Tales from a partition

The great India Pakistan Divide

My curiosity about this matter was piqued when my friend sent me the famous BS Kesavan photograph pertaining to the division of books between India and Pakistan during the partition. Upon a detailed study of the Caravan article connected to it, it was clear that no division of books had occurred. On the other hand, the matter did extend itself in bizarre ways to many other fields. Like in a messy divorce, the situation became acrimonious and resulted in many stupid actions. It is worthwhile to take a look. This is not a study of the horrors of that partition, or a recounting of the many harrowing tales of violence, but the paths followed by the bureaucracies of the two new countries in divvying up the assets at partition.

Like many in India, I too heard stories of those days from my grandmother and grand aunts, both of whom had spent awhile in places like Karachi and Lahore when their husbands used to work in the British Railways and army. One of them had lost their life’s savings fleeing from riot torn Karachi. Later I read lively stories written by Manto, Chughtai and Kushwant Singh. But many of the stories related to the difficult decisions taken in dividing public assets and drawing lines on the map are not known to people. Some of those resulted in tragedy, some were comic and some outright hilarious. Let’s take a look.

Personal assets were of course a large and worrying part as the peoples on the border moved hurriedly to new camps, leaving behind their savings and wealth accumulated over generations. On one side Punjab witnessed violence the violence of Sikhs and Hindus being massacred. On the other side, as displaced Hindu refuges came streaming in to Delhi, their anger and revulsion took over and the Muslims in Delhi bore the brunt of their attacks there. But what led to all this was the creation of the Radcliffe lines demarcating West and East Pakistan.  As you can imagine, it was one of the most complex discussions and exercises ever undertaken and took place between 3rd June and 17th August 1947.

The discussions started with the June 3rd announcement by Mountbatten, just 3 months after he arrived to take his new post and based on the conclusion by Wavell that a united India was untenable.  Three individuals were the first on board, Nehru, Jinnah and Sardar Baldev Singh. While Nehru saw it as a solution to obtain independence from the British at long last, Jinnah saw it as a victory for his call for a separate Pakistan. Interestingly, Hindus too felt it was a Patel victory in pushing the Muslims to two controllable corners of India and out of the mainstream. Punjabis were not too jubilant, since they owned much land in potential areas marked up for Pakistan, they had no choice but to accept it for the sake of communal harmony.

Referenda proved that the public and their political representatives were in favor of partition. A Bengal and Punjab boundary commission was formed and Cyril Radcliffe was appointed as a neutral chairman. Though murmurs arose that he would eventually do what Mountbatten dictated from Delhi, his appointment was accepted. Radcliffe had to draw the lines, use the cleavers to good effect and hive the two parts in the west and the east of India, efficiently and painlessly. Keep in mind that he had no experience in this kind of thing, he was just a lawyer of some merit. Radcliffe somehow completed the task and submitted his partition map on 9 August 1947, which split Punjab and Bengal almost in half. How did he get there?

The concept of Pakistan had been bandied about but most of its proponents had only a vague idea of how to go about their grandiose proclamations. Geographic areas had never been discussed, so also what should constitute the state so demarcated for the Muslims of India. The original idea was to have these islands or Muslim entities in India (I will cover it later when I write about the concept of Moplistan as conceived by Rahmat Ali) with provincial self-rule and attached to a weak center. Anyway as time went by and arguments became vehement, partition of territory became the only acceptable solution within the Mountbatten plan where the Muslim majority provinces of Punjab, Sind, Bengal, NWFP and Baluchistan would be hived off. Mountbatten was to stay away from the process. Radcliffe who casually mentioned that such a project would mean years of arbitration to end a conclusive award was curtly told he had exactly five weeks to draw the lines of delineation in India. 

This date was advanced to 12th so that the governor of Punjab could arrange for security. So the final project schedule dropped to four weeks from the original five. After those 28 days the world witnessed its effects on millions, in ways even a catastrophe such as an earthquake or cyclone could not with half a million dead and 12 million refugees on the move.

Nehru, Radcliffe, Mountbatten, Jinnah
All the dividers had, was a rule of thumb – ascertain the contiguous majority areas of Muslims and non-Muslims, considering also ‘other factors’ while demarcating boundaries. Well, as you can imagine, many meetings and representations took place, memoranda were submitted, and cases were argued before the commission. Both the Congress and the Muslim league brought in heavy weights in support, with the former using the ‘other factors’ for arguments as the latter stuck firmly to religious demarcation in their claims. The city of Lahore as you can imagine was a sticky point. The Sikhs realized too late that they were among the worst affected and they saw a number of their holy shrines on the Pakistan side of the line. On the Bengal side the situation was that a larger area would automatically get demarcated on the religious lines and be lost to India. Here the Muslim league laid claim over half of Calcutta as well for ‘other reasons’, citing economic issues. Vested interests tried to force Mountbatten to Influence the decision and though it appears that some did succeed, the general consensus is that Radcliffe had to make most decisions himself. Mountbatten’s overriding advice to them was ‘compensate each party’s gain on one border with losses on the other’! Everything depended on the understanding ‘other factors’ such as water ways, river deltas, canal systems etc.

