Sunday, September 14, 2014

Work in Progress : 3
Rajendra Prasad : A Political Biography
By Dr BSM Murty

The book is divided into seven parts. Part I covers the first 30 years of Rajendra Prasad’s life from early childhood till completion of education and beginning of his law practice at Patna. With Part II begins his political life with Gandhi’s Champaran Satyagraha. Part III takes the story upto the Lahore Congress (1929) where ‘Poorna Swaraj’ was declared as the ultimate objective of the freedom movement.Part IV covers the ‘Strife and Tumult’ of the 30s. Part V takes the story through the Second World War till the tragedy of India’s partition. Part VI brings the narrative from independence right upto 1952 when the first General elections were held. Part VII deals with the decade-long period of Rajendra Prasad’s two consecutive presidencies. The final Chapter ‘Conclusion’ brings the story to a close with Prasad’s death at Sadaqat Ashram, Patna from where his political career had started. Three earlier extracts from Part II (‘The Indigo Story’ and ‘A Planter’s Murder’) and Part III (‘The Butcher of Amritsar)  are already available earlier on this blog. The following 4 extracts are from:  1. Part V, Ch.3 ‘Quit India’; 2 & 3. Ch. 4 ‘Freedom Divided’; 4. Part VI, Ch. 1 ‘The Midnight Saga’. Part VII is now being written.

The first extract deals with the firing near the Patna Assembly gate on 11 August, 1942. A seven-statue Memorial stands today where the seven students had fallen to the British bullets. The plaque on the memorial has an inscription which was drafted by Acharya Shivapujan Sahay. Both can be seen in the photographs.

3.1 The Seven Martyrs

Matters reached a flash-point the very next day, on 11 August, when the Patna District Magistrate, Archer, ordered a totally indefensible firing near the Legislative Assembly building killing seven teenaged school students and grievously injuring another two dozen protesters. The crowd of protesters had assembled there in the late afternoon, after marching for hours peacefully through the main thoroughfares of the town, with the singular intent of hoisting the national flag on the Assembly building. It was essentially a crowd of peaceful protesters out to demonstrate their anger and resentment against the wholesale arrest of their leaders and the stubborn repressive attitude of a hostile government.

In a public meeting held in Patna Lawn on the previous evening, it had been decided to march in a procession the next day with the intent of hoisting the Congress flag on the Legislative Assembly building. Demonstrators had started gathering in different areas of the town since early in the forenoon of 11 August, but the main body of the procession had reached around the Secretariat premises where the Legislative Assembly is located by around 2 p.m.. Apprehending breach of law and order, all the top officers, including the D.M., I.G., D.I.G., A.S.P.,S.D.O. and others, with regular constabulary, Mounted Military Police and armed Gurkha Military force were already there near the south east gate of the Assembly building, by around 2.30 p.m. The crowd had gradually swelled to about 5000. The events as they unfolded there during the next three hours can best be reconstructed from the official reports of the local administration.

It was at the main east gate of the Assembly building where the centre of the mob was collected. Some of the protesters had succeeded in sticking up a Congress flag on this gate which had subsequently been removed. The DM was parleying there with such of the demonstrators who appeared to be leaders. Most of the men in the front of the crowd at this place appeared to be students who had worked themselves up into a state of frenzy shouting Congress and anti-Government slogans. There was also much shouting of slogans of Europeans to quit India and police to be disloyal to Government. The crowd was too dense to be cleared by foot police… The rioters wanted to stick the Congress flag up on some building within the Secretariat grounds. They made it clear to the DM that they intended to hoist a Congress flag over the Assembly building.

The DM tried to reach a compromise by asking the students in the front to march forward in pairs with their flags and offer themselves for arrest. Six students with flags were thus arrested, but this solution did not satisfy the agitated crowd. Next it was noticed that a flag, or kurta as some believed, had been stuck up on the lightning conductor of the Legislative building at the north wing. From where the officers were standing the flag appeared to be a Congress one and it was interpreted as being one both by the DM, other oficers and the crowd. It was not known how the flag had been hoisted but it was assumed that some persons had filtered into the compound, gained access to the Secretariat and had thus been able to hoist it. Suspecting this to be a clever trick, the crowd did not break up. It appeared to have had some doubt about the flag and a great deal of rowdyism occurred at this period. The demonstrators were adamant about hoisting the Congress flag on the Assembly building, and with the repeated charges by the lathi-wielding constabulary and the Mounted Police, brickbatting started from different sections of the crowd in the rear.
The I.G. then himself led a charge against those most of whom did not look like students. ..It was then decided to open fire and 7 Gurkha Military Police were drawn up with their rifles ready. The DM and the SDO then again went ahead to give warnings about a possible firing if the crowd did not disperse immediatelyStill they did not leave and two in the front lifted their shirts so as to bare their chests at the same time shouting an invitation to firing. One of them in a sort of khaki coloured shirt came into the centre of the road to do this. It was obvious that the rioters knew they were to be fired on. The firing was then first directed towards the left. Two or three men were seen to fall on the left and 4 were killed outright on the right, and some 25 were injured of whom 3 subsequently died in hospital… The rioters scattered for a moment and then returned to pick up the wounded whom they carried away. Firing was commenced about 3 minutes to 5.00 P.M. and 13 rounds ball were fired...It is to be noted that while the firing was in progress, a Congress flag was hoisted on the central flag staff of the Assembly building, obviously by someone who had obtained access to the roof and who has not been identified... He lowered the flag after the firing had ceased and took it away.

It was indeed the most inapt handling of an extremely sensitive situation in which, most certainly, some unscrupulous officers were involved, particularly in view of the stratagem of the suddenly hoisted counterfeit flag! Also, a crowd which had stayed peacefully assembled near the Assembly gate for more than two hours was unwisely provoked repeatedly by charges by the lathi-wielding constabulary and the Mounted Police into retaliatory brick-batting from scattered elements in the crowd, precipitating the firing. And there could be absolutely no justification for targeted shooting of emotionally worked up school-students standing in front of the crowd when the brickbats were being thrown from distant corners in the crowd. If firing took place at 5 p.m., after the crowd had stayed there relatively peacefully for more than three hours, by which time it had got restive and violent following the repeated charges by the police, the authorities could certainly have exercised more patience and better judgment by waiting for some more time for the crowd to slowly disperse, as it had been doing already, and then making arrests of the more persistent in the crowd.

