The Mountbatten Mission

Lord Mountbatten first became well known during the war years. He had spent some time in India and then transferred his headquarters to Ceylon. When Lord Wavell resigned, he was appointed Viceroy and Governor-General. Fully briefed by the Labour Government before he left, he came with instructions from Mr. Attlee that power must be transferred before 30th June 1948.

He reached Delhi on 22nd march and was sworn in as Viceroy and Governor-General of India on the 24th. Immediately after the swearing-in ceremony, he made a short speech, in which he stressed the need for reaching a solution within the next few months.

Soon after this, I had my first interview with Lord Mountbatten. At the very first meeting, he told me that the British Government was fully determined to transfer power. Before this could happen, a settlement of the communal problem was necessary, and he desired that a final and decisive attempt be made to solve the problem.

He agreed with me that the differences between the Congress and the League had now been greatly narrowed down.

  • The Cabinet Mission had grouped Assam and Bengal together.
  • The Congress held that no province should be compelled to enter a group and each province might vote whether to join the group or not.
  • The League said that it had accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan on the basis that the group would vote as a whole and a province could opt out only after the group had framed the constitution. The League further argued that any change in the proposals of the Plan would nullify the agreement and on this basis the League had rejected the Cabinet Mission Plan.

Nobody can understand why the League placed so much emphasis on the question of Assam, when Assam was not a Muslim majority province. If the League’s own criterion was applied, there was no valid reason to force Assam to join Bengal. Whatever be the reason, the League was formally right though morally and politically its case was weak. I discussed the question with Lord Mountbatten on several occasions. I felt that the difference between the Congress and the League had reached a stage where agreement could be attained only through the mediation of a third party. My opinion was that we might leave the matter to Lord Mountbatten. Let the Congress and the League agree to refer the question to him and accept his arbitration. Neither Jawaharlal nor Sardar Patel would however agree to this suggestion. They did not like the idea of arbitration on a national issue and I did not press the point further.

In the meantime, the situation was deteriorating every day. The Calcutta riots had been followed by riots in Noakhali and Bihar. Thereafter there was trouble in Bombay. The Punjab which had been quiet till now also showed signs of strain and conflict. Malik Khizr Hayat had resigned as Premier of Punjab on 2nd March. Anti-Pakistan demonstrations were held in Lahore on 4th March, which led to the death of 13 persons and injury to many. Communal disturbances spread to other parts of the province and there were major disturbances in Amritsar, Taxila and Rawalpindi.

On the one hand communal passions were mounting. On the other, the administration was becoming lax. European in the services no longer had their heart in the work. They were now convinced that within a short time, power would be transferred to Indian hands. As such, they were no longer interested in their work and only marked time. They told people openly that they were no longer responsible for the administration. This led to more unrest and uncertainty among the people and created loss of confidence.

The situation was made worse by the deadlock between the Congress and the Muslim League within the Executive Council. The Central Government was paralyzed as the Members of the Council pulled against one another. The League oversaw Finance and held the key to the administration. It will be remembered that this was due entirely to Sardar Patel who in his anxiety to retain the Home portfolio, offered Finance to the Muslim League. There were some very able and senior Muslim officers in the Finance Department who gave every possible help to Liaqat Ali. With their advice, Liaqat Ali was able to reject or delay every proposal put up by the Congress members of the Executive Council. Sardar Patel discovered that though he was Home Member, he could not create the post of a chaprasi (peon) without Liaqat Ali’s concurrence. The Congress members of the Council were at a loss and did not know what to do.

A truly pathetic situation had developed because of our own foolish action in giving Finance to the Muslim League. Lord Mountbatten took full advantage of the situation. Because of the dissensions among the members, he slowly and gradually assumed full powers. He kept up the form of a constitutional Governor-General, but in fact he started to mediate between the Congress and the League to get his own way. He also began to give a new turn to the political problem and tried to impress on both the Congress and the Muslim League the inevitability of Pakistan. He pleaded in favour of Pakistan and sowed the seeds of the idea in the minds of the Congress members of the Executive Council.

