The history of Punjab over the last century and a half has attracted the attention of both scholars and political activists. The heavy military recruitment from the Punjab, the role of state investment in irrigation, the rural-urban divide in politics during the first half of the twentieth century, the Punjab tradition of administration have been the subject of several scholarly studies. The works of Imran Ali, Ian Talbot, David Gilmartin, Mufakharul Islam, Mridula Mukherjee, Niladri Bhattacharya, Tan Tai Yong, Sucheta Mahajan and Rajit Majumdar come to mind. Lionel Carter, a former Secretary and Librarian of the Centre for South Asian Studies at Cambridge University, has collected documents from the archives dealing with political and constitutional developments between 1944 and 1947. Punjab Politics is the third volume of a set dealing primarily with the Reports of the Governors of the Punjab and other key documents published by Manohar in 2006. In a field where the publications of numerous scholars are now available it would be unreasonable to expect that a collection of documents from the colonial archives for a few years would be able to make a significant impact.
This volume can equally profitably be assessed in terms of the works of the Punjab historians. It can also be used to initiate graduate students in the use of primary sources in the study of political and constitutional history.
In ‘The Nation and Its Pasts’, Gyanendra Pandey has argued that the narratives preserved by the state in archives and public institutions ‘originate for the most part with the ruling classes and owe their existence largely to a ruling class’s need for security and control’. He argues that even in such records fragments and traces of lost and irrecoverable perspectives can be found. (G. Pandey, Routine Violence: Nations, Fragments, Histories, Delhi 2006 Quote p. 60.) We get evidence of how ‘communities’ perceive national leaders although we have no way of knowing how representative the views are and how the social background of the members of different communities influenced their perceptions. In August 1944 Glancy, the Governor of the Punjab, wrote to the Viceroy that ‘amongst Sikhs Congress advances to the Muslim League have tended to meet with general disapproval’. Inspite of his promises Gandhi had ignored the Sikh community (p. 94). It was reported that the Punjab Muslims regarded both Nehru and Patel as ‘dangerous’ (p. 192). Some Ahrar party Muslims felt that Jayaprakash Narayan together with the provincial government was responsible for the Bihar massacre in 1946 (p. 310). There was a feeling that the Congress would use the Interim Government to undermine the position of the Muslim League. Some of these perceptions were mirror opposites of those that the Hindu press had about the intentions of the Muslim League and Jinnah.
The official perception of the Governor was that the unity of the Punjab ought to be preserved; that Jinnah’s demand for Pakistan was likely to destroy the communal balance of the Punjab; that fears of the non-Muslims would lead to the break-up of Punjab; that private armies should be banned or restrained; that the implications of the ‘crude’ version of Pakistan should be exposed. It was high time the people realized that Pakistan would wreck the communal alliances of the Punjab. Most Muslims merely thought it would be a place where the Muslims would be dominant. From the Punjab point of view a weak centre was an ideal solution (pp.142-43, p.189). Communal polarization was growing with the spread of communal propaganda. In Ambala it was declared that ‘non-Muslims would have to bring their complaints to the mosques for settlement’ (p. 151).
Bertrand Glancy reported in October 1945 a conversation he had with Firoz Khan Noon that is significant. Noon realized that no stable government could be formed in the Punjab since non-Muslims would be uneasy with the slogan of Pakistan. What Noon wanted ‘was to secure as many seats as possible for the League on the Pakistan issue and when the elections were over to explain to non-Muslims that the League did not really mean what they said’. This endorses the argument that the Muslims of the Punjab were not in favour of break-up of provincial unity despite their communitarian identity and solidarity and fear of Hindu domination at the centre. In that case the League should declare that it would be ‘prepared to consider other forms of Pakistan’, the Governor argued. This would ‘heal the breach in the Muslim ranks’ (Glancy to Wavell, 27th October 1945. pp 152-153.) Khizar himself felt that the Sapru Committee’s proposals to give to the Muslims the same voting power that the caste Hindus had in constitution-making was a welcome measure (Glancy to Colville, 17th April, 1945 pp126-27.)
