great Maratha states of central India, the phalanx of rajput states in Rajasthan, and the other princely archipelagos in Gujarat, Orissa, Bengal, Assam, UP and the Panjab were united only in their relationship with the imperial government. Like the vassal states of old they represented that ‘society of kings’ which had legitimised and gratified the pretensions of more traditional imperialisms. But together they still accounted for over a third of the subcontinent’s population and nearly half of its land-mass. An India without them would have been so moth-eaten as to disintegrate at the touch.

So long as the British ruled the provinces which constituted the rest of India directly, it had hardly mattered that the princely states enjoyed internal autonomy, since they were subject to individual treaties with the British, to supervision by a political cadre of British officials, and to a vague doctrine of British paramountcy. But once the British began to devolve power to their provinces, to share it at the centre, and even to consider transferring it altogether, the anxieties of the princely states became acute. Would they become free agents if the British withdrew? Or would the British continue to uphold their treaty responsibilities after ceding power? Was paramountcy also transferable? And would its likely claimant, an increasingly left-wing Congress, be disposed to safeguard the autonomy, the territorial integrity and the dynastic rights of unregenerated feudal autocrats with a poor record for social justice and a far from hostile attitude to the British?

In February 1931, at the height of the London talks, the British formally inaugurated their New Delhi capital. As a last imperial extravaganza, it smothered in bungalows and bougainvillaea the wasteland between Shah Jahan’s metropolis and the bat-infested battlements of all those other old Delhis. It also embodied the imperial thinking of the day. At the ceremonial heart of the city, on a ruddy acropolis atop Raisina Hill, flanked by Herbert Baker’s classical secretariats and the domed temple of Edwin Lutyens’ Viceregal House, there had been erected four columns representing Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The columns supposedly welcomed India into the brotherhood of the British dominions. But it was noteworthy that each of these dominions comprised a federation of various provinces and protectorates which had subscribed to a single central government. For India’s patchwork of provinces and princely states, federation also looked to be the way forward.

To progressive sections of British opinion and to moderate sections of Indian opinion, federation also appealed as a way of opening up central government (as opposed to the provincial governments) to greater Indian participation. When, unexpectedly, the idea also found favour with a majority of the princes, federal proposals suddenly soared like the Raisina columns to the top of the Round Table’s agenda. But they were not to everyone’s taste. By diehard imperialists like Churchill any infringement of British sovereignty, federal or otherwise, had to be resisted; they would fight federation tooth and nail. So would most sections of Congress, which saw in it an attempt not to unite British India with the princely states but rather to divide – and, of course, rule – an emerging entity which transcended both British and princely India, namely the Indian nation.

Nor were such suspicions unjustified. For if the central government became a federal government representing both the provinces and the princely states, the British might expect to play a lasting supervisory role. The princes would continue to look to the British authorities for support against any encroachment on their autonomy. And with this support, plus that of the minorities (Muslims, Sikhs, etc.), the British would be able to command a majority at the federal centre. Given such a scenario, the arrangements whereby defence and foreign affairs were to remain under British control during a transitional period might be prolonged indefinitely; likewise a residual British presence which would ensure to the empire the services of the Indian army at minimal cost might also be preserved indefinitely. In short, federation, though a highway to integration and independence elsewhere, might in India become a congested thoroughfare leading to the exact opposite – disintegration and continued dependence.

Compared to this contentious prospect, the other vista opened during the Round Table discussions and incorporated into the monumental Government of India Act of 1935 was comparatively uncontroversial. Yet because federation would never actually be implemented, it would be much the most significant part of the Act; and it would have a considerable bearing on the Partition of 1947 and on the different constitutions of the two states that resulted.

As a package of reforms which advanced the long-running process of Indianisation and democratisation in the provincial assemblies, this other component of the 1935 India Act looked unexciting. But in effect it made the provinces autonomous. The franchise, although still restricted by property and gender criteria, was increased from seven million to about thirty-five million, or one-sixth of the potential adult suffrage; the number of provinces was also increased, with Sind being separated from Bombay and Orissa from Bihar; and all the provincial assemblies were reorganised and their memberships greatly enlarged so that elected Indian representatives could command majorities and form governments. Many subjects remained the preserve of the central government, and some important powers of intervention and supersession remained reserved to the mostly British governors. But from 1937, when the first elections under this scheme were held, the provincial governments of British India were no longer necessarily run by the British.Swaraj, or self-rule, while being withheld in Delhi, was thus being conceded in Lucknow, Calcutta, Karachi, Bombay and the other provincial capitals. In effect the provinces, with their elected Indian assemblies, were being schooled as legitimate components in a federation and as contenders in any eventual transfer of British sovereignty. This had enormous implications. It served the British purpose of a gradualist retreat; nationalist energies would be dissipated, and nationalist opinion divided, in the free-for-all of provincial politics. But it also raised the spectre of provincial devolution, leading to the possible fragmentation of British India and its as yet unthinkable partition.

Nehru perceptively characterised the 1935 India Act as ‘a new charter of slavery’; it was, after all, a long way short of purna swaraj. He embraced the opportunity of the 1937 elections to show the strength of Congress but expected all those elected to resign as a protest. With much the best organisation Congress duly swept the polls, capturing 70 per cent of the popular vote and, despite the system of separate electorates, nearly half of all seats. Then, after much heart-searching, indeed a near-thrombosis, and in contravention of Nehru’s wishes, the party’s leaders reluctantly agreed to let its successful candidates participate in government.