Radcliffe completed his work on time even though he was sick and weary with the heat and a bout of dysentery, and left India on the eve of Independence. He wrote thus to his stepson, something oft quoted. ‘I station myself firmly on the Delhi airport until an aeroplane from England comes along. Nobody in India will love me for my award about the Punjab and Bengal and there will be roughly 80 million with a grievance who will begin looking for me. I do not want them to find me. I have worked and travelled and sweated – oh I have sweated the whole time’. Before he left, Radcliffe destroyed all the working papers, leaving much to conjecture. Interestingly in this grand task undertaken by Radcliffe, he was supported by one VD Iyer (supposedly Nehru’s plant within the team), but he simply vanished from all records, never to be heard of again. Even though the awards were made on 12th and Radcliffe left, the announcements were made on the 17th August. It is said Mountbatten was suddenly appalled and had cold feet for a couple of days, but perhaps he did it deliberately to wash British hands off the matter (as he foresaw violence and horror) and did not want to take the blame.

Now that we have a quick and rough understanding of the hasty and arbitrary fashion with which
Radcliffe butchered the borders, how were assets divided? Some were related to the partitioned locations, but others were divisions arrived at to create two self-sustaining nations.

Almost all decisions in this regard were made by the Partition council with a chairman and two representatives each from Congress and the Muslim league. The two main officers were HM Patel and Mohammed Ali working with ten expert committees. Mentions can be seen that finally even these two sober men had to be locked up in Sardar Patel’s bedroom to hammer out an agreement and were let out only after they had one.

HM Patel’s memoir dryly provides much of the detail, he explains what the ten expert committees did (and how) with respect to assets & liabilities, central revenues, miscellaneous revenues(other than taxes, salt, opium, stamps), contracts, currency, budgets and accounts, economic relations (controls), trade, domicile, foreign relations and armed forces. Railways and the AIR were dealt with by two subcommittees. Sometimes vague yardsticks were adopted for valuation, e.g. Rs 50/- for a clerk’s furniture, Rs 150/- for an officer. Pakistan’s share of uncovered debt was fixed at 17 ½%. The details are quite boring for a lay reader, so I will desist from summarizing that and instead pick up some highlights of the aftermath.

From a monetary perspective, it was understood that Pakistan would take a while to create its own monetary system, reserve bank and mints. So the plan was to continue with the RBI until Sept 1948. The debt management and exchange control would be handled by RBI until March 1948. It appears that this arrangement did not go well and was terminated three months prematurely, with huge arguments about its own partitioning. Nevertheless existing currency and coinage were retained with Pakistan overprinted on notes. Staff in RBI had to choose their preferred future based on religion, as the Bank stated that while Muslim employees having their places of domicile in Pakistan areas would, of course, have to go over to those areas, the transfer of Muslim employees having their domicile in India and of non-Muslim staff serving in the Pakistan areas would be on a voluntary basis. Division of solid assets took place in 4:1 ratio, which meant that out of every 5 gold bars, 4 would remain in India and 1 would be sent to Pakistan. Stamps were also overprinted.

It was even more complicated with the armed forces. The Armed Forces of the British Raj, which was built over the past three hundred years, had to be reconstituted within a short period of less than two months amidst all the communal violence. A joint defense council had the responsibility to bring this about, with a basis that the partition was to take place on a communal basis. However, a Muslim soldier domiciled in Pakistan and a non-Muslim domiciled in the rest of India had no choice (so decided to avoid mischievous intent) but to serve his respective dominion, or be discharged. As it transpired, after the outbreak of communal disturbances a large number of Armed Forces personnel wanted to change their final option and they were allowed to do so.

The original agreement called for the armed forces and other assets to be divided to the ratio of 64% for India and 36% for Pakistan, but Pakistan was later forced to accept an 1/3 share of assets. Sea going navy vessels were divided in a 33:18 ratio using a common sense line. The RAF fighter and transport air squadrons were divided in a rough 8:3 ratio (aircraft 346:122). The aircraft division became acrimonious with Pakistan bitterly complaining that they got some unserviceable or untraceable aircraft, some planes with filters choked with sugar, while India regretted that most of the top instructors had moved to Pakistan. Both India and Pakistan agreed that the services of British officers were required during the period of reconstitution. All chiefs of staff continued to be British for some more months.

