LAST DAYS OF THE BRITISH “RAJ”
With the inevitable failure of the Simla Conference, events moved with the rapidity of a landslide. At the British general election of July 1945, the Conservatives under Winston Churchill were massively defeated and a Labour government under Clement Attlee took office. A month later two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ensured the surrender of Japan. These two unconnected events were to have momentous results for the future of India.
The labour government was committed to the cause of Indian independence. Unlike Churchill’s government, which had considered Congress members to be treacherous trouble-makers, the Labour party sympathised with Congress as the representative body of national and progressive forces in India. Unfortunately, Congress leaders newly released from British prisons, were mistrustful of any British government and inclined to believe that neither political party was sincere about giving India her freedom. “Labour or Conservative, so far as India is concerned, they are all one and the same,” one Congress member on his death-bed complained to Gandhi.
Labour’s first move was to declare that India would have a general election during the winter of 1945-46. As expected, Congress won nearly all the seats in the Hindu-majority provinces, and the Muslim League, though it captured outright only in Bengal, of the provinces Jinnah claimed for Pakistan, and did much better than the elections of 1937.
The quick end to the war with Japan weakened the British governments position. It would no longer be able to negotiate from strength for, as the British conscript army left India to be demobilised, it lost the ultimate power to control events. The blood began to flow sooner than anyone had anticipated . The Indian government decided it could not allow members of the Indian National Army to return home without a stain on their character as it would ruin the morale of the loyal Indian forces. Consequently, it decided to Court-martial the I.N.A.s leaders for “waging war against the King-Emperor” and those officers accused of atrocities. Bose himself had been killed in an air-crash while fleeing from Singapore
Congress which had still not recognised that the League was now its real enemy and not the British, seized on the trials as a stick with which to beat the Empire. Before the trials opened Congress issued a statement claiming that “it would be a tragedy if these officers were punished for the offence of having laboured , however mistakenly, for the freedom of India.” The trials themselves proceeded in a blaze of nationalistic rhetoric, which intensified when the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to transportation for life. By the time the Commander-in-Chief , General Auchinleck, remitted their sentences on the grounds that it would turn them into martyrs, it was too late: his decision was claimed as a victory for the accused and their supporters.
The publicity the trials received also had an unsettling effect on Indians in the armed forces. Soon there were violent demonstrations, to which Nerhu added fuel by speaking of the duty to rebel and of the need to get ready for “a mass battle for freedom which may come sooner than people expect.”
In February 1946, a warning was served on the British government that it would find it difficult, if not impossible, to keep the peace. When units of the Indian Navy went on “strike” against low pay, bad food and racial discrimination in Bombay and other ports. In February, they backed up their demands by training their guns on the city. Congress leaders belatedly recognised the danger signs and helped to end the mutiny in Bombay after five days, but at Karachi the British military commander opened fire on the ships with shore artillery, causing considerable casualties and loss of life. It was obvious that India was sliding into anarchy. The Prime Minister in London announced that a delegation of cabinet ministers would visit India.
Before the mission left London its purpose was spelt out. It was to set up a constitution-making body and a representative Viceroy’s executive council. Another statement was very cheering to Congress. “We are very mindful,” Attlee declared in the House of Commons “of the rights of minorities and minorities should be able to live free from fear. On the other hand we cannot allow a minority to place a veto on the advance of the majority.” Jinnah was incensed at this snub to the Muslim League
In April 1946, the Cabinet Mission arrived in India. It was headed by Lord Pethick-Lawrence, Secretary of State for India, a warm, emotional man who appealed to both Hindu and Muslim. He was accompanied by Sir Stafford Cripps, whose “cold water logic” seemed to many Indians an admirable counter to Pethick-Lawrence’s emotionalism. The third member of the mission was A.V. Alexander, First Lord of the Admiralty, a Labour party stalwart who was not much more than a passenger.
Though Cripps had announced optimistically before leaving, that “the gulf between the points of view of Congress and the Muslim League is by no means unbridgeable,” the mission soon discovered that it was very wide indeed.
