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A Look At Pre-1947 Leadership Of Sikhs, Muslims And Hindus


Apr 3, 2005


Harbinder Pal Singh*

[* A Lawyer of Allahabad High Court of Uttar Pardesh State of India. The article is reproduced from Abstracts of Sikh Studies, Jan-Mar 2000.]


The creation of Pakistan, which involved the partition of erstwhile India, was the achievement of a single man, namely, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who was an eminent lawyer, and an expert on constitutional law in the Indian subcontinent. It was a unique status which he had attained by putting in hard labour at the Bar while working for fourteen hours each day in the preparation of civil and constitutional law cases, continuously for forty years, and in the words of his biographer, Stanley Wolpert, he had become the greatest native advocate of British India. He got a resolution for the creation of Pakistan passed in March 1940 at the Lahore session of the Muslim League, despite stubborn opposition from popular Muslim leaders of the major provinces that were to constitute Pakistan, namely, Sir Sikander Hayat Khan of Punjab and Sir Fazal-e-Haq of Bengal. The other parties that mattered in the decision for Pakistan were Congress leaders representing Hindus, inhabiting the areas of the future Pakistan, and Akali leaders for the Sikhs of Punjab. The Congress was led by two important Hindu leaders, namely, M K Gandhi and Jawahar Lal Nehru, who despite being advocates, had little experience of legal practice at the Bar. Of course, Gandhi had practised law for a few years during the initial period of his career, in South Africa, prior to his return to India in 1916, but Nehru never practised after completing his legal education, with the result that both of them were incompetent and ineffective to counteract and neutralize the arguments involving the subtleties of constitutional law advanced by their highly proficient and experienced adversary, M A Jinnah. Similarly, Akali leaders like Master Tara Singh and Giani Kartar Singh also suffered from the same limitation. Moreover, being representatives of a microscopic minority, they had not much say in the final decision, although their bold and brave stand enabled them to save the eastern half of Punjab for India. However, the role of Sikh leaders can be examined by perusing the historic events in their chronological order from the date of passing the Lahore Resolution for the creation of Pakistan in March 1940, by the Muslim League.

Lahore Resolution of March, 1940

On March 23, 1940, the Muslim League at its Lahore session passed a resolution that geographically contiguous units should be demarcated into regions, which should be so constituted, with such territorial adjustments as may be necessary, that areas in which Muslims are in a majority, as in the North-Western and Eastern zone of India, should be grouped to constitute independent states in which constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign. In the aforesaid Lahore Resolution, the term ‘Pakistan’ was not explicitly mentioned and it was also not clear whether it would be a single Muslim state or two Muslim states, in the North-West and North-East, i.e., present day Pakistan and Bangladesh, because the plural term ‘states’ was used, instead of the singular word ‘state’. Moreover, the term ‘unit’ was never defined to indicate if it would only mean provinces of British India, or whether it would also include princely states. Being an astute lawyer, Jinnah clearly avoided to give details and left it to the Hindu political leaders and Hindu journalists to define the boundaries of the proposed Islamic state or states. Subsequently, C Rajgopalachari, a Congress leader and a relation of M K Gandhi, gave a formula, which proposed a plebiscite in Muslim majority contiguous districts in the North-West and North-East of India, to decide the issue of separation from Hindustan. If the majority decided in favour of forming a sovereign state, such decision should be given effect to, without prejudice to the rights of districts on the border to choose to join either state.

Lord Mountbatten’s Plan of 3rd June, 1947

Subsequently, Lord Mountbatten’s plan of June 3, 1947, was finally approved and implemented. It was largely based on the above-mentioned formula of C Rajgopalachari. It envisaged demarcation of the boundary of provinces of Bengal and Punjab on the basis of Muslim and non-Muslim domination of population in their respective areas. The representatives of the Provincial Legislative Assemblies of Punjab and Bengal were to decide by simple majority for or against partition of their provinces, as well as for their inclusion into India or Pakistan. Moreover, there was to be a referendum in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) to ascertain whether the inhabitants wanted inclusion of their province in India or Pakistan. A similar referendum was to decide whether inhabitants of Sylhet district of Assam (which had a Muslim majority), wanted to remain in Assam or join Pakistan.

Paradoxically, unlike the Punjab and Bengal Legislative Assemblies, the popularly elected Government of NWFP was not allowed to decide the fate of that province under the Mountbatten Plan. In fact, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, along with his majority party in the Legislative Assembly, wanted complete independence for the Pukhtoons. But, the proposal was not seriously backed by Congress Party leaders and it was also vetoed by Lord Mountbatten. As such, the legally constituted government of Khan Sahib was dismissed, and the frontier province was presented on a silver platter to Jinnah, which was something he never expected. Badshah Khan was very much disgusted with this situation and at the meeting of the Congress Working Committee in June 1947, he voted against Partition. In utter despondency and dejection, he said to M K Gandhi, “We have been destroyed (Hum to tabah ho gaye), you have thrown us to the wolves.” Of course, he was betrayed by the Congress and had to spend the remaining forty years of his life mostly in Pakistani jails. He died in 1987.

