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The Sikhs and Transfer of Power (1942-47)

An Abstract by Kharak Singh

Author : Dr Kirpal Singh
Publisher : Publication Bureau, Punjabi University, Patiala
Pages : 174; Price : Rs 180/-

The book deals with the developments during the crucial period 1942-1947, which led to the division of India and creation of Pakistan and the Indian Union to inherit power from the outgoing British who had been ruling over the Indian sub-continent for the previous two centuries. It seems the British had realized that it would not be possible for them to stay on in India as rulers after the World War II, in which they were engaged as a leading ally. Therefore, even before the cessation of hostilities in 1945, when the labour government came to power in Britain, they started negotiations with the Indian leaders through Sir Stafford Cripps mission, which were continued through the Cabinet Mission led by Lord Pethic Lawrence.

According to Cabinet Mission Plan which detailed concrete proposals for transfer of power in India, three contenders for power were recognized, viz, the Muslims, the Sikhs and the Others which included all those who were not Muslims or Sikhs. With this clear recognition, it was expected that the resultant formula for the transfer of power would be satisfactory to the Sikhs also, particularly because the Punjab had belonged to the Sikhs, before the British annexed it. But the result, as we all know now, could not be more disastrous for the Sikhs. Muslims got what they wanted, viz Pakistan, and the others (read Hindus) got rest of the Indian sub-continent, the Sikhs got only ruins. The area which constituted their homeland and where they were the major property holders, was partitioned, the Sikhs thrown at the mercy of hostile elements, with no protection whatsoever. No safeguards were provided for the minority communities on either side of the border. There was no provision for exchange of population or property.

According to the author, “The bifurcation of Punjab was followed by unprecedented massacre of about half a million people, abduction of women and children on a very large scale, uprooting of about ten million people on both sides of the border resulting in enforced migration and exchange of population. The Sikhs suffered the most in this holocaust and the onset of freedom left them downcast and humbled.”

The question that continues to bother Sikhs and their well-wishers, is why the Sikhs who occupied a position of unique importance in the Punjab before 1947, and had been recognized as one of the three major communities in India for the purpose of transfer of power, could not secure a better deal.

The above question is not easy to answer. However, in the book under review, Dr Kirpal Singh has given an excellent narration of the events that led to the partition of India and the disaster for Sikhs, leaving the readers to draw their own conclusions. In the Introduction, he gives the relevant background which prepares the stage for the subsequent drama.

The author reproduces the Muslim League resolution of 1940 passed at Lahore, which is the Magna Carta of Pakistan, demanding that geographically contiguous Muslim majority units be grouped to constitute independent state in which the constituent units should be automomous. Punjab being a Muslim majority province was proposed to be included in the Muslim state. The Sikhs considered Punjab to be their homeland, and had very bitter memories of the Islamic rule. Sir Sunder Singh Majithia, a Minister in the Unionist Government of British Punjab and a veteran Sikh leader, was the first Sikh leader to condemn the Pakistan Scheme. He said, “Muslim League has created a situation which may seem a parting of ways for the Sikhs and the Muslims… It would be the height of audacity for anyone to imagine that the Sikhs would tolerate for a single day the undivided communal Raj of any community in the Punjab which is not only their homeland, but also their holy land.”

To give an idea of the situation, Sir Malcolm Darling is quoted, “Nowhere is communal feeling potentially so dangerous because of the Punjab’s virile and hot headed people, and complicated because there is third and not less obstinate party, the Sikhs, who were more closely knit together than either Hindus or Muslims, fiercer too and prouder and more dynamic. They never forgot that it was from them we conquered Punjab”. In this connection, the views of Mr Robert Needham Gist, quoted by the author are also worth reproduction. He refers to the rich tract which lies between the rivers Chenab and Beas, the original Sikh land, the cradle of the Sikh faith and the nursery of the Chivalry of the followers of the Gurus. He goes on to suggest that the proper name by which this land ought to be known, is the ‘Sikh land, or the land of Baba Nanak’.

Chapter 2 deals with the Cripps Mission of 1942, which marked the beginning of negotiations for transfer of power. The draft proposal gave the right to the provinces of British India to secede from the centre and acquire the same full status as the Indian Union. This according to Maulana Azad meant ‘opening the door to separation’. Lumby says that this was both recognition of the strength of the demand for Pakistan and a long step towards its ultimate realization. This greatly alarmed the Sikhs, because Punjab being a Muslim majority province, could secede from the centre, subjecting the Sikhs and Hindus to perpetual Muslim domination. Sikh leaders, Master Tara Singh, Baldev Singh, Ujjal Singh and Sir Jogindra Singh, met Sir Stafford Cripps on the 27th March, 1942, to express their apprehension, and later submitted a memorandum on 31st March, 1942, suggesting redistribution of Punjab into two provinces with river Ravi forming the boundary between them. In this way, the two eastern Division of Ambala and Jalandhar plus the three central districts of Lahore, Gurdaspur and Amritsar would have a population with non-Muslims forming 63% and Muslims 37%. In this area, although the Sikhs would not be in a majority, but they would hold the balance of power.

