Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Why the haste?

Take away India, and Britain would become a second-rate power.
Lord Curzon

As India and Pakistan prepare to clink glasses on the 60th anniversary of their respective independences, a little galling detail juts out. Although it won’t quite spoil the party, it intrigues me. What was the urgent need to fast-forward the partition of British India? Why was the country midwifed recklessly over lunch, like the newborns won’t survive another day? Why did Lord Louis Mountbatten – uncle of Queen Elizabeth II’s hubby, Prince Phillip – allow the partition in such supreme haste? Even if Nehru and Jinnah wanted it quick. Mountbatten’s daughter, Pamela Hicks says her dad thought partition was a crazy, unworkable idea. So! So he better make haste.

In the process, Mountbatten advanced independence by a good nine months from June 1948 to August 1947. Partition happened. Pakistan was created at the midnight of Aug 14 and India on Aug 15, 1947. In the ensuing confusion, more than ten million people were uprooted. A million others perished.

Christopher Beaumont is daintily called one of the few people who knew the real truth about partition. He was a key figure in the partition of India. Beaumont was private secretary to the senior British judge, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who was chairman of the Indo-Pakistan Boundary Commission. In short, the trusted inside-man in a team that was given a pencil – sharpened one – but no eraser and an assignment: Go out there in the plains of India and draw the consecrated line. The good Englishmen eventually drew the line, on a rather simple rag of map. The etchings, needless to add, still draw blood 60 years later. Some lines are too sharp to be blurred by time.

The viceroy, Mountbatten, must take the blame - though not the sole blame - for the massacres in the Punjab in which between 500,000 to a million -- men, women and children – perished, Beaumont says in his memoirs. Isn’t it strange that independence was declared prior to the actual partition and it was left to the new governments of India and Pakistan to keep public order! The infant governments clearly hadn’t anticipated the magnitude of mass-migration, mass-murders and the subsequent unrest. They flunked to control the mayhem. “The handover of power was done too quickly’’, Beaumont adds. The partition resulted in arguably the largest mass migration of peoples the world has ever seen. Mountbatten’s reactions to the bloody aftermath of partition were, according to his biographer, Philip Ziegler “at his most shallow”.

The British Military intelligence knew that the situation could take an ugly turn. Aware of this, Field Marshall Auchinlek -- Commander of Chief in India -- had wanted to keep British troops in India -- temporarily -- after Independence, but was over-ridden by Mountbatten. At any level, it was not a smooth transfer of power, as the Clement Atlee government in London wanted. With a royal megalomaniac at helm, who dismissed concerns from his own staff and other British experts far more knowledgeable than him about Indian communal tensions and politics, the bloodshed was inevitable.

So our guys who went out to draw those lines took some time. Exasperated, Mountbatten gave them a six-week deadline. “The trouble was that Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were an integrated population so that it was impossible to make a frontier without widespread dislocation,” Beaumont writes. While still at job – with no final boundaries, no clear demarcations of what belonged to whom – India was cut into two. The Indo-Pakistan Boundary Commission guys were so distraught that they refused compensation for their work.

The rest, they say, is history. Most historians agree that Mountbatten cajoled Radcliffe into making compromises in the border crafting. Beaumont remained an honest guy until his end in 2002, dubbing both Radcliffe and Mountbatten discredited. Mountbatten was blown up in an IRA bomb at his summer home in Mullaghmore, Ireland in 1979.

The British legacy remains -- despite the trains and roads they bequeathed us – that of a hasty retreat. An inexplicable haste that led to widespread misery, murder, marauding. The aftershocks still continue.

On the eve of India and Pakistan’s 60th annev. Cheers.



Anonymous said...

The partition was the most dreadful thing happened to India. Something which people are responsible rather than Britishers. It happened because people were fighting in the name of religion then also and now also. Nothing new. And in all this, they forgot that they are human beings first and then Muslims, or Hindus or Sikhs. May peace prevail on the souls who faced the partition horror.

Dr Anil K Jha said...

I agree with the writer here.
Although partition was a decision of our leaders (jinnah must bear equal responsibility) but most historians think that the British did indeed rush us through the last lag of raj. Had Mountbatten not been so urgent (indeed our leaders wanted that) many many lives could have been saved.


