Received by email.
Indian Army and Independence
Lt Gen SK Sinha
In this season of revoked interest in the events leading and following India’s independence, I am sure this anecdotal and first hand narrative would be of interest to you.
“The Army’s contribution to India’s Independence and its role during the Partition of the Sub-Continent, have not received much attention. As one who served in the Army before and after Independence, as also witnessed the Partition holocaust, I would like to place on record my recollections of that period. My views on these two aspects of our Nation’s history are based on my personal experience and not on any erudite research.
I joined the British Indian Army during the Second World War and continued serving in the Army of Independent India. Having served in Burma (now Myanmar) and Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia), I returned home to India and landed in Calcutta (now Kolkata). I was in an army transit camp on 16 August 1946 when Jinnah launched his Direct Action Day. The Muslim League Premier of Bengal, Suhrawardy faithfully carried out the genocide in which thousands got killed in Kolkata, followed by killings and abductions in Noakhali. The calling out of the Army in Kolkata was deliberately delayed by Suhrawardy to allow the hoodlums to carry out their mayhem. I witnessed the streets of Kolkata strewn with mutilated dead bodies. Violence in the city abated after the Army was deployed to restore order.
A couple of weeks later, I was posted to the Military Operations Directorate of General Headquarters (now Army Headquarters) at Delhi. This Directorate had hitherto been an exclusive British preserve. All the officers and clerks were British.
I joined the Directorate in September 1946 along with two other Indian officers, Lt Col (later Field Marshal) Manekshaw and Major Yahya Khan, later President of Pakistan. We were allocated to three different sections of the Directorate, Manekshaw to Planning, Yahya to Frontier Defence and I to Internal Security. At that time as part of internal security duties, the Army was fully preoccupied in combating unprecedented communal violence. Never had the Army been used so extensively in this role. From my perch at Delhi I got a grandstand view of the cycle of communal violence taking place in the country. Kolkata- Noakhali killings were followed by mass killings of Muslims in Bihar and Garhmukteshwar.
The Unionist Ministry then in power in Punjab and the Congress Ministry in NWFP had managed to keep their provinces free of large scale communal violence. In March 1947 a Muslim League Ministry came to power in Punjab and a little later also in NWFP.
The floodgates of communal violence of the worst type now raged all over North India from Delhi and beyond. Muslims and non-Muslims (Sikhs and Hindus) were matched evenly in Punjab.
Both sides perpetrated the worst type of savagery. The entire population of the region appeared to have gone beserk. Towards the end of July, it was decided to have a Punjab Boundary Force of 50,000 soldiers comprising equal number of units earmarked for India and Pakistan. Major General Pat Rees took over as the commander of this Force. Two Indian Brigadiers, one Hindu remaining in India and the other Muslim going to Pakistan, were appointed his deputies. This experiment did not succeed. Within a month, the Punjab Boundary Force had to be disbanded. The two Dominions took over responsibility for maintaining order in their respective territories.
On our side, a new skeleton Command Headquarters, called Delhi and East Punjab Command, was set up with Lt Gen Sir Dudley Russell as the Army Commander. There were some twelve officers on his staff, all of them British except me.
I was then a Major dealing with operations. There were three subordinate formations under the Command – Delhi Area under Major General Rajendra Sinhji who later became Army Chief, East Punjab Area under Major General K S Thimayya who also later became Army Chief and Military Evacuation Organisation at Lahore under Major General Chimni. No passenger or goods train was running anywhere in Punjab. All the railway rolling stock had been mobilized for carrying refugees. Lakhs of Muslims from all over the country had concentrated in Delhi at three major locations, Purana Qila, Nizamuddin and the open space around the Red Fort. They were being evacuated in refugee trains, escorted by the Army, to Pakistan. Hindu and Sikh refugees coming from Pakistan were initially accommodated in a tented refugee camp at Kurukshetra, before being dispersed to other locations. At one time this camp held 5 lakh refugees. There were also long refugee foot columns, several miles long, moving from either side. It was impossible to provide adequate protection to these columns, extending several miles. Air drops of food packages were organized for these columns.
The civil administration had collapsed in Punjab and our Command was assigned the duty of restoring order and evacuation of refugees. Mountbatten had made the luxurious Viceroy’s train available to our Command. Russell established his mobile headquarters in that train. We were completely self-contained in the corridor train with accommodation for officers, clerical staff, security personnel, and our offices. Our messes and kitchen functioned in the train. We had line and wireless communications on the train as also our motor transport. I operated from this train for nearly two months travelling between Delhi and Lahore. I have in all humility recorded all these details so that some credence may be given to my views on the events of that time based on my personal experience.
As for the Army’s contribution towards the Independence of India, one has to go back to the Great Uprising of 1857. The British call it the Sepoy Mutiny or the Great Mutiny and Indian nationalists refer to it as the First War of Indian Independence. Call it what one may, it was primarily an uprising of the Indian soldier against foreign rule. It lit the spark of nationalism in the country and was a source of great inspiration for succeeding generations during our freedom struggle.
The gallantry of the Indian soldier in battles, during the First World War won world wide acclaim. This was a source of national pride for the Indian people giving them increased self confidence. The emergence of the Indian National Army under Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose during the Second World War, added a new dimension to our freedom struggle. The INA comprised soldiers of the Indian Army taken prisoners by the Japanese in Malaya. The INA trials generated a patriotic surge all over the country and were a big shot in the arm for our freedom struggle. This was followed by the Naval Mutiny in Mumbai and Karachi, Army mutiny in Jabalpur and Air Force mutiny in Karachi. This violently shook the foundations of the British Empire in India.
It was at this stage and soon after the Great Kolkata killings that I had joined the Military Operations Directorate in Delhi. There were three things that I found both interesting and revealing. First, a plan for the evacuation of all British civilians in India to the UK called Plan Gondola. Second, the operational map that I was required to maintain in the Operations Room. Third, a paper on the reliability of the Indian Army prepared by the Director of Military Intelligence.
The British feared an uprising on the lines of what had happened in 1857. Many British civilians were scattered in different parts of the country. Plan Gondola catered for their initial evacuation to temporary camps in the provinces, at provincial capitals and some selected convenient locations. These were called Keeps. Armed protection with necessary logistic support was to be provided at the Keeps.
In the subsequent phase, they were to be evacuated to Safes near the port towns of Kolkata, Vishakapatnam, Chennai, Cochin, Mumbai and Karachi, awaiting repatriation to the UK. The troops guarding the Safes and Keeps were to be a mix of British and Indian soldiers. In the event, as communal violence escalated there was no need to implement Plan Gondola. There was now much bitterness and violence between Hindus and Muslims and none against the British. It was a great irony that at the height of the communal carnage in Punjab, British officers could move around unarmed in Delhi and