The agreeable business of allocating ministries and rewarding supporters was readily embraced. In every province, elected Indian members now formed Indian governments, appointed Indian ministers, and legislated in Indian interests. ‘The province became the most important arena in political life,’ and, more than ever, provincial leadership and identity became entrenched components of national politics. In the run-up to Independence, and thereafter when the provinces became the component states of independent India and the constituent provinces of Pakistan, this would ‘affect profoundly the nature of all-India [and all-Pakistan] “national” leadership and power’.4 Against well-organised and intransigent provincial leaderships even a Congress-run national government would not be able to make much headway.

In 1937 seven of the now eleven provinces ended up with Congress governments. The outstanding exceptions were Bengal and the Panjab, both with slim Muslim majority populations and both future subjects of partition. But there the similarity ended. In Bengal a predominantly Muslim government was formed. For the first time Calcutta’s influential, English-speaking Hindu bhadralok, the landed ‘gentlemen’ or ‘babus’ who had made so much of the running in the early days of Congress, experienced the harsh realities of democracy and found themselves out in the cold. They condemned the system of separate minority electorates which had made their electoral chances even more hopeless, then they increasingly turned on those whom they saw as the main beneficiaries, the Muslims. Thus, ‘while the rest of nationalist India was rejecting the “autonomy” outlined in the Government’s White Paper as a sham, the Bengali bhadralok – Congress-men and non-Congress-men alike – were concerned only with its disregard of their own provincial political ambitions.’5 Having pilloried the system of separate electorates as a ‘shameless surrender to [Muslim] communalists’, they now shamelessly demanded just such a surrender to Hindu communalism by insisting that, as a minority, they too were entitled to electoral safeguards.

There was, though, another way: the political arithmetic could be revised by changing the units to which it applied. Curzon’s partition of Bengal, against which the bhadralok had fought so successfully in 1905, began to look less ‘utterly contemptuous of public opinion’.

In the Panjab, landed interests were also vocal but, instead of sundering the different communities, they actually cemented sectarian relations. Under the aegis of a Unionist Party, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs all participated in government together. British dependence on the Panjab’s agricultural communities for three-fifths of its army recruitment, plus the availability and potential of newly irrigated land there, had created a markedly prosperous province in which the agriculturalist enjoyed a privileged position. Whether Hindu, Sikh or Muslim, his main interest was in protecting this position, particularly against the encroachment of urban money-leaders. The principal division was thus not between Muslim and Sikh or Hindu, but between landed interests and commercial interests. Legislation which afforded the landowner security against the alienation of his land and which ensured that the agricultural vote was maximised had ‘institutionalised the political division between the rural and urban populations’, and now provided the Unionist Party with its ideology.6

In 1937 the Unionist Party won well over half the seats in the Panjab, and neither Congress nor the Muslim League gained a significant foothold. In striking contrast to Bengal, the Panjab thus looked a most improbable candidate for sectarian partition, let alone for its later tripartite reincarnation as a hotbed of Hindu communalism (Haryana), a stronghold of Sikh separatism (Indian Panjab) and the cornerstone of an Islamic state (Pakistani Panjab).

Other ambiguities haunted the new constitutional set-up. The system of separate electorates for the minority communities was bitterly contested in principle by Congress and in its details by almost everyone. Gandhi had taken particular exception to Harijans being considered a non-Hindu community and embarked on a fast to get their agreement to the removal of this provision. He succeeded; separate Harijan electorates were abolished but more seats were reserved exclusively for Harijan members. The ‘Commimal Awards’ which enumerated the seats reserved for the other separate electorates were decided by the British, no agreed scheme being forthcoming from Indian sources. Naturally this endeared the awards to no one. In Bengal the provincial Congress, representing the disillusioned Hindu bhadralok, very nearly split away from the national Congress as firebrands like Subhas Chandra Bose demanded direct action against the awards. This would have alienated the substantial Muslim support which Congress still enjoyed nationally, and was therefore unacceptable to the central leadership.

Far more serious was the fate of the federation. It was to have come into operation as soon as a majority of the princes had signed Instruments of Accession. But partly because of lobbying by diehard empire dinosaurs like Churchill, and partly thanks to the intense rivalries amongst the princes themselves, the process was delayed. In the interim the princes began to have second thoughts. Some were worried about the financial implications of federation, others about the continuation of paramountcy. But what made them dig in their heels most was Congress triumphalism following the 1937 elections.

Congress’s national leadership had hitherto discouraged the party’s involvement in the princely states. But its provincial leaders, many of them now in government, were not so particular. In arguments redolent of those used by Dalhousie to support British annexations in the 1850s, they stigmatised princely rule as a corrupt anachronism. How could they remain deaf to the unenfranchised plight of close colleagues and neighbours who happened to live under such autocratic dispensations? Financial and organisational support was offered to populist movements in the states; activists and agitators were allowed to drift across state borders. Suddenly, unexpected demands for more accountable government and more popular representation brought disturbances in Kashmir, Hyderabad, Mysore and elsewhere. Where a Hindu prince ruled a predominantly Muslim state, as in Kashmir – or vice versa as in Hyderabad – the situation was exacerbated by sectarian tension. Not surprisingly nawabs and nizams, rajas and maharajas alike took fright. If provincial Congress governments could so threaten their prerogatives, what chance would they stand against a Congress-dominated federal government?