It must be placed on record that the man in India who first fell for Lord Mountbatten’s idea was Sardar Patel. Till perhaps the very end, Pakistan was for Jinnah a bargaining counter, but in fighting for Pakistan, he had overreached himself. His action had so annoyed and irritated Sardar Patel that the Sardar was now a believer in partition. The Sardar’s was the responsibility for giving Finance to the Muslim League. He therefore resented his helplessness before Liaqat Ali more than anybody else. When Lord Mountbatten suggested that partition might offer a solution to the present difficulty, he found ready acceptance to the idea in Sardar Patel’s mind. In fact, Sardar Patel was fifty percent in favour of partition even before Lord Mountbatten appeared on the scene. He was convinced that he could not work with the Muslim League. He openly said that he was prepared to have a part of India if only he could get rid of the Muslim League. It would not perhaps be unfair to say that Vallabhbhai Patel was the founder of Indian partition.

Lord Mountbatten was extremely intelligent and could read into the minds of all his Indian colleagues. The moment he found Patel amenable to his idea, he put out all the charm and power of his personality to win over the Sardar. In his private talk, he always referred to Patel as a walnut—a very hard crust outside but soft pulp once the crust was cracked. Sometimes in a jocular mood he used to tell me that he had spoken to Walnut, and Walnut had agreed with him on every question.

When Sardar Patel was convinced, Lord Mountbatten turned his attention to Jawaharlal. Jawaharlal was not at first ready for the idea and reacted violently against the idea of partition. Lord Mountbatten persisted till Jawaharlal’s opposition was worn down step by step. Within a month of Lord Mountbatten’s arrival in India, Jawaharlal, the firm opponent of partition had become, if not a supporter, at least acquiescent to the idea.

I have often wondered how Jawaharlal was won over by Lord Mountbatten. He is a man of principle, but he is also impulsive and very amenable to personal influences. I think one factor responsible for the change was the personality of Lady Mountbatten. She is not only extremely intelligent but has a most attractive and friendly temperament. She admired her husband very greatly and in many cases tried to interpret his thoughts to those who would not at first agree with him.

There was one other person responsible for the change in Jawaharlal. An Indian named Krishna Menon who had lived in London since the early twenties. Jawaharlal had met him first in the late twenties and had found in him one who professed great admiration for Jawaharlal’s views. We all like our admirers but perhaps Jawaharlal likes them a little more than others. Sometime later, in the early thirties, the Labour Party sent a delegation to India led by Miss Ellen Wilkinson. Krishna Menon was attached to the delegation and visited India. He had also been taking an interest in the activities of the India League in London. During this period, his contacts were mainly with people who were regarded as communists or fellow-travellers. When Jawaharlal went again to London, Krishna Menon renewed his contact and reiterated his loyalty for Jawaharlal.

When war broke out, Krishna Menon suggested that he should be provided with funds so that he could carry on propaganda in London on behalf of India. When Hitler attacked Russia, he came in touch with the Soviet Embassy in London. He sent us many messages that he was meeting the Soviet Ambassador as Jawaharlal’s personal representative. He sent all kinds of proposals for securing the help of interests friendly to India. He also prepared schemes asking for funds from the Congress. Jawaharlal was impressed by him and requested me to grant some money. I did so and placed the matter before the Working Committee. Gandhiji and Sardar Patel told me frankly that they did not like my action, but they would say nothing since I had paid the money in good faith. They however, asked me not to make any further payment. They pointed out that Indians in London were sharply divided in their judgement about Krishna Menon. He had some supporters but there was a strong body of opponents who brought all kinds of charges against him. The general impression I got was that his conduct was not above reproach. I could not therefore trust him fully. Later events proved that Gandhiji and Sardar were right in their suspicion of Krishna Menon. He was, to take the charitable view, unreliable and had little concern for the way public funds were spent. Most people took an even worse view and regarded him as downright dishonest.