The inevitable turbulence that spread like wild prairie fire throughout the province in the coming days was mainly sparked off by this brutal killing of innocent youth by the military police. The baring of the chests of the youth to the bullets luridly epitomized the highest ideals of non-violence and exemplary patriotism pitted against brutal imperial military violence. It was indeed the same monstrous war machine operating on the one side against the mighty Nazi military power and on the other against a totally unarmed, helpless people whom ‘the Government [had] goaded…to the point of madness’, as Gandhi put it.Wolpert/53

Patna had thus become the epicenter of the turbulence with a ripple effect throughout the whole province. As the authorities reported -

 On the 12th [August] there was complete hartal…There were processions in different parts of the town. In the evening a very crowded meeting was held in the Kadamkuan Congress Maidan…The audience was openly incited to bring the Government to knees by cutting all means of communications and by other acts of sabotage paralyzing the war efforts….It had instantaneous effect and a police lorry parking nearby was set on fire and the mob spread in all directions of the town…cutting wires, blocking the roads by felling trees…breaking open the culverts, knocking down the letter boxes and by removing the rails…Cutting of telephone and telegraph wires began all over the district. All important roads were blocked…railway tracks were removed. Railway stations began to be burnt and looted and trains held up. A mob at Fatwah near Patna… dragged two Canadian officers out of a train, murdered them and threw the bodies in the Ganges….Such chaotic conditions continued in and around Patna till a military contingent arrived from Ranchi on the 14th. The saboteurs then retired to villages and the interiors.
Work in Progress : 3
Extract from ‘Rajendra Prasad: A Political Biography’
The story of India’s freedom struggle is like a five-act Shakespearean play complete with its tragic hero Gandhi. Independence, however, came in the Last Act with all the blood and gore of the ‘vivisection’ of India. And the villain was not difficult to identify…

3.2 The Last Act

The last Act of the great tragedy had thus begun with the coming of the new Viceroy Mountbatten, a ‘favourite cousin’ of the King George VI, ‘a toy for Jawaharlal to play with’ as Patel had tartly remarked. Wavell’s opinion of his successor was still more disparaging, describing Mountbatten as ‘a little cock-sparrow who would like to be a peacock… without much ability or character but a very exaggerated idea of his own talents’. [PF/279] The Congress now wanted a swift transfer of power and Wavell was proving rather intractable and somewhat partial towards the Muslim League. Hence, Congress leadership had ‘discreetly conveyed to Whitehall the need for Wavell’s recall’. [DD234] Further, as Wolpert observes, “Krishna Menon, Nehru’s closest comrade, had tirelessly urged Atlee to send Mountbatten out to India to replace Wavell as Britain’s last Viceroy”. [SW1/129]. And Mountbatten did arrive on 22 March as the new Viceroy, barely five months before the hastily rescheduled date of India’s independence, 15 August, 1947.

The change over had become inevitable. The past four months had shown that the Congress-League coalition was not only hopelessly incompatible but positively dysfunctional. The total boycott of the Constituent Assembly by the Muslim League had further precipitated the crisis. The situation had become so critical that both Nehru and Patel had issued the ultimatum that ‘the Congress members would withdraw from the Cabinet if the representatives of the League did not quit forthwith’. [DD234]. At that critical juncture, as if to defuse the crisis, Atlee announced on 20 February, 1947, Britain’s firm resolve to leave India by June, 1948. And simultaneously he also announced Mountbatten’s appointment as the new Viceroy. Both moves were clearly intended to inveigle the two wrangling parties to reconcile to the fast developing political situation. To both parties, it was a warning signal as well as a clever snare: to accept a regional semi-autonomous Pakistan under a federal constitution of a united India or to face a bloody civil war ending in a limbo. The worst and the covert aspect of the plan was partition of Bengal and Punjab to create the two wings of Pakistan; a sinister plan that was certain to lead to unprecedented bloodshed and human suffering. And Britain could have hardly chosen a better protagonist to effectuate such a perilous plan than Mountbatten.
The time frame also had been unequivocally delineated. The ‘royal cousin’ had been empowered to do a smart job and do it swiftly. As Wolpert puts it, Mountbatten was ‘launched on the fastest mission of major political surgery ever performed by one nation on the pregnant body politic of another’, [SW2/311] and Mountbatten knew how to wield his scalpel adroitly. He was sworn in as India’s nineteenth and last Viceroy on 24 March, 1947, and thenceforward it was Mountbatten all the way, right up to the ‘tryst with destiny’. Atlee’s Labour government had sent Mountbatten with the clear mandate, ‘to obtain a unitary government for British India…through the medium of a Constituent Assembly’; and if that seemed impracticable, he was to report ‘to His Majesty’s Government on the steps which you consider should be taken for the handing over of power on the  due date’. [SW2/314] Read between the lines, the directive meant that the ‘option of unity’ being virtually impossible in the circumstances, the ‘option of division’ must be exercised even earlier, if necessary.

It was clearly an open-ended mandate and Mountbatten had a further advantage: ‘his innocence of Indian politics’. [SW2/313] Still more, his unusual affability and rapport with Nehru, Gandhi’s ‘anointed’ successor, and the most domineering face of the Congress. It mattered little – in fact, it helped – that Gandhi had been slowly sidelined. As Wolpert observes, Nehru no longer believed in Gandhi’s ‘going round with ointment trying to heal one sore spot after another on the body of India, instead of diagnosing the cause of this eruption of sores and participating in the treatment of the body as a whole’. [SW1/138] There was, however, an obvious fallacy in Nehru’s logic. No one had ever diagnosed the persistent malaise better than Gandhi. Gandhi did suggest the cure in absolute terms to Mountbatten when he met him in late March. But it was too radical and went against the grain of Nehru’s haste for power. His other Cabinet colleagues too had been cosily ensconced in the seats of power. They were no less in a hurry to enjoy absolute power than the British were anxious to relinquish it.

