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When Gandhi failed to stop the Partition

From the Mahatma's trust in Lord Mountbatten's intent to his frustration with MA Jinnah's obduracy, the Rashtrapati Bhavan archives offer new perspectives on the cataclysmic events that led up to the Partition

Written by Ajay Singh | New Delhi |
Updated: October 2, 2021 1:08:34 pm
gandhiGandhi with Lord and Lady Mountbatten in the spring of 1947

If the past is a prologue, the Rashtrapati Bhavan sets a unique historical context for the partition of India and the nation’s subsequent journey. Ironically, its inauguration in 1931 as Viceroy’s House coincided with the roundtable conferences which formed the basis of the devolution of power carried out through the Government of India Act of 1935.

The magnificent building and other structures around it — North Block, South Block and the Parliament complex — had come up on the picturesque Raisina Hills as symbols of the imperial majesty. Edwin Lutyens’ works impressed many, but Mahatma Gandhi was not among them. At the second roundtable conference in London, during a “federal structure committee” meeting on November 19, 1931, he termed New Delhi a white elephant, and said “those buildings… do not represent the millions of India.”

Gandhi at Viceroy Lord Irwin’s house

As the years went by and the Muhammad Ali Jinnah-led Muslim League bared its fangs, Gandhi gradually reconciled to the centrality of New Delhi in general, and the Viceroy’s House in particular, in the nation’s destiny. His efforts to keep the country united drew a blank. Besides his series of meetings with successive occupants of the Viceroy’s House, he held at least 18 meetings with Jinnah, only to return more dejected each time. His voice for sanity and peace got lost in the cacophony of rising communalism.

Yet Gandhi remained eminently relevant. Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy, knew it better than most of his compatriots. When, in the run-up to the Partition, communal violence engulfed Punjab, Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, Lord Mountbatten brought Gandhi and Jinnah together. The viceroy’s office issued a press statement on April 16, 1947 containing their joint appeal: “We deeply deplore the recent acts of lawlessness and violence that have brought the utmost disgrace on the fair name of India and greatest misery to innocent people, irrespective of who were the aggressors and who were the victims. We denounce for all time the use of force to achieve political ends, and we call upon all the communities of India, to whatever persuasion they may belong, not only to refrain from all acts of violence and disorder; but also to avoid both in speech and writing, any incitement to such acts.”

gandhi Gandhi’s last visit to the Government House in 1947

For Mountbatten, the beginning of June 1947 was quite tumultuous in every sense of the term. June 3 was scheduled to be the day when the process of transfer of power by the British to India would be laid bare in a series of broadcasts, first by British prime minister Clement Attlee in London, followed by a detailed statement by Mountbatten and successive endorsements by Jawaharlal Nehru, Jinnah and Sardar Baldev Singh on All India Radio (AIR).

In these broadcasts, while Nehru and Singh stuck to their agreed scripts and expressed their distress over the Partition, Jinnah digressed and provocatively broached the issue of the North-West Frontier Province which considerably irked Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who was the member of the cabinet, in charge of information and broadcasting. Nehru and Patel were upset at the kid-glove handling of Jinnah by Mountbatten, for whom placating Jinnah was a tactical necessity.

The prospect of the Partition was indeed dreary. In this setting, Mountbatten was keen to become the governor general of both India and Pakistan to facilitate a smooth transition. While Indian leaders had accepted this proposal, Jinnah was reluctant. A day after his June 3 announcement that explained the process of transfer of power, Mountbatten, flanked by Patel, held a marathon press conference to clarify misgivings about the British intentions. Mountbatten was particularly keen to give his answer to a critical question, and his office slipped this question to a journalist who asked: “Will governor generals be appointed on the advice of the dominion governments? If so, is there any bar against there being separate governor generals for the two states?”

Mountbatten replied, “The moment any state acquires dominion status, it chooses its own governor general. The governor general is chosen by the prime minister of the government of the dominion concerned. He submits his name to the King, who being a constitutional monarch, may discuss it but finally acts on the advice of the concerned government.”

Through this answer, Mountbatten intended to convey a definite message to Jinnah that the proposed arrangement of having one governor general for both countries was only temporary and meant to ensure a harmonious transition. It, however, had exactly the opposite effect on Jinnah who conveyed nearly a month later in no uncertain terms that he would hold the position of governor general, not prime minister, of Pakistan.

If you rummage through the Mountbatten Papers, compiled and preserved in the President’s study, you will find invaluable nuggets of history that reveal new perspectives altogether. In hindsight, one can assume that the question posed in the press conference had a significant bearing on the future of the subcontinent. If Mountbatten had been the governor general of both nations, Jinnah would have been reined in from launching many of his misadventures, especially in Kashmir.

gandhi The solemn acceptance of Partition for India: Nehru, Ismay, Mountbatten, Jinnah

History is replete with many unpredictable twists and turns that radically altered the face of the future. Perhaps a fly-on-the-wall account would have exposed the highs and lows of individuals entrusted with people’s destiny. The Machiavellian statecraft that entailed actions shrouded in secrecy and well-practised equivocation of the colonial masters still need to be fully deciphered.

What is certain, however, is the fact that Gandhi, despite his initial distaste for Lutyens’ creation and all that it represented, had grown fond of the last viceroy. Hours after that fateful press conference of Mountbatten, he met Gandhi, who said at the prayer meeting that evening, “And now I want to reassure you about the British.” In the light of his own talks with Mountbatten, he said, “the Viceroy has had no hand in this decision.” Venting frustration at the attitude of the Muslim League, he appreciated Mountbatten for going on “doing his work in the name of God.”

Though circumstances forced Gandhi to accept the Partition, he continued to cling fast to his hope that the innate goodness of human beings would eventually overcome acrimony. An eternal optimist that Gandhi was, he remained committed to his belief till the end.

Ajay Singh is press secretary to the President of India

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