The bare bones of the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946 are to be found in Glancy’s note to Viceroy Wavell on 26th October, 1944. Wrote Glancy, ‘We should try to wean Muslim opinion into acceptance of equal or adequate (emphasis added) representation at the centre, while endeavouring to persuade Hindus that they should be prepared to pay this premium for unity and security’ (pp. 106-07). The fallacies of the Pakistan doctrine had to be exposed to prevent substantial communal disturbances. Many of these government documents were probably read and used in Jalal’s Sole Spokesman. From the foregoing it would appear that the inwardness of Jinnah’s strategy need not occupy the significance in the events leading to partition that Jalal has attributed to it. It would appear that Firoz Khan Noon and Bertrand Glancy may have conceived of a loose federal system at the provincial level to handle the problem of the Punjab at the provincial level. Had he consulted his Punjab Muslim leaders Jinnah would have found them more receptive to his strategy. It is not clear why he felt too scared to divulge his real goal to his supporters at least in the Punjab and certainly after the elections of 1946. Provincial imperatives might have led the Punjab Muslims and the British government to elaborate a constitutional system that fulfilled Jinnah’s cherished hopes far more effectively than he himself.
If the Punjab government had exposed the Pakistan slogan, banned private armies, curbed religious and communal propaganda, then the crude Pakistan slogan would not have had the impact that it did after the war ended. The British unwillingness to interfere vigorously at the provincial level allowed communalism and the ‘fatal flaw’ in Jinnah’s strategy to wreck his chances of success to grow unchecked. The agitation by the Muslim League against the coalition led by Khizar Hyat Khan was likely to convince Hindus and Sikhs that the League wanted ‘undiluted Muslim Raj’. In a secret telegram Jenkins, Governor of Punjab wrote to Pethick-Lawrence on 8th February, 1947 that the ‘Muslim League are in fact wantonly throwing away certainty of Muslim leadership in a united Punjab for the uncertain advantages of a partition which Sikhs will gradually now demand’ (p. 343, pp. 342-43.)
Ayesha Jalal in Self and Sovereignty has developed an elaborate argument about the legitimacy of religiously informed identities, of cultural identities based on language and religion as well as compulsions of class and caste. The latter aspects are not developed in any detail. The official view tends to blame the League for trying to dislodge the Khizar Ministry by using the issue of the Muslim League National Guards as a civil liberties issue. The League mistakenly believed that the maintenance of communal peace was due to ‘their own non-communal attitude’ (p. 348). If there was limited violence that was because it seldom occurred when there was a conflict between any one community and the government. As Governor Jenkins observed even the more liberal members of the Muslim League argued that ‘having established undiluted Muslim rule they will be generous to the minorities’ (p. 345). Official discourse and Jalal’s use of newspapers and other records do not give us a sense of the ambivalence and self-contradictory attitudes of this time. In the collections of stories and memoirs by scholars like M. Hasan, Alok Bhalla and Ian Talbot we get a better sense of the many voices and fragments of this period.
The official records claimed that the Sikhs were especially upset by the impending departure of the British from India. Master Tara Singh demanded ‘either Khalistan with transfers of population or a new state stretching from the Jumna to the Chenab’ in which the Sikhs would not be oppressed (p. 183). Baldev Singh feared that the Cabinet Mission Plan scheme would be used by the Muslims ‘to develop the Group B Provinces as an independent state’. Apparently Qazi Muhammad Isa of Baluchistan had approached him on behalf of Jinnah to draft a strong Group Constitution. They were promised adequate representation in the civil and defence services but Baldev Singh felt that the Sikhs did not have adequate safeguards, direct or indirect, since they were confined to the Group B zone, unlike the Hindus and the Muslims (pp. 204-7). Jenkins noted a ‘competitive intemperance’ among the Sikhs but felt they were genuinely aggrieved. Tan Tai Yong has observed deterioration in Anglo-Sikh relations and a decline of Jat Sikh recruitment into the Indian army, particularly after the provincial option clause of the Cripps Mission of 1942 became widely known. By 1943 while the annual recruitment of Punjabi Muslims and Pathans was twenty-five percent of the total, in the case of Sikhs and Hindu Jats it was seven and five percent respectively. (Tan Tai Yong, The Garrison State, Sage Delhi 2005, p. 291.)