The Noakhali riots in Bengal had led to a terrible backlash in Bihar and Gandhi had rushed to Patna in early March after four month’s of an intensive peace march in Noakhali. It was in Patna that he learnt of the CWC’s resolution accepting partition, the only time when such a momentous decision – totally contrary to Gandhi’s fundamental objection to the ‘vivisection’ – was taken in his absence. The Bihar massacre of Muslims under the nose of a Congress government was too horrendous a tragedy for Gandhi to bear with or ignore. He would rather prefer in those difficult times to camp in Patna and tour around in the riot-affected countryside to admonish and persuade Hindus against their inhuman acts and assuage the pain and anguish of the devastated Muslims. He had even threatened a fast which he refrained from only when the riots braked to a halt after the threat. He met Mountbatten (once again, ironically, on 1 April, 1947) with the ultimate ‘solution’ he had already made a year before, ‘to invite Jinnah to form a new central  interim government with Muslim League members, [now] replacing the current one led by Nehru’. [ SW1/137]

The radical solution naturally shocked both Mountbatten and Nehru out of their wits, the latter even more; ‘to learn that his Mahatma was quite ready to replace him as premier with the quaid-i-Azam’. [SW2/316] A chagrined Nehru could only conceal his annoyance by saying that Gandhi ‘had been away for four months and was rapidly getting out of touch with events at the Centre’. Yet, perhaps, it was ‘a King Solomon solution’, according to Wolpert. “But Nehru had tasted the cup of power too long to offer its nectar to anyone else – least of all to that ‘mediocre lawyer’ [Jinnah]”.[SW2/317 ] When Mountbatten tried to sound Maulana Azad on Gandhi’s solution the next day, “[h]e staggered me by saying that in his opinion it was perfectly feasible of being carried out, since Gandhi could unquestionably influence the whole of Congress to accept it and work it loyally….he thought that such a plan would be the quickest way to stop bloodshed, and the simplest way of turning over power”. [SW1/139]

The plan may have been too quixotic, and, may possibly be, even unacceptable to Jinnah, but there was more to it than was apparent. It was a daring move to reverse the entire chessboard to a fresh configuration. It would have put not only Jinnah but also Nehru and all his senior colleagues now craving for a piece of the power-cake to a rigorous test of political commitment. It was also likely to have halted the bloodshed substantially, and taken the wind out of the sail of Muslim League’s demand for a sovereign Pakistan. As Azad believed, Gandhi’s strong moral hold over the Congress and the masses and the clear message of peace and harmony would have served a twofold purpose: to bring sanity to the centre-stage as well as make the process of power transfer smoother. Azad’s endorsement of Gandhi’s radical plan (particularly in view of the insults heaped upon Azad by Jinnah during his Congress presidentship) was in itself a ‘golden tribute to Azad’s integrity and selflessness’. As Wolpert says, “Azad neither loved nor admired Pandit Nehru any the less than he had before, but he was old enough and wise enough to know that Mahatma Gandhi’s solution was the one and only chance to save India, and Maulana Azad, like Mahatma Gandhi, loved India and its people far more than he craved political power for himself or his dynastic heirs”. [SW1/140]
Work in Progress : 3
Extract from ‘Rajendra Prasad: A Political Biography’
Lot of literature is available on India’s partition. In hindsight it appears the British government had all the while kept this cat hidden in their bag, till they sent Mountbatten to let it out…

3.3  The Pity of Partition
Be that as it may, but the juggernaut of Mountbatten’s speedy power-transfer machine, co-piloted by Nehru and his CWC colleagues, including Prasad and Patel, had started trundling inexorably towards the ‘tryst with destiny’. Being now at the helm of the affairs, both Nehru and Mountbatten decided to go ahead with the unavoidable ‘surgical cure’.
So those two brilliant powerful men agreed on April Fool’s Day of 1947 that a swift surgical “cure” dividing Punjab and Bengal would be India’s best medicine for the dreadful sores of communal strife that kept erupting. Thus the knife was drawn that in four and a half brief months would “vivisect”, as Mahatma Gandhi called it, “Mother India’s body” politic. [SW1/138]

The surgical metaphor is, indeed, most appropriate insofar as it drips as much with blood as with irony and pity. Gandhi’s suggestion, however far-fetched it might seem, was the only sane solution which Mountbatten summarily dumped into the waste basket. And whereas Jinnah had subdued himself by agreeing to abide by a modified plan envisaging a federal constitution for a united India, with two large groups of autonomous Muslim majority provinces as the future map of Pakistan, history puts the blame for the hasty partition squarely on the shoulders of Nehru, Patel and all others in the CWC in collusion with the new Viceroy. Jinnah also knew that the British haste and Congress’ eagerness for an urgent power tranfer would precipitate a partition as a matter of course. He well knew by now that the British were ready to quit any way. Hence, he would rather instigate the Muslims to fight against the ‘Hindu’ Congress to force partition and gain a sovereign Pakistan than direct the fight against the British who were already half-willing for partition. Jinnah indeed had fully succeeded in creating circumstances that made partition inevitable.

Had Gandhi’s radical suggestion been accepted by the Congres of handing over power to Jinnah, instead of Nehru, in the Interim government, it would have upset the entire British plan of dividing the country. It would have killed the British excuse of hurrying the partition on grounds of the worsening communal conflict. In fact, Wavell’s replacement by Mountbatten itself was done only in order to precipitate partition on the lure of speedy power transfer. Azad strongly opposes Wavell’s replacement in his autobiographical book India Wins Freedom. He is also critical of the unrealistic timeframe announced by Atlee and further preponed by the new Viceroy, Mountbatten. Speaking of Wavell’s sagacity and forthrightness, Azad writes:

Lord Wavell did not agree about the announcement of a date. He wished to persist with the Cabinet Mission Plan for he held that it was the only possible solution of the Indian problem. He further held that the British Government would fail in its duty if it transferred political power before the communal question had been solved….He therefore advised that the status quo should be maintained and every attempt made to compose the differences between the two major parties….If Lord Wavell’s advice had been followed and the solution of the Indian problem deferred for a year or two, it is possible that the Muslim League would have got tired of opposition….[Also] the Muslim masses of India would have probably repudiated the negative attitude of the Muslim League. It is possible that perhaps the tragedy of Indian partition may have been avoided. [190-92]

The political scenario as it was allowed to evolve by the British government, however, escalated fast towards partition. The British component of the Viceroy’s government had practically brought the law and order machinery to virtual inaction. Jinnah had already understood the British game and sensed the inevitability of the partition. Patel and Nehru, two of the prime movers in the top Congress leadership, now heading the Interim government, wanted full sovereign power here and now and were too willing for the inevitable partition. Gandhi, too, sunk in his morass of grief, betrayal and disillusionment, had reconciled himself to the tragic denouement.