The Cripps Mission was a failure. No Indian political party accepted it, but the draft proposal implied acceptance of Pakistan demand by the British.

Simla Conference
The next landmark in the series of negotiations was the Simla Conference. Its various sessions were held from 25th June to 14th July, 1945. On the initiative of the Viceroy, Lord Wavell, leaders of major political parties and premiers of provincial governments were the invitees. Mahamta Gandhi and Mr Jinnah were recognized as the leaders of the two major political parties. Master Tara Singh represented the Sikhs.

There was difference of opinion between the Congress and the Muslims regarding selection of members for the Viceroy’s Executive Council. The Viceroy, therefore, suggested that all parties could submit a list of persons for inclusion in the Executive Council, so that he could select persons acceptable to all. The Congress was to propose 8-12 names, Muslim League 4, and the Scheduled Castes and Sikhs 3 names each. The deliberations of the Conference and the list of names, ultimately were later used in the formation of Executive Council in 1946, which was popularly known as the Interim Government. It must be noted, however, that the list of Sikhs contained only one name, ‘Tara Singh’, written thrice in stead of the required three different names.

However, it was not acceptable to the Viceroy, and Sardar Baldev Singh was selected much against the wishes of Master Tara Singh and the Shiromani Akali Dal. Master Tara Singh registered a mild protest which was ignored by the Viceroy.

The Cabinet Mission Plan
Soon after coming into power, Prime Minister Attlee sent a Mission to India consisting of three members of the Cabinet – Lord Pethick Lawrence, Sir Stafford Cripps and A V Alexander. After coming to India, they held discussions with various political parties and declared on the 16th May, 1946, their proposals which is known as Cabinet Mission Plan. The short-term arrangement envisaged the formation of an interim government consisting of all the political parties. It was to have equal members of the Congress and the Muslim League, and other minorities like Sikhs, Christians, etc., were to be separately represented. According to the long term arrangements, the Constituent Assembly was to be established with the following compulsory grouping for making constitution of free India:

Section ‘A’ : Consisting of Madras, Bombay, Uttar Pardash, Bihar, the Central Provinces and Orissa.
Section ‘B’ : Consisting of Punjab, the North Western Frontier Provinces, Sindh and British Baluchistan.
Section ‘C’ : Consisting of Bengal and Assam.

In the section B, the Muslim representatives were 22, Hindu 9 and the Sikhs 4.

The Sikhs vigorously protested against this proposal. In a memorandum submitted to the Cabinet Mission, Master Tara Singh argued: “Before the Mission arrives at a decision on the question (constitution making) we would emphasise that the Sikhs have as good a claim for creation of a separate sovereign state as Muslims for Pakistan, and the Mission would not concede the claim for Pakistan without conceding at the same time the claim for separate state made on behalf of the Sikhs.”

The proposals of the Cabinet Mission was rejected by the Congress and the Muslim League, although for different reason.

The Cabinet Mission had thus failed. However, Lord Wavell, the Viceroy decided to go ahead with the formation of the Interim Government. The Muslim League at first refused to join the Interim Government in the hope that this would keep out the Congress. When, however, the Governor-General invited Mr Nehru to form the Government, it was greatly upset. After some time, it also decided to join the government. However, it soon became apparent that it had joined to obstruct its functioning. According to Lord Claydesmuir, who officiated as Governor General during May 1947, “the relations between Hindus and Muslim (members of the Government) had almost reached the breaking point. At centre there was a joint Cabinet in name only.”

Under the circumstances, the Viceroy, Lord Wavell, realized that a new approach was needed. He proposed British withdrawal from India in in a phased manner, so that the southern provinces would first be handed over, and the northern provinces of India will be handed after a further short period. The whole process of withdrawal was to be completed not later than 31st March, 1948.

The Wavell plan left no doubt that the British were determined to quit India as early as possible, not later than 31st March, 1948, and that India would have to be divided on communal lines. The British government was not prepared to wait that long. So Lord Wavell was replaced with Lord Mountbatten as Viceroy, who advanced the date of British departure to August 15, 1947. They failed to imagine the consequences of this haste, and did not make any arrangements for the safety of minorities on either side of the border. Penderal Moon Writes, “…if he (Lord Wavell) had been given freer hand, or if the British government had followed his advice and acted with firmness, and the decision he advocated, the transfer of power could be effected without the disaster that actually accompanied.”