Congress-men saw it rather differently. Under a federation the two central chambers were to be indirectly elected, candidates being chosen by the provincial assemblies (in the case of British India) and by the princes (in the case of the states). Congress had done well enough in the 1937 elections to look forward to a substantial bloc of seats under this arrangement. It would, however, only be able to achieve a governing majority if it also commanded some of the seats allocated to the princes. This in turn would only be possible if some of the princes could be pressured into sending candidates who enjoyed a popular mandate. ‘Here, then, I would argue,’ writes Ian Copland in a detailed study of princely attitudes, ‘was the crux of [Congress’s] new strategy in the states: to pressure the princes into returning only popularly elected representatives … to the federal legislature.’7

If the princes were thus panicked out of their support for federation, so too were Muslims. The attitude of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League to the new constitution had at first been equivocal: as nationalists they condemned it as falling short of independence, while as a minority they were tempted by its apparent safeguards. But in 1938, as Congress pressure on the princely states mounted and as Congress governments in the provinces rejected Muslim overtures for power-sharing, Jinnah too foresaw the danger of a ‘Congress Raj’ at the federal centre. Accusations of Hindu discrimination against Muslims in the already Congress-run provinces were probably much exaggerated, but they received wide publicity. To the call of ‘Islam in Danger’ the League began a drive for the mass support which had hitherto eluded it. Bengal’s governing Muslim party joined the League, most of UP’s Muslims did likewise, and in the Panjab the first cracks began to appear in the Unionist Party consensus. The League’s claim to represent the majority of Muslims at last began to acquire some substance.

With the princes and the Muslims, supposedly the beneficiaries of federation, now backing off, the scheme was probably doomed; the outbreak of the Second World War merely gave it a plausible burial. As well as polarising communal opinion and leaving the princes in the constitutional wilderness, the federation débâcle had also left its mark on Congress. In accepting power in the provinces, Congress-men had soon found themselves having to compromise on some of their principles. Plans for agrarian reform were diluted and links with the trade unions were strained by loyalties to industrialists, like the Tata and Birla families, who had substantially funded Congress. The responsibility for law and order meant a more cautious approach to radical causes. ‘A steady shift to the Right, occasionally veiled by Left rhetoric, increasingly characterised the functioning of the Congress ministries as well as of the party High Command.’ Even Nehru, whom the British regarded as little better than a communist, ‘increasingly sought in internationalist gestures [like a trip to war-torn Spain] a kind of surrogate for effective Left action at home’.8

The resulting discontent in the socialist and communist wings of Congress provided the radical Bengali leader, Subhas Chandra Bose, with his chance. A vehement bhadralok opponent of the entire 1935 constitution, in 1938 he secured re-election as Congress president on a platform of uncompromising opposition to the new constitution, to the communal awards and in particular to the federation. Congress was to withdraw its collaboration in the provinces and a new wave of satyagraha was to be launched in support of immediate independence. Gandhi had virtually retired from Congress in 1934, but, deeply distrustful of Bose, he again returned to the fray and, with the support of Nehru and others, engineered Bose’s downfall in 1939. Bose, or ‘Netaji’ (‘Leader’) as he would soon be known, responded by setting up a radical party known as the Forward Bloc and espousing terrorist tactics. In 1940 he was arrested. He escaped on the eve of his trial, fled to Afghanistan and thence to Moscow and Berlin.

It was under Tokyo’s auspices that Bose would surfaced, literally, when he landed from a submarine in Japanese-held Singapore in 1943. Like Sukarno in Indonesia, and despite the same left-wing reservations, Bose admired Japan’s disciplined and defiant emergence as a world power and was encouraged by her championship of Asian emancipation and of regional co-prosperity. Forced to choose between two imperialisms, he plumped for what looked at the time to be the more amenable and dynamic.

By late 1943 he was installed on Indian soil as the head of state in Azad Hind (‘Free India’) and commander-in-chief of the Indian National Army (INA), a twenty-thousand-strong force recruited from Indian prisoners of war in Japanese hands. Azad Hind comprised just the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, they being the only Indian territory under Japanese occupation. Previously the Andamans had served as a British detention centre for those convicted of political crimes. Ironically, after an odyssey of some twenty thousand kilometres, Bose had ended up exactly where he would have been sent had he never fled India.


India entered the Second World War much as it had the First. Without consultation, let alone consent, the viceroy simply informed its people that they were at war. The response, though, was less ‘heart-warming’ than on the previous occasion. As well as telegrams of support and a rush to the recruiting stations, there was a howl of protest and, in late 1939, a mass Congress exodus from provincial government. In those provinces where Congress had formed an administration the boycott cleared the way for direct British rule and for the rapid imposition of wartime restrictions. Elsewhere the princes breathed a sigh of relief while the Muslim League provocatively declared a Day of Deliverance from the oppression of ‘Congress Raj’.

The Muslim League would be one of the few beneficiaries of Nazi aggression. As Jinnah would later put it, ‘the war which nobody welcomed proved to be a blessing in disguise.’ It would enable the League to make good its claim to represent the majority of Muslims and Jinnah, its leader since 1936, to make good his claim to a principal role in the transference of power. Although lacking the charm of Nehru, let alone the fire of Bose or the popular appeal of Gandhi, Jinnah possessed a formidable mind in which intimidating resolve combined with unequalled skills as a tactician. No leader of the twentieth century has a greater claim to have fathered a nation. Schooled in the adversarial techniques of the bar and, as a Bombay Ismaili, comparatively unencumbered by the taboos and concerns of more orthodox Muslims, he soared above both colleagues and adversaries, a lofty and awesome figure immaculately suited for direction rather than incitement. But when he stooped to strike, he did so with effect. Choosing a date and a venue calculated to point up the failure of Nehru’s 1930 proclamation of purna swaraj, in early 1940 also in Lahore he secured the League’s endorsement of a very different resolution which changed the whole substance of the independence debate.