Jinnah’s Elucidation of Pakistan, Implying Exchange of Population

On August 16, 1946, Jinnah called upon Indian Muslims to observe “Direct Action Day” for the formation of Pakistan. The city of Calcutta witnessed a virtual holocaust. Subsequently, on September 11, 1946, at Bombay, Jinnah stated, “Hindu India must choose between Pakistan and civil war.” Moreover, he called for a total exchange of populations on acceptance of Pakistan. Of course, exchange of populations was a natural corollary to the proposition of partition of the country on the basis of the two-nation theory of Muslims and non-Muslims (and Hindus and non-Hindus, according to Vir Savarkar). But due to the obdurate and stubborn attitude of Gandhi and his lieutenant, Jawahar Lal Nehru, the proposition of exchange of populations even after acceptance of partition on the basis of the two-nation theory, was not incorporated in the Mountbatten plan of June 3, 1947. As such, the unplanned exchange of populations between West and East Punjab, resulted in the butchering of one million people, and the rape and abduction of thousands of girls. It also involved the migration of ten million people.

Jinnah believed in exchange of populations, and in compliance with his orders regarding total extermination of minorities, Francis Mudie wrote in September 1947, “I do not care how Sikhs cross the border of Pakistan. The great thing is to get rid of them as soon as possible.” Thus, there was a complete genocide of Sikhs in Pakistan carried out under the orders of highest state officials. But unfortunately, this case of ruthless genocide, against internationally recognised parameters, was never taken up by the United Nations or Amnesty International, even half a century after 1947.

Paradoxically, even after acceptance of Partition, Gandhi in his obstinacy, continued to oppose peaceful exchange of populations by resorting to fasts in Delhi, which resulted in further complicating the matter, defying any final solution or settlement of the problem as suggested by Jinnah.

Gandhi and Partition

Like their attitude of the past one thousand years regarding Hindu-Muslim relations, the resistance of Hindus to the concept of Pakistan was far from firm. Initially, on April 1, 1940, in a press statement, Gandhi said, “We are at present a joint family and any member can claim division.” But, subsequently, he changed his stand and said, “My body will be vivisected, before the vivisection of India.” Surprisingly, his opposition to the partition plan soon became feeble and infirm, perhaps because of the over-enthusiastic attitude of Nehru, who was keen to be Prime Minister in post-Partition India. He wanted to be rid of Jinnah, whom he decried as a mediocre lawyer. On June 2, 1947, the whole country was anxiously looking for Gandhi to resort to a fast unto death to oppose Mountbatten’s partition plan in fulfilment of his promise. But, he did not raise his voice on this historic occasion on the plea that it was his day of silence, and he was observing a Maun Barat. On the other hand, Nehru was anxious to get the Mountbatten plan of partition immediately approved because he had tasted the cup of power, and could not offer its nectar to anyone else.

Role of Sikh Leadership

The Sikh people were given separate representation along with Hindus and Muslims under the Government of India Act, 1919. As such, no political settlement of Punjab could be effected without their concurrence. The Sikh leaders opposed the proposition of the division of the country tooth and nail, but due to their proportionately small population, they were not successful in avoiding Partition. Had they accepted Partition as inevitable, they might have backed Jinnah’s demand of an exchange of populations before Partition. However, by their efforts, they saved the territory of East Punjab for the Indian Union. The Cripps Mission in 1942 had accepted the doctrine propounded by Jinnah that Muslim majority provinces of India could frame an independent constitution, and may not accede to the Indian Union.[/b]

To counteract the proposition of Pakistan, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee in their memorandum of March 31, 1942, had suggested that the province of Punjab may be divided, and that the river Ravi should be the boundary between the two Punjabs. Inter-alia, the memorandum said, “The Sikhs cannot attain their rightful portion or effectively protect their interests, unless Punjab is redistributed into two provinces, with the river Ravi as boundary between them.” As such, the districts of Lahore, Amritsar, Gurdaspur, as well as the canal colony of district Montgomery, lying on the east of the Ravi, would have formed part of East Punjab. Master Tara Singh, the veteran Sikh leader, in his letter dated May 1, 1942, addressed to Cripps, had clearly stated that the Sikhs of Punjab did not want to be outside India. This division of Punjab, with the river Ravi as boundary, was accepted to a certain extent under the Radcliffe Award of August 1947, but the Arya Samaj dominated Hindu Press of Punjab ridiculed and vehemently denounced the proposal, saying that the Sikhs were out for a communal state of their own on the lines of the Muslim state of Pakistan.

