(First published on NewsYaps)
This haunting image, taken by American photographer Margaret Bourke-White, is perhaps far more emblematic of 15th August 1947 than any of the other “happy” images that the Government disseminates. The picture shows a group of fleeing Sikhs making their way across the Punjab, as Partition throws their province into chaos. The Partition of the Punjab and the mayhem that ensued is one of the greatest tragedies in all of human history. Conservatively, half a million people died while more than 14 million were displaced—the largest forced migration ever.
Given how seminal this event was to the new states of India and Pakistan as well as the individual Punjabis affected, it’s surprising how little popular history focuses on the whys and hows of the event. And of course the minimal thinking that does take place is narrow and self-serving, placed as it is within the framework of transient political interest rather than any real attempt at reconciliation and truth. The blame for the Partition violence passes from the Muslim League to the Congress and right-wing groups such as the RSS. This is of course, not to say that any of these groups was blameless, per se. Jinnah’s poisonous Two-Nation Theory, the Congress’ attempt to grab power by pushing Partition and the direct violence led by right-wing groups have had their part to play in the eventual embittering of relations. But in naming these minions, we in India, often miss out on the real evil villain of Partition—Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten, last Viceroy of British India and first Governor-General of independent India.
In June 1948, Nehru rose to toast Mountbatten at a farewell banquet in the latter’s honour. Speaking about Partition he said:
“It is difficult for me or anyone to judge of what we have done during the last years or so…Historians a generation or two hence will perhaps be able to judge what we have done right or wrong, the test, perhaps the right test, is whether we tried to right, or did not…I do believe that we did try to do the right thing, and I am convinced that you [Mountbatten] tried to the right thing by India and therefore many of our sins will be forgiven us and many of our errors also”
Nothing could be further from the truth. Far from trying to do the right thing, Mountbatten knew the disastrous impact that his actions would have but he did them anyway for personal gain.
The first blow that Mountbatten delivered to India was that he decided to rush Partition. There is a general historical consensus on the fact that the British Raj’s abrupt departure after two centuries of rule left a power vacuum which directly engendered the Punjab violence.
At first, the date for British withdrawal from India was set for June 1948. Considering that all parties—the British, the Congress and the League had agreed to Partition—there was no need to rush this date. Yet, this date was first bought forward to October 1947 and then, on Mountbatten’s instance, fixed at 15 August. The reason behind this exact date being chosen is interesting and sheds a lot of light on Mountbatten as a person. Here’s the man himself on the issue, as quoted from Freedom at Midnight, a book which accords the same position to Mountbatten as the New Testament to Christ:
“The date I chose came out of the blue. I chose it in reply to a question. I was determined to show I was the master of the whole event. When they asked: had I set a date, I knew it had to be soon. I hadn’t worked it out exactly then—I thought it had to be about August or September and then I went to the 15th of August. Why? Because it was the second anniversary of Japan’s surrender.”
The 15th of August had a personal and historical appeal for Mountbatten as he had been Supreme Commander for South-East Asia in the war against Japan and it was on 15 August 1945 that Japan surrendered. It had no relevance for India whatsoever. The fact that the date of Independence for one-sixth of humanity was thought up on the spot “in reply to a question” and chosen such as to flatter the vanity of Mountbatten, shows just how little thought went into India’s Partition. And (as we shall see) the fact that the Punjab Boundary Award was published two days after the chosen date of 15th August, was in itself a major cause of violence. Thus the choosing of this early date was tragically crucial, since even a delay of a few days could have helped reduce the violence significantly.
The other great malicious act of Mountbatten was his deliberate suppression of the Punjab Boundary Award till after Independence.
On the 15th of August, as the dominions of India and Pakistan were born, Punjabis found themselves in a rather curious position. They were independent, all right, but they had no idea which country they belonged to. The departing British government had yet to publish the boundary award (even though it was ready on 9 August), delineating the Indo-Pak border. The tension and violence that had been steadily building up for the past 6 months, exploded. Muslims fled to the west and Sikhs and Hindus to the east to stop themselves being butchered in the raula, that evocative Punjabi word for Partition.
The Commander-in-Chief of the British Indian Army, Field Marshall Sir Claude Auchinleck, notes in his visit to the Punjab on 14 August:
“The delay in announcing the award of the Border Commission is having a most disturbing and harmful effect. It is realized of course that the announcement may add fresh fuel to the fire, but lacking the announcement, the wildest rumours are current, and are being spread by mischief makers of whom there is no lack.”
Unlike what has been often assumed, the Partition bedlam was not unexpected. It was generally known to the British authorities, as well as the League and Congress leaders that the Punjab was a tinderbox which would explode if not handled carefully. The crux of the matter was the problem of where to draw the boundary. Evan Jenkins, the last British Governor of the Punjab gave clear and persistent warning as just how delicate the situation was. Giani Kartar Singh, Akali leader and representative of the Sikhs during the Partition talks, appealed to Jenkins to solve the border problem without which Punjab would be abandoned to “blood and tears”. Jenkins agreed with Kartar Singh and himself strongly urged Mountbatten to publish the Punjab Boundary Award before the 15th August. Interestingly, on the face of it, Mountbatten agreed with Jenkins and there are numerous letters, meeting minutes and notes to show that he was also of the opinion that the boundary award be published as soon as possible and before the 15th August in order to control the violence.
Working in record time, Sir Cyril Radcliffe actually had the Punjab Boundary Award ready by 9th August. In an amazing volte face, though, Mountbatten refused to immediately release the award, preferring to hold it till the 14th of August first and then eventually the 17th. The first reason given, farcically, was that it would “mar Independence Day”. 15th August was an important day for Mountbatten, given that he was a central figure in the celebrations. Huge crowds gathered in Delhi shouting “Mountbatten ki jai”, unaware of the tragedy the object of their admiration was crafting in the Punjab. Mountbatten had been invited by the Congress to become the first Governor-General of independent India and he would swear in the new government. The boundary award being published before 15 August would have changed all that, making the occasion into a grim affair. Ridiculous as it may seem, this was actually a factor in the monstrously vain Mountbatten delaying the boundary award.
The other equally odious reason for delaying the award was that this way the British would not have to bear the responsibility for the disturbances. Divested of all formal power after 15th August, the departing Raj would be technically blameless. It was the fledgling dominions of India and Pakistan that would be responsible for maintaining law and order, hence would take the blame for the violence. In a report to the Secretary of State for India on 16th August, Mountbatten writes:
“…it had been obvious all along that the later we postponed publication [of the Punjab boundary award], the less would be the inevitable odium react upon the British.”
And in these petty considerations of Independence day celebrations and deflecting blame, Mountbatten ensured that the boundary between India and Pakistan was published 2 days after the Raj had ceased to exist (and a full 8 days after it was ready). Unable (and in some cases unwilling) to control the violence, the two new dominions of India and Pakistan sat by as the Punjab erupted into civil war and its two halves were emptied of its minorities.
Today, on 15 August, let us remember the tragedy that was Partition and the terrible violence that accompanied it. And most of all, let us remember the man who, abdicating all raj dharma, was responsible for it.