Aroyjit said...

You have a great range, sam. Us politics to sub-continent's historicity. Having knwn u, I though u one of those US-knowledgable journalists.

Thanks for throwing light on a very less-taked about but interesting aspect of our own history.


Alisa said...


I don't agree with ur arguement. Firstly, let me compliment you for a fine blog.

My disagreement stems from the fact that it was the Indian leadership in 1947, perhaps except Mr Gandhi, who impressed upon Lord Mountbatten for a quick transfer of power.

Exonerating your own leadership and shifting all blame to the Bristish isn't fair.

Alisa, 32 Brighton

Anonymous said...

It was Jinnah, not Mountbatten.

prasun said...

John Kenneth Galbraith as US Ambassador to India from 1961 to 1963 helped Nehru shape India. Galbraith's criticism of Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, for his role in the partition of the country and the bloodshed is a must read for all those who think that the British owe no blame

Roger P, Kentucky said...

Lord Mountbatten might have feasibly asked for a small extension. Instead, he got into hurry, which has still not been extensionally explained. Lord Mountbatten excuse had been that if he had not handed over the power as quickly as he did, the price would have been much higher. But that is only an assumption. It has been suggested that the British hurried transfer of power because they were aware of something, which no one else, apart from Jinnah, knew that 'father of Pakistan' had terminal TB, and if he died before the plans for Pakistan could be announced the whole campaign for a separate country might have collapsed.

alex said...

I agree with Roger...Jinnah died on 11 September 1948 due to TB. But Jinnah' doctor in Bombay Dr JAL Patel had diagnosed the problem in June 1946, says Collins and Lappire in 'Freedom at Midnight'. This was perhaps the best-kept secret of Partition. Interestingly, it is acknowledged by many, Jinnah gave no public indication of this reality continuing with his usual ration of Cigars, and attributing his cough to bronchitis. Lord Wavell's diary talks of this, giving testimony to the fact that British were well informed about the illness of Jinnah.

Tehrina, Mumbai said...

On June 4, 1947 Mountbatten held only the second Press conference addressed by the Viceroy of India, and announced that power to be transferred by 15 August. There was just two months left, and most of difficult task was yet to begun - drawing of boundaries. Sir Cyril Radcliff was summoned from his chambers in London to run a scraper through the heart of the subcontinent he had never seen.

It was done in super-haste.

S Prabu said...

Isn't it strange that Jinnah, the ultra-modern Oxford lawyer, who married Ruttie a Parsi, changed so DRASTICALLY. His only child Dina wanted to marry a Parsi, and Jinnah became furious when he heard this. There were millions of Muslim boys, he told his daughter, from whom she could choose. Dina replied that there had been lot of Muslim girls yet Jinnah had chosen to marry a Parsi.

The only answer Jinnah had was to disown his daughter; he never called her 'Dina' again, referring to her whenever necessary as 'Mrs. Wadia'.

Suresh Prabu

Mary 33, Cochin said...

Mr Prabu, do we stick to Partition and not to Mr Jinnah's personal life.


Faisal, Karachi said...

You see guys blaming Jinnah alone isn't fair. V.D. Savarkar propounded the two-nation theory in 1923, Lala Lajpat Rai proposed partition in The Tribune of December 14, 1924: "A clear partition of India into a Muslim India and a non-Muslim India." Punjab and Bengal were to be partitioned as well. The Muslim League's Lahore Resolution of March 23, 1940, brought the idea into the mainstream of politics. Mohammed Ali Jinnah used the two-nation theory in its justification.

Read ur history well.

Ramachandran, Chennai said...


You have a fertile imagination and I like you for that. The fact that as a young man you chose a very sensitve topic (almost 60 years later) speaks about your journalistic insticts.

As a rule, one must only write of history how it happened, not of how it might have happened. Would a more extended time frame — an announcement in April 1947 that the British would quit in a year's time — allow for a less painful process of division? Would more active troop deployments and an earlier announcement of the Radcliffe Award have led to less violence in the Punjab? Perhaps.

Or perhaps not. As it turned out, the most appropriate epitaph on the last days of the Raj was provided by the Punjab official who told a young social worker from Oxford: "You British believe in fair play. You have left India in the same condition of chaos as you found it".

Ramachadran G