Official estimates downplay the toll of civilians who were killed or raped during the orgy of riots which accompanied the partition of India and creation of Pakistan in 1947. Probably, anywhere between one and two million people were butchered. Lakhs of women were raped and then forcibly married off or sold into prostitution. Families were forcibly displaced from their ancestral homes and there was a humungous loss of property. Penderel Moon (Divide and Quit) showed that Hindus and Sikhs were forced to abandon 6.7 million acres of fertile agricultural land worth 500 crore rupees in what would become Pakistan. Muslims, who fled India, abandoned 4.7 million acres of relatively less fertile agricultural lands worth 100 crore rupees. In all, over eight million civilians were rendered refugees. Hundreds of gurdwaras and temples were razed or desecrated.
The 1947 genocide was a calamity of horrible proportions. It was a calamity which could’ve been averted or at least mitigated to a significant extent. Why wasn’t it mitigated? Who should be held guilty of unleashing this terrible carnage and suffering on our people?
Before we answer these questions, we should unambiguously understand the root cause of Partition. Koenraad Elst has aptly argued that Islam is the root cause:
“In reality, the ideology of Partition was rooted in Islam. According to Islam, Muslims must always be in power. Thus, Muslim men are allowed to marry non-Muslim women but non-Muslim men are not allowed to marry Muslim women because wives are deemed to be at the husbands’ command. In the Middle Ages, Muslim minorities had seemed to subdue the Hindus by military means, and Muslim leaders with a medieval mindset concluded logically that numbers were unimportant to decide who will dominate whom. Thus, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (who had given an emigration fatwa during the Khilafat movement) is mis-termed a Nationalist Muslim but aimed in fact at the Islamic domination of the whole of India. However, Jinnah had interiorized the modern value of democracy and didn’t dare to ask for more than a country in which Muslims would form the majority… Islam is against multiculturalism unless it is treated with utmost respect and has at least the perspective of becoming dominant. By contrast, the Hindu nationalists including Nathuram Godse were prepared to give the Muslims far-reaching concessions in order to keep India united.”
In other words, Islam and the Muslim obsession with dar-ul-Islam was the root cause of Partition and the ensuing sufferings. Hindu nationalists were fundamentally opposed to Partition and sought coexistence with Muslims whereas Muslims wanted to partition India. The events which unfolded since the 1930s made it clear that the partition of India was inevitable. The actions of the Muslim League starting with its call for Direct Action Day and the Noakhali Massacres made it clear that the Muslims had no qualms about indulging in violence and committing the most heinous crimes against the Hindus and Sikhs to achieve their goal.
However, the Islamic obsession was not the necessary, sufficient, and contributing cause of the carnage which ensued. One must look at other factors hitherto ignored. I would evaluate those factors and hold Mountbatten, Gandhi, and Nehru culpable.
Apologists of Gandhi, Nehru, and the British often argue that the events unfolded so rapidly that none anticipated the magnitude of the carnage to unfold. To reinforce this assertion, it is also claimed that less than 5,000 people had been killed prior to Partition. These are false assertions which are also racist because they portray the British as capable of upholding law and order and the Indians as prone to lawlessness and utter barbarism. Muslims had been rioting against the Hindus for at least a year starting with the Noakhali Massacres. Panic-stricken Hindus and Sikhs had also been migrating away from Muslim-majority areas for nearly a year. The first-person account of Acharya Kripalani, given during the Congress Working Committee meeting on June 12, 1947, after Mountbatten had hurriedly announced Partition, is noteworthy:
“The Hindu and Moslem communities have vied with each other in the worst orgies of violence. I have seen a well where women with their children, 107 in all, threw themselves to save their honour. In another place, a place of worship, fifty young women were killed by their menfolk for the same reason. I have seen heaps of bones in a house where 307 persons, mainly women and children, were driven, locked up and then burnt alive by the invading mob…The fear is not for the lives lost, or of the widows’ wail, or of the orphans’ cry, or of the many houses burned. The fear is that if we go on like this, retaliating and heaping indignities on each other, we shall progressively reduce ourselves to a stage of cannibalism and worse. In every fresh communal fight the most brutal and degraded acts of the previous fight become the norm.” [cf. Majumdar, R. C.: The History and Culture of the Indian People, Volume XI, Struggle for Freedom, p. 781]
Kripalani’s testimony, recorded at least two months before Independence, confirms that the most brutal violence had already been underway for several months. Although Kripalani obfuscates, his testimony leaves no doubt that the victims were mostly Hindus and Sikhs. The testimony repudiates the claim made by the apologists of Gandhi, Nehru, and the British.