The documents refer to the Muslim League Manifesto ‘tinged with Communist ideas’. Although Jinnah had given it final shape it had apparently been drafted by Adhikari (p. 108). However, the complaints against League propaganda were usually of threats of ex-communication, of the invocation of divine displeasure on those who did not vote for the Muslim League (p. 167). Yong has pointed out that what the League did was to use the communal card to wreck the ‘inter-communal agrarian communitarianism’ by emphasizing the rights of the Muslim agriculturists. The rural landholding and military elites shifted their allegiance from the Unionists to the League and were subsequently able to strengthen their position in post-1947 western Punjab and achieve dominance in Pakistan. The interests of different groups have been used to explain the electoral victory of the Muslim League in 1946 by Anita Inder Singh, A. Jalal, P. Chowdhry and others. The importance of wartime economic pressures has been highlighted by Indivar Kamtekar and Tai Yong. In times of crisis the master narrative may begin to wobble and the stutters become more vociferous. In fact any substantial collection of documents is likely to pose problems for master narratives—whether British, Pakistani, Indian or Punjabi or Punjabi Muslim, Hindu or Sikh. Any single authoritative voice would be unsettled by the conflict and confusion that documents dealing with the turbulent pre-independence period reveal. Although the collection is not sufficiently wideranging it deals with a conjuncture in South Asian history that cannot be read in any straightforward way. There was a discussion about amalgamating the Sikh princely states into a single unit (p. 236). Giani Kartar Singh feared that a Muslim League ministry would oppress the Sikhs or offer ‘substantial concessions if the Sikhs would agree to perpetual Muslim domination’ (p. 239).
Baldev Singh wrote to Jenkins in July 1946 to support a proposal made in the Hindustan Times to include states like Jind, Nabha, Malerkotla, Kapurthala, Faridkot et al into one group. The Sikhs would be able to preserve their traditions in such a unit where they would constitute about half the population (p. 241). The fears of civil war influenced the perceptions of Sikh leaders. Kartar Singh observed, ‘If civil war broke out now or even ten years hence and if the North had not prepared its heavy industries etc., the Hindus would beat the Mohammedans’ (p. 248). The Punjab Governor wrote to Viceroy Lord Wavell in February 1947 that announcement of British withdrawal by mid 1948 would lead to a violent upheaval and be ‘regarded as the prelude to the final communal show-down’ (p. 354). It was feared that the Sikhs ‘might well attempt to seize the Central Punjab’ and try and set up their own government.
Even as late as February 1947 the Punjab Governor Jenkins tried to persuade Khwaja Nazim-ud-Din of the Muslim League that a change in League policies could restore the confidence of the minorities and save the Punjab from civil strife and partition. Argued Jenkins, ‘If the Muslim League had chosen to build upon the Unionist idea, the Punjab could have been a model of “Pakistan in action” with the Muslims in a very strong position and non-Muslims minorities cooperating freely and contentedly with them’ (p. 356). The Unionist idea which suffered a grievous blow in early 1944 was dead by late 1945. Provincial politics had become unreal because of the pressure on national parties from their High Commands which complicated provincial politics. If after securing the huge electoral victory of 1946 Jinnah had assured the minorities in the Muslim majority provinces that their rights would be protected—an assurance he gave after he got the moth-eaten Pakistan he did not want—then the chances of securing a loose federation capable of protecting the rights of all Muslims in India would have been brighter. In any case the Congress could not then have forced the League to take Pakistan and quit, howsoever ardently leaders like Nehru and Patel might have desired a strong state.
There are strong indications that the proposals for grouping the Muslim majority regions of the North-West did not produce much enthusiasm among the provinces there. Khizar Hayat Khan felt the Pathans were not too keen to associate with the Punjabis; Dr Khan Sahib of the NWFP was afraid that grouping could be used by Punjab to ‘absorb and dominate the NWFP’ (p. 314). The Punjab premier had to be assured by the British Governor that the Group constitutions could ‘be almost as light as the Central constitution’ (p. 201). He was not too keen to cooperate with Sindh and even a joint police cadre with the NWFP had proved a difficult proposition. Some parties demanded the sovereignty of provinces. The problems of representation and the form of the postcolonial state were getting increasingly complicated in the closing years of colonial rule.
The partition has been explained in terms of the logic of communalism, the Muslim League’s rejection of a minority status for the Muslims, the Congress drive for a strong state, the British policy of divide and rule, and eventually scuttle. Straightforward narratives based on unitary nationalism of the Congress or the two-nation theories of the Muslim League are no longer academically fashionable, partly because they represent the official viewpoints of two unitary nation states. The story of the partition of India needs to be explored with as much sophistication as the recent studies of its victims—the abducted women, the migrants and refugees and all those who experienced the trauma of that time.
Rohit Wanchoo is Head of the Department of History at St. Stephens College, University of Delhi, Delhi.