Date: 8/16/2005


Mountbatten and the Punjab bloodbath BASHARAT HUSSAIN QIZILBASH The partition of the Indian Subcontinent on 14 August, 1947 witnessed history’s largest ever uprooting of populations. According to a conservative estimate, the horrendous toll of communal frenzy left over half a million dead, about one crore lost their homes and everything and over one hundred thousand young girls were kidnapped. (Leonard Mosley, The last days of the British Raj, p. 244). The communal disturbances had started well before the transfer of power. More than anyone, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah was highly perturbed at the deteriorating situation, particularly in Punjab. In a June 23, 1947 meeting with Viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten, he conveyed his dismay by pointing out that the then Governor of Punjab, Jenkins had adopted a weak attitude towards the menacing situation, and emphasising his viewpoint said, “I don’t care whether you shoot Muslims or not, it (the violence) has got to be stopped.” (Latif Sherwani, The partition of India and Pakistan, p. 97). The alarming situation compelled Jenkins to send Captain Savage, a police officer in the Punjab CID (coordinating the investigation of the disturbances) on August 5 to brief the Viceroy on the brewing situation in the province. Mountbatten discussed the situation with Savage in the presence of Jinnah, Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan and Sardar V. Patel. Savage’s revelations were explosive. He told his audience that the top Sikh leader Master Tara Singh was collecting arms through Sikh officers in the British-Indian army and was dumping them in the princely states. He said that Tara Singh knew that four or five young Sikhs were planning to blow up the special train to Pakistan. He had also threatened that Jinnah would be assassinated during the independence day celebrations at Karachi on August 15. He divulged that Tara Singh was also involved in the production of bombs to blow the river headworks. Upon hearing this, the Quaid stressed upon Mountbatten to immediately arrest all the involved Sikh leaders but Sardar Patel emphatically opposed his suggestion. As a compromise Jinnah agreed to the proposal that the Sikh leaders would be arrested with the announcement of the Punjab Boundary Commission Award, which was then expected to be made public on August 10, 1947. Mountbatten agreed to recommend to Jenkins that the Sikh leaders be arrested at the time of the announcement of the boundary award but when he consulted the Governor-designate of East Punjab, Trivedi, the latter opposed the arrests on the advice of Patel. At this Mountbatten sent his staff member George Abell to Jinnah to find out if he had any objection to the postponement of the arrest of the Sikh leaders, to which the Quaid reiterated his earlier stand and insisted on the arrest of the Sikh leaders. Khalid Bin Sayeed in his article, “Jinnah and his political strategy” has quoted page number 34 of Cunnigham’s diary revealing Quaid’s resentment towards Mountbatten on the communal massacre: “Jinnah says this was known in June 1947 that Mountbatten was aware of it and decided in July to round up all leaders but put it off and off, and finally said he would do it simultaneously with the publication of the Border Commission Report, so he was able to play out time after the 15 August and thus did nothing. Jinnah says he has documentary proof that the report was in Mountbatten’s hands by 7 August and could have been published then if Mountbatten had not held it up. Jinnah was very bitter about whole thing.” Amazingly the Quaid was well-informed about the finalisation of the boundary award because the Viceroy was actually communicated on August 9 that the Punjab Boundary award was ready for announcement. The Viceroy was in a bit of a dilemma: should he make public the award as soon as he received it or should he hold it for a few days until the celebrations for independence were over? George Abell suggested for the immediate announcement of the award to enable the troops to move into the affected areas before the transfer of power and to avoid possible jiggery-pockery if it became known that the Viceroy had suppressed the award for his own ends. Viceroy’s other advisers suggested that August 14 was the proper day for the award to be made public. Surprisingly, Mountbatten favoured a third possibility whereby the Punjab Boundary Commission Report was not to be announced till August 16, when the independence celebrations would be over. Consequently, on August 9, he sent his staff members A. Campbell-Johnson and Christie to prevail upon (CR) Cyril Radcliffe, the Chairman of the Boundary Commission to delay the delivery of the awards till after the transfer of power. An entry in Christie’s personal diary in this regard is quite interesting: “CR refused flat — too many people know it’s ready.” However, still all went according to Mountbatten’s plan. Radcliffe agreed to hand over the boundary awards of Punjab, Bengal and Sylhet in one package to the Viceroy on August 13 by which time Mountbatten would be on the point of leaving for the independence day celebrations in Karachi. (Philip Ziegler, Mountbatten —the official biography, p. 417). This was criminal on the part of the Viceroy but Henry V. Hodson in his article, “The role of Lord Mountbatten” has defended the delay in the announcement of the boundary awards and has termed it as an example of Mountbatten’ s political flair and not an act of deception as is generally believed in India and Pakistan. Actually the awards could have been announced two or three days before the partition date but the Viceroy didn’t want to have the ‘hangover’ of the partition carnage before the independence celebrations. For India and Pakistan, no less for the last Viceroy of the Raj, the day of independence had to be one of triumph, not of lamentation and strife. The Pakistanis could neither forget nor forgive the horrendous massacres in Punjab. No wonder, when the Kashmir issue was being discussed in the UN Security Council after the partition, the then Foreign Minister of Pakistan held Mountbatten responsible for the bloodbath in Punjab but to avoid this embarrassment, the British Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations Philip Noel Baker requested Pakistan’s Foreign Minister not to refer to this issue in his speeches at the Security Council. Strangely, Mountbatten in a March 2, 1948 letter to Noel Baker defended his position unashamedly, “I have such a cast-iron reply — viz, that the decision not to arrest the Sikh leaders was taken by the Governor of Punjab and in consultation with the Governors-designate of the East and the West Punjab and was against my own advice...” In effect, his statement was misleading. H.A.F. Rumbold, the then Assistant Secretary, Commonwealth Relations wrote to B.R. Carson of the British delegation to the United Nations, on 25 March 1948: “… his case is not so cast-iron as he suggests because until 14 August, the Governor of the Punjab was subject to the general control and particular directions of the Governor-General...” However, the comments of the then British Permanent Under Secretary of State Sir Arthur Carter submitted to his Secretary of State on 9 June 1948 are most convincing in fixing the responsibility of the Punjab fiasco on Mountbatten: “Somewhat curiously Lord Mountbatten, in the covering letter of 2nd March with which he sent the brief, says that the decision to take no action (against the Sikhs) was against his own advice. Even if this be true, he cannot avoid responsibility for the decision. Before Lord Mountbatten came to the conclusion on Jenkins’ advice to take no action, Jinnah and the Muslim portion of the Interim Government had withdrawn to Karachi. They, not unnaturally, say that Mountbatten went back on the policy decided upon at the meeting of 5th August as soon as the Muslim backs were turned. It is easy to be wise after the event. Nevertheless, it does seem to me that in a matter of this importance Lord Mountbatten ought to have let Jinnah know of the change in policy.” The Viceroy, the Sikhs and the Congress have eventually met their nemesis at the hands of history for their gory role in the cold-blooded slaughter of the innocent Muslims. However, Mountbatten being the highest authority is the chief culprit for the carnage. No wonder, Mosley’s comment is terse but apt: “This is a matter for Mountbatten’s conscience.” Even, Mountbatten’s sympathetic official biographer P. Ziegler had to admit: “It is certainly possible to criticise the decision.”