Congress would agree to nothing that would open the door to Pakistan; the League to nothing that would shut it against Muslim demands. It was left to Cripps, another lawyer, to produce a solution, beautifully logical, a superb exercise in academic planning - and doomed failure.
Under the Cripps plan there would be a Union of India consisting of three tiers. At the top would be a national government controlling only foreign affairs, defence and communications. All other powers would be vested in the governments of the provinces and of the Indian princely states which would be compelled to join the Union. The provinces would be encouraged to form groupings, some of which would have a Hindu majority, others a Muslim. These subordinate unions would exercise the really effective, everyday powers.
Perhaps such a system would not have worked. But it was the best solution that had yet been devised. Indian unity would have been preserved; Muslim fears of Hindu domination would have been allayed; and because no one was to be allowed to opt out, Congress’s fears of the splintering of India, would have been removed.
The system was given no chance to prove itself. It foundered on the composition of an interim government. The British offered six seats to Congress, five to the League and three to others. Congress claimed to represent all Indians, reserved the right to nominate one Muslim. The Muslim League, claiming to represent all Muslims, demanded the right to nominate all the Muslim seats. Congress, still convinced that Jinnah was without genuine popular backing rejected his demands.
Although the deadlock was obvious for all to see, Cripps and his colleagues left for home, claiming., incredibly, that their mission had been a success. The mission had achieved one thing, however: it had convinced Indian leaders that the British were serious about handing over power. Since there was no longer a need to fight Britain for independence, the way as clear to fight over the inheritance. That war was to be fought, not around the negotiating table, but in the streets;
The elections for the constituent assembly took place in July 1946 - and proved even more dramatically than before that Congress represented the majority of Hindus and the League the majority of Muslims. They also revealed that Congress held an absolute majority - 205 seats to the Muslim League’s 73.
Nehru then made his astonishing declaration that Congress was “not bound by a single thing” and immediately outlined plans that went against the principles of the Cabinet Missions Proposals . The last chance for compromise had gone. Jinnah’s reply was simple: “I feel we have exhausted all reason...This day we bid goodbye to constitutional methods”.
The League declared August 16, 1946, to be a Direct Action Day, a silent statement of protest against both the British and Congress. In most places there were only marches and the waving of black flags. But in Calcutta, the seat of the League government in Bengal, demonstrations organised by the bully-boys of the chief minister, H.S. Suhrawardy, mushroomed into bloody rioting. Muslim mobs waited for Hindu shopkeepers to arrive at their businesses then cold-bloodily chopped them down and looted their shops. Hindu mobs retaliated by beating, maiming and killing Muslim old men, women and children. The great city of over 2.5 million people as given over to four days of terror and death.
The British governor was not equal to the crisis, and it was not until the second day that British troops were called n.
They could not prevent over 4,000 deaths and many thousand wounded. No British were attacked. On the contrary the few out in the streets received only courtesy from the men whose fingers were still wet with blood.
Sobered by these terrible events, Congress leaders accepted an invitation from the Viceroy to join the interim government early in September. The League, in fear of being isolated, followed a month later. But the League had no intention of cooperating with Congress.
The League’s next step was to boycott the constituent assembly. Against such tactics, the Viceroy was helpless. During a fruitless discussion with Congress leaders even the normally placid Wavell was exasperated beyond endurance at Gandhi’s tortuous statements. “This is lawyer talk! Talk to me in plain English. I am a simple soldier and you confuse me with these legalistic arguments.”
In desperation Wavell produced “Operation Ebb-Tide,” a scheme to withdraw British troops and administrators province by province, to force the Indians to co-operate with one another. Both Churchill and Attlee condemned the plan. On February 19, 1947, Wavell received his recall.