In such a confounded scenario, Rajendra Prasad, Gandhi’s alter ego and one of the most senior leaders in the Congress hierarchy, was in a terrible moral dilemma; though on a different issue. At the end of his book At the Feet of Mahatma Gandhi he speaks in a rather subdued manner of his moral qualms about other peripheral issues of the moment like the election to the Constituent Assembly chairmanship or to the Congress presidentship simultaneously with his Cabinet responsibilities. But he does not discuss the far more momentous issue of Gandhi’s radical plan of a Jinnah-led Interim government as a solution to the fast-spreading riots in the country and the impending partition of India. His silence on such a momentous issue is quite inscrutable and rather mystifying. Unlike Azad, he neither rejects nor endorses Gandhi’s solution, in this critical hour, which casts a shadow on his image as a staunch Gandhi loyalist who would willingly accept even a ‘poison chalice’ from his mentor’s hand. The same holds true, in a contrary position, about Patel to a more disparaging extent.
 According to Azad, Patel had always been a true Gandhian and one of the loyalest followers of the master. “Patel belonged to Gandhiji’s inner circle,” he writes, “and was very dear to him. In fact, Sardar Patel owed his entire political existence to Gandhiji….[both] Sardar Patel and Dr Rajendra Prasad…were entirely the creation of Gandhiji.” [234] But as the freedom movement headed towards its culmination after the War and the sunset of the Raj loomed large on the horizon, their loyalties to Gandhi started cracking up. Severely critical of Patel’s rigid pro-partition stand, Azad observes:  “It would not perhaps be unfair to say that Vallabhbhai Patel was the founder of Indian partition…Patel was so much in favour of partition that he was hardly prepared even to listen to any other point of view.” [198,200]

Indeed, under the terrible magnetic pull of political power they had all started cracking up, except the ‘great soul’, ready now finally as if to leave the ‘body’ of the Congress. Three of his ablest lieutenants, Nehru, Patel and Rajendra Prasad, had already changed track and endorsed partition on the basis of Jinnah’s two-nation theory in the CWC resolution of March 1947, ‘without consulting Gandhi’. [DD/254] “Azad too acquiesced”, writes Rajmohan Gandhi. “These leaders of the Congress’s establishment were eager for independence and office and were getting old.” [247] Durga Das recalls Gandhi’s bitter reaction soon after the latter’s meeting with Mountbatten, following the CWC’s acceptance of the partition plan. “I called on Gandhi twice [he writes] and he told us that his followers had let him down badly. Now that power was within their grasp, they seemed to have no further use for him.” [DD/239]

Both the ‘ladder man’ (Gandhi) and the ‘ladder’ (Congress) had now become useless for them. Both had served their purpose. The banners of ‘Truth’ and ‘Ahimsa’ could now be furled and put away. Lives of millions of Indians – Hindus or Muslims – could be sacrificed primarily not for gaining freedom from imperial rule – the quintessential objective of decades of non-violent mass struggle and suffering -  but for acquisition of political power at the price of  dividing the two vital cultural components of Indian polity who as inhabitants of their motherland for centuries had no say in this entire anti-people political drama of power transfer. As Azad rightly observes in his book:
The people of India had not accepted partition. In fact their heart and soul rebelled against the very idea….[Even among Muslims] there was a large section in the community who had always opposed the League. They were naturally deeply cut by the decision to divide the country. As for the Hindus and Sikhs, they were to a man opposed to partition. In spite of Congress acceptance of the Plan, their opposition had not abated in the least. Now when partition had become a reality, even the Muslims who were the followers of the Muslim League were horrified by the result and started to say openly that this was not what they had meant by partition. [224]

Even Jinnah had to swallow grudgingly the ‘moth-eaten’, hastily carved out Pakistan as a bitter pill. If at all the partition served any purpose, it served only the selfish interest of some of these top political leaders of different denominations in grabbing power. It was a whirlpool of power politics,  basically created by the British, that sucked all these noble men into its vortex, leaving millions in the masses ravaged, ruined and bleeding.

 Events moved very fast after the CWC’s acceptance of the partition plan in March, 1947. “The issue was clinched”, writes Durga Das, “when Prasad, as the President of the Constituent Assembly, read out on 28th April an authoritative statement of the Congress stand, that no constitution would be forced on any part of the country that was unwilling to accept it…. ‘This may mean [the statement ended] not only a division of India but a division of some provinces. For this, we must be prepared, and the Assembly may have to draw up a constitution based on such division.’”[243] This was a clear assertion of the official Congress position diametrically opposed to Gandhi’s, but to which Gandhi had to acquiesce against his conscience.

Now there was no time to lose for Mountbatten. He got down to giving finishing touches to the partition plan at Simla where he took Nehru as his most trusted confidant. On 14 May he flew to London to acquaint Atlee with a suitably revised plan for which he had already secured agreement of the Congress and the Muslim League. It envisaged, along with the partition of the provinces, a preponement of the dateline to 15 August, 1947, to both of which Atlee gave his assent, being in equal haste to finish the job. Three weeks later, on 3 June at 7 p.m., Mountbatten announced the plan on All India Radio.

It was an ingenious and seemingly flexible plan. “The Mountbatten plan”, explains Louis Fischer, “provided for the division not only of India but of Bengal, the Punjab and Assam if their people wished. In the case of Bengal and the Punjab, the recently elected provincial legislatures would decide. If Bengal voted to partition itself, then the Moslem-majority district of Sylhet in Assam would determine by popular referendum whether to join the Moslem part of Bengal….Nor is there anything in the plan to preclude negotiations between communities for a united India….Bengal and the Punjab might vote to remain united, in which case there would be no partition and no Pakistan. But even if Pakistan came into being, it and the other India could subsequently unite.”[584-85] The plan also proposed to antedate the transfer of power to 15 August, 1947. In case partition was effected, both India and Pakistan would have dominion status with separate Constituent Assemblies comprising members belonging to their respective areas. These separate Constituent Assemblies were to frame the constitutions of their respective dominions, and ultimately all these provisions in the plan were to be incorporated in an Indian Independence Act to be passed only a few weeks later by the British Parliament.

Prasad in At the Feet of Mahatma Gandhi is at pains to justify Congress’s reluctant endorsement of  this partition plan particularly in view of the constant obstructive posture of the Muslim League memebers of the Interim government in day-to-day governance.

