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Could Partition have been less bloody?

By Barney White-Spunner
Last updated on: August 15, 2017 06:04 IST
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The British administration ignored the mounting evidence of violence between Hindus and Muslims...
Military historian Barney White-Spunner traces the countdown to the tragedy in his book, Partition.

A nurse with two child victims of communal violence in Amritsar, Punjab, during the Partition of British India, March 194

IMAGE: A nurse with child victims of communal violence in Amritsar during the Partition of British India, March 1947.
The children's mother was stabbed to death in the riots and they were rescued by a British military patrol and taken to the hosptal for safety.
Fighting took place between the city's Muslim population (around 50 per cent), anxious for Amritsar to be incorporated into Pakistan, and the other, Sikh and Hindu, half of the inhabitants, who supported incorporation with India. Photograph: Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The monsoon should have arrived by the end of July, that deluge of rain 'when nature is washed green and breathes again' and when 'for a few days, cool air and the smell of damp earth are blessings beyond price', but it didn't.

The terrible, humid, cloying, all-enveloping heat just continued as if it would never end.

There was nowhere to escape it.

One of those it affected most was Cyril Radcliffe, a man who had never been east of Gibraltar, and who was now ensconced in a bungalow on the viceroy's estate. He had two weeks to finalise drawing the Partition lines on the maps of Bengal and the Punjab.

Christopher Beaumont had been appointed as his secretary and minder. He had applied for a position in Palestine and thought that he had left India for good when he was asked to take the job on.

He arranged to meet Radcliffe in the air terminal beside London's Victoria station.

He was worried as to how he would recognise him.

The BOAC lady suggested that he should wear a badge with his name on it, but Beaumont, an old-fashioned man, was appalled at the vulgarity of the idea as he was by her subsequent suggestion that he should make an announcement 'over a thing called a Tannoy'.

In the end he simply approached the most intelligent looking man in the room.

At first he found Radcliffe 'a rather arrogant man, very self important, almost pompous, unemotional. I never heard him laugh very much'.

'Meeting him,' thought Mountbatten's press secretary Alan Campbell-Johnson, 'was a cold experience'.

However, they agreed that he had both a formidable mind and that he was totally incorruptible.

Beaumont later 'formed an affection for him' although he never knew whether this was reciprocated.

The first task Beaumont was given was to scour the bazaars for wine, preferably white; he managed to find some cases of Alsatian which seemed to cheer Radcliffe up as he started work.

Radcliffe and Beaumont had an assistant secretary, Rao Sahib V D Ayer, a Hindu in the ICS.

The Radcliffe line: How Pakistan was carved from India

IMAGE: The Radcliffe Line: How Pakistan was carved from India. Photograph: Kind courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Beaumont found the two panels of judges assigned to sit on the respective Boundary Commissions were 'not much help as they always divided along communal lines'.

There had been open sessions in court, but again the arguments presented went almost entirely based on whether the person advancing them was Hindu or Muslim. There was little objectivity.

'Drawing the line was always going to be impossible to make acceptable and Partition of the Punjab was always going to be acrimonious,' Beaumont continued, 'It was a tremendously difficult job as the villages were all mixed up, especially the areas around Lyallpur, Ferozepore and Ludhiana.'

The problem was made so much worse because 'there was not enough time. It was rushed through. Much more thought should have gone into it, more advice taken', but there was no time.


Beaumont had always been 'hugely impressed' by Nehru, for whom he had worked in the foreign ministry. 'He was very able, very easy to work with,' but he was also emotional and 'he got the Punjab wrong -- he didn't really understand the Punjab. He didn't believe the slaughter would occur and he persuaded Mountbatten it wouldn't happen -- so Mountbatten disregarded men like (Sir Evan) Jenkins (then governor of Punjab) who really knew what was going on...'

Jenkins briefed Mountbatten and the political leadership in Delhi again on the situation in the Punjab on August 4.

Casualties in July, he estimated, had been 4,632 killed and 2,573 seriously injured, with three times as many in the rural areas as in the towns.

His figures were, he admitted, almost certainly inaccurate as his administration was breaking down and the true figures were probably far higher...

Lady Mountbatten touring the riot affected localities in Amritsar in May 1947. 

IMAGE: Edwina Mountbatten tours the riot-affected localities in Amritsar in May 1947. Photograph:

On August 5, what was left of the Punjab police Criminal Investigation Department reported that a major instigator of the Punjab disturbances was Pritam Singh, an ex- Indian National Army man who had been one of those trained by the Japanese at their Penang spy school and landed in India by submarine.

Master Tara Singh was also, the CID believed, heavily implicated in the violence.

He was 'completely one track on the subject of taking revenge on the Muslims' and there was a Sikh plot to kill Jinnah in Karachi on August 15.

'The Sikh leaders,' the report concluded, 'had lost control of their people...'

(On) August 7, Major General Pete Rees, the commander of the Punjab Boundary Force, flew over the area between Amritsar and Lahore in a light Auster reconnaissance aircraft.