Could the British have deterred this violence or at least reduced its scale? An incident from May 8, 1947 allows us to answer this question. On this day, the Maharaja of Patiala met Mountbatten and expressed his concern over the wellbeing of Sikhs ever since Partition had been announced. He was apprehensive that the Sikhs may fight in self-defense. Mountbatten responded:
“If they do they will have to fight the central government; for I and my government are determined to put down any communal war with a ruthless iron hand; they will be opposed not only by tanks and armored cars and artillery, but they will be bombed and machine-gunned from air. You can tell your Sikhs that if they start a war they will not be fighting the Muslim League but the whole might of the armed forces.” [cf. Mansergh, Nicholas (ed.): The Transfer of power 1942-7, Volume 10, p. 686]
The threat had the effect which Mountbatten had desired. The Sikh jathas were dissuaded from initiating an organized attack. Riots, especially those which are sustained over time, require central organization and a chain of command. If the leaders are sufficiently warned that the government would crackdown on them they would be discouraged from rioting. There is good reason to think that the Muslim mobs would’ve also been dissuaded had Mountbatten warned them. The Muslim League National Guard was a militia which had been founded in 1931 and had spearheaded the Noakhali Massacres in 1946 as well as Partition riots. The British turned a blind eye to the predations of the Muslim League National Guard against the Hindus and Sikhs. However, had the British made the instituting of the Jinnah regime conditional upon reining in the Muslim League National Guard that would’ve had the desired effect too. After all, the Muslim League had to be on the good books of the British for achieving its goal of Pakistan.
Unfortunately, Mountbatten made no attempt to preempt the riots. He had been warned by Claude Auchinleck, the commander-in-chief of the British Indian forces, that “during the process of division India will be virtually undefended.” [cf. Mansergh, Nicholas (ed.): The Transfer of power 1942-7, Volume 10, p. 1008]. Mountbatten’s criminal acts of commission are two-fold. Firstly, he hastened the date of Partition. It had originally been planned for some time around June 1948. Had that been adhered to, there would’ve been time for an organized transfer of power and population. More importantly, the 500,000 strong British Indian armed forces could’ve been deployed in a planned manner to prevent riots and to protect the migrating civilians. Unfortunately, the hasty announcement of Partition exacerbated the crisis. Secondly, Mountbatten made the callous decision to only deploy a token force of 50,000 soldiers under the newly constituted, ragtag Punjab Boundary Force. The rest, 90 percent of the armed forces, were either disbanded or called back to the barracks. Some of the disbanded soldiers would participate in the riots thereby exacerbating the suffering. However, the Punjab Boundary Force was never intended to quell the riots or protect the civilians. In a secret army directive dated 29 July 1947, Lt. Gen. Sir Arthur Smith dictated that the Punjab Boundary Force cannot be used to suppress communal riots or to save Indian lives under any circumstances. It could only intervene if a British life was in danger. The British officers were commanded to destroy the directive upon reading and to ensure that no Indian officer ever knew of its existence. Mountbatten knew of its existence and had tacitly approved it. [cf. Mansergh, Nicholas (ed.): The Transfer of power 1942-7, Volume 12, pp. 625-6]. In any case, the Punjab Boundary Force was disbanded after a mere 32-day existence under the pretext that the riots and the resultant butchering of innocents cannot be prevented.
Mountbatten was motivated by racism. He didn’t care about Indian lives. Britain had laid waste to India and looted her wealth over the previous 200 years. In the aftermath of WW2, India was of no use to Britain. Staying back in India for 10 more months to facilitate an organized Partition would’ve cost money which the British were unwilling to spend. Hence, they decided to bolt. To those white-collared criminals, the lives of a few million Indians didn’t matter at all. Mountbatten’s two-fold criminal act of commission was simply the culmination of the unstated British policy of not acting against Muslim rioters when they had targeted Hindus and Sikhs all along.
It is not my contention that there would’ve been no riots had the British acted responsibly and without racist prejudice. It is rather my contention that the scope of the riots would’ve been significantly reduced because of which far fewer human lives would’ve been lost. A genocide could’ve certainly been averted. After all, the British administration selectively cared for the whites, Parsis, Anglo-Indians, and converted Christians all of whom were largely untouched in the Partition riots. Hindus and Sikhs, on the other hand, paid a heavy price. One may wonder as to why I haven’t included the Muslims in the list of victims. There is a reason. Going by historic precedent from the previous decades, the British might have assumed that the Hindus and Sikhs are unlikely to retaliate. If they did, the British could always depend on Gandhi and Nehru to suppress the Hindu mobilization as they did in Bihar in the aftermath of Noakhali Massacres. On the only occasion on May 8, 1947 when the Maharaja of Patiala warned of Sikh armed resistance, Mountbatten was able to preempt it with a stern warning. So, I believe that the British hadn’t anticipated a violent Hindu-Sikh response and that it caught them by surprise.
Now, having established the guilt of Mountbatten, let us turn our attention to the conduct of Gandhi and Nehru during those fateful days. Theirs, I would argue, was a crime of omission.
Firstly, both Gandhi and Nehru were fully aware of the magnitude of the ongoing attacks on Hindus and Sikhs when Mountbatten hurriedly announced Partition. Kripalani’s testimony would’ve informed them that those attacks were part of an ongoing genocide of Hindus and Sikhs. Yet, they didn’t insist that Mountbatten deploy forces to protect the migrating Hindus and Sikhs. They didn’t protest when Mountbatten deployed a token force of 50,000 soldiers as part of Punjab Boundary Force instead of deploying the half-a-million strong British Indian Army. They didn’t protest when Mountbatten disbanded the Punjab Boundary Force in 32 days while genocide was going on in full swing. They didn’t protest the hasty declaration of Partition without any plan to ensure safe transfer of populations. Nor did they propose a reasonable alternative of their own.