Next day, Attlee announced that the British would leave India not later than June 1948, and Admiral Lord Louise Mountbatten would replace Wavell as Viceroy to prepare a plan for the transfer of power. The last act in the drama of India’s fight for freedom had begun. Four men dominated the stage, though the cast included 94 million Muslims and 295 million Hindus. There was Lord Mountbatten, cousin of the King-Emperor, his already impressive personality subtly enhanced by the aura of royalty. His reputation preceded him - a dynamic war leader, he had been the supreme commander of Allied Forces in South-East Asia. Supremely self-confident, he radiated forcefulness, decisiveness, and above all, a sense of urgency. Then. In contrast, like someone from another planet, came Mahatma Gandhi: enigmatic, inconsistent in his attitude to Partition, but firmly unequivocal in his desire to bring peace and reconciliation to the riot-stricken areas.
Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s successor as leader of Congress, the man who was to become the first prime minister of India, was emotional and unpredictable, particularly when the times called for patience and understanding. Finally, Muhammed Ali Jinnah in his elegant Bond Street clothes, with an inflexible will and a power to inspire loyalty almost as intense as that of Gandhi. His determination to achieve the creation of Pakistan as quickly as possible was now reinforced by the knowledge, shared possibly only with his sister and his doctors, that he was dying of cancer.
Dead on Calcutta’s Streets
The scene in which these men met to end an empire was dark with blood and anarchy. Time was indeed running out. The Punjab was locked in virtual civil war; Bengal, after an uneasy quiet, seemed once again on the edge of chaos. Despite Mountbatten’s attempt to leave a united India behind, he was faced with the choice of Partition or collapse. Pakistan or civil war.
On June 3, 1947, after a series of misunderstandings, Mountbatten produced a plan for partition. The British would transfer power to two new states - India and Pakistan - and the date for the handover would be advanced from June, 1948 to midnight on August 14, 1947. A boundary commission would mark the lines of partition. The princely states would have to make their own choice whether to accede to one or other of the new states. The provinces would by vote in their own legislatures, determine their new allegiance.
The boundary commission was headed by Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a judge who had great experience in arbitration and the additional advantage that he had never been in India and could not be accused by anyone of bias. When he arrived in India he was told that he had only five weeks to divide a sub-continent.
In addition, the four judges who had been chosen to assist him (two Hindu and two Muslim) politely informed him that they were not going to risk their careers or indeed their lives by sitting on the commission. Completely unaided, working from outdated maps, Radcliffe accomplished his task in the allotted time.
In the rush, many errors were made that were to contribute to the deaths of 600,000 people and the creation of millions of refugees. The warlike Sikhs of the Punjab, in particular, were to find their homelands and their sacred places divided between India and Pakistan. But it was not only Sikhs who were to be involved in the butchery. After partition, it became a common sight to find trains arriving in Pakistan with hundreds of dead Muslims and painted with the crude message “A present from India.” Dead Hindus filled the returning trains.
One of the problems that many British and Indian officials feared would prove insuperable was that of the status of he princely states in the new countries of India and Pakistan. In spite of the fact that Mountbatten was of royal blood, he had no sympathy for his Indian counterparts, privately calling them “a bunch of nitwits”. A scheme was evolved under which accession to India would leave the states virtually independent except for external affairs, defence and communications. When they had been brought in, argued a Congress official, “we can thrash out the necessary details concerning the relationship between the centre and the states at our leisure.” Mountbatten enthusiastically agreed to use his influence to persuade the princes to accept.
Refugees flee during partition
By the time of partition, all except three had agreed with varying degrees of reluctance. One ruler had a heart attack immediately after signing . Two out of the three who held out were rulers of the most important states in India: the Muslim Nizam of the huge state of Hyderabad in the centre of India whose subjects were nearly all Hindus, and the Hindu Maharajah of the overwhelmingly Muslim state of Kashmir in the north. The other was the tiny coastal state of Junagahd, 240 miles south of West Pakistan, whose significance lay in its use as a pawn between India and Pakistan. The Muslim Nawab, whose chief passion was breeding his 150 dogs and who spent more money on them than on hospitals, was persuaded to join Pakistan. It was a ludicrous choice, and when India became independent, her army marched in to occupy the state to a rapturous welcome from the populace.
