Why did Mountbatten suddenly declare that the Partition of India would take place with inexplicable haste on August 15, 1947, almost a year ahead of schedule?
Colonel Anil Athale (retd) explains the likely reasons for the British decision to hastily grant India independence.
On August 14-15, 1947, according to Pakistan they got a 'Homeland' for the subcontinent's Muslims, Indians claim they got Independence, while the British called it the 'Transfer of Power' (those interested can see the huge volume published by the British with that title).
The two countries went on a very different political trajectory right from the word go. Mohammad Ali Jinnah chose to become the first governor general, with Liaquat Ali, the number two as his prime minister. As a consequence Pakistan, despite the 1973 parliamentary constitution, has always had a strong presidential bias.
In India, on the other hand, by choosing to retain Lord Louis Mountbatten, the post of the head of State was kept largely ceremonial. The roots of current religious extremism and violence against minority religions and minority Muslim sects were inevitable as despite Jinnah's own personal belief in secularism, the foundation of Pakistan was on Islam. Zia-ul Haq merely took it to the logical conclusion.
India chose to separate religion from nationality in deference to the plural ethos of its majority and long history of the Indian subcontinent where separation of the faith and nation was the norm. Possibly the only exception was during the reign of Ashoka. India becoming plural was as natural as Pakistan becoming an Islamic State.
Nehru chose to give his famous 'Tryst with destiny' speech in English and not Hindi or Hindustani. The number of English speakers and its influence has only increased after the British left.
Over 65 years ago, one of the enduring human tragedies occurred when the Indian subcontinent was divided on religious lines. Nearly one-and-half million innocent people lost their lives during Partition. Even till today, one fifth of humanity, living in South Asia, continues to pay the price of that division.
No Indian or British historian has yet attempted to explain that event satisfactorily. The first question is: Why did Lord Wavell, the Viceroy, on June 11, 1945, abruptly call off the Simla talks when all the political parties favoured the creation of a united India?
The second question arises from the British cabinet's statement that the transfer of power to Indians would take place by June 1948? (The British government's statement of June 3, 1947.) Lord Louis Mountbatten as viceroy had insisted on this cut-off date when he went to confer with the cabinet in London in May 1946.
Why, then, on his return from London a fortnight later, did he then suddenly declare that the Partition of India would take place with inexplicable haste on August 15, 1947, almost a year ahead of schedule?
To understand the events of 1947 one has to go back to 1942, when on August 9, Mahatma Gandhi gave the call for 'Quit India' and do or die. This came at a particularly decisive moment in World War II. The Germans were at Stalingrad and Japan ruled the Pacific.
The Americans were worried about the impact this would have on the war effort and President Roosevelt dispatched a personal emissary Colonel Johnson to India and brought immense pressure on the British to promise Independence to Indians in return for cooperation by the Congress in the war efforts.
The Cripps mission was borne out of this compulsion. Gandhi rejected this by dubbing it as 'post dated check issued on a falling bank'. But Churchill was unmoved and believed that Congress leaders were 'Men of straw' and that with the help of Jinnah the British would control the situation.
In the early hours of August 9, a massive British crackdown began. Congress leaders were arrested and taken to various high security prisons. On hearing news of their arrest, disturbances broke out in Bombay, Ahmedabad and Poona. But like all such movements, it was difficult to sustain action in the absence of a trained leadership and a proper organisation.
The British were helped by the fact that Indian Communists and Muslim League elements provided active help and information to the British police to round up the nationalists. There was no second rung Congress leadership to fill the vacuum created by the arrest of leaders, and no plans for an underground network.
Nearly 10,000 Indians died in police firing. In less than two months time the movement died down. A subsequent Congress appeal for mass non cooperation issued in November 1942 evoked no popular response...
The war effort, except for some minor hiccups, did not suffer greatly. When Subhas Chandra Bose arrived in Asia in 1943, and the Japanese advanced into Burma, India was well under control. He was one year too late. In the event, the 1942 movement was a failure and had virtually no effect on the Allied war effort.
According to historian R C Muzumdar (Advanced History of India), the Congressmen neither did anything nor died for the country!
The acceptance of Jinnah's demand for Pakistan was the price the British were prepared to pay for this. A faction of the Congress and some revolutionaries did try to sabotage the war effort. But Gandhi and Congress had not thought through the consequences.
In the Tehran conference of November 1943, the future world organisation (the United Nations) was discussed and China was accepted as a Great Power along with the UK, the US, the USSR and France. The Indian contribution to the war effort, much greater than China's, was discounted.
An American delegate to the conference remarked that India was yet to win its 'Yorktown' (the decisive battle of the American war of independence) and as such had no right to sit at the high table of great powers.
The failure of the 1942 Quit India movement, change in the Allied fortunes of war made Pakistan a certainty. On May 12, 1945, Churchill, much before his later famous 'Iron Curtain' speech at Fulton (March 5, 1947), had written to Truman that an iron curtain has drawn down upon the front in Europe.
He predicted a future contest with the Soviet Union; he was convinced that India would not side with the West. Thus the concept of Pakistan, the dream of Jinnah, acquired a new significance in the post-war world. Wavell's abrupt end to the Simla Conference in June 1945 can be understood in this backdrop of pressure from London.
On March 30, 1947, during the concluding session of a Muslim League working committee meeting, Jinnah suddenly collapsed and was rushed to the Breach Candy hospital. Dr Patel, his personal physician, declared that it was only the patient's timely arrival that had saved him.
By a unanimous decision the working committee decided to keep this occurrence secret. Jinnah regained consciousness soon and refused the doctor's orders to stay in the hospital. Jinnah's stubbornness ultimately overrode medical advice and he was discharged the very next day. It is most unlikely that the British did not come to know of this.
The British realised that without Jinnah, the creation of Pakistan was next to impossible. It was the news of Jinnah's illness that prompted the advancement of British departure from India, with tragic consequences.
Understanding these factors behind the events of 1947 helps us see the extraordinary influence the British have over American approach to the subcontinent. The British time and again have shown their almost 'paternal' love for Pakistan. This author has seen enough evidence in even JFK era papers of the kind of dependence the US has on UK as far as the subcontinent is concerned.
If seen objectively and not from the point of view of 'durbari' historians, the record of the past can teach us much about the present.
The date August 15 was also carefully chosen by the British. It was on this very day that Japan surrendered in 1945. What better way to thwart any possible Indo-Japanese linkage in future than to make India (and South Korea) celebrate while Japan remembers its humiliation! Specially relevant in the days of 1947 when the stories of Japanese support to Subhas Chandra Bose's Indian National Army were a household word in India!
Based on the research conducted by the author and the late Lieutenant General Eric Vas for their book Unmaking of Pakistan: If Bose Had Lived?', published by Strategic Books as an e-book.