Secondly, they failed to bargain for instituting any measure which would’ve constrained Jinnah to act responsibly and safeguard the lives of Hindus and Sikhs. India owed Pakistan 75 crore rupees. Had they emphatically told Jinnah, in early 1947 itself when Partition was announced, that the payment of this amount was contingent upon the safety of Hindus and Sikhs, there is a good chance that Jinnah might have acted to curb the Muslim League National Guard. Nehru could’ve also attempted to use his good offices with Mountbatten to put pressure on Jinnah in this regard. He didn’t. Instead, Nehru decided to withhold the payment of the instalment of 55 crores only after the Pakistanis invaded Kashmir toward the end of 1947. By then millions of Hindus and Sikhs had been slaughtered, raped, or displaced.
One may argue that even if Gandhi and Nehru had demanded these, Mountbatten would have contemptuously dismissed their plea. It is possible. However, my argument is that they didn’t even attempt. A leader who cared for his people wouldn’t have been so apathetic as these two were. Nehru, in addition, was also motivated by his quest for power. So, he chose to acquiesce with Mountbatten despite the latter’s racist and inhumane policies that led to genocide. Being in the good books of Mountbatten was more important than speaking up for Hindu and Sikh interests. Gandhi too sought to appease Mountbatten. Sardar Patel and Nehru had decided to withhold the payment of the final instalment of 55 crore rupees to Pakistan after it invaded Kashmir in the latter part of 1947. Mountbatten prevailed upon Gandhi to protest this decision. Gandhi acquiesced and went on a fast thereby compelling Nehru to release the payment to Pakistan. Gandhi called off the fast on the very day Indian government transferred the sum to Pakistan.
This incident has been a source of considerable embarrassment to Gandhi apologists such as Rajmohan Gandhi. They plead that Gandhi fasted for Hindu-Muslim unity. They claim that Gandhi continued his fast for three more days after India transferred the sum to Pakistan which, they argue, proves that releasing the sum couldn’t have been the objective of Gandhi’s fast. Unfortunately, this special pleading doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Hindu-Muslim relationships hadn’t improved in those additional three days. Hindus and Muslims hadn’t collectively pledged to cease hostility. If anything, ‘Dilli Chalo’ had brought millions of Hindu and Sikh refugees into Delhi. They were freezing in refugee camps as it was peak winter. Naturally, there was a lot of animosity toward the Muslims, who had been the cause of their suffering. So, there was no reason for Gandhi to end his fast at this juncture! Clever by the half pleadings fail the litmus test.
Justice Khosla had been appointed to oversee refugee resettlement then. He was also closely interacting with Gandhi and seeking his guidance. Khosla wrote in The Murder of the Mahatma:
“Only a few days previously the world had witnessed a demonstration of his powers. A sum of 550 million rupees was due to Pakistan, but the Government of India was reluctant to pay it as it was feared that the money would be used by the Government of Pakistan to purchase arms for use against India in Kashmir where a state of hostilities prevailed. Sardar Patel, the Home Minister, made a statement to this effect on January 12, I948. It was well known that Mahatma Gandhi was strongly opposed to any decision which might savour of breach of faith on our part. On the day Sardar Patel made his statement, the All India Radio announced that Mahatma Gandhi had undertaken a fast with the object of improving Hindu-Muslim relations in the capital. Three days later, the Government of India announced that immediate effect would be given to the financial pact arrived at between India and Pakistan, and that orders had been issued to the Reserve Bank of India to pay the entire amount due to Pakistan. On the same day Mahatma Gandhi broke his fast. The nationalist newspapers highlighted these two items of news with bold headlines announcing that the Government of India had at last surrendered ‘to Pakistan due to pressure from Gandhiji’. The leaders of Pakistan were ‘overcome with excessive joy’, and though nothing was openly said against Mahatma Gandhi there was an under-current of sorrow and resentment at what had happened.”
Khosla’s testimony belies the claims of Gandhi apologists! Gandhi fasted to force the Indian government to release the sum to Pakistan. He simply invented the façade of Hindu-Muslim unity to hide its intent. Given the prevailing anger toward Pakistan and Muslims, Gandhi couldn’t have openly sympathized with Pakistan!
In conclusion, it may be stated that while Partition was motivated by the Islamic zeal to establish dar-ul-Islam, the genocide which ensued was unnecessary. The genocide was the result of British racism which Mountbatten embodied. Gandhi and Nehru displayed apathy toward the plight of Hindus and Sikhs. They displayed servility toward the erstwhile colonial masters. Even worse, Gandhi didn’t hesitate to force his government to pay the enemy. Nehru didn’t hesitate to have Mountbatten as a bosom friend and the first governor general of India. Rarely ever has a genocidal maniac been thus rewarded by those representatives from among the victims who were beholden to his race.
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Kalavai Venkat is a Silicon Valley-based writer, an atheist, a practicing orthodox Hindu, and author of the book “What Every Hindu should know about Christianity.”