When the interim government was formed, Jawaharlal wanted to appoint Krishna Menon as the High Commissioner in London. Lord Wavell did not agree. The British Government also advised that his appointment would not be appropriate as he was regarded a fellow traveller. Soon after Lord Wavell left, Krishna Menon came to India and stayed with Jawaharlal. Lord Mountbatten immediately perceived that Jawaharlal had a weakness for Krishna Menon and could be influenced by him. Lord Wavell had opposed Krishna Menon’s appointment, but Lord Mountbatten decided to become his patron and invited him to the Viceroy’s House on several occasions. Krishna Menon had communist tendencies but when he saw that Lord Mountbatten was friendly to him and might help him get a position, he became pro-British overnight. He impressed Lord Mountbatten with his friendly feelings for the British. Lord Mountbatten felt that Krishna Menon would be useful in persuading Jawaharlal to accept his scheme of partition of India. It is my belief that Krishna Menon did influence Jawaharlal’s mind on this question. I was not surprised when sometime later I learnt that Lord Mountbatten offered to support Jawaharlal if he wanted to appoint Krishna Menon as the High Commissioner in London.

When I became aware that Lord Mountbatten was thinking in terms of dividing India, and had persuaded Jawaharlal and Patel, I was deeply distressed. I realized that the country was moving towards a great danger. Partition of India would be harmful not only to Muslims but to the whole country. I was and am still convinced that the Cabinet Mission Plan was the best solution from every point of view. It preserved the unity of India and gave every community the opportunity to function with freedom and honour. Even from the communal point of view, Muslims could expect nothing better. They would have complete internal autonomy in provinces in which they were in a majority. Even in the Centre they would have more than adequate representation. So long as there were communal jealousies and doubts, their position would be adequately safeguarded. I was also convinced that if the Constitution for free India was framed on this basis and worked honestly for some time, communal doubts and misgivings would soon disappear. The real problems of the country were economic, not communal. The differences related to classes, not to groups. Once the country became free, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs would all realize the real nature of the problems that faced them, and communal differences would be resolved.

I did my best to persuade my two colleagues not to take the final step. I found that Patel was so much in favour of partition that he was hardly prepared even to listen to any other point of view. For over two hours I argued with him. I pointed out that if we accepted partition, we would create a permanent problem for India. Partition would not solve the communal problem but would make it a permanent feature of the country. Jinnah had raised the slogan of two nations. To accept partition was to accept the slogan. How could Congress ever agree to divide the country based on Hindus and Muslims? Instead of removing communal fears, partition would perpetuate them by creating two States based on communal hatred. Once States based on hatred came into existence, nobody knew where the situation would lead.

I was surprised and pained when Patel in reply said that whether we liked it or not, there were two nations in India. He was now convinced that Muslims and Hindus could not be united into one nation. There was no alternative except to accept the fact. In this alone could we end the quarrel between Hindus and Muslims. He further said that if two brothers cannot stay together, they divide. After separation with their respective shares, they become friends. If on the other they are forced to stay together, they tend to fight every day. It was better to have one clean fight and then separate than have bickering every day. I was surprised that Patel was now an even greater supporter of the two-nation theory than Jinnah. Jinnah may have raised the flag of partition but now the real flag bearer was Patel.

I now turned to Jawaharlal. He did not speak in favour of partition in the way that Patel did. In fact, he admitted that partition by nature was wrong. He had however lost all hopes of joint action after his experience of the conduct of the League members of the Executive Council. They could not see eye to eye on any question. Every day they quarrelled. Jawaharlal asked me in despair what other alternative there was to accepting partition.

Jawaharlal spoke to me in sorrow but left no doubt in my mind as to how his mind was working. It was clear that in spite of his repugnance to the idea of partition, he was day by day coming to the conclusion that there was no alternative. He recognized that partition was certainly not the best solution, in fact it was not a good solution at all. But he held that circumstances were inevitably leading in that direction.

After a few days, Jawaharlal came to see me again. He began with a long preamble in which he emphasized that we should not indulge in wishful thinking but face reality. Ultimately, he came to the point and asked me to give up my opposition to partition. He said that it was inevitable, and it would be wisdom not to oppose what was bound to happen. He also said that it would not be wise for me to oppose Lord Mountbatten on this issue.