…it was the Working Committee, and particularly such of its members as were represented on the Central Cabinet, which had agreed to the scheme of partition. Mahatmaji himself had never thought that partition offered the correct solution, nor had he ever subscribed to the principle on which the partition was effected….We thought that, by accepting partition, we would at least govern the portion which remained with us in accordance with our views, preserve law and order  in a greater part of the country….It was clear, however, that this partition was not going to solve the Hindu-Muslim problem; for both in India and Pakistan a large minority would still be left, and whatever could be done to protect it in the two parts could as well be done in India as a whole. But that was not acceptable to the Muslims. We had accordingly, no alternative but to accept partition. [emphases added][302-3]

It was clearly on such flimsy grounds that the partition was explained away by the Congress as a necessary evil, a bitter pill to be swallowed in the interest of gaining freedom both from the British Raj and the haemorrahaging communal politics of the Muslim League. It was most certainly the easy way out for all the parties concerned, except for the common masses. The partition plan may have suited ‘such of its members’ primarily in the interest to ‘govern the portion which remained with us’. But it was surely an incorrect and sweeping statement to say that partition was ‘acceptable to Muslims’  as a whole. To Muslim League, of course, yes; but certainly not to the Muslim masses – a large minority population (nearly four and a half crores) scattered sparsely all across the country - who, with their non-Muslim compatriots, saw with wide-open eyes through this evil game of their leaders bargaining only for the power (ironically) to ‘divide and rule’, rather than to secure a transfer of power through more sensible and truly peaceful means, as Gandhi had suggested. And then it would not have satisfied the vanity of a Viceroy who thought he wielded a magic wand in his royal hand to solve a decades-old complex problem!
Partition was now a foregone conclusion. And yet the confusion remained unabated. “The AICC met on 14 June 1947”, writes Azad. “After the first day’s debate, there was very strong feeling against the Working Committee’s resolution. Neither Pandit Pant’s persuasiveness [who had ‘moved the resolution’] nor Sardar Patel’s eloquence had been able to persuade the people to accept this resolution. How could they when it was in a sense a complete denial of all that Congress had said since its inception?” [214-15] Both Nehru and Patel had anticipated the opposition and had astutely invited Gandhi to be present in this historic session. According to Rajmohan Gandhi, they knew that without Gandhi’s formal and ‘publically declared’ approval it would have been impossible to get the resolution passed. And Gandhi fully convinced by now “that desire for power had influenced their acceptance of Partition,…yet refused to obstruct his ‘sons’ while they collected crowns or medals for their faithful toil of three decades, and he knew that the trophies were thorny”. [617]

Gandhi’s speech at the session, full of deep anguish and irony, made an emotional appeal to the opponents to support the resolution. “No one could be as much hurt by the division of the country as I am”, he told them. But he now found himself totally defeated and forlorn. Speaking of that ‘nucleus’ of Congress leadership which had always stood firmly behind him, he said ruefully: “I criticize them, of course, but afterwards what? Shall I assume the burden that they are carrying? Shall I become a Nehru or a Sardar or a Rajendra Prasad?” [RMG/616] There could be no subtler indictment of this core group of his loyal followers and of all those others who finally voted for partition: 137 in favour and 27 against, with 32 ‘remaining neutral’. According to Prasad, “he [Gandhi] decided to keep quiet and not to oppose partition in any way.” [AFM/304] Once again then the ‘ladderman’ had provided the ‘ladder’ to his ‘sons’ to ascend to the throne, himself swallowing the bitter draught of partition!

He was staying in Delhi [writes Prasad] at the time when the actual scheme of partition was being implemented in the Capital, that is to say, when the representatives of the Congress and the League in the Government were actually engaged in dividing the assets and liabilities of undivided India. A Partition Committee had been appointed by Government on which Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and I were serving as members on behalf of the Congress. It was this Committee which divided everything – the assets and liabilities of the Government of India, the army and military stores and equipment, the buildings, railways, etc.; so much so that tables, chairs and typewriters and even Government servants were divided to be shared between India and Pakistan.

While I was working on that Committee, I would meet Mahatmaji every day during his morning walk. As a matter of fact, he had himself asked me to meet him every morning. I had thus an opportunity of communicating to him every day what happened in the Partition Committee. I could see that he was not at all happy about what was happening, but he did not like to raise any obstacles. He used to say: “Try, as far as possible, to prevent injustice.” [AFM/304]

It was a disconsolate patriarch seeing his family fragmenting; dividing not only the chairs and the typewriters, but silently witnessing the slitting of Hindu and Muslim throats, defiling  of their helpless women, and looting and burning of each other’s property.

Meanwhile a new government, virtually split into two, furiously undergoing divisions at multiple levels, with a lot of internal politicking and fighting going on, was congealing into a weird shape. The British themselves, after igniting the forest fire of communal frenzy, had assumed the passive role of nonchalant onlookers, and the top political leaders in the Congress and the Muslim League were busy in sharing the spoils of high office. The new Viceroy stood stoutly at the Captain’s wheel with his plan ‘clear enough to him now: cut and run, full speed ahead’.[SW1/141] Jinnah himself with his rapidly wasting tuberculous lungs had come to be reconciled to his tattered ‘moth-eaten’ Pakistan. And Gandhi stood beyond the periphery seeking light in the deep darkness.

Under the shadow of this dismal scenario, the interim government lay in a state of utter paralysis. Nehru was the Prime Minister, Patel, the Home Minister and Prasad, the Food and Agriculture Minister, with Muslim League’s Liaqat Ali Khan as Finance Minister but, as Wolpert remarks, “the interim coalition government [had] virtually ceased to function”. [SW2/334] . Prasad by then had moved from Sadaqat Ashram in Patna – once the nodal point of Gandhi’s freedom movement in the east – to Delhi; a rather symbolic shift from organizational work to real governance. Besides, Prasad also had other important assignments. He was already serving as president of the Constituent Assembly; a task, he says, ‘by no means less important or less difficult’. [AFM/317] And with  Patel,  he was to serve as a member of the Partition Committee overseeing the enormously complicated division of assets and liabilities between the newly created two Dominions of India and Pakistan. A little later, after the coming of independence, he had also to shoulder the burden of Congress presidentship when Kripalani resigned in November, 1947. But he would join Gandhi on the latter’s morning walks or see him almost daily for apprising him with the latest political developments. “Nevertheless [he writes], I would meet him once a day, for I was preoccupied with three important matters about that time.”[AFM/318] Although these three preoccupations were basically of an organizational nature. The first was ‘to restore goodwill and friendly feeling beween the Hindus and the Muslims’; the second, ‘amendment of the Congress Constitution’, and the third, ‘Gandhiji’s constructive programme’. And all these were over and above the various responsibilities he was saddled with in the Interim government.