Although known as the ‘Pakistan Resolution’, the Lahore text made no mention of ‘Partition’ or ‘Pakistan’ as such. The term was still an academic fiction. It had first been adopted by a group of Muslims at Cambridge in the early 1930s as a wishful acronym for a greater Muslim homeland consisting of P(unjab), A(fghania, i.e. the North-West Frontier), K(ashmir), I(ran), S(ind), T(urkharistan), A(fghanistan) and (Baluchista)N. It also meant, according to its inventor, ‘the land of the paks – the spiritually pure and clean’. Since there was no ‘B’ for Bengal in ‘PAKISTAN’ it was presumably in this latter sense that it was subsequently applied to the Lahore Resolution.

The Resolution itself stemmed from a shuffing of various constitutional proposals evolved by Muslims anxious about the federation proposal and unhappy with the experience of provincial Congress government, or ‘Hindu Raj’. Some of these proposals included a Muslim homeland in the south (an ‘Usmanistan’ based on the nizam’s Hyderabad) as well as homelands in the north-west and the east. But the final Resolution was both more realistic and more vague. In recognition of the fact that Muslims represented a separate ‘nation’ it called for a constitution whereby ‘areas in which Muslims are numerically in a majority, as in the North-Western and Eastern zones of India, should be grouped to constitute “Independent States” in which the constituent elements shall be autonomous and sovereign.’

Whether these ‘states’ were to be linked in a federation, either with one another or with the rest of India, was left unclear. Bengalis who eventually found themselves in East Pakistan could thus reasonably claim that under the terms of the Lahore Resolution they should have been independent. Also unclear was the geography of the ‘areas’ and ‘zones’ to be so ‘grouped’. Existing provinces were not mentioned by name, partly because the League could as yet lay no claim to overwhelming support in any of them, and partly because Jinnah was keeping his options open. Indeed it may be that the whole Resolution represented a tactical ploy or, as the viceroy thought, ‘a bargaining position’. It would soon become something much less negotiable, but the hint of a separate Muslim sovereignty certainly had the effect of uniting Muslims behind the League and significantly empowering Jinnah in his negotiations with the Congress leadership and the British.

British attitudes were now heavily conditioned by the war effort. To secure India’s military support and its political acquiescence, initiatives and incentives came thick and fast. Schemes for party representation in the central government and in the conduct of the war, as well as offers of a constituent assembly and dominion status, climaxed with a mission by Sir Stafford Cripps in March 1942. By then Singapore had fallen, 100,000 imperial troops, mostly Indian, were in Japanese detention, and Japanese forces were rapidly advancing through Burma on India itself. It was a moment for closing ranks, for the bold gesture and the magnanimous response. The Cripps Mission, brainchild of the Labour leader Clement Attlee and headed by a man known to be sympathetic to Indian independence, was seen by the British as just such a move. To previous offers it added a clear pledge, as soon as the war was over, of a dominion status which, as recently redefined, amounted to full independence.

Two years earlier such terms might have been welcomed. But, as so often in the past, London was advancing what India already banked on. By now the issue was not so much independence, or even when, but whose; and in this the Cripps offer was deeply disappointing. Gandhi mischievously likened it to a post-dated cheque on a failing bank. But the real problem lay not with the bank or the date but the name of the payee. For the Cripps offer, like all the others, betrayed a British willingness to appease Muslim nationalism, princely autonomy and provincial aspirations by endorsing the possibility that some provinces and states might eventually secede. This was still anathema to all shades of Congress opinion. It challenged the idea of a single and indivisible Indian nation on which Congress’s demands for independence had always rested; it contradicted the idea of Congress as a secular party representing all of India’s communities and transcending all religious differ-’ ences; and it cast doubt on the primacy of democratic representation on which both the national consensus and Congress’s supremacy relied.

‘It is possible, though by no means certain, that if from the outset the British had made it clear that they would never countenance the partition of India, the demand for Pakistan would have been dropped.’9 Like many other British Indian officials, Penderel Moon, himself a key figure in the Partition saga, would see the break-up of India not just as a colossal human tragedy but as an enduring political tragedy. Had Linlithgow, the wartime viceroy, been less ‘casual’ about the demand, and had he tried ‘to heal the breach between Congress and the League’, Jinnah might have been forced to compromise. But the priority for Linlithgow, as for all his beleaguered countrymen, was the war. Post-imperial strategies were an indulgence which the desperate battle for survival, in Asia as in Europe, as yet precluded. Confronting Jinnah over Pakistan and so inviting the League’s hostility at a time when Congress was already refusing to co-operate with the war effort was unthinkable. It could in fact be argued that it was Congress which badly miscalculated; by withholding its support for the war, indeed endeavouring to exploit Britain’s wartime predicament, it practically obliged the British to play along with the Pakistan idea.

Personally both Gandhi and Nehru wished the Allies well. But to Gandhi the pacifist all wars were anathema; and to Nehru the socialist, this particular war between rival imperialisms should never have involved India. Prior to the Cripps Mission a limited form of anti-war protest had already landed Nehru and some twenty thousand other satyagrahis in gaol. They had since been released but, after the disappointment of the Cripps Mission, and at a time when the first Japanese bombs were falling on Indian installations, Gandhi in particular lost patience. Arguing first that only immediate British withdrawal and a declaration of Indian neutrality could save India from Japanese attack, then that only immediate independence would ensure whole-hearted resistance to the Japanese, he secured support for what he called a final ‘do or die’ challenge to British rule.

It was, of course, to be non-violent, but his pre-emptive arrest, and that of other Congress leaders, in August Itwas,ofcourse,tobenon-violent,buthispre-emptivearrest,and 1942 made this ‘Quit India’ movement a more random, spontaneous and violent outburst than any of its predecessors. As well as strikes and boycotts, telegraph and railway lines were sabotaged, police and railway stations blown up, and in large areas of Bihar and eastern UP the government temporarily ceased to function. Viceroy Linlithgow reckoned it ‘the most serious rebellion since 1857’. Given the wartime paranoia, he ordered massive repression, which involved the deployment of tens of thousands of troops, a like number of arrests and perhaps a thousand deaths.

