Independence and Partition
The 1945-1946 Elections
In the elections to the Central and Provincial Legislatures held in 1945-1946, the Congress won the general seats and the Muslim League, the Muslim ones (except in the NWFP). The League formed governments in Bengal and Sind, but was defeated in the key province of Punjab. In 1937, the league had won only 25% of the Muslim seats while in 1946, it captured almost 90% of the seats, Jinnah had campaigned to secure a mandate for Pakistan and was successful. The situation was well summed up by BR Ambedkar, who stated, ‘the elections have well established the Muslim League as the only mouthpiece of the Muslims. They are decided upon a divided India and this question must be tackled first. The British Parliamentary delegation, which arrived in Delhi in early January, 1946 also reported back to the British cabinet that India must be immediately guaranteed her national freedom and sovereign rights.
Revolt of RIN Ratings
On February 18, 1946, the ratings of the RIN in Bombay openly revolted. The Indian sailors, complaining of bad food and racial discrimination, hoisted the Congress and League flags on their ships. By February 22, the strike had spread to naval bases all over the country, involving 20,000 ratings. The demands of the elected Naval Central Strike Committee covered service conditions and political demands like release of INA and other political prisoners withdrawal of Indian troops from Indonesia, and acceptance of Indian officers as superiors. The men hesitated, however, on border line of peaceful strike and determined mutiny. They obeyed orders on the afternoon of February 20 to return to their respective ships and barracks, only to find themselves surrounded by armed guards. Fighting broke out next morning at Castle barracks when the ratings tried to break the cordon. On February 22, the Bombay working classes, already agitated over recent ration cuts, called for a general strike, and city transport. The Hindu and Muslim students and workers also demonstrated their support to he naval mutiny. There was violent street fighting on February 22 and 23. Serious clashes took place at Karachi throughout February. There was considerable unrest in the airforce and army too.
Sardar Patel, helped for once by Jinnah, managed to persuade the ratings to end their strike on February 23. The Strikes Committee issued a bulletin to say that they had surrendered to their national leaders and to the Governments.
Cabinet Mission Plan
The Cabinet Mission comprising three members- Lord Pathick-Lawrence (Secretary of State for India) Sir Stafford Cripps ( President of the Board of Trade) and AV Alexandor (First Lord of the Admiralty), came to India on March 19, 1946. It could not reach any agreement about the formation of an interim Government and the machinery for formulating the Constitution, after discussion with the congress and Muslim League. Thereupon, the Cabinet Mission issued a statement on May 16, 1946 formulating a plan for the future Government of India. According to it, there was to be a Union of India, embracing both British India and the Indian States, with control over foreign affairs, defence, and communications, and the power to raise the money required for such purpose. All other subjects were to be vested in the Provinces and the States, but the provinces were to be free to form groups for common action. India was to be divided into three groups of provinces – Group A consisting of Madras, Bombay, Central Provinces, United provinces, Bihar, and Orissa; Group B of the North-West Frontier Province, the Punjab, Sind, and Baluchistan; and Group C comprising Bengal and Assam.
The Cabinet Mission also recommended a scheme for formulating constitution which provided that Union Constitution was to be framed by a Constituent Assembly, the members of which were to be elected on a communal basis by the Provincial Legislative Assemblies and the representatives of the States Joining the Union. The Constitution of the Provinces in each group was to be drawn up by the representatives of the three Groups of Provinces meeting separately. The Cabinet Mission further suggested the establishment of an interim Government having the support of the major political parties by a re-constitution of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, in which all the portfolios including that of War Member’ were to be held by Indian leaders enjoying full confidence of the people.
The Cabinet Mission Plan was not considered satisfactory by any section of the Indian people, but all of them sought to utilize it for their own interests. The Muslim League accepted it on June 6, 1946 inasmuch as the basis and foundation o f Pakistan were inherent in the Mission’s Plan by virtue of the compulsory groupings of the six Muslim majority provinces in Groups B and C. The Congress on June 25 decided to join the framing the constitution, but did not agree on the proposal for an interim Government. The Cabinet Mission left India on June 29, and the Viceroy formed a caretaker Government comprising nine officials.