A couple of months, however, were yet to go before the coming of the long-awaited dawn of independence. The provincial legislatures in Punjab, Bengal and Sind had passed resolutions before June-end for the partition in the west and east. Mountbatten had constituted a small partition committee of the Interim cabinet for the purpose consisting of Patel and Prasad from the Congress and Liaquat Ali Khan and Abdur Rab Nishtar from the Muslim League. Similarly a boundary commission was also constituted comprising four high court judges, two each chosen by the Congress and the League, and chaired by a British barrister, Sir Cyril Radcliffe. “Radcliffe reached New Delhi on July 8”, writes Wolpert, “giving him precisely five weeks to draw new national boundaries across whose lines, bitterly disputed by both countries, approximately 10 million refugees would run terrified in opposite directions”.[SW2/332]

Dissecting Punjab and Bengal, the two major provinces under the partition knife, was of crucial importance in dubious justification of Jinnah’s ‘two nation’ theory. And it was Jinnah himself who had suggested Radcliffe’s name for drawing the dividing boundaries in the two provinces. Radcliffe, when he arrived to take up this critical assignment, was totally unfamiliar with the complicated and highly sensitive communal situation in India; never having visited India before.  And yet Mountbatten gave him full authority and total secrecy to perform the sensitive task of dividing two vitally unified provinces in the shortest possible time. What proved more disastrous, however, was Mountbatten’s putting Radcliffe’s maps of proposed boundaries in his locker ‘under his strictest embargo until after all the jubilant independence day celebrations had ended’.[SW1/165] As Wolpert rightly remarks: “[Mountbatten] cared nothing for the fact that a week’s advance notice of the actual location of the new boundary would have given all those people most frightened and eager to move enough time to do so before they found themselves trapped in the wrong country”. [SW1/167] Indeed, even more than the decision to divide India, the haste with which it was effected, and, worse, the withholding of the public knowledge of the precise boundaries till after the independence day, had its horrific consequences in terms of pitiful massive cross-migrations and massacres of innocent humanity. Jinnah may have had his own megalomaniac rationale for relentlessly pursuing his goal of partition, but both Congress and the British government were equally to share the blame for the unprecedented human tragedy which could have largely been avoided with a little more political sagacity and respect for humanitarian values.

The British Parliament, in the mean time, passed the Indian Independence Bill ‘setting up two “Independent Dominions” of India and Pakistan on August 15, 1947’ and ‘King George VI added his talismanic seal of assent to the new act’ on 18 July, just a month before the historic ‘tryst’ with freedom. Yet it was only to be a freedom marked by cataclysmic bloodshed and ruination; merely ‘the hollow husk of freedom’. [LF/587] After decades of sustained struggle and immeasurable sacrifice, freedom had been given but only like a broken jar, broken into two or three jagged pieces. The partitioned freedom, in Gandhi’s phrase, was like a ‘wooden loaf’; merely a travesty of freedom. Freedom grudgingly conceded to a people divided forever and condemned to perpetual animosity and acrimony.

Less than a month now for the Union Jack to be lowered and replaced by the national tricolour in Delhi and the green star-crescent in Karachi, the partition formalities went ahead with a feverish speed. And simultaneously in a rising crescendo went on the carnage, ruination and the massive cataclysmic cross-migration of population. Totally disillusioned by the inexorable course of events Gandhi left Delhi, a week before the day of independence, for Calcutta on way to Noakhali.
During July and August, 1947, a fresh spate of virulent riots had broken out both in urban and rural areas of the two ill-fated provinces of Punjab and Bengal, and cross-migrations of refugees had begun on an unimaginable scale. As Wolpert notes: “Human chains of tragedy would grow from fifty to one hundred miles in length over the next few months, the refugees moving in opposite directions towards accelerated death.”[SW1/169]

This tragic narrative of the ‘pity of partition’ during those murderous summer months before the dawn of independence gets a graphic and harrowing portrayal in Khushwant Singh’s classic novella Train to Pakistan.

Muslims said the Hindus had planned and started the killing. According to the Hindus, the Muslims were to blame. The fact is both sides killed. Both shot and stabbed and speared and clubbed. Both tortured. Both raped. From Calcutta, the riots spread north and east and west: to Noakhali in East Bengal, where Muslims massacred Hindus; to Bihar, where Hindus massacred Muslims….Hundreds of thousands of  Hindus and Sikhs who had lived for centuries on the Northwest Frontier abandoned their homes and fled towards the protection of the predominantly Sikh and Hindu communities in the east. They traveled on foot, in bullock carts, crammed into lorries, clinging to the sides and roofs of trains. Along the way – at fords, at crossroads, at railroad stations – they collided with panicky swarms of Muslims fleeing to safety in the west. The riots had become a rout. By the summer of 1947, when the creation of the new state of Pakistan was formally announced, ten million people – Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs – were in flight. By the time the monsoon broke, almost a million of them were dead, and all of northern India was in arms, in terror, or in hiding. [1-2]