Although the worst violence was all over within a matter of weeks, and although a few misty-eyed imperialists like Churchill and Linlithgow were thereby confirmed in the belief that Britain still had a vital peace-keeping role in India, most British politicians now concurred with international, especially American, opinion in dismissing the possibility of a post-war British Raj. ‘Quit’ they now must, for repression on such a scale in peacetime would be unthinkable and probably impractical; Gandhi’s point had been made, if not in the manner he approved. However, for the Congress Party the 1942 Quit India movement was much less successful than the Rowlatt-Khilafat protests of 1919-21 or the salt-and-civil-disobedience campaign of 1930-1. The arrest of its leaders meant that the party was unable to direct the movement or to profit from it, and their detention for most of what remained of the war meant that the party would be singularly ill-prepared for the postwar endgame. The League on the other hand, unchallenged by either the British or Congress, continued to proselytise, organise and mobilise.


Three years of intensive negotiations led up to the final transfer of power from the British Crown to the two successor states of India and Pakistan in 1947. The peaceful conclusion of these negotiations was hailed as a triumph. It was celebrated as such even by the British, and it appeared all the more remarkable in the light of the armed confrontations then getting underway in Indonesia and Indo-China. But the triumph was compounded of failures and betrayals.

For Nehru, Congress and most citizens of the Republic of India, Pakistan itself was just such a failure – historically indefensible as well as humanly catastrophic. Many British officials agreed, seeing it as a betrayal of the united India which they liked to think of as their own creation. The British in turn stood accused of having failed the princes who, without the umbrella of federation, were left to negotiate entry into the successor states with a nationalist leadership they had long distrusted. The League for its part had obviously failed those of its supporters who lived in Muslim minority areas which would not be included in Pakistan. Similarly Congress stood accused of betraying its supporters in what became Pakistan, most notably the Pathans of the North-West Frontier Province who had consistently opposed the League and Partition. More obviously, in the two partitioned provinces of Bengal and Punjab, all parties to the negotiations had failed those Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus who would experience death and dispossession on an unprecedented scale as their homelands were divided, their economic links severed and their shared cultures dismembered.

Not surprisingly, the negotiations which produced this catalogue of failures have been closely scrutinised. Gandhi’s 1944 initiative of direct talks with Jinnah, the first move towards a post-war settlement, has been criticised as a well-meaning blunder which served only to enhance Jinnah’s standing and to entrench his demands. The Simla Conference of 1945 had a similar effect. Convened by Lord Wavell, Linlithgow’s successor as viceroy, it proposed transforming his Executive Council into something like a national government. But it floundered on a Congress insistence on its right to nominate amongst its representatives the odd Muslim and on Jinnah’s insistence that all Muslim representatives must be nominated by the League, Jinnah was allowed in effect to veto the initiative.

New elections in India, called by the incoming British Labour government of Clement Attlee and held in early 1946, confirmed the sectarian polarisation. As the first since 1937, a poll was long overdue and was a necessary prelude to further negotiations. But it was based on the existing, very limited franchise, and on the existing system of reserved electorates and seats as per the communal awards of 1936. With the League sweeping the reserved constituencies as convincingly as did Congress the unreserved, it deepened the religious divide. Except in the North-West Frontier Province – where tribal loyalties and the Pakhtun (Pathan) language underpinned a sub-separatist allegiance to Congress – and the Panjab, where some Muslims still adhered to the rural and non-sectarian Unionist Party, Jinnah’s claim to speak for Muslim India seemed vindicated; his demand for Pakistan began to look correspondingly irresistible. Conversely Congress, though enjoying a colossal majority, could no longer claim to represent all communities. Critics, principally from the left, maintained that had elections been based on universal suffrage the results would have been different. The League’s pretensions to represent all Muslims would have been exposed and, capitalising on industrial and agrarian grievances, a third force of cross-communal pedigree and impeccably socialist ideology would have emerged. The elections, in short, were yet another missed opportunity, another failure.

Wavell’s alarm at the outcome brought a top-level British Cabinet Mission to India in March-June 1946. The tortuous negotiations which followed were designed to set up both a Constituent Assembly (which would decide on a new constitution) and a transitional government to handle matters in the interim. Not for want of ingenious ideas, both bodies also proved to be failures. Jinnah seemed to back away from Pakistan when confronted with the proposition that, by the terms of the League’s own Pakistan Resolution, ‘Muslim majority areas’ must mean that Hindu majority areas in the Panjab and Bengal would have to be excluded from Pakistan. Instead he joined Congress in endorsing a complicated system of provincial groupings whence the Constituent Assembly was to be elected. This was hailed as a breakthrough. Although the provinces and their groupings would cede to the central government only such subjects as defence, foreign affairs and all-India communications, this arrangement specifically excluded the possibility of an independent ‘Pakistan’. The subcontinent, albeit with a much weakened central government, stood within a whisker of remaining united. But not for long. Nehru, already determined to protect central authority at any cost, let slip that he did not regard the Cabinet Mission plan as binding, whereupon Jinnah not unreasonably withdrew his support. The terms were in fact so complicated that each side felt entitled to interpret them differently. Recriminations followed, including an August 1946 call by the League to the ‘Muslim nation’ to institute ‘direct action’; its results, though unforeseen, would be horrifying. As for the interim government, this also materialised, but only through viceregal appointment. With Nehru as prime minister and Liaqat Ali Khan of the League as a late-joining finance minister, it served to give a convincing demonstration of why a power-sharing coalition would not work.