It may be pointed out that in 1905, Bengal was split up into two provinces, East Bengal with its capital at Dacca, and West Bengal with its capital at Calcutta. But, the partition of Bengal was subsequently revoked in 1911 on the occasion of the Coronation Darbar of King George V. Thus the first partition of Bengal in 1905 granted Dacca an equal status with Calcutta and it became a precursor of, and paved the way for, the final partition of Bengal in August 1947, on the basis of two-nations of Hindus and Muslims. It is most tragic that under the Mountbatten plan of June 3, 1947, the Sikh leaders were forced to swallow the bitter pill of partition of Punjab, which resulted in the partition of their own small community into two almost equal halves.

Boundary Commission and Terms of Reference

Once the partition of the country was accepted under the Mountbatten plan, the membership of the Boundary Commission and their terms of reference was to be decided. Hence, Jinnah, who according to Stanley Wolpert, was the shrewdest barrister of the British Empire, played his cards most skilfully and took full advantage of his legal acumen and experience. The Boundary Commission was to consist of four High Court Judges, two chosen by the Muslim League and two by the Congress, and it was to be presided over by a Chairman, in order to partition Punjab and Bengal. At the meeting of the Partition Council, consisting of Jinnah, Liaquat Ali Khan, Nehru, Patel and Sardar Baldev Singh, Jinnah proposed the name of Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a British barrister, as Chairman of the Boundary Commission. It may be pointed out that Sir Cyril Radcliffe had never visited India, and had never expressed his opinion on its problems. Strangely enough, he was called upon to chair the Boundary Commission, which was to decide the destiny of millions of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs, through repeatedly exercising his casting vote. Initially, Nehru and his colleagues hurriedly agreed to Jinnah’s proposal, without enquiring into the antecedents of Sir Cyril. Thus, the Chairman was elected unanimously. But subsequently, Nehru expressed grave misgivings about Radcliffe, because of his close association with the British Conservative Party, and he urged that the federal court may serve as final arbitrator, but Jinnah adamantly opposed this. Thus, most skilfully, Jinnah got the appointment of a person of his own choice as Chairman of the Boundary Commission. Secondly, the terms of reference were not very explicit, and this granted scope for a lot of flexibility in the exercise of his powers as Chairman. Under its terms of reference, “the Boundary Commission was instructed to demarcate the boundaries of the two parts of Punjab and Bengal, on the basis of ascertaining the contiguous majority areas of Muslims and non-Muslims. In doing so, it will also take into account other factors.” Astonishingly, the term ‘other factors’ was not defined, for instance, whether economic factors, or the location of sacred places should be taken into consideration, and how much weightage should be given to those factors as compared to the population ratio of the two communities, in ascertaining respective contiguous majority areas for the purpose of demarcation. As such, the view put forth before the Boundary Commission, that important Sikh religious places like Nankana Sahib and Dehra Sahib (Lahore), and major portion of lands, such as canal colonies of Montgomery district, ought to be linked with East Punjab, was not accepted by the Commission. Thus, almost the whole of Lahore district, including half of the tehsil of Kasur subdivision, which constituted the heart of Majha, the traditional homeland of the Sikhs, was allocated to West Punjab, although in Kasur subdivision, excluding the township of Kasur, non-Muslims constituted the majority of the population. Even the irrigation system of the Upper Bari Doab canal, which extended from Madhopur in Pathankot tehsil to the western border of Lahore district, was not preserved, but a small adjustment of half of Kasur tehsil on the Lahore-Amritsar district border was allotted to East Punjab to mitigate the consequences of severance of the irrigation system of the above mentioned canal.

At a press conference held on June 4, 1947, Lord Mountbatten elucidated factors other than the question of majority population with the illustration that in the district of Gurdaspur in Punjab where the population is 50.4% Muslims and 49.6% non-Muslims with a difference of 0.8%, it is unlikely that the Boundary Commission will allocate the whole district to the Muslim majority area. It was due to this commitment that three out of four tehsils (subdivisions) of Gurdaspur district, namely, Pathankot, Batala, and Gurdaspur, were allocated to East Punjab in the final award. But, Lord Mountbatten also specifically said that, “Partition was not being made on the basis of Muslim and non-Muslim property areas. So, economic factors like property ownership of the two communities will not be considered in the demarcation of the final boundary line.” Paradoxically, in the final award, Sir Cyril Radcliffe interpreted the term ‘other factors’ more favourably to the Muslims, without taking into consideration the population of the respective communities. For instance, the Chittagong Hill Tracts district, with only three per cent Muslims, and ninety- seven per cent non-Muslims, was allocated to East Bengal in violation of the terms of reference, and the instructions of the partition council, to demarcate the boundary line on the basis of contiguous majority areas of Muslims and non-Muslims. Similarly, the whole district of Khulna, with a non-Muslim population of more than forty nine per cent, was allocated to East Bengal in the award.