But the final dark footprint of death, in those wretched times, could be discerned in the tragic comment of a nurse in a Lahore refugee camp: “The vultures were so fat they could hardly get off the ground.”[PF/355] And though the over-gorged vultures lay rooted in that landscape of horror, they inevitably cast ominous shadows with their large flapping wings on the ceremonial ‘trysts with destiny’ that were taking place on both sides of the divide.                        
Work in Progress : 3
Extract from ‘Rajendra Prasad: A Political Biography’
Hours before his assassination on 30 Januar 1948, Gandhi had been working on a draft constitution for a post-independence Congress organization which he wanted to be known as ‘Lok Sevak Sangh’ . But that remained a dream unfulfilled…
 3.4  Lok Sevak Sangh
 It might be useful in this context to remember that as early as 1917, during his Champaran satyagraha, Gandhi had scrupulously kept the farmers’ movement disassociated with the name of the Congress. He made an intuitive distinction between a grass-root level revolution of a social and moral character, essentially non-political and basically experimental, and a manifestly political movement with the primary objective of getting freedom from imperial rule. It is important to see the fundamental difference between the two approaches. Gandhi had given practical demonstrations of the first kind of transformational revolution in Champaran, in Kheda, Bardoli and Dandi. Those were all models of a social revolution that could bring about change at the grass-root level; a revolution meant to change the rural face of India.
 It was only when Congress agreed to adopt his unique principles of transparency (Truth) and peaceful moral resistance (Ahimsa) that Gandhi consented to lead the political movement of the Congress for the ouster of the British Raj. In fact, had the Congress refrained from haste and continued with Gandhi’s unique political strategy with a little more patience and sagacity, and unity of purpose, it could well have attained an undivided freedom for India. Right from the beginning, Gandhi always realized and emphasized the value of communal harmony and eradication of social inequalties, along with a ‘constructive programme’ that was ideally suited to bring about a grass-root level transformation of the national polity. For him the two movements were parallel and complementary, the ‘grass-root’ one having a long-term objective, and the ‘freedom’-oriented one with a short term political goal of national independence.
It remains a historical fact that since the Civil Disobedience movement of the thirties, Congress had lost its political focus and thrust leading to Gandhi’s withdrawal from the active leadership of the party. Already a parting of ways was discernible between his own perceptions of the political situation and its necessary strategies and those of his very closest and most loyal followers. Gandhi’s branching off into a countrywide parallel movement of a ‘constructive programme’ and creating a cadre of dedicated Congressmen for its effective implementation was a decisive step he took in that direction. This disjunction between the two approaches started getting more and more pronounced as the political movement became more strident and focused on ‘power transfer’. That is, a divided and limited ‘dominion’ variety of freedom rather than the purna swaraj unequivocally envisaged in the Lahore (1929) session of the Congress.
This was clearly a minimalization of the Congress’ political objectives to suit the interests of some individuals, including Jinnah and Mountbatten, rather than to serve the broader political objectives in the national interest and in the interest of the people. Obviously for Gandhi such minimalization of the broader objectives in the interest of political expediency was unacceptable. Also, perhaps, Prasad was being compelled to be a party to this expedient policy in order to neutralize Gandhi’s principled opposition. To make Prasad accept Congress presidentship and relinquish his responsibility midway as Food and Agriculture Minister (both actions disapproved by Gandhi) was a calculated move to distance him from Gandhi and compromise his moral credibility. It’s appropriate in this context to recall Fischer’s words ‘gentle, modest, compliant’, etc describing Prasad’s personality. At the same time the ‘lure of power’ remark about Prasad attributed to Gandhi must be seen in the context of these circumstances deliberately created to bring about a misunderstanding between the mentor and his loyal disciple.
Contrasting Prasad with Patel, Michael Brecher, Nehru’s biographer, finds Patel ‘cold’ with ‘almost icy reserve about him, a pronounced aloofness and stern composure’ whereas Prasad he describes as ‘a kindly, gentle-looking man… a devout believer in pure non-violence…among all of Gandhi’s leading political disciples, the most spiritually akin to the Mahatma…[one who] has been loyal to his mentor throughout his public life’. [MB47] In fact, when Gandhi had wanted one of the senior Congress leaders to stay out of the government, he had actually meant Patel rather than Prasad. “Though coming together”, writes Rajmohan Gandhi, “to defeat some of Gandhi’s solutions, Nehru and Patel were often in conflict. At the end of September [1947] Gandhi had thought that for cohesion one or the other should leave the government.”[RMG657] As Nehru was his preferred choice and had become almost indispensable as leader of the governing team, Gandhi obviously meant Patel as the one ‘to stay out of the government’. Gandhi knew that the equilibrium between the Congress party which had ultimately secured the ‘transfer of power’ after decades of struggle and sacrifice and its top leadership now holding the reins of the government had now reached almost a breaking point. As Durga Das says, Gandhi was now fully convinced that Congress should ‘cease to be a political party’ as the intra-party conflicts scenario was getting quite dismal after independence.
Already, the element of durbar was creeping in….The politicians I tapped for their views were of three categories. The giants were loyal to Gandhi to a man, but they felt a growing estrangement from the Mahatma in that the business of government had made them abandon their Gandhian ideals both under political and administrative compulsions as well as their own personal craving to wield power as the British had done and to live like the ‘White Sahibs’. They could not resolve this conflict, and the more Gandhi spelled out his views at his daily prayer meetings on how they should conduct themselves the more they shrank from his commandments. In fact, they charged him in private with attempting to exercise power without responsibility. Those in the second rank openly exhibited their itch for power and pelf, and those at the bottom rungs of the political hierarchy also saw in the advent of freedom the long-awaited opportunity to cash in on their sacrifices for the cause. [250,263]                                                                        
Conflict of interest between the party and the government was inevitable. As Fischer points out:      “ [Gandhi] realized that a one-party system could actually be a no-party system, for when the Government and party are one, the party is a rubber stamp and leads only a fictitious existence…. The election of a puppet who obeyed the government would signalize the elimination of effective political opposition."[603] The rejection by both Nehru and Patel of Gandhi’s suggestion that either Jayaprakash or Narendra Dev be elected Congress president, only meant to keep Congress in a submissive status quo mode. That is precisely why they had insisted on Prasad’s taking over as Congress president from Kripalani. Gandhi, soon after that AICC session, had said: 
I am convinced that no patchwork treatment can save the Congress. It will only prolong the agony. The best thing for the Congres would be to dissolve itself before the rot sets in further. Its voluntary liquidation will brace up and purify the political climate of the country. But I can see that I can carry nobody with me in this. [RMG/659/719]
The agony could not have been more intense for Gandhi who had returned in early September from Calcutta to a riot-torn Delhi where the Muslims were now being subjected to horrific violence following the large-scale influx of embittered refugees from divided Punjab. To add to the agony, there were ugly squabbles now between Nehru and Patel over the post-partition problems both in the government and the party. Notwithstanding his ill-health, Prasad as usual was overburdened with multiple responsibilities, one of them being
[the] amendment of the Congress Constitution, which had been under discussion for some time and for which a Committee had been appointed….[Only] a few hours before his assassination, he put down in writing his views in regard to the amendment of the  Congress Constitution. He was of the opinion that the Congress should cease to be a political organization, in which capacity it had been taking part in political activity and had been controlling the Ministries that had been functioning, and that it should work as a body of social workers and influence government through social work. This view, however, did not find favour with prominent Congressmen. The Congress Constitution, therefore, as amended, did not provide that the Congress should develop into a Lok Sevak Sangh… The [other] task… was Gandhiji’s constructive programme, to which he attached as much importance as he did to Hindu-Muslim unity.  [AFM/318]
Prasad had just been relieved of his responsibility as Food and Agriculture Minister and been elected Congress President. But he had also been actively engaged in the drafting of the new Constitution as President of the Constituent Assembly, besides being a member of the Partition Committee. In spite of being overworked, Prasad had been meeting Gandhi almost every day for urgent consultations and acquainting him with the developments on all fronts.
Meanwhile, the situation in Delhi was very tense. Even the top leaders in the Congress, including Patel, were unhappy with Gandhi’s alleged partiality towards Muslims, particularly after his last fast over the delay in the transfer of money to Pakistan. Serious differences over policy matters between Patel and Nehru had become Gandhi’s greatest worry. Accusations were being made that there were no proper security arrangements at the prayer meetings in spite of Patel being the Home Minister. A bomb incident had already taken place in one of Gandhi’s daily evening prayer meetings at Birla House, just ten days before his tragic assassination. In fact, on the very day of the assassination, till only a few hours before, Gandhi had been drafting the new constitution for the Congress in its new avatar as the Lok Sevak Sangh conceptualised as a purely non-political organization focused on the ongoing constructive programme. But, perhaps, destiny was scripting another pitiless narrative for that evening and beyond in history. In keeping with the tragic irony, Prasad had left Delhi the same morning as he narrates the whole sequence of events.
This matter [the Sevagram conference] had been under [Gandhiji’s] consideration for some time, and it had been decided that a conference of constructive workers should be called at Sevagram. A date had been fixed for it in the first week of February. Mahatmaji had decided to attend it and was anxious to go to Wardha for this purpose…. Early on the morning of January 30, 1948, I left for Wardha by plane. Before that, however,… I saw Gandhiji….He said that he would leave for Wardha in a day or two to attend the conference….I left Delhi in the hope that I would see Bapuji at Wardha within the next few days, and that the constructive programme, which was the very basis of the strength of the Congress, would receive a new impetus….I arrived at Wardha about half-past two in the afternoon. By that time, because of the cold and the exhaustion consequent on the journey, I had started a temperature. A doctor came to see me at about five o’clock in the evening. While I was talking to him, a boy came running and told us that Mahatmaji was dead….[The] announcement had come on radio. [AFM/218-19]
As I reproduce these lines, I am struck by a personal flashback of that terrible radio announcement. I was just about ten years old. We lived in Chhapra (in Bihar) where my father was a college professor. It was around six in the evening. I was playing on the street with other boys. Across the street lived our landlord, the only person in the locality who owned a big radiogram in his drawing room. The news of Gandhiji’s murder came in a special announcement: some Hindu fanatic had just shot Mahatma Gandhi as he was proceeding to his prayer meeting in Birla House. The news stunned everyone. I immediately ran into my house to convey this terrifying news to my father. He looked paralysed by the news.
That night he recorded in his diary. 30 January, 1948: “Right at nightfall, heard that at New Delhi’s Birla Bhawan, a youth named Nathuram Vinayak, around five in the evening, fired three shots at Mahatma Gandhi, killing him instantly. But God was merciful to Muslims. Had the killer been a Muslim, the entire Indian Muslim community would have been annihilated in a day. Even in his death Gandhiji protected the Muslims. Mother India became sonless today.”
Prasad recollects: “I could not sleep that night”. Though early next morning he was able to get a lift in a flight from Nagpur to Delhi with Gandhi’s son Ramdas and just made it to the last darshan and the funeral. The Sevagram Constructive Workers’ Conference was put off and met in March when it  ‘decided to establish the Sarvodaya Samaj’.

