Colonialism, politics of language and partition of Bengal PART IIIby Nurul Kabir
AK FAZLUL Huq, then a Muslim League legislator from East Bengal, remained absent during the voting in question for reasons yet to be ascertained by the historians. Huq, however, in a press statement on July 25, 1947, said he ‘condemn[ed] the circumstances which have led to the unfortunate division of the province’. [The Kolkata-based English-language daily Star of India published the report on July 26, 1947. See footnote no 300 in Harun-or-Rashid, op-cit, p 305]
While the ‘circumstances’ that led to the ‘unfortunate division’ of Bengal on communal line were created over the decades primarily by the British colonial regimes and their local collaborators, particularly the Hindu political elite and economic interests, certain personal biases of the last British viceroy of India for Jawaharlal Nehru, particularly vis-à-vis Mohammed Ali Jinnah, might have played a role. In addition to the people’s will, the particular liking and disliking, inclinations and disinclinations, and biases and non-biases of the crucially important leaders, after all, have influenced the course of history across the world.
This is now a well-established fact of history that the last British viceroy of India, Lord Louise Mountbatten, who led the process of transfer of power to the politicians of the subcontinent on behalf of the British government, had been friendlier with Nehru than Jinnah. In this regard, British journalist and historian HV Hodson writes, ‘Although the Viceroy was careful …to reserve every right of criticism and opposition towards Nehru’s views, it is clear that there developed during the negotiations of April and early May 1947 a closer personal relationship than between the Viceroy and any other political leader, Hindu, Muslim or Sikh.’ [HV Hodson, The Great Divide: Britain-India-Pakistan, Hutchinson & Co, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1969, p 214]
While Mountbatten found Nehru as ‘most sincere’ of the Indian leaders, [ibid] he described Jinnah as ‘rigid, haughty and disdainful’ [ibid, p 216] In a ‘personal report’ to London about the negotiation process, Mountbatten rather disdainfully wrote about Jinnah: ‘I am afraid that the only adviser that Jinnah listens to is Jinnah.’ [ibid, pp 216-217] Mountbatten also wrote of Jinnah’s ‘megalomania’. [ibid, p 218]
Hodson writes that Mountbatten ‘often felt he had worsted Jinnah in a political argument without yet gaining an inch of ground, to have used his best persuasion yet to have made no headway at all’. [ibid] However, ‘when the argument was on legal or constitutional points Jinnah was almost always right … sometimes to Lord Mounbatten’s subsequent discomfiture’. [ibid] Contrary to this, Mountbatten used to feel comfortable with Nehru, probably because, unlike Jinnah, Nehru was hardly reluctant to accept Mountbatten’s ‘wisdom’ on issues of bilateral political interests. Describing a typical trait of Nehru’s persona, Hodson says: ‘Nehru had always seemed to need a stronger figure to give him confidence, a wiser or more self-assured man whose judgment would guide or confirm his own: in the early days it was his father Motilal Nehru, for most of his life it was Mahatma Gandhi, in Cabinet and in Congress politics in these crucial days it was Sardar Patel … and now in major affairs it was to be Mountbatten himself.’ [ibid, p 215] Mountbatten would confirm Hodson’s observation of Nehru’s personality trait during a press interview in question a few years later.
The ‘underlying relationship between the two men’, Mountbatten and Jinnah, was, as Hodson rightly observes, ‘one of contest’. Mountbatten’s relationship with Nehru, on the other hand, was one of ‘affinity’. Mountbatten did not even care to hide it, when it came to putting forward his opinion about Nehru, especially vis-à-vis Jinnah.
In the course of the prolonged series of interview that he gave to Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre between 1971 and 1973 on the transfer of power, Mountbatten often appeared affectionate to Nehru and harsh about Jinnah.
When asked whether he was sure about the appearance of Jinnah at a particularly crucial meeting, Mountbatten told Collins and Lapierre: “I had no worry about Jinnah being shown up for the bastard he was. You know he really was.’[Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, Mountbatten and the Partition of India, Vikas Publishing House Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 1983, p 69]
In the negotiation process, Mountbatten hardly found a compatible person in Jinnah. Commenting about the personality of Jinnah, Mountbatten said, ‘He was … very reserved and very naughty,’ [ibid, p 106] and [h]e never unbent. [ibid, p 107] Jinnah’s habit of saying “no” in many a matter during the negotiation process gave Mountbatten a lot of trouble.’ ‘He was absolutely set on his great cry of “no”,’ says Mountbatten [ibid, p 64]. The viceroy told his interviewers that during the announcement of his ‘partition plan’ in June 1947, Jinnah offered him ‘probably the most hair-raising moment’ of his ‘entire life’, which he had ‘never forgotten’. [ibid, p 67]
The British viceroy, a member of the British royal family, is not expected to feel comfortable in dealing with a politician, Jinnah in the present case, who never bends. Indeed, there was personality clash between Mountbatten and Jinnah.