Therefore, the argument of Lord Mountbatten against the linking of the Sikh shrines, by creating a Sikh enclave round Nankana Sahib, to include the predominantly Sikh population areas of Lyallpur and Montgomery districts, which were not contiguous to other Sikh areas, was not tenable as is evident in the final award of Sir Cyril Radcliffe.

Thirdly, it may be added that Jinnah had good contacts in the top Conservative Party circles of Britain, as well as with British bureaucrats of various provinces, who were favourably inclined to the creation of Pakistan. For instance, Bengal Governor, Frederick Burrows, Sindh Governor, Sir Francis Mudie, who was subsequently promoted to Governor of West Punjab, and Sir Olaf Carrow, the Governor of NWFP, were all Jinnah supporters and acted in his favour. It is pertinent to add that Sir Cyril Radcliffe, being a stranger to India, was influenced by the advice of Fredrick Burrows, the Governor of Bengal. In his personal report, dated August 12, 1947, as Chairman of the Boundary Commission, addressed to Lord Mountbatten, Sir Cyril referred to the Chittagong Hill Tracts and stated, “…to which state the Chittagong Hill Tracts district be assigned, an area in which the Muslim population was only three per cent, but it was difficult to assign it to a state different from that which controlled the district of Chittagong itself.” In this connection, it may be added that Fredrick Burrows, the then Governor of Bengal, had also explained to Lord Mountbatten that the whole economic life of the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts depended upon East Bengal, and as such, despite having only three per cent Muslims, it was awarded to East Bengal, a predominantly Muslim State. Thus, on the advice of the Bengal Governor, the terms of reference and instructions to the Boundary Commission for allocation of contiguous majority areas of Muslims and non-Muslims were violated by bringing into consideration the economic factors of the area. On the other hand, in the case of Punjab, economic factors were totally ignored by the Chairman of the Boundary Commission for the purpose of demarcation of the boundary line between East and West Punjab.

Fourthly, the case of the Sikhs was pleaded by Sikh leaders, namely, Sardar Baldev Singh, Master Tara Singh, Giani Kartar Singh and Sardar Harnam Singh, Advocate. But, unfortunately, with the solitary exception of Sardar Harnam Singh, none had the legal background to plead their case properly before the Commission. Moreover, Baldev Singh was an aristocrat who was not much acquainted with the Punjab economy and its politics, and his presentation of the Sikh case was not effective. Obviously, he remained merely an appendix, or adjunct, of Nehru.

Lastly, the Punjab Boundary Commission consisted of Sir Cyril Radcliffe, Chairman, Justice Din Mohammad, Justice Mohammad Munir, as Muslim members, and Justice Teja Singh, Justice Mehar Chand Mahajan as non-Muslim members. Both the latter judges argued the case of non-Muslims ably and efficiently, but were arbitrarily overruled by Sir Cyril Radcliffe. It may be added that Partition in undue haste proved to be a surgical operation, without the anaesthesia of a rational plan for the exchange of populations. The award of the Boundary Commission resulted in the division of the State of Punjab in two parts, and the dividing line ran through the middle of the Bari Doab area of Central Punjab resulting in conversion of the two principal cities of Lahore and Amritsar into hostile frontier towns. Moreover, it was accompanied by unplanned mass migration of 15 million people, together with the murder of lakhs of persons, and rape and abduction of thousands of women. Obviously, it was the greatest migration in human history.

Subsequent Observations of Sir Cyril Radcliffe

Two decades later, in an interview given to Kuldip Nayar, the journalist, Sir Cyril Radcliffe said that the Hindus were expecting Lahore to be included in India and the Muslims that Calcutta would be in Pakistan. Both were disappointed. He (Radcliffe) never had the slightest doubt that Calcutta should go to India and Lahore to Pakistan, because they had to have a big city in West Punjab. After that the rest was merely to draw the lines. When asked if he had any regrets, he said, “I think I did injustice to non-Muslims in Punjab and Muslims in Bengal. Both should have been given more territory than what they got.” It was an admission of the fact that great injustice was done to Sikhs of Punjab by the Boundary Commission, and of his regrets over this.


In the end, it may be added that had the Sikh leaders not taken the decision to join the Indian Union in 1947, the boundary line of India would have shifted from the river Ravi to the river Ghaghar, near the Jamuna, and the State of Jammu and Kashmir would have been left with no option but to accede to Pakistan. Perhaps the three Indo-Pak wars would have been fought on the plains of Panipat or in the streets of Delhi, rather than in the border states of Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab. But the House of Nehrus, intoxicated with the power of the Prime Ministerial chair of post-Partition India, never appreciated this monumental, everlasting, and unforgettable contribution of the Sikh leaders, and were never prepared to grant them even equal status along with other citizens of the Indian Union in the matter of preservation of their culture, language, and laws.



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