Soon after that announcement of Gandhi’s assassination, Nehru’s voice had come on the radio: “The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere…” It was a voice soaked in tears and anguish. “Our beloved leader, Bapu as we called him, the Father of the Nation, is no more…”  The brief speech was followed by Patel’s: “My heart is aching. What shall I say to you?...Perhaps God wanted Gandhiji’s mission to fulfil and prosper through his death.” Though it all sounded so bizarre as only a few hours before Gandhi had been trying to reconcile the increasing differences between these two great disciples. Prasad, ironically at that tragic moment, was away in Wardha on his master’s bidding for the Constructive Workers’ Conference.

The Lok Sevak Sangh draft that Gandhi had been working on, and which he had finished hours before his death, contained the blueprint of a new organization that was to supplant the Congress which Gandhi had wished to dissolve itself after it had fulfilled its purpose of attaining freedom for India. Apparently, Gandhi was thinking of the future political system for an independent India that would be truly democratic and secular with the seven million villages as its base. The colonial system of parliamentary democracy which India had inherited in its imperialist form needed a fundamental change to suit the Indian polity and its social fabric. He wanted Congress ‘to dissolve itself before the rot sets in further’. He knew it could not save itself by any ‘patchwork treatment’. A complete overhaul was the need of the hour. As Fischer had indicated, Gandhi realized that ‘a one-party system could actually be a no-party system’. Congress could not rule and put curbs on itself at the same time. A single party dominance would ultimately lead to authoritarianism. It must discard its colonial legacies and develop a new dispensation, a new, village-oriented democratic system that could turn the ‘freedom of India’ into a ‘freedom in India’. [LF/603] A Congress that had led a nation-wide freedom movement for decades, suddenly converting itself from a mighty pluralist political force into a monolithic political party inheriting a century-old colonial system of governance was, in Gandhi’s view, something of an awkward transformation. Unfortunately, however, that ‘sacred’ document penned by ‘Bapu’ in the final hours of his life, perhaps as a warning to his loyal disciples to read the writing on the wall, was casually thrown into time’s dustbin. “Never did it make its way”, writes Lelyveld, “onto the agenda of any meeting of the Indian National Congress as a subject for serious discussion.” [343] And it now finds a place in history only as the ‘Last Will and Testament’ of Gandhi.

References in the text are cited in the book.

© Dr BSM Murty