Direct Action Day and Interim Government
The elections to the Constituent Assembly were held in the month of July, 1946. It resulted in an overwhelming majority of the Congress, which Jinnah described as a ‘brute majority’. The Muslim League withdrew its asset to the Cabinet Mission Plan and expressed its determination ‘to resort to direct action to achieve Pakistan’ as and when necessary. This did not take long to come. On August 16, fixed as Direct action day by the Muslim League, a communal frenzy was whipped up in Calcutta by the battle cry ‘Lekar rahenge Pakistan, Larke lenge Pakistan.’ Hindu communal groups retaliated in equal measure. Five thousand lives were lost. The British authorities were worried that they had lost control over the ‘Frankenstein monster’ they had helped to create, but felt it was too late to tame it.
From Calcutta, the communal frenzy spread to East Bengal, Bihar and Punjab. Meanwhile, the Viceroy was busy trying to form the interim Government. On the Muslim League’s refusal to cooperate, the interim Government of 12 members, with Jawaharlal Nehru as its Vice President, took office on September 2, 1946.
By a subtle move, the Viceroy made a change in the interim Government. After his discussions with Jinnah, he told Jawaharlal Nehru that the Muslim league had agreed to join the Constituent Assembly, and five Muslim League nominees were added to the interim Government on October 2, 1946. Jinnah had realized that it was fatal to leave the administration in Congress’ hands and had sought a foothold in the Government to fight for Pakistan. For him, the interim Government was the continuation of civil war by other means. Their disruptionist tactics convinced Congress leaders of the futility of the interim Government as an exercise in Congress – League cooperation.
The political situation was becoming more and more complicated.
The Muslims League refused to join the Constituent Assembly, stating that it had never agreed to do so. The Constituent Assembly met on December 9, 1946. The elected members of the Muslims League absented themselves from it though representatives of different provinces and communities participated in its work. The Constituent Assembly met again in the third week of January, 1947 with Dr Rajendra Prasad as its President, when it passed Jawaharlal Nehru’s resolution on the declaration of objectives and appointed Committee to draft several parts of the constitution. Meeting at Karachi on January 31, 1947, the Working committee of the Muslim League, however, repudiated the proceedings and decisions of the Constituent assembly.
This was the immediate context of Attlee’s famous speech in Parliament on February 20. 1947. The date for British withdrawal from India was fixed as June 30, 1984 and the appointed of a new Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten was announced. Even if Indian politicians could not agree by that date on a Constitution, the British would relinquish power ‘whether as a whole to some form of Central government for British India, or in some areas to the existing provincial governments or in such other way as may seem most reasonable and in the best interest of the Indian people’. British powers and obligations vis-à-vis the Princely States would also end with transfer of power but these would not be transferred to any successor government in British India. The hint of partition and possibly even Balkanization into numerous States was very clear, but the bait of complete transfer of power by a definite and fairly early date proved too tempting to be refused. To the Congress, it meant that the existing Assembly could go ahead and frame a Constitution for the areas represented in it. It offered a way out of the existing deadlock, in which the League not only refused to join the Constituent Assembly but demanded that it be dissolved.
Jinnah saw victory in sight and made a desperate attempt to secure control over the provinces with a Muslim majority. A frenzy of riots broke out in Calcutta, Assam, Punjab, and the NWFP. It seemed to the Congress that partition was the only alternative to civil war and wanton destruction of human life. The League launched civil disobedience in Punjab and brought down the Unionist Akali Congress coalition ministry, led by Khizr Hyatt Khan. This was the situation in which Mountbatten came to India as a Viceroy.
Mountbatten, when he came to India, had already been informally given much greater powers than the previous Viceroy like Wavell to decide things on the spot. Behind this lay the firm decision to quit an the earliest because ‘an irreversible decline of government authority had taken place’ (Wavell).