I told Jawaharlal that I could not possibly accept his views. I saw quite clearly that we were taking one wrong decision after another. Instead of retracing our steps, we were now going deeper in the morass. The Muslim League had accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan and a satisfactory solution of the Indian problem seemed in sight. It was at his stage that Jawaharlal had made his unfortunate declaration at a press conference in Bombay. When as Congress President he declared that the Congress had not accepted anything but to participate in the Constituent Assembly, he had given Mr. Jinnah a chance of withdrawing from the League’s earlier acceptance of the plan.

I argued that our second mistake arose when Lord Wavell suggested that the Home portfolio be given to the Muslim League. This would not have caused any insuperable difficulty but because Patel insisted on retaining Home, we had ourselves offered Finance to the Muslim League. This was the cause of our present difficulties. Now a situation had arisen where we were becoming greater supporters of partition than Jinnah. I warned Jawaharlal that history would never forgive us if we agreed to partition. The verdict would be that India was divided not by the Muslim League but by the Congress.

Now that Sardar Patel and even Jawaharlal had become supporters of partition, Gandhiji remained my only hope. During this period Gandhiji was staying in Patna. He had earlier spent some months in Noakhali where he made a great impression on local Muslims and created a new atmosphere of Hindu Muslim unity. We expected that he would come to Delhi to meet Mountbatten and he arrived on 31st March. I went to see him at once and his very first remark was, ‘Partition has now become a threat. It seems Vallabhbhai and even Jawaharlal have surrendered. What will you do now? Will you stand by me or have you also changed?

I replied, ‘I have been and am against partition. Never had my opposition to partition been so strong as today. I am however distressed to find that even Jawaharlal and Patel have accepted defeat and in your words, surrendered their arms. My only hope now is you. If you stand against partition, we may yet save the situation. If you however acquiesce, I am afraid India is lost.’

Gandhiji said, ‘What a question to ask! If the Congress wishes to accept partition, it will be over my dead body. So long as I am alive, I will never agree to the partition of India. Nor will I, if I can help it, allow Congress to accept it.’

Later that day Gandhiji met Lord Mountbatten. He saw him again the next day and still again on 2 April. Sardar Patel came to him soon after he returned from his first meeting with Lord Mountbatten and was closeted with for over two hours. What happened during this meeting I do not know. But when I met Gandhiji again, I received the greatest shock of my life to find that he had changed. He was still not openly in favour of partition, but he longer spoke so vehemently against it. What surprised and shocked me even more was that he began to repeat the arguments which Sardar Patel had already used. For over two hours I pleaded with him, but I could make no impression on him.

In despondency I at last said, ‘If even you have now adopted these views I see no hope of saving India from catastrophe.’

Gandhiji did not reply to my comment but said that he had already suggested we should ask Jinnah to form the government and choose the members of the cabinet. He said he had mentioned this to Lord Mountbatten and Lord Mountbatten was greatly impressed by the idea.

I knew this was so. When I met Lord Mountbatten the day after Gandhiji talked to him, he told me that if the Congress accepted Gandhiji’s suggestion, partition could still be saved. Lord Mountbatten agreed that such an offer on the part of the Congress would convince the Muslim League and perhaps win the confidence of Jinnah. Unfortunately, this move could make no progress as both Jawaharlal and Sardar Patel opposed it vehemently. In fact, they forced Gandhiji to withdraw the suggestion.

Gandhiji reminded me of this and said the situation now was such that partition appeared inevitable. The only question to decide was what the form of partition should be. This was the question which was now being debated day and night in Gandhiji’s camp.