In despair over London’s erratic support as well as India’s irreconcilable leaders, the well-meaning Wavell had earlier advocated as a last resort a ‘Breakdown Plan’. The ‘breakdown’ – which could well have been his own – in fact referred to the failure of Congress and the League to work together in the bodies proposed by the Cabinet Mission. This being now amply demonstrated, the British government examined the ‘Breakdown Plan’. As the supreme commander who in 1942 had overseen the Allied retreat from south-east Asia, Wavell was proposing a similar retreat in India, in fact a phased withdrawal of British troops and officials, first from the south to the north, then from the Congress-dominated provinces to those of the League. He also proposed an announcement that the withdrawal would be completed by 31 March 1948.

Although militarily sound, the political consequences of such a retreat were rightly deemed unthinkable. The ‘Breakdown Plan’ was revealed as more like a ‘break-up’ plan. Besides inviting a fragmentation of late-Mughal proportions, it looked like a safe bet for civil war. Only the idea of announcing a withdrawal date was adopted. In February 1947 Attlee declared that British rule would end by June 1948.

For once both Congress and League applauded. Urgency was thus injected into the discussions. But far from conjuring a spirit of compromise it fuelled Congress demands for the dismissal of unco-operative League ministers in the interim government, and fanned League attempts to topple the non-League governments in the Panjab and the North-West Frontier Province.

In March 1947, to meet its new deadline, the Attlee government replaced Wavell with Lord Louis Mountbatten and, more importantly, empowered him to obtain a settlement without the usual interference from London. Mountbatten looked to be a good choice. As a cousin of the King-Emperor he enjoyed a regard which transcended politics, and as commander-in-chief in south-east Asia at the end of the war he had shown some sympathy for Indonesia’s nationalists. He had no preconceptions where India was concerned, and for the task in hand his insatiable ego looked no bad thing; before the credit could be claimed or blame evaded, something had to have been achieved. The appointment of Mountbatten was in fact as much an earnest of British intentions as the setting of a deadline. Nehru appreciated this. He got on well with Lord Louis and famously with his wife Edwina. Mountbatten’s legendary charm would ensure that two hundred years of colonial exploitation ended with warm smiles and hearty handshakes.

To all, including the disillusioned Wavell, it had by now become glaringly obvious that Jinnah would accept, and most Muslims would settle for, nothing short of a Pakistan to which sovereignty and power were directly transferred by the British. Mountbatten nevertheless pursued a proposal whereby power would be transferred to the provinces and the princely states, who might then choose whether to join India, Pakistan or neither. This was quite unacceptable to Nehru, who foresaw a ‘Balkanisation’ of India. By now Nehru was deeply suspicious of provincial schemes and preferred a strong central government even if it meant accepting partition. His protestations produced some hasty British revision and led Mountbatten to accept Partition as inevitable.

Thus in June 1947 the viceroy proudly announced Congress-League agreement to a formula whereby power would be transferred to two successor states. The option of provinces or states choosing independence was dropped; Bengal and the Panjab were to be partitioned along sectarian lines; and the princely states were to be urged to join either India or Pakistan. To speed up the constitutional formalities, ensure third-party supervision over the division of assets, and leave the British with a fig-leaf of imperial pride, it was also agreed that power should be transferred on the basis of dominion status; this would require only the amendment of the 1935 India Act, which could subsequently be repudiated or endorsed by the successor states. To preserve the tottering interim government, Mountbatten also brought forward the deadline to 15 August 1947. Ten weeks would suffice for the constitutional, social, military and infrastructural vivisection of a subcontinent.

Jinnah, anxious to emphasise that Pakistan was succeeding the British Raj and not seceding from an independent India, celebrated Independence in Karachi on 14 August. Mountbatten attended the ceremonies despite a bomb scare, then left in haste. Unlike Nehru, Jinnah had never buckled before Mountbatten’s boyish charm offensives. Rejecting the viceroy’s wish to be accepted as governor-general of both successor states, he now himself assumed the role of Pakistan’s first governor-general and president of its Constituent Assembly. As the officially titled Quaid-i-Azam, or ‘Supreme Leader’, the Friday prayers were read in his name. He was not just head of state and father of the nation but its constitutional caliph. There was no room for a representative, however well-connected, of the House of Windsor.

From Karachi on the night of 14 August Mountbatten flew straight to Delhi, where the celebrations would prove much more gratifying. There the appreciative Nehru was that night intoning his most famous oration. Its style was unashamedly Churchillian, and the quaint suggestion of a ‘tryst with destiny’ echoed the ‘trysting hour’ in ‘Horatius’, a much-loved poem by the man who had once savaged Indian scholarship, Thomas Babington Macaulay. The speech, in short, was a performance for history’s consumption.

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.


Nehru, Mountbatten and many of their associates were acutely conscious of making history. In speeches, memoirs and personalised chronicles they confidently wrote themselves into it. Historians are grateful. But there is a danger of the record reading like conference minutes or a Government House diary of who said what and when and why. Far from the dappled lawns of New Delhi, out of range of the loudspeakers on the municipal maidan, other agendas were being followed, and never more determinedly than in the heady days before and after Independence.

In a land of limited opportunity but boundless importunity the keeping of trysts and the redeeming of pledges could seem irrelevant; so could the sudden switch from bitter antagonism to mutual applause. Elsewhere a less self-conscious history was being made. Often more instructive and always more harrowing, it had a way of sabotaging noble sentiments and exploding grand creations, showing scant regard for the old or the new, let alone that ‘rare moment’ which distinguishes them.