As a result, Pakistan was able to claim the right to do exactly the same to Kashmir, should the ruler decide to opt for India. In fact, the ruler of Kashmir, dithering over his decision, nearly caused a war between the the two countries in 1947.
Nineteen years later the war was fought. Even today, the problem of Kashmir remains unsloved.The fabulously wealthy Nizam of Hyderabad thought he could go it alone and, in fact managed to survive until India occupied the territory in 1949.
But by then the long rule by the British was over. At the moment when Britain’s Indian empire faded into the history books, it was left to Jawaharlal Nehru to pronounce the end of the struggle for independence.
In Karachi, soon to be the capital of the new country of Pakistan, Muhammed Ali Jinnah - who was to be the states Governor-General - made a patriotic speech. But its formality could not disguise the feeling of triumph. As he entered the Parliament building, Jinnah made a revealing remark to his aide-de-camp, “Do you know,” he said, “I never expected to see Pakistan in my lifetime. We have to be very grateful to God for what we have achieved.”
As the date for Partition approached, the British soldiers and administrators who had symbolised and maintained British supremacy in India since the first victory of Robert Clive at Plassey in 1757, began to pack their bags and return home. A few remained in the service of the new Dominions. Lord Mountbatten, the last of the Viceroys, became the first Governor-General of free India,and British generals commanded the armies of both countries But these were personal commitments. For Britain “the brightest jewel in the British Crown was lost forever.” Perhaps two million British dead had left their bones in forgotten cemeteries scattered throughout India, but the rest was memory, nostalgia, and the stuff of history books yet to be written.
A small ceremony symbolised the historic change. In the late evening of August 13, 1947, a small party of British officers made their way to the runs of the Residency at Lucknow, scene of the heroic defence by the British occupants against the Indian sepoys during the Mutiny of 1857. Ever since that year a Union Jack had flown day and night from the tower. The officers watched as the flag was hauled down and carefully folded. The flagstaff and its base were then demolished by British sappers. The flag was sent to the Commander-in-Chief.
On the day of India’s independence, King George VI - no longer King-Emperor - received in audience his last Secretary of State for India. The King had only one personal request. This was that the Lucknow flag should be given to him to hang at Windsor alongside the other historic banners and emblems of an Empire which had now lost its cornerstone.
Bloody Birth of Two Nations
Once Lord Mountbatten realised that there was no way to hand over an undivided India, he took the fateful decision to cut the country in two as fast as possible, Believing that there would be less bloodshed that way. Whether he was right or wrong, over 14 million Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims lost their homes and some 600,000 men, women and children were butchered by their own neighbours during the nine months of carnage that followed Partition. While Gandhi, by his mere presence in Calcutta, was acting as a “one man boundary force” in East Pakistan, nothing could stop the slaughter in the divided Punjab. Not only were Hindus and Muslims massacring one another, but the warlike Sikhs, a different religion entirely, finding much of their lands and most of their holy places in hated Pakistan, rose up in a frenzy.
During the nine months after Partition, only the vultures prospered. An Indian pamphlet entitled Freedom Must not Stink! Was proved no more than a pious hope. Trains filled with rotting corpses steamed into Lahore and Delhi; the roadsides were littered with dead and dying refugees who, if they had escaped, the knives of the murdering mobs, dropped out of the convoys, weakened by cholera and dysentery.
Pregnant women were disembowelled; children had their brains dashed out against walls. One British commander reported: “Motoring from Beas to Lahore ... In the course of 50 miles I saw between 400 and 600 dead. One attack on the refugees went in from the thick crops while I was nearby. In a few minutes, 50 men women and children were slashed to pieces while 30 others came running back towards us with wounds streaming.
Massacred Muslims in Punjab
Fortunate enough to have a lorry for transport, some Sikhs and Hindus cross into India from Pakistan. At least 14 million fled from their homes leaving their crops un-harvested. Such an enormous strain was placed on food resources and medical and policing facilities that hundreds of thousands died. It was an inauspicious beginning to the existence of two new nations.
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