I thought deeply over the whole matter. How was it that Gandhiji could change his opinion so quickly? My reading is that this was due to the influence of Sardar Patel. Patel openly said that there was no way out except partition. Experience had shown that it was impossible to work with the Muslim League. Another consideration probably weighted with Sardar Patel. Lord Mountbatten had argued that Congress had agreed to a weak Centre only to meet the objections of the League. Provinces were therefore given full provisional autonomy, but in a country so divided by language, community and culture, a weak Centre was bound to encourage fissiparous tendencies. If the Muslim League were not there, we could plan for a strong Central Government and frame a constitution desirable from the point of view of Indian unity. Lord Mountbatten advised that it would be better to give up a few small pieces in the north-west and the north-east and then build up a strong and consolidated India. Sardar Patel was impressed by the argument that cooperation with the Muslim League would jeopardize Indian unity and strength. It seemed to me that these arguments influenced not only Sardar Patel but also Jawaharlal. The same argument repeated by Sardar Patel and Lord Mountbatten had also weakened Gandhiji’s opposition to partition.

My effort throughout had been to persuade Lord Mountbatten to take a firm stand on the Cabinet Mission Plan. So long as Gandhiji was of the same view, I had not lost hope. Now with Gandhiji’s defection, I knew that Lord Mountbatten would not agree to my suggestion. It is also possible that Lord Mountbatten did not feel so strongly about the Cabinet Mission Plan as this was not the child of his brain. He wanted to be remembered in history as the man who had solved the Indian problem. If the solution was in terms of a plan formulated by him, this would bring still greater credit to him. It is therefore not surprising that as soon as he opposition with the Cabinet Mission Plan, he was willing to substitute it by a plan of partition formulated according to his own ideas.

Now that partition seemed generally accepted, the question of Bengal and Punjab assumed a new importance. Lord Mountbatten said that since the partition was based on Muslim majority areas and since both in Bengal and Punjab there were areas where the muslims were in a clear minority, these provinces should also be partitioned. He, however, advised the Congress leaders not to raise the question at this stage and assured them that he would himself raise it at the appropriate time.

Before Gandhiji left for Patna, I made a last appeal to him. I pleaded with him that the present state of affairs be allowed to continue for two years. De facto power was already in Indian hands and if the de jure transfer was delayed for two years, this might enable Congress and the League to come to a settlement. Gandhiji himself had suggested this a few months ago and I reminded him that two years is not a long period in a nation’s history. If we waited for two years, the Muslim League would be forced to come to terms. I realised that if a decision was taken now, partition was inevitable, but a better solution might emerge after a year or two. Gandhiji did not reject my suggestion but neither did he indicate any enthusiasm for it.

By this time Lord Mountbatten had framed his own proposals for the partition of India. He now decided to go to London for discussions with the British Government and to secure its approval to his proposals. He also felt that he would be able to win the Conservative’s support for his plan. The Conservatives had opposed the Cabinet Mission proposal mainly claiming it did not satisfy the Muslim League demand for partition of India. Now that the Mountbatten proposal was based on partition of the country, it would be natural to expect Mr. Churchill’s support.

After the Congress Working Committee concluded its session on 4 May, I went to Simla. After a few days Lord Mountbatten also came up. He wanted to have a brief respite before his departure for London. His plan was to return to Delhi on 15 May and leave for London on the 18th. I thought I would make a last attempt to save he Cabinet Mission P and accordingly, on the night of 14 May, I met him at the Viceregal lodge.

We had discussions lasting for over an hour. I appealed to him not to bury the Cabinet Mission proposal. I told him that we should exercise patience for there was still hope that the plan would succeed. If we acted in haste and accepted partition, we would be doing permanent injury to India. Once the country was divided, no one could foresee the repercussions and there would be no retracing of the step.

I also told Lord Mountbatten that Mr. Attlee and his colleagues were not likely to easily give up a plan which they had themselves formulated after so much labour. If Lord Mountbatten also agreed and emphasized the need for caution, the Cabinet was not likely to raise any objection. Till now it was the Congress which had been insisting that India should be freed immediately. Now it was the Congress which asked that the solution of the political problem may be deferred for a year or two. Surely no one could blame the British if they conceded the Congress request. I also drew Lord Mountbatten’s attention to another aspect of the question. If the British acted hastily now, independent and impartial observers would naturally conclude that the British wanted to give freedom to India in conditions where Indians could not take full advantage of this development. To press on and bring partition against Indian desire would evoke a suspicion that British motives were not pure.