His task, he wrote, was not an 'enviable one and I can't please everyone. I am bombarded with demands to take over control, to show ruthlessness and to string up the malefactors from the lamp posts'.

He was confident of his sepoys who were in 'good fettle' but it 'was a trying time for all'.

The temperature even in the shade averaged 100 degrees (38 degrees Celsius) and the 'night minimum' was 80-90 degrees (27-32 degrees Celsius). 'This is especially trying to Mohammmedans keeping the annual month's fast of Ramazan which this year is July 19 to August 16', but he guessed, 'our task is only a month or two after August 15'.

The Indian Army had, he thought, 'been a shining example of moderation, unity and solidarity' at a time when the mutual bitterness and hatred in the Punjab was growing so rapidly.

His troops would not be reassigned to their respective new national armies until after their task was complete and they were to work directly to (Field Marshal Claude) Auchinleck as supreme commander under the authority of the Partition Council as agreed in June.

But his force was totally inadequate for its task even given the limited role envisaged for it in that first week of August.

At the Kingsway refugee camp, children help themselves to the rice provided for their meal.

IMAGE: In this photograph taken on September 27, 1947, at the Kingsway refugee camp in Delhi, children help themselves to the rice provided for their meal. Photograph:

His 20,000 odd men were to police an area of 37,500 square miles in the central Punjab, the 12 districts that had been identified as disputed by Radcliffe.

It was an area about the size of Ireland, and with a population of 14.5 million, divided, like the rest of the province, in the proportion of 55 per cent Muslim, 25 per cent Hindu and 20 per cent Sikh.

He deployed his brigades, each under strength at about 4,000 men, with one covering Amritsar and Gurdaspur; a second in Jullundur and Hoshiarpur, a third in Lyallpur and Sialkot, the fourth in Ferozepore and the fifth, alongside his own headquarters, in Lahore.

He had very little mobility and just one under-strength cavalry regiment.

There was, thought (ICS officer) Penderel Moon, 'remarkable faith in the projected Boundary Force'.

He did not share it. He thought the Sikhs were bound to attack the Muslims as soon as they had the opportunity. Either they would wait until the PBF was withdrawn or, if it was ineffective, they would simply ignore it.

A Sikh major on his way to join it, and with whom he shared a railway compartment, agreed. He thought that a large proportion of the troops would be 'infected by the communal virus' and that anyway it lacked the mobility it needed to cover its vast area of responsibility.

Moon and he thought that a force of 50,000, which was the figure he had heard the PBF was intended to be, would be pushed to do the job even if they were all mobile and totally reliable.

They agreed that it would take at least the four divisions Jenkins had been persistently recommending.

'By the time I got back to Bahawalpur,' Moon concluded, 'I had written off the Boundary Force completely'.

Sir Evan Jenkins had not given up.

The last dispatch from this most clear-thinking and well-informed governor was on August 13.

He pointed out once more that the PBF was responsible for 17,932 villages. It was imperative Rees's force was reinforced by at least another two divisions, effectively doubling it.

'The lesson,' he continued, 'is that once the inter-locked communities begin to fight over the countryside, the only remaining remedy is to employ a very large number of troops'.

Three wounded Indian policemen receiving treatment following the riots in Lahore.

IMAGE: Three wounded policemen receivE treatment following the riots in Lahore, when Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims clashed over the decision to incorporate the western region of Punjab into Pakistan. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

The police were now almost totally ineffective.

A new Hindu police superintendent had arrived in Amritsar.

His first act was to disarm all his Muslim officers. This not only created a sense of panic, but led to a third of the police deserting.

Amritsar itself now needed a lot more troops to replace them, two full-strength brigades instead of the single under-strength one Rees could spare...

The army needed to take over railway security, a task that repeated exercises and studies had recommended as essential in the event of widespread internal disorder.

Major General Hawthorn, the deputy chief of the Indian General Staff, so a very senior officer whose opinion should have carried weight, visited the Punjab on August 11 and recommended that air patrols were also essential.

He estimated the killing at a daily average of one hundred people.

Auchinleck did not receive his report well. He pencilled in the margin: 'There are very few aircraft for the job required of them. It is quite impossible to provide air standing patrols'.

Yet there were aircraft, a lot of them with pilots who, after Nehru's and Patel's spat over how the squadrons would be divided, were available to fly them.

The operational machinery was also there to deploy them, precisely why the Joint Defence staff had been established.

There were then those 30,000 British troops, who could supposedly only be used to protect European lives, now sweltering bored in their barracks, alongside their 35,000 Gurkha colleagues.

But there was no willingness by Auchinleck, obsessed with the reorganisation of the army or, as he saw it, its demise, to use them nor any pressure on him to do so.

Nehru did not understand the military, Jinnah's attention was now on Karachi and Dacca, and Mountbatten was wary of crossing a military who he always worried would not listen to him.

He was, V P Menon thought, 'overwhelmed with the idea that the army and the services might not take his advice'.

Rees's inadequate PBF was left to face the coming holocaust unaided.

Excerpted with permission.


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Barney White-Spunner
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