Sunday, November 30, 2003

A riot of queries on Partition
Parshotam Mehra

Witness to Partition: A Memoir
by B. R. Nanda.
Rupa, New Delhi. Rs 250. Pages 172.

Witness to Partition: A MemoirBooks on the Partition are a legion, including not only serious scholarly tomes of archival sources and their interpretation but also first-hand accounts of those who lived the experience and reflected on it. There is, besides, no end of works of fiction, short stories, plays, excellent poetry depicting varied facets of this mighty cataclysm. The slender volume under review is a memoir written in December 1947, when all that the Partition meant was riots, unchecked anarchy, rout of minorities and the rehabilitation of large masses of uprooted humanity that cried for instant solution. All this with a new, short, but perceptive introduction embellishes this little volume.

The memoir, which vividly recalls some men and events of those troubled times, is easily disposed. A few are recounted here as representative of the larger whole: Sir Sikandar’s (Unionist Party Chief Minister of united Panjab) “tradition of parliamentary management was reminiscent of bad old days of Walpole’s England: every honourable member had his price.” (Have we really progressed far in the past half a century or so?) If he were asked who was “immediately responsible” for the March 1946 Panjab disturbances: “I would immediately name Mr Attlee.” For it was his announcement of February 20, 1946, setting June 1948 as the date for British departure that brought things to a boil.

Khizr Hayat Khan Tiwana who succeeded Sir Sikandar was “a perfect gentleman”, who had “strayed into politics like an English squire of the 18th century devoid of personal or political passions and therefore lacked the courage of conviction.” His resignation was to open the “sluice gates” of anarchy. The resultant March (1946) riots “finally” broke the resistance of the Congress to the division of the country.

Among the thousands of hapless men and women, the author recalls an old Muslim refugee, who halted on the Ferozepore road at Lahore and asked a passerby: “Brother, how far is Pakistan from here?” Half an hour later, she was to enter a refugee camp! Gandhi’s idea of public service without desire for personal profit or power was not new, but the zeal with which the Mahatma lived it was exemplary. Nor was there a “greater policeman in history” who restored order “not indeed with truncheon and gun”, but by exhorting, admonishing and warning. Above all, the greatest rebel against the Government in British India was to become in free India the greatest buffer between the Government and the people.

The introduction (May 2003) sets out to sketch the underlying causes and the course of the triangular contest between the British Imperialism, Congress nationalism and Muslim separatism that resulted in the Partition. Syed Ahmad Khan played a major role by choosing for his community the path of separatism and insisting that the British had a duty to give Muslims back the power they had wrested from India’s former rulers.

Whitehall’s decision to introduce separate electorates in the 1909 scheme of constitutional reforms was to prove the thin line between the communal divide widened with every successive installment — in 1919 and 1935. As to attempts at reconciliation with Jinnah and his Muslim League, these broke down, one and all, on the bedrock of there being no “fixity” in the Muslim demands, which graduated from the Lucknow Pact (1916) to the 14 Points (1929) to a separate homeland for the Muslims (1940), which in less than a decade was to emerge as a living reality. By the early 1940s, dealing with the League had become impossible, for while the Partition was rated bad enough, worse possibilities had begun to loom portentously on the horizon.

The author poses three questions on the Partition, invariably asked, though not always satisfactorily answered. One—could the Congress leaders have done more to conciliate the Quaid? The answer—hardly. For Jinnah’s position in negotiations had little room for flexibility; his political style hardly calculated to assist a compromise.

Two—why did Nehru and Patel not oppose Partition? They had been chastened by their experience of working with the League in the interim government (September 1946 to July 1947) as well as the growing lawlessness in the country. The choice, as they saw it, lay between anarchy and the Partition.

Three—in the final count, why did Gandhi not resort to a fast to prevent the Partition? It would have been a futile exercise. The British were leaving in any case and the leaders of the Muslim League would have denounced the fast as a trick to cheat them of Pakistan.

For a student of modern Indian history, Nanda needs no introduction. His seminal studies on Gandhi and Gokhale apart, he has written six other books of outstanding scholarship and research. As Founder Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, he helped establish one of the finest institutions for the study of modern Indian history and politics. Happily, despite his years that sit so lightly on him and his nose still glued to the grindstone, one always looks forward to his works with the greatest of anticipation.