In 1943, like an uninvited guest from the past, famine had swept through large parts of lower Bengal. Scarcity during this bleakest period of the war had been expected. Rice imports from Burma had ceased with that country’s occupation by the Japanese; domestic food-grains were in great demand for the military build-up in eastern India; and hoarding had resulted. Additionally, rail freight was being commandeered by the armed forces while Bengal’s riverine shipping had been largely requisitioned for fear of its use by Japanese infiltrators. Yet the shortfall in food-grains was not great, and with foresight, rationing, better distribution and vigorous action against black-market hoarding, it should never have come to famine. It was a failure of personnel as much as anything. When in July the walking dead began straggling into Calcutta to expire on the streets, Linlithgow was looking forward to England, leaving India, as he rashly put it, ‘in pretty good shape’. Bengal, too, had just had a change of government; the returning Muslim League ministry was shaky and inexperienced. Worst of all, the British governor of the province, to whom ample powers were reserved for just such a crisis, was supine and very sick.

Between July and November the famine raged almost unchecked. When in October the just-installed Wavell visited the affected areas, he acknowledged ‘one of the worst disasters that has befallen any people under British rule’. He was not exaggerating. Famine fatalities are notoriously unreliable; in this case the totals range from two million to four million. But even if the lower figure is accepted, the famine still killed more Indians than did two world wars, the entire Independence struggle, plus the communal holocaust which accompanied Partition. ‘Direct British rule had begun with a Bengal famine in 1770; it was now drawing to a close with a comparable calamity.’10

At the time, with Congress banned and its leaders in gaol following the ‘Quit India’ movement, many of Bengal’s Hindu bhadralok had temporarily switched their support to the extremist Hindu party known as the Mahasabha. For the famine the Mahasabha, as was its wont, unhesitatingly blamed the Muslim League, accusing it of exploiting the disaster to obtain a monopoly of the lucrative distribution of relief. The League, on the other hand, blamed the hoarding and profiteering of the mainly Hindu grain-dealers. Out of famine, as out of other forms of agrarian and industrial distress (like recession in the jute industry), communal hatred was born.

But Hindu-Muslim, or ‘communal’, violence was not inevitable. According to leftist historians, had the Congress leadership been less bent on a quick transfer of power at any price, both Partition and the communal massacres which it prompted might have been avoided. In November 1945 the British had brought to trial in Delhi three members of Subhas Chandra Bose’s INA. (Bose himself had died in a plane crash a few weeks earlier.) One of the accused was a Sikh, the second a Muslim and the third a Hindu, the idea being to avoid the accusation of discriminating against any particular community. The nationalist response partook of the same even-handedness. On behalf of the accused, student protesters in Calcutta, then mutineers from ships of the Royal Indian Navy at Bombay and Karachi, rallied beneath the green flags of Islam, the red of the communists and socialists, and the tricolour of Congress. It was a fine display of communal harmony to which labour unions and other civilian groups enthusiastically lent their support.

Confrontations with police and troops followed. The naval mutiny was particularly menacing and brought British threats to bomb the disaffected ships, plus a high-level Congress mission under Vallabhai Patel to talk sense to the mutineers. Congress leaders, although strident in their support of the INA men, had been taken by surprise and were severely embarrassed. As the prospect of a negotiated settlement neared, militant protest was no longer welcome. It undermined the authority of the negotiators and destabilised the institutions of the state to which they expected to succeed.

More of what nationalist histories call ‘these upsurges’ had followed. In Bengal in April 1946, following a period of direct rule by the governor, new provincial elections returned another Muslim League ministry in Calcutta. It was headed by Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, who as Minister for Civil Supplies in 1943 had been held principally responsible for the inept famine relief programme. In August Suhrawardy responded to Jinnah’s call for a Direct Action Day (following the collapse of the Cabinet Mission proposals) and proclaimed a public holiday. The police too, he implied, would take the day off. Muslims, rallying en masse for speeches and processions, saw this as an invitation; they began looting and burning such Hindu shops as remained open. Arson gave way to murder, and the victims struck back. During three days of unchecked mayhem some four thousand Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus died in what became known as the Calcutta Killings. In October the riots spread to parts of East Bengal and also to UP and Bihar, where the death toll was even higher. Nehru wrung his hands in horror; ‘a madness has seized the people,’ he reported. Gandhi rushed to the scene, heroically progressing through the devastated communities to preach reconciliation and to ‘wipe every tear from every eye’. There followed a lull, but by March 1947 the first signs of a new ‘madness’ were detected in both Calcutta and, much more ominously, in the Panjab.

Although for Nehru the Partition of India was a tragedy, for Jinnah it was a necessity. The tragedy in Jinnah’s eyes lay in the partition of Bengal and the Panjab. To connect these two provinces he had once argued for a Pakistan corridor running right through UP and Bihar. Failing that, he had insisted that Bengal and Panjab must be transferred to Pakistan in their entirety, since a Pakistan which, as well as being divided by UP and Bihar, excluded Hindu-majority areas in the eastern Panjab and western Bengal (Calcutta itself amongst them) would be but ‘a shadow and a husk’. In the final negotiations, when the choice left to him was indeed between this ‘maimed, mutilated and moth-eaten Pakistan’ or no Pakistan at all, he still could not bring himself to accept it. At the crucial meeting, unable to say yes, he had just inclined his head. It was taken to be a nod of assent, but he could as well have been placing his head on the block.

In Bengal the job of dissecting majority Muslim areas from majority non-Muslim areas was comparatively straightforward. Curzon had already shown the way; and Gandhi, following the Calcutta Killings of 1946, continued to make Bengal his personal responsibility. There would be a massive exodus of refugees in both directions, and great economic dislocation. Without Calcutta and the more industrialised regions of West Bengal, East Bengal looked like what one British official had called ‘a rural slum’; without the agricultural yield of East Bengal, Calcutta’s mills fell silent. But, as if exhausted by the earlier killings, there was comparatively little blood-letting.

