1947: Forgotten history of independence

.. by Lt Gen Raza Muhammad Khan

WHILE we shall celebrate Independence on August 14, the time of reckoning for the NWFP (KP) and Sylhet in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) is July 1947. According to the Partition Plan, contiguous Muslim-majority areas were to be combined to form Pakistan while similar Hindu-majority and non-Muslim areas would remain in India. Of these, the NWFP and District Sylhet in East Bengal (Pakistan) fulfilled the conditions to join Pakistan; however, due to mysterious reasons, the viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, decided to hold referendums in these areas to ascertain the will of the people. Further, the vital, Gurdaspur district in Punjab, that borders Narrowal and Sialkot, also met the principle of partition, however it was doled out to India for shadowy reasons, three days after the partition.

Though the NWFP didn’t share any border with India, Nehru thought that it served as bulwark against the ‘two-nation’ theory, since it had an Indian Congress government in 1947, despite an overwhelming Muslim population. Prior to the referendum, the Congress waged a campaign against Sir Olaf Caroe, Governor of NWFP, and manoeuvred his removal on suspicion of sympathy for Muslim League (ML). (Later, neutral historians on both sides of the border concluded otherwise). Olaf was replaced by Rob Lockhart who enjoyed the confidence of the Congress and their appointed CM, Dr Khan Sahib. But just before the referendum, he and his brother, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, abruptly demanded that the referendum must include an option of independence (Pashtunistan) or joining Afghanistan. This was denied, as it contravened the Partition Formula; besides, the Congress and even the ML had grudgingly accepted the plan of referendum. On this, the ruling ‘Khudayi Khidmargar’ Party of the CM boycotted the referendum.

The event was supervised by British Army officers, who had forbidden electioneering speeches for ‘fear of bloodshed’, and commanded that posters of either side be displayed side by side. The referendum began on 6 July but the results were delayed for no reason and made public only on 20 July. Regardless of the preceding, out of the total votes cast, 99.02% were in favour of Pakistan. Among the Pashtuns of rural constituencies, the turn-out was low in the districts of Mardan (41.56%) and Peshawar (41.68%), due to the influence of the ruling junta’s boycott of the event. The turn-out was highest in Hazara (76.22%), followed by Bannu (65%), D.I.Khan (64 %), Kohat (61 %), which proved to be the strongholds of the ML, which had campaigned for Pakistan. In East Bengal, District Sylhet with a majority of Bengali speaking Muslims was to become East Pakistan, but it was part of the province of Assam in India, where Hindus were in majority.

The Government of Assam publically desired shedding Sylhet to East Pakistan for making the state more homogeneous, but this offer was disallowed by the British for flimsy reasons. Thus, a referendum was held there in July 1947, during which the majority population of Sylhet voted in favour of joining Pakistan. Despite this, the Radcliffe Boundary Commission awarded Karimganj and a few other areas of Sylhet – to India, even though they comprised Muslim-majority population. Another such area, Zakiganj was also going to India, but remarkably, this was prevented by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In Punjab, district Gurdaspur had a Muslim majority population and it remained with Pakistan till August 17. However on this date, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who drew the map of the partition and Lord Mountbatten, (who had ceased to be the viceroy but was appointed Governor General of free India by Nehru), announced the award of this strategic district to India.

At the time it had a Muslim majority of 51 per cent, as against 25 per cent Hindus and 20 per cent Sikhs etc. This decision was to shape the destiny of India-occupied Kashmir (IOK) and India itself, when it moved bulk of its forces and heavy military equipment by the only available land route traversing through Gurdaspur, to occupy Kashmir in October 1947. At the time, Hari Singh, the Maharaja of Kashmir, was facing a freedom movement by his majority Muslim subjects in Poonch, Baramula and Srinagar, for his refusal to accede to Pakistan, till September; and by 22 October, he had lost control of the western districts of his kingdom. Some historians believe that Radcliffe gave Gurdaspur to India as he ‘…wanted the partition maps to look good (and that)…they would have looked ugly if Gurdaspur was in Pakistan’. But Dominique Lappiere and Larry Collins in their book ‘Freedom at Midnight’ have stated that Radcliffe had initially earmarked Gurdaspur for Pakistan as the Muslims outnumbered the combined population of all others.

However, later, they say, that he“…elected to follow the natural boundary of Ravi River, leaving the city and the Muslim villages around it inside India, instead of creating a Pakistani enclave protruding into Indian Territory.” These events were a clear violation of the Indian Independence Act 1947 that was approved by the United Kingdom Parliament and had the Royal concurrence as well. Why then did these aberrations take place is a key question, having four possible explanations. First; the Gurdaspur change was probably to ensure an all-weather, land access to India to its borders with China in Kashmir. Second; they happened to appease the majority of Hindus in India. Third; Mountbatten’s desire of becoming the Governor General of both India and Pakistan, even after the partition, was met by India but declined by Pakistan, as the Quaid and his associates believed that this might undermine Pakistan’s sovereignty. Finally; Gandhi’s influence and Nehru’s close and known personal and family ties with Mountbatten could have led the latter to favour the former through the referendums, impelling the boundary demarcation at Sylhet and Punjab and letting India keep Kashmir, from where Nehru’s parents hailed. The lesson: Remember and learn from history, lest it’s repeated or it changes our geography.
.. The writer is the former President of the NDU.

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