In the commercial airlines sector, India which had eight private carriers in 1947, lost one airline to Pakistan, Orient Airways of Calcutta, which later merged in 1955 to become state-run Pakistan International Airlines.

Railway rolling stock and government vehicles were divided in proportion to the rail track and roadway mileage inherited by each country. The railway division is explained with great emotion by Ken Staynor, for those who are interested in the details. The NWR was terminated at the Radcliffe line crossings and went to Pakistan. Quoting him, ‘when the borders were finally put in place, the NWR lines were fragmented in several places. Lines which were through routes before partition were now broken up with sections remaining in India only to run into Pakistan and reappear back into India further down the line’. Many of the Anglo Indians working for the railways retried, left for UK or Australia, as time went by.

Whatever happened to the broadcasting services or the AIR? Pakistan inherited three stations, the one in Peshawar, another in Lahore and Dacca stations. The new capital of Pakistan was the commercial seaport at Karachi, right but it did not have a radio broadcasting station, so a new radio was installed temporarily in a tent on Queens Road in Karachi on August 14, 1948 until a new one was set up.

The iconic Life magazine photograph of Kesavan between two piles of books deciding which ones to go to Pakistan, was just a setup (The caravan article explains it all). Sadly one attempt was made in moving books at Calcutta. One collection that was divided, according to Anwesha Sengupta, was that of the Calcutta Madrasah Library, which boasted the world’s oldest Persian manuscripts. “It is sad, because those manuscripts were taken to Dhaka in open trucks, and the rain destroyed many of them. However Lapierre and Collins mention this - Some of the bitterest arguments came over the books in India's libraries, sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica were religiously divided up, alternate volumes to each dominion, dictionaries were ripped in half with A to K going to India, the rest to Pakistan. Where only one copy of a book was available, the librarians were supposed to decide which dominion would have the greater natural interest in it. Some of those supposedly intelligent men actually came to blows arguing over which dominion had a greater natural interest in ‘Alice in Wonderland or Wuthering Heights'.

The general approach was to make an 80:20 division of governmental assets between India and Pakistan. How paper weights and waste paper baskets in the health department were divided, I’m sure became a huge bone of contention, but that is how it was. Some 25,000 employees and their 60,000 tons of baggage decided to move to Pakistani capital of Karachi which had been Sindhi in character with these Urdu speaking muhajirs creating an initial chaos.

The chapter ‘The Most complex divorce in History’ in Lapierre and Collins book ‘Freedom at Midnight’ provides many a lurid detail which make interesting reading though it is difficult to substantiate much of it. Some of them are listed below.

He mentions that arguments, even fights, broke out over the division of the goods. Remarking that departmental heads tried to hide their best typewriters or to substitute their broken desks and chairs for new ones assigned to their rival community he mentions how dignified men, in linen suits were found furiously bargaining an inkpot against a water jar, and things like silverware and the portraits in state residences. He wryly remarks how wine cellars remained in India without argument while Pakistan received a credit for what they contained.

There is the story of the 60 ducks which arrived in Calcutta from London. Arguments took place on where the ducks should be sent post partition, who should foot the bill for their feed and so on. Protracted enquiries took place while the ducks were housed in a public warehouse. I do not know if they were divided and how the matter was solved, but I am sure an interested reader can find out with today’s search technology!

The story of the police department in Lahore is pathetic, as Superintendent of Police Patrick Rich divided his equipment between his deputies. Everything was split, be it leggings, turbans, rifles, or instruments in the police band. He had to go in the middle, a flute for Pakistan, a drum for India, a trumpet for Pakistan, a pair of cymbals for India until one instrument, a trombone, was left. The authors remark how he witnessed his two deputies, who'd been comrades for years, got into a fight over which dominion would get that last trombone.

There were strange arguments too according to L&C, where the Moslems wanted the Taj Mahal broken up and shipped to Pakistan because it had been built by a Moghul while Hindu Sadhus argued that the Indus River, flowing through the heart of Moslem India, should somehow be theirs because their sacred Vedas had been written on its banks 25 centuries before. Even the trappings of the Raj were not left undivided, the gold and white Viceregal train went to India while the private cars of the Commander in-Chief of the Indian Army and the Governor of the Punjab were assigned to Pakistan. It would not be fair to rewrite that affair, so I will quote the L&C text verbatim.