Lord Mountbatten assured me that he would place a full and true picture before the British Cabinet. He would report faithfully all that he had heard and seen during the last two months. He would also tell the British Cabinet that there was an important section of the Congress which wanted postponement of the settlement by a year or two. He assured me that he would tell Mr. Attlee and Sir Stafford Cripps what my views in the matter were. The British Government would have all these materials before them when they came to a final decision.

I also asked Lord Mountbatten to take into consideration the likely consequences of the partition of the country. Even without partition, there were riots in Calcutta, Noakhali, Bihar, Bombay and the Punjab. Hindus had attacked Muslims and Muslims had attacked Hindus. If the country was divided in such an atmosphere there would be rivers of blood flowing in different parts of the country and the British would be responsible for such carnage.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Lord Mountbatten replied, ‘At least on this one question, I shall give you complete assurance. I shall see to it that there is no bloodshed and riot. I am a soldier, not a civilian. Once partition is accepted in principle, I shall issue orders to see that there are no communal disturbances anywhere in the country. If there should be the slightest agitation, I shall adopt measures to nip the trouble in the bud. I shall not use even the armed police. I shall order the army and the air force to act and use tanks and aeroplanes to suppress anybody who wants to create trouble.’

Lord Mountbatten gave me the impression that he was not going to London with a clear-cut picture of partition nor had he given up the Cabinet Mission Plan completely. Later events made me change my estimate of the situation. The way he acted afterwards convinced me that he had already made up his mind and was going to London to persuade the British Cabinet to accept his plan of partition. His words were only meant to allay my doubts. He did not himself believe what he was telling me.

The whole world knows what the sequel to Lord Mountbatten’s brave declaration was. When partition took place, rivers of blood flowed in large parts of the country. Innocent men, women and children were massacred. The Indian Army was divided, and nothing could be done to stop the murder of innocent Hindus and Muslims.

Maulana Azad

Courtesy: India Wins Freedom by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Orient Longman Private Ltd., published 1988, the complete version. Translated by Humayun Kabir (1906-1969).

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958) was named Firoz Bakht at birth but was known in his youth as Muhiyuddin Ahmad and later adopted the pseudonym of ‘Abul Kalam Azad’. He was descended from a family which came from Herat to India in Babur’s time and among his ancestors were well-known scholars and administrators. Two years after his birth in 1888 in Mecca where his father Maulana Khairuddin had migrated after the 1857 Revolt, the family moved and settled in Calcutta. Azad was educated at home by his father and private tutors. His political awakening was stimulated by the partition (later annulled) of Bengal in 1905. He travelled extensively in Iraq, Egypt, Turkey and France and had planned to visit London, but his father’s illness obliged him to return home in 1908.

Maulana Azad started the Urdu weekly Al Hilal at Calcutta in July 1912. He opposed the Aligarh line of remaining aloof from the freedom movement. With the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, the journal was banned under the Press Act. He then started another Urdu weekly Al Balagh, also from Calcutta in November 1915 and this continued to be published until March 1916 when Azad was externed under the Defence of India Regulations. The governments of Bombay, Punjab, Delhi and the United Provinces banned his entry, and he went to Bihar. He was interned in Ranchi until 1 January 1920.

After his release Azad was elected President of the All India Khilafat Committee (at the Calcutta session, 1920), and of the Unity Conference at Delhi in 1924. He presided over the Nationalist Muslims Conference in 1928. He was elected President of the Indian National Congress in 1923, and again in 1940, and continued to hold this office until 1946. He led the negotiations on behalf of the Congress Party with the British Cabinet Mission in 1946. Later he joined free India’s first government as Minister for Education, a post he held until his death on 22nd February 1958.

Among his other published works are Al-Bayan (1915) and Tarjuman-ul-Quran (1931-1936) which are commentaries, Tazkirah (1916) an autobiographical work and Ghubar-I-Khatir (1943), a collection of letters, all in Urdu.



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