It was otherwise in the Panjab. Here, thanks to British recruitment preferences, all communities had strong military connections and cherished martial traditions. The Muslims of the Panjab, unlike the mostly lower-caste converts of East Bengal, included descendants of long-converted rajput tribes (Bhatti, Ghakkar, etc.) and of the Turks, Mongols and Afghans who had so often traversed the region. The Hindus of the Panjab, mostly Jats and Dogras, were reckoned no less ‘sturdy’, whether as aggressive agriculturalists or indomitable infantrymen. And the Sikhs, the third dimension in the Panjab’s communal equation, provided some two-fifths of the entire Indian army and constituted the most militant religious brotherhood on the subcontinent. Though a majority in very few areas, the Sikhs were fairly evenly spread throughout the province which they regarded both as their religious homeland and as the core of Sikh ‘empire’.

The first troubles in the Panjab broke out in early 1947. Although the Muslim League had made sensational gains in the 1946 elections, a coalition ministry cobbled together by remnants of the old Unionist Party with Sikh and Congress support denied it power. The League therefore launched a programme of civil disobedience and brought down the ministry in March 1947. Sikhs, who had most to lose from the Panjab becoming Pakistani, responded by demanding their own ‘Sikhistan’. There were riots in many of the main cities and by August the death toll had risen to about five thousand. But by then the Sikhs, following reassurances from Congress about their status within what would become India’s slice of the Panjab, had accepted the inevitability of partition. There was no lull in the violence, but official anxieties, British as well as Indian, were seemingly allayed.


The new boundary, drawn up in great haste by a League-Congress commission under the chairmanship of an English judge (Sir Cyril Radcliffe), was not announced until after the Independence celebrations. The Sikhs had demanded that the line of Partition, whilst dividing the majority non-Muslim East Panjab from the majority Muslim West Panjab, make exceptions for sites and shrines important to them by virtue of religious and historical associations. Thus, for instance, Lahore, Ranjit Singh’s erstwhile capital, should not simply be allocated to Pakistan because its population was predominantly Muslim. In fact the Boundary Commission made no such allowances. Demography alone was decisive; Lahore went to Pakistan.

Anticipating a massive influx of co-religionists. Sikhs in the east began expelling non-Sikhs and appropriating their lands in early August. A response to earlier Muslim expulsions in the west, this merely provoked more of the same. The announcement of the actual boundary on 17 August lent a cutthroat urgency to the tit-for-tat. The flow of refugees became a flood; word of atrocities, rapes and mass killings brought the inevitable retaliations. As the violence escalated, ghost trains chuffed silently across the new frontier carrying nothing but corpses. In the ‘land of the five rivers’ the waters ran with blood and the roads ran with mangled migrants. The twenty thousand troops who materialised to police the transfer proved at best ineffective, at worst infected by the madness. ‘Of one convoy that recently arrived,’ reported the still-British governor of West Panjab to readers of The Times, ‘over one thousand who had struggled on till they reached the frontier-post just laid down and died. They could go no further. The road was littered with corpses for miles.’11

For many communities, self-definition was as untidy and implausible as territorial defiTheroadwaslitteredwithcorpsesformiles.’nition. The Meo or Mewati people of the desert fringes south of Delhi had long combined Islamic practices with devotion to Lords Ram and Krishna. Although few supported the Muslim League or knew of Jinnah, they were fair game for their Hindu Jat and Rajput neighbours, who in 1947 massacred and dispossessed them. Cries for help from places like Gurgaon and Rewari, that today bristle with call centres, went unheeded. The Meos accordingly headed masse for Pakistan, only to be there stigmatised as infiel Hindus. Thousands then trekked back to Delhi and a very uncertain future when the killings subsided.

In Bengal the new frontier stayed open well into the 1950s. Traversing a skein of wayward rivers and shifting islands, it was hard to police and far from impermeable. Here the movement of population was spread over a longer period and allowed for second thoughts and multi-stage migrations. Some fugitives – called ‘optees’ rather than ‘refugees’ in Bengal – returned, then re-emigrated, then re-returned. Muslims from Bihar uprooted by the massacres of 1946 had first sought refuge in Calcutta. Driven from there by the 1947 partition of Bengal, they fled to Dacca; and from there in 1971 they were re-exiled as non-Bengalis and supposed Pakistani sympathisers when Bangladesh was constituted. After protracted negotiations most of them were eventually packed off to Karachi. For some the odyssey continued with emigration to the UK; others still languish in refugee camps. Partition’s ramifications are still being felt. At the time its implications were so unclear that in 1949 Huseyn Suhrawardy could see nothing strange in representing East Bengal in Pakistan’s Karachi assembly while still residing at the family residence in Indian Calcutta.

In all, east to west and west to east, perhaps ten million fled for their lives in the greatest exodus in recorded history. The killings spread to Delhi itself where non-Muslims, who a few days earlier had been amongst the throng so cheerfully hailing Independence, hailing Nehru and Mountbatten, now turned on their Muslim neighbours with knife and club. The higher the death toll, the wilder the estimates. Two hundred thousand at least, possibly as many as a million, were massacred between August and October in the Panjab partition and associated riots. But as with the famine, the earlier killings in Bengal and Bihar, and other such ‘upsurges’, the names of the victims went unrecorded, their numbers uncounted. Unprepared and overwhelmed, neither of the new nations could do more than feed the living. Meanwhile Mountbatten, ‘determined to keep clear of the whole business’,12 as he put it, had washed his hands of the Panjab and headed for the hills. The history-makers looked the other way.

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