Nehru, on the other hand, appeared before the Viceroy much compatible. Describing Nehru’s persona, Mountbatten told the interviewers in question: ‘[H]e always came and cried on my shoulder. He wanted someone to go back to…Nehru actually required my presence in order to be able to function, and after Gandhi it was me. He used to go back to Gandhi, and Gandhi was less and less used to him in the end.’ [ibid, p 86]
Evidently, for Nehru, Mountbatten was a political guardian in the last days of the British rule of India. That Mountbatten was a political mentor of Nehru, and at times patronising to him, got evident in an encounter between them after the latter got angry over a British proposal for handing over power to the provincial governments. In the words of Mountbatten, Nehru became ‘white with rage’. The encounter took place after the proposal was revised, and ‘Nehru became overjoyed’.
During the encounter, Mountbatten told Nehru: ‘You’re not helping yourself, you’re not helping me. You’re not improving your image.’
‘I can’t bear it, I must speak out,’ Nehru replied.
‘I know. You’re letting off steam, and I understand why. But if you’re going to be prime minister without me — while I’m there I can do it for you — if one day you’re going to run this place on your own, you’ve got to control yourself,’ Mountbatten advised Nehru. [ibid]
The nature and content of the conversation, indeed, speaks of a mutually dependable relation, in which Mountbatten is a political guardian and mentor.
The British viceroy had an additional reason to feel comfortable with Nehru — the latter’s ‘loyalty’ to the British Empire. Mountbatten gladly recollected the loyalty that Nehru had displayed while toasting at the party given on the occasion of the handover of power to India on August 15, 1947. Nehru reportedly wished the health of the ‘King George the Sixth, not the King of England’, in which Mountbatten found Nehru’s loyalty to the British Empire. ‘It’s a crucial difference. He’s being a loyal dominion leader,’ observed Mountbatten. [ibid, p 117]
The viceroy, on the other hand, had reasons to be upset with Jinnah, for Mountbatten rightly found Nehru and his Congress much more magnanimous than Jinnah and his Muslim League towards his own self. After the Congress had offered Mountbatten the post of governor general of the post-independence India, he also aspired for the same post in Pakistan for some time. But Jinnah stood in the way. He told Mountbatten, ‘I’ll accept you as Chairman of the [Joint] Defence Council.’ [ibid, p 70] Mountbatten recollected that Jinnah’s proposal remained valid ‘until it finally broke down after the troubles.’
Given the personality clash between Mountbatten and Jinnah, and the former’s subsequent disliking for the latter on the one hand, and warm relation between Mountbatten and Nehru, and the resultant better understanding between them on the other, one is free to assume that Mountbatten had gone an extra mile with whatever power he had in his personal capacity as the viceroy of the time for Nehru and his Congress vis-à-vis Jinnah and his League.
Bengal might have been a victim of Mountbatten’s bias for Nehru and the Congress. In case of Bengal, eminent British journalist and historian HV Hodson notes that ‘Jinnah even tried to give special concessions’ to the ‘Hindus in Bengal’ in order to keep the province united. In this regard, Hodson also writes that when Lord Mountbatten asked Jinnah on April 26, 1947 the latter’s thought ‘about keeping Bengal united at the price of its staying out of Pakistan’, Jinnah ‘without hesitation’ replied: ‘I should be delighted, what is the use of Bengal without Calcutta? They had much better remain[ed] united and independent: I am sure they would be on friendly terms with Pakistan.’ [HV Hodson, The Great Divide: Britain-India-Pakistan, Hutchinson & Co, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1969, p 246]
But, it is now common knowledge that Nehru and his party wanted the partition of Bengal, while Jinnah and his party was opposed to the idea. Mountbatten, therefore, went with Nehru, arguing that the ‘Congress wouldn’t accept an independent Bengal, which made perfect sense.’ [Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, op-cit, p 105]
Earlier, on May 16, 1947, Mountbatten categorically told Suhrawardy and Fazlur Rahman of the Muslim League that ‘Nehru was not in favour of an independent Bengal.’ [Harun-or-Rashid, op-cit, p 290 and the author’s footnote no 214, p 290]
Moreover, the British policy of dividing Bengal went well with Nehru and his party’s political objectives. It is now a well-known fact that the Britishers had decided on the partition of Bengal in May 1947. A Bangladeshi researcher, Mohammad HR Talukder, writes: ‘The British decision to partition Bengal was finalized in mid-May with Mountbatten, in close consultation with V P Menon, the only Indian on the Viceroy’s staff, and Congress leaders, especially Pandit Nehru and Sirdar Patel.’ [Mohammad HR Talukder (ed), Memoirs of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy with a Brief Account of His Life and Work, University Press Limited, Dhaka, 1987, p 28]
Talukder also writes that Patel had later ‘disclosed’ his ‘secret deal with Viceroy Mountbatten’ and admitted that he ‘had agreed to accept the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan on condition that Bengal was partitioned with Calcutta remaining in West Bengal that belonged to India’. [ibid, p 30]
To be continued.
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