Malcolm Darling confirms this view. He observes: “The tragedy of Punjab could have been foreseen and we should not have handed over millions of helpless peasants for whose welfare we were responsible, to anarchy and ruins. Penderal Moon has rightly lamented, as to why the “ending of British Raj, which we have so long foreseen and so long proclaimed as our goal, should involve a last minute division of the country, the precipitately enforced migration of well over ten million people and casualties of the order of 2,00,000”. He has described this as “a singular want of prevision and failure of statesmanship.

The working committee of the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Panthic Pratinidhi Board jointly passed a resolution on the June 14, 1947 emphasising that, “In the absence of the provision of transfer of population and property the very purpose of partition would be defeated.” An earlier resolution of Shiromani Akali Dal passed on April 16, 1947 states: “Shiromani Akali Dal demands that before transfer of power to Indian hands in June 1948 (which date was first fixed) the Punjab should be divided into two provinces. The Shiromani Akali Dal further demands that the facilities be provided for exchange of population and property.”

Mountbatten paid scant attention towards Sikhs and always looked towards Mr Jinnah and Pandit Nehru for every proposal which was made in connection with the Sikhs. For instance, when the Sikhs demanded exchange of population, he referred this to Pandit Nehru and Mr Jinnah. The latter did not reply and Pandit Nehru’s reply was evasive.

One significant development reported by the author in his book needs to be reproduced : “Consequently, meetings between Mr Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan and the Maharaja of Patiala and Sardar Baldev Singh, the Defence Member of the Interim Govt, were arranged. Since the Sikhs had already put forth the demand for a Sikh state, the talks naturally centred on that issue. Mr Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan agreed to the formation of the Sikh state with its separate military establishment within Pakistan, provided the Sikhs did not insist on the partition of the Punjab and agreed to join Pakistan. The Sikh leaders demanded the right of opting out of Pakistan for the Sikh state to which the Muslim League leaders did not agree. Master Tara Singh told the writer that if Mr Jinnah had agreed, they would have negotiated with the Congress for better terms. It is difficult to visualize what better terms the Congress could have offered, short of creating an independent Sikh state in the portion of Punjab which fell to India’s share.

Surprisingly, the Sikh leaders did not meet the Congress leaders to seek the kind of constitutional guarantees they had demanded from Mr Jinnah. The fate of the Sikhs was thus inevitably sealed as a part of the Hindu India. The author, however, feels:

“The Sikh leaders made the right choice in the long run. Keeping in view their culture, history and past traditions, which were more akin to the Indian tradition than to Islamic tradition, they opted to link their destinies with India. Joining Pakistan by the Sikhs would have been just like their joining hands with Ahmed Shah Abdali to build an Afghan kingdom in the Punjab, which, according to Rattan Singh Bhangoo, the immortal author of the Panth Parkash, was mingling fire with gun-powder.”

Lord Mountbatten announced his plan on June 3, 1947, laying guidelines for partition of the Punjab. Lahore, Rawalpindi and Multan Divisions were declared as Muslim majority areas. A boundary commission was to be set up to draw the dividing line.

“Giani Kartar Singh, President of Shiromani Alaki Dal said on June 16, 1947, “The Sikhs will not rest contented till the boundary line is demarcated in such a way that it leaves at least 85 per cent Sikhs in India and both the states of Pakistan and India are committed to facilitate the migration of the remaining 15 per cent Sikh population from Pakistan to India.“

The book gives a detailed account of the developments related to the demarcation of the boundary and the unsuccessful efforts made to save Nanakana Sahib and other gurdwaras in the adjoining areas, as also to seek an orderly exchange of populations. However, neither the Congress nor the Muslims listened. The British were in a haste to quit. So, the inevitable result was the worst riots ever witnessed in world history, enforced uprooting of population on an unprecedented scale accompanied by sufferings and mass killings of innocent people on both sides of the border. The author gives a vivid description of the holocaust that followed.

Sarar Baldev Singh, who had been included in the Interim Government against the wishes of Master Tara Singh and without approval of the Shiromani Akal Dal, played an unfortunate role. The author reports:

1. “Before supporting the 3rd June Plan, popularly known as Mountbatten Partition Plan, he did not consult Shiromani Akali Dal. Giani Kartar Singh who was President of Shiromani Akali Dal in 1947 complained about it to Evan Jenkins, the Governor of Punjab, during his interview with him.”

2. “When Baldev Singh was called to London on December 6, 1946, alongwith Pt. Nehru, he did not consult Shiromani Akali Dal. Nor he discussed any proposal for safeguarding the interests of the Sikhs which could be presented there. Of course Pt. Nehru and Baldev Singh opposed the compulsory grouping of provinces in the Cabinet Mission Plan in the London Conference on 6th December.”

3. “Major Short told me that Baldev Singh was invited by some members of the British Parliament to stay, in England to deliberate on the demands of the Sikhs. But he did not stay because Pt. Nehru persuaded him to accompany him to India where the Constituent Assembly was to be inaugurated on December 1946. On the other hand, Muslim League President Mr. Jinnah and its Secretary stayed there after 6th December 1946 and organised a big dinner where all memebers of the British Parliament were invited and Mr. Jinnah made speech and pleaded for Pakistan. Lord Attlee had, however, advised his Cabinet colleagues not to attend this dinner party. No such effort was made by the Sikhs to safeguard their interests or interest of Gurdwaras to be left in Pakistan or case of Sikh mass migration in case of Pakistan etc., etc.”

The author discloses that Sir Stafford Cripps proposed to Baldev Singh that the Sikhs should jointly present the Sikh case alongwith the Sikh States in order to strengthen their demand for Sikhs State. This intelligent suggestion should have been debated in the Sikh circles. Instead of giving full thought to this suggestion. Baldev Singh replied that Sikh State would be too small for them. They want to expand in the whole of India.

Another incident that merits attention of the reader is reproduced below:
“The Viceroy invited for dinner Maharaja of Patiala and Mr. Jinnah, President of Muslim League who subsequently became Governor General of Pakistan for dinner. Mr Jinnah was accompanied by Liaquat Ali Khan and Begum Liaquat Ali Khan. Late Maharaja Yadvinder Singh of Patiala writes about his meeting with Jinnah: “The talk started and offers were made by Mr. Jinnah for practically everything under the sun if I would agree to his plan. There were two aspects – one was based on the idea of Rajasthan and other for separate Sikh State – Punjab minus one or two districts in the south. I had prolonged talks with Master Tara Singh, Giani Kartar Singh and others Sikh leaders, and all the negotiations on behalf of the Sikhs were within my knowledge. I was to be Head of new Sikh state, the same as in Patiala. The Sikhs would have their own army and so on. I told Mr. Jinnah that I could not accept either of his two proposals.” It is significant to note why Maharaja Yadvinder Singh of Patiala refused the offer of Sikh State. He himself writes, “All these things sounded most attractive but I could not accept them being practical, and neither could I in the world that I was in, change my convictions.”

After giving detailed account of the fateful events related to the partition of the Punjab, the author inter alia concludes:

1. Mountbatten plan was hasty and unfortunate. Wavell plan was more realistic and could have averted the bloodshed and misery.

2. The leaders failed to anticipate the consequences of the policies they had been following and to arrange orderly exchange of population which was inevitable.

3. The performance of Sikh leadership during the transfer of power cannot be termed very commendable either.

The book is a very authentic, faithful and objective record of the events that culminated in the partition of the Punjab and the country at the time of British departure from India. The author has drawn upon relevant official documents. He has actually verified the facts through personal interviews with the main actors in the sordid drama, which included highest authorities in the British government, the bureaucracy and the top leadership in India. Only a celebrated historian like Dr Kirpal Singh could do it. He is universally recognized authority on history of the partition of India and has already contributed several books on the subject. There is no doubt, his present remarkable contribution will go down as the most reliable and complete primary source of the history of the period.

We revert to the question raised in the beginning of this review – Why did the Sikhs get such a raw deal? For them it was no transfer of power. It was only loss of power, lives, hearths and homes, fertile lands and property. The misery which was at its height in 1947, has not ended. The account given by Dr Kirpal Singh yields valuable lessons: It confirms that mistakes committed in a moment lead centuries of suffering (Lamhon ne khata ki, sadion ne saza pai) while the British must be blamed for the indecent haste in quitting, and failure to ensure an orderly transfer of power, we must also share the blame for the consequences. Our leadership failed to see the coming events clearly. They reposed faith in those to whom faith is unknown. Ham ne un se ki wafa ki umid, jo nahin jante wafa kia hai.

It would be unfair to blame the leaders alone. It seems the Sikh intelligentsia did not take show sufficient interest either. The tendency still persists. They must show greater concern for the future of the community as well as the country, in a spirit of service and sacrifice.

I have no hesiation, in saying that the ‘The Sikhs and Transfer of Power” is a ‘must read’ book, not only for historians and students of history but for everyone.



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