Special Reports

Why did Mountbatten fix August 15 as Independence Day?

In an article in The Tribune recently, Natwar Singh had suggested that Mahatma Gandhi approved of the Partition plan. This is factually incorrect. Socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia's book Guilty Men of India's Partition gives a factual position. Lohia was present in the final CWC meeting in which the Partition plan was accepted. 

Some people have attributed the Congress acceptance of Partition of India in 1947 to “the persuasive voice of Gandhiji which made the working committee accept the Partition and which but for Gandhiji's intervention, the working committee might not have approved”. This is grossly unfair and presents a wrong picture of the final efforts made by Gandhiji to prevent Partition up to the final stages.  

It is now well-known that when Jinnah was insistent, Gandhiji made a last desperate attempt by asking Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel to step aside and let Jinnah be the first Prime Minister of undivided India. He should form his ministry the way he liked, including the choice to have only Muslims League ministers in the Central Cabinet, with the assurance that the Congress will not object. One cannot say what Jinnah's reactions would have been. But considering that Jinnah is on record on insisting that his house in Mumbai/Delhi be not declared evacuee property because he wished to have good Indo-Pak relations and would like to spend one month every year in India, it would have been worthwhile trying.  

Muslims Against Partition by Shamsul Islam
Muslims Against Partition by Shamsul Islam

This could not be concretised because both Nehru and Patel were forthright in rejecting this proposal. So for many of us who were adults then, this reference to Gandhiji's acceptance of Partition is painful and does not represent the factual position. A reference to socialist leader Dr Ram Manohar Lohia's book Guilty Men of India's Partition gives the correct factual position. Lohia was present in that final Congress Working Committee meeting. Lohia, who along with Jaiprakash Narain attended that meeting, has written: “I should like especially to bring out two points that Gandhiji made at this meeting. He turned to Mr Nehru and Sardar Patel in mild complaint that they had not informed him of the scheme of Partition, before committing themselves to it. Before Gandhiji could make out his point fully, Nehru intervened with some passion to say that he had kept him fully informed. On Mahatma Gandhi's repeating that he did not know of the scheme of Partition, Nehru slightly altered his earlier observation. He said that Noakhali was so far away and that, while he may not have described the details of the scheme he had broadly written of the Partition to Gandhiji... I will accept Mahatma Gandhi's version of the case, and not Nehru's and who will not? One does not have to dismiss Nehru as a liar. All that is at issue here is whether Mahatma Gandhi knew of the scheme of Partition before Nehru and Patel had committed themselves to it. It would not do for Nehru to publish vague letters which he might have written to Mahatma Gandhi, doling out hypothetical and insubstantial information. There was definitely a hole-in-the-corner aspect of this business. Nehru and Patel had obviously between themselves decided that it would be best not to scare Gandhiji away before the deed was definitely resolved upon. Keeping turned towards Messrs Nehru and Patel, Gandhiji made his second point. He wanted the Congress party to honour the commitments made by its leaders. He would, therefore, ask the Congress to accept the principle of Partition. After accepting the principle, the Congress should make a declaration concerning its execution. It should ask the British government and the Viceroy to step aside once the Congress and the Muslim League had signified their acceptance of Partition. The partitioning of the country should be carried out jointly by the Congress Party and the Muslim League without the intervention of a third party. This was, I thought so at that time and still do, a grand tactical stroke. Much has been said about the saint having simultaneously been a tactician, but this fine and cunning proposal has, to my knowledge, not so far been put on record...there was no need for anyone else to oppose the proposal. It was not considered. I am writing this to put the record straight”. 

Gandhiji’s anguish at the Partition of the country was so unbearable that he refused to be in Delhi on August 15. What nobility that the greatest fighter for India’s freedom refused to share this glory and left Delhi to fight against the communal carnage taking place at Calcutta and to give the assurance of safety to the minorities. 

I accept the fact that the conditions in the country had deteriorated to such a level that it was not possible to prevent the Partition. Yet, we have not given sufficient thought to the fact that millions of deaths, most immeasurable destruction in the process of Partition could have been averted if the leaders of the parties had shown statesmanship in carrying out the process of partitioning the country. It is well-known that Prime Minister Clement Attlee had given June, 1948 as the date by which the British government would leave India, when Lord Mountbatten was sent to India in March, 1947. 

Had this schedule been observed, requisite and detailed arrangements for the safety of millions of people, on both sides, could have been made. Undoubtedly, slaughter and mutual hatred would have been there but both the governments could have made safe arrangements for exchange of populations. The government machinery could have been mobilised. But this did not happen. The reason was the unilateral announcement by Lord Mountbatten on June 1947, that India’s Independence Day would be on August 15, 1947. This left no time to make arrangements for an unprecedented, massive exodus. 

One knows now why this sudden announcement was made at a press conference, fixing August 15, 1947 as Independence. The reason was the vanity and self-glorification of Mountbatten. He had accepted the surrender of the Japanese navy on August 1945, as the Supreme Allied Commander, South-East Asia Command (SEAC), of Allied powers.

Our politicians were, unfortunately, too self-obsessed with ignorance and vanity. As a consequence, they maintained an ominous silence, resulting in the death of millions and the destruction of massive property. Can history forgive them? I doubt very much. 

The writer is a retired Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court