1947: The partition of India scheme

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The partition scheme

On the margins of history



The partition scheme

Certain elements and features in our history books appear to blur the vision of their readers

When I wrote three pieces (Dawn Magazine — 9, 16, and 23rd March, 2003) on three articles of O.H.K. Spate (‘Geographical Aspects of Pakistan Scheme’, Geographical Journal, September, 1943; ‘The Partition of the Punjab and Bengal’, Geographical Journal, December 1947; and ‘The Partition of India and the Prospects of Pakistan’, Geographical Review, January, 1948), comments were made by a respected senior geographer (Dawn Magazine, March, 30, 2003) that “Spate was invited by the Qadiani community to suggest a boundary between the proposed provinces of West Punjab and East Punjab that would make it possible to include Qadian, the holy city of Qadianis, in Pakistan. It is a known fact that the community enjoyed special favours of the British. That made it possible for Spate to become associated, of course, unofficially, with Radcliffe’s team ... As for his articles ... some of us ... have had the occasion to peruse them”.

Further, he said, “... senior geographers of the country are not only familiar with the name but have also benefited from his writings, especially his book, a compendium, entitled India and Pakistan: A General and Regional Geography, 1954, reprinted 1964. The book is now considered a classic.”

I did not want to write anything further on Spate and his work, till I had read his memoirs, recounting his subcontinental experiences, On the Margins of History — From the Punjab to Fiji, published in 1991. Recently, I could lay my hands on this book. Before its contents are taken up, a few words about the points mentioned in the letter referred to in the beginning may bring into focus certain elements and features, which might have been missed by or looked blurred to certain readers of Spate’s articles.

In his second article, “The Partition of the Punjab and Bengal” (Geographical Journal, December 1947), Spate wrote: “I was employed as a technical adviser by a ... group, the Ahmaddiya community of Qadian in Gurdaspur district... I found myself in effect as an unofficial adviser to the Muslim League and considered myself perhaps on inadequate ground, as an expert witness.” He, further, added, “ ... The Muslim case seemed to be entirely legitimate ... I suggested in a paper in the journal (Geographical Aspects of the Pakistan Scheme) in 1943, that from a technical point of view the true division of the Punjab lies to the east of the actual Muslim claim ...

“The Muslim case was in my opinion more reasonable and was much better presented technically, owing largely to the skill and enthusiasm of some members of the Department of Geography University of the Punjab, who presented a beautiful and very comprehensive series of maps, excellently produced and covering all aspects of the problem ...” (Any surviving member of 1947 faculty/class of the department?)

And, our senior geographers must not have forgotten some meaningful observations made in the third article, “The Partition of India and the Prospects of Pakistan” (Geographical Review, January 1948) — “ ... There are already signs (in the centralization of services in Western Pakistan) that Eastern Pakistan is regarded as a poor relation, as indeed it is ... the prospect may well prove to be a military state ... social bankruptcy of the most devastating kind — the kind in which the army takes its pay where it can find, in fact, takes over the state.”

The senior geographer, in the letter, referred to Spate’s book, “a compendium, entitled India and Pakistan. A General and Regional Geography 1954, reprinted 1964”. Actually, by 1967, the book had gone into three editions. The 1967 edition, prepared with the collaboration of Prof A.T.A. Learmonth was completely revised to take into account “the great changes of the last decade and ever-increasing volume of literature in a wide variety of fields”. The first Indian edition came out in 1984.

Surprisingly, in the latter, there was no mention of an earlier but very relevant book, The Changing Map of Asia by Spate and East, published in 1950. In the chapter on “India and Pakistan”, Spate made a somewhat prescient statement, “ ... But it would not be very surprising if Eastern Pakistan, by way of adhoc regional agreements to meet local interests (so obviously bound up with those of the surrounding areas) were gradually to slip into a special position such that there would eventually be abrupt confrontation with the issue of de-facto Pakistan ... At that point the evolution could hardly be consummated without a major crisis in the subcontinent.”

Now, to come back to Spate’s memoirs. We observe the process of partition through an eye of an academician — a political geographer. The angle is different. To start with, Spate received a letter on June 30 from an unknown, one Mirza Ali, Imam of the London Ahmaddiya Mosque: “Could I help them to make sure that their sacred city, Qadian, stayed on the right side, when the Punjab was partitioned.” Spate observed: “Obviously, this was Dudley Stamp’s doing ... This partition experience is the nearest I have ever been to Big History: blessing on Dudley.” (Remember Dr L. Dudley Stamp of London School of Economics? He also wrote very good textbooks on geography for schools in the subcontinent. By the way, who writes textbooks for schools, these days?)

Spate writes: “I knew nothing of the Ahmaddiya beyond the name, and had never heard of Qadian, but I had one qualification: I had written what I believe to have been the first article on Pakistan by a professional geographer, sent from Bombay in 1943, on my monthly ration of nineteen airgraphs ... with maps on four airletters ... The Boundary Commission had already started preliminary work, and more than once in the next few days I thought the whole thing had fallen through ...