The most remarkable division of all, however, took place in the stable yards of Viceroy's House. At issue were twelve horse-drawn carriages. With their ornate, hand-wrought gold and silver designs, their glittering harnesses, their scarlet cushions, they embodied all the pretentious pomp, all the majestic disdain that had both fascinated and infuriated the Raj's Indian subjects. Every Viceroy, every visiting sovereign, every royal dignitary passing through India in modern times had promenaded through the Raj's capital in one of them. They were the formal, viceregal carriages, six of them trimmed in gold, six semi-state carriages in silver. To break up the sets had seemed a tragedy; one dominion, it was decided, would get the gold carriages, the other would have to settle for the silver.

Mountbatten's ADC, Lt-Cmdr. Peter Howes, proposed that the question of which dominion would get which set of those regal vehicles should be settled by a profoundly plebeian gesture, the flip of a coin. Beside him, Major Yacoub Khan, newly appointed commander of the Pakistan bodyguard, and Major Govind Singh, the commander of the Viceroy's bodyguard, watched as the silver piece went glittering up in the air.

'Heads!' shouted Govind Singh.

The coin clattered on to the stable yard. The three men stooped to look at it. A whoop escaped from the Sikh major. Luck had decided that the gold carriages of India's imperial rulers might convey the leaders of a new, socialist India through the streets of their capital. Howes then divided up the harnesses, the whips, the coachmen's boots, wigs and uniforms that went with each set of carriages.

When he reached the end of that stack of equipment a last item remained. It was the Viceroy's Post Horn, the flaring horn used by the coachman to guide his horses. In all the viceregal establishment there was only one such horn.The young naval officer pondered a minute. Obviously, if the horn was broken in two, it would never emit another sound. He could, of course, flip a coin again. Suddenly Howes had a better idea.

He held it up to his colleagues. 'You know,' he said, 'you can't divide this. I think there's only one solution. I'll have to keep it.'

With a smile, Howes tucked the horn under his arm and sauntered out of the stable yard.

The viceroy’s post horn rests a quarter of a century later on the mantelpiece of Howe’s living room. Occasionally, Howe, the retired admiral will recount to his guests of an evening, the story of the horn and give it a playful toot for old times’ sake!!

One of the biggest problems was the matter concerning abandoned properties. Negotiations by both the countries began as early as 29th august 1947. India wanted the refugees to be given compensation for the property left behind, while Pakistan was of the opinion that the matter should be solved on case by case basis- the property should be either transferred or sold. Finally in 1954, India decided to use the evacuee property for the benefit of refugees by passing a displaced person's act in parliament. In 1956, both the governments decided to transfer evacuee bank accounts, lockers and safe deposits.
The effects on the Bombay film world can be read in Manto’s writings, and he himself followed the cause, albeit reluctantly. Many of Bombay’s leading artistes would have to leave for Pakistan as the film industry welcomed the arrival of many Punjabis from the playhouses, radio stations and colleges of Lahore, Multan, Peshawar and Rawalpindi.

Many of popular Indian film stalwarts trace their origins to territory which is now in Pakistan. Yash Chopra, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Sahir Ludhianvi, the Kapoors, Nargis, Govinda, Dilip Kumar, Sharukh Khan, Amrish Puri, Rajendra Kumar, the Roshnans, Dev Anand, Rajesh Khanna, Balraj Sahni, the Bachchans, The Oberois, Ramesh Sippy, Gulzar, Shekar Kapoor, the list can stretch pages. Some of the legends who left were Suraiya, Nur Jehan, Sadat Manto, and so on.

The great writer Manto should but naturally, have the last word

Two or three years after the 1947 Partition, it occurred to the governments of India and Pakistan to exchange their lunatics in the same manner as they had exchanged their criminals. The Muslim lunatics in India were to be sent over to Pakistan and the Hindu and Sikh lunatics in Pakistani asylums were to be handed over to India.

It was difficult to say whether the proposal made any sense or not. However, the decision had been taken at the topmost level on both sides.

On one side, behind barbed wire, stood together the lunatics of India and on the other side, behind more barbed wire, stood the lunatics of Pakistan.

In between, on a bit of earth which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.”

I would urge you to read his poignant short story ‘Toba Tek Singh’ linked here ….. 

The long partition and the making of modern south Asia – Vazira Fazila-Yacoobi Zamindar
The Aftermath of Partition in South Asia - Gyanesh Kudaisya, Tan Tai Yong
The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan - by Yasmin Khan
Rites of passage - HM Patel
Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity: The Search for Saladin -By Akbar Ahmed
Freedom at Midnight – Lapierre and Collins
Breaking up: Dividing assets between India and Pakistan in times of Partition - Anwesha Sengupta

pics - from Google images, thanks to owners and uploaders