The 1947 Partition of India has a new nation born but at the cost of millions of lives.
Mountbatten Plan for Partition
The final plan for a united India was the Cabinet Mission, announced in the fiery summer of 1946. For six months, the British, the Congress and the Muslim League fought over the plan, sparring over its legal minutiae. By the end, it fell through: the Congress rejected it, unhappy with how little power the Centre had. Famously, Nehru announced that the Congress would enter the Constituent Assembly “completely unfettered by agreements”.
With India hurtling into anarchy, the British Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten resurrected a plan drawn up by Indian civil servant, VP Menon, which proposed a complete partition into two dominions under the British crown. He ran it by Nehru on May 10, who preferred it greatly to the alternative: a transfer of power to the provinces.
Bengal and Punjab Partitioned
What the partition of India actually entailed was the partition of the great provinces of Bengal and Punjab, the lifeblood of British India. The Mountbatten plan had a procedure where the east and west halves of each province would vote separately and if either voted to partition their provinces, the decision would be carried.
While this was technically a free vote, given the bitter communalisation at the time, legislators simply voted as per their religion. In Bengal, the vote was held on June 20, 1947. Western Bengal decided for partition and to join up with India. Eastern Bengal decided to keep the province united but part of Pakistan. The final result was, of course, the map that you see now, with West Bengal in India and East Bengal, first part of Pakistan and then, emerging as a free country, Bangladesh.
When the partition of Punjab went through, all law and order broke down in the province with lakhs killed and millions displaced. Each half of the province would empty itself of its minorities – Muslim heading west, Hindus and Sikhs, east – the largest instance of ethnic cleansing the world has ever seen.
The Mountbatten plan was operationalised on August 15, with India and Pakistan becoming self-governing dominions under the British Crown (the Congress dream of purna swaraj, or complete freedom would only come in 1950 for India).
Newspapers across India greeted the moment with joy.
The Civil and Military Gazette, published from Lahore, the epicentre of the Partition holocaust, did not even bother with reporting any news of independence or freedom on its front pages on August 15, although the previous day, Lord Mountbatten had formally transferred power to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan.
A news item, carried on August 14, announced that the Muslim League would not carry out any celebrations in West Punjab in view of the disturbances.
In the midst of this gloom, Stanley Wolpert mentions that Mountbatten, however, found a moment of levity when Jinnah scheduled a lunch programme for the Viceroy. Unfortunately, the irreligious founder of the soon-to-be Islamic state of Pakistan had clean forgotten that this was the Islamic month of dawn-to-dusk fasting, Ramzan, so the programme had to be changed to dinner.
A little-known fact : August 15 was Independence Day but Partition actually took place two days later. Mountbatten kept the Partition of the Punjab and Bengal till after August 15 since, as he laid out himself in his report to London, “it had been obvious all along that the later we postponed publication [of the new border], the less would be the inevitable odium react upon the British”.
Which in plain English means that India and Pakistan would bear the responsibilities for the Partition massacres not, the ex-rulers (by two days), the British. This was done even as any delay meant even more panic and, consequently, even more death.