“... Lahore Resolution called for Muslim majority areas in the northwest and east of India to become ‘Independent states, in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign’ — very much the formulation of the Confederate States of America, though once independence had come precious little was heard of autonomy, let alone sovereignty, even for isolated East Bengal. The clause about the units is ambiguous, but would seem to indicate at least two states, not just one.”

For the background to Pakistan, Spate refers to the work of Rahmat Ali, who had “sprinkled the map of India with green flecks of Islamia Irredenta”, and called Bengal ‘Bangistan’, “but it was not one of the units whose initials made up his acronym Pakistan, so in the minds of its progenitors Bangladesh was not part of Pakistan; but in the event it was dragged at the chariot wheels of the Punjab, which made the running.”

After the war, it was clear to Spate that there was no realistic prospect of an undivided India. “Congres had alienated the Muslims,” Spate writes, “by bad tactical blunders, and in Mohammad Ali Jinnah the latter had now a leader of immense adroitness and most steely resolution. Arguing with him was like trying to breach a granite wall with a pea-shooter ... Jinnah’s slogan ‘Two Nations’ was inspiring ... and despite disclaimers the entire cast of Gandhian nationalism was Hindu-oriented.”

Spate writes about his immediate problem, partitioning in the Punjab: “The separation of the overwhelmingly Muslim provinces carried with it the corollary of the separation, from them of overwhelmingly non-Muslim areas in the Punjab and Bengal ... The Punjab as a whole was 55.6 per cent Muslim ... Basically, however, everything west of the Beas and Sutlej Rivers was Muslim, though only narrowly (51 per cent) in Gurdaspur in the north, while in Amritsar, south of Gurdaspur two subdivisions or tehsils had non-Muslim majorities, thus forming a non-Muslim salient across the Beas.”

He adds: “In my opinion, the legitimate areas of dispute was the Bist Doab between Beas and Sutlej and the riverain strip south of this doab, mixed but with mainly Muslim pluralities ... it was necessary to take into account ‘other factors’ such as transport linkages and, as far as possible, the integrity of the great canal systems.” And Spate makes a scathing remark: “In nothing was the ineptitude of the Boundary Commissions shown as in the casual treatment of these factors.”

About the intransigence of the Sikhs, Spate writes: “Above all, the position was complicated by the very awkward distribution of the Sikhs ... There were 5,100,100 of them in the province ... but had an absolute majority in only one District Ludhiana. They were over 10 per cent in eight districts west of Beas-Sutlej, but in six of these Muslims were over 60 per cent ... The Sikhs were assisted in their stance by British ignorance. One of the ‘other factors’ was an assurance that the Holy Places would be respected; ... the under-secretary who made the pledge was thinking of Amritsar and a handful of other places, and was not aware that the Sikhs claimed some 700 of them ... And so, a group of 5,700,000 people in All-India were placed in a position of parity with some 275,000,000 Hindus and 100,000,000 Muslims; very queer political arithmetic.”

Spate finds Lahore, with 750,000 people, “incomparably the greatest centre of Islamic culture of India ... plus bookshops which would put an English city of the same size to shame ...” He derides the attempt “to show that Lahore city was only marginally Muslim ... The Muslim percentage by 1941 census was over 66 ... it was easy to show that Muslims were the most stable and demographically progressive element ... I think that the fact that Congres simply shied away from my age-sex pyramids was significant; they either couldn’t understand them at all, or understood only too well.”

Spate narrates an interesting revealing incident that took place in Lahore. He writes: “At an immense Muslim dinner one of the commission judges asked me if I had ever been in Lahore before. I replied that I had never been on this side of the subcontinent; it seemed more tactful than saying ‘India’. He remarked with deep feeling, ‘Ah, this is the real India.’ He seemed unconscious of any irony.”

Spate is quite critical of the inefficient way the commission worked. He writes: “The mechanics of the partition process seemed to me ... to be ineptly conceived and executed ... Sir Cyril was to be the final arbiter in both the Punjab and Bengal, a task probably too great for one person even if his expertise had lain in boundary-making rather than constitutional law. He ... sat nobly and ... aloof in Delhi or Shimla. He had presumably been selected because he had had little contact with Indian affairs, and so would be impartial; they forgot that they would have to give him advisers ... of whom the same could not necessarily be said. The other side of the coin of impartiality is ignorance of the local facts, an inescapable if perhaps not quite an inseparable dilemma.”

In the first week of August, the Punjab Commission moved to Shimla, which, as Spate writes, “seethed with rumours; it seemed pretty clear that Radcliffe was thinking of the Beas-Sutlej line, but the two tehsils west of Beas, Amritsar and Tarn Taran, and Gurdaspur District, were the real crux from the Muslim point of view ... most of my time was spent in thinking of precedents for extra-territoriality, enclaves, condominia, free zones, corridors and what have you, all to secure Amritsar and Gurdaspur District to Pakistan while ensuring Sikh access to their Golden Temple in Amritsar city.” Spate laments, “Labour in vain.”