After a series of interviews with political leaders between March 24-May 26, Mountbatten decided that the Cabinet Mission framework had become untenable. He formulated an alternative with the appropriate code name of Plan Balkan. This envisaged transfer of power to separate provinces (or to confederations, if formed before the transfer ), with the Bengal and the Punjab Assemblies being given the option to vote for partition of their provinces. The various units thus formed along with the Princely States, rendered independent by with the lapse of the paramountcy, would have the choice of joining India, Pakistan, or remaining independent. The Plan was, however, quickly abandoned when Nehru reacted violently against it after Mountbatten privately informed him about it in Simla on May 10. Then, VP Menon and Patel suggested a transfer to two Central Governments, India and Pakistan, on the basis of grant of Dominion status (with a right of secession), thus obviating the need to wait for an agreement in the Constituent Assembly on the new political structure. This was accepted by the Congress, even though formally it meant a retreat from the Lahore resolution of 1929, since Dominion status would ensure a peaceful an quick transfer of power, win for India’s influential friends in Britain, and allow for some continuity in the bureaucracy and army. The League and Sikh leaders accepted the plan on June 2 and it was announced the next day. This became the basis of the India Independence Act which was ratified by the British Parliament and Crown on July 18 and implemented on August 15, 1947. Mountbatten was responsible to a considerable extent for the breakneck speed at which the whole process of transfer of power was carried out, but this very fact left many anomalies in arranging partition details. It also totally failed to prevent the Punjab massacre.
The partition was to be effected in the following manner if the member of Legislative Assemblies of Bengal and Punjab were to decide in favour of partition by a simple majority, a Boundary Commission, set up by the Viceroy, would demarcate the appropriate boundaries. Sind and Baluchistan would decide which Constituent Assembly to join. In the NWFP, there was to be a referendum to ascertain whether it would join Pakistan or not. The muslim-majority district of Sylhet was also to decide by referendum whether it would join East Bengal or would remain Assam. The British Parliament would undertake legislation to transfer power before the end of 1947 to one or two successor authorities on a Dominion status basis. This was to be done without any prejudice to the final decision of the Constituent Assembly on whether to stay in the Commonwealth or not.
The Muslim League accepted the Plan within a week and so did the Congress. The Congress has no alternative, according to Muslim Azad, but to accept the plan. It was important to arrest the drift towards anarchy and chaos. The lesser evil had to be chosen. Partition was better than murder of the hapless citizens. Gandhi who had till now stead fastly opposed the division of India, also supported the resolution, which was carried by 157 to 29 with 32 members remaining neutral.
The task was enormous but time was running out. Punjab and Bengal were divided by two boundary commission with Sir Cyril Radcliffe as the Chairman of both. East Bengal, West Punjab, Sind, and Baluchistan opted for Pakistan while West Bengal and East Punjab opted for India. Sylhet threw its lot with Pakistan. In the NWFP, Abdul Gaffar Khan and the Red Shirts demanded and independent Pakhtoonistan. This was found to be unacceptable. The Red Shirts did not participate in the plebiscite which went if favour of joining Pakistan.
Integration of Princely States
The Indian Independence Act, 1947 declared that British paramountcy over the Indian States was to lapse on August 15, 1947. The states were allowed to join either India of Pakistan. A keen completion took place between the Pakistani and Indian leaders for securing the accession of the Princely States to their respective dominions.
Sardar Patel, who took charge of the States Department in July 1947, tackled the situation with great statesmanship, ably assisted by VP Menon. Appealing to the patriotic and nationalist sentiments of the Princes. Patel asked them to join the Indian Constituent Assembly. He asked them to hand over authority only in three areas- (i) External Affairs, (ii) Defence and (iii) Communications to the Indian Dominion, pointing out that during the British rule, they had exercised little authority in these three subjects. There were to be no changes in internal political structures. Mountbatten also urged the Princes to accept the Congress’ generous offer of accession, as it was likely that after August 15, they would be facing rebellious subjects. By August 15, the rulers of all the 562 states, with the exception of Junagarh, Kashmir and Hyderabad, had signed the Instrument of accession.
The Nawab of Junagarh, a small state on the coast of Kathiawar, announced accession to Pakistan even though the people of the state desired to join in India. In the end, Indian troops occupied the state anda plebiscite was held, which went in favor of joining India. The Nizam of Hyderabad made an attempt to claim and independent status but was forced broke out in its Telangana area and the Indian troops marched into Hyderabad. The Maharaja of Kashmir also delayed accession to India in October, 1947 after raiders from Pakistan invaded the States.
The much more difficult process of integration of the States with the neighboring Provinces or into new units like Kathiawar Union, Vindhya and Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan or Himachal Pradesh, along with the internal constitutional changes in states which for some years Mysore, Travancore – Cochin), was also accomplished within the remarkably short period of little more than a year. Here, the principal bait offered was that of generous privy purses, while some princes were made Governors or Rajpramukhs. The rapid unification of India is certainly Sardar Patel’s greatest achievement.