In Shimla, according to Spate, “The atmosphere was that of a spy thriller, full of agreeably mysterious eavesdroppings, awkward unpremeditated confrontations, and highly suspicious would-be secret meetings ... But one incident was very unpleasant and not at all comic. I had a little time off and as light relief was reading military history in a corner of the deserted United Services Library when a key British official on Radcliffe’s staff came in with three Sikhs, all very jovial as they handed him a plain envelope; they did not notice me. Of course it may have been merely an invitation to tea, but even for that was dubiously discreet, and in the circumstances the strange venue reeked of dirty work. I wished that I hadn’t seen this; a question has remained in my mind ever since.”

Spate is critical not only of the “terms of reference” but also of the Congres-Sikh claim in the Punjab. As he writes: “Things were not really helped by the terms of reference, which spoke of delimiting areas of contiguous communal majorities and of completely undefined ‘other factors’ ... The Congres-Sikh claim was rather extreme ... included the bulk of the Rechna Doab ... This boundary would have made West Pakistan indefensible ... This amazing claim was supported by an amazing map, defended ... with ... no blushes at all ... The map ... purporting to represent areas of ‘contiguous non-Muslim majority’; no statement of the units used was given: a giant gerrymander ... when asked for the basis of the map, a Congres lawyer cheerfully replied ‘Anything from a district to a village’... Two tehsils were shown as divided equally between the parties in terms of area; ... the Muslim majorities in their halves were over 215,000 and 86,906, the non-Muslim in theirs under 7,000 and exactly 1,100 ...”

The Sikh case seemed to confuse ownership of land with sovereignty over territory. Their claim would have left fewer than 500,000 Sikhs in Pakistan, against 8,000,000 Muslims left in Indian Punjab. They solemnly argued that they were ‘rooted in the soil’, while the far greater number of Muslims formed a mere ‘floating population’ of barbers, blacksmiths, carpenters, rural labourers and assorted artisans; therefore the whole area should go to the lords of the soil. “Their ... lawyer asked what blacksmiths and carpenters had to do with the rural economy ... it was ... countered by Zafrullah Khan with the dry remark that it was the blacksmiths and carpenters who made Persian irrigation wheels go round.”

Spate realizes that “ ... The Muslim case stuck on the whole to population; they claimed the Bist Doab and a riverain strip on the left bank of the Sutlej. The only anomaly was a salient in the south, oddly bounded by straight lines, this turned out to be the estates of a prominent Muslim Leaguer,” (Please see the map). He found the claim of “the Muslim pretty moderate — in fact a good deal less than my notional division in the 1943 article ... The easy compromise, split down the middle, was ... not even rough justice; it was unfair to the Muslims ... some of the details, from the stand point of expediency as well as justice, were simply absurd.”

In Shimla, “The tension was very difficult to bear, especially when we learnt that Sir Cyril had been in Delhi for five days ... there was a strong rumour that all of Gurdaspur District ... with a Muslim majority, was to go to India. This rumour was five days old, and in the subcontinent a rumour which lasts five days without being eclipsed by fresh rumours ranks as truth; which it was ... I think people were reconciled to losing the salient in Amritsar District, but Gurdaspur was another matter; and indeed far from following the Beas-Sutlej line, the award boundary was a Ravi-Sutlej line, and did not touch the Beas at all ... almost all of Gurdaspur went to India ... but there seemed no consistency. The criteria wobbled from communal to economic to strategic, and if there were any consistency it was that Pakistan lost out in each individual case ... Pakistani suspicions were hardened ... this accounted for the unfair Gurdaspur decision, since the district lay athwart the routes from Amritsar and the Bist Doab into Kashmir.”

Spate ends the section relating to his subcontinental memories in the following words: “For a last comment I will go to the seventeenth century Swedish statement Oxenstierna, the Chancellor of Gustavus Adolphus and the brain behind his sword. When his son was setting out on the Grand Tour of the Courts and Cabinets of Europe, he farewelled him thus: ‘Dost thou not know, my son, with what little wisdom the world is governed.’”

Finally, Radcliffe or no Radcliffe, Mountbatten or no Mountbatten, Ahmaddiya community or no Ahmaddiya community, Spate or no Spate, almost whole of Gurdaspur would have gone to India. The Transfer of Power (Volume VI) records that in the last week of January 1946, London asked for Wavell’s recommendations regarding “definition of genuinely Muslim areas” if the Labour government were to give a decision on such an important issue. Within a few days, Wavell, among other suggestions, recommended that in the Punjab, the only Muslim majority district that would not go into Pakistan was Gurdaspur, “which must go with Amritsar for geographical reasons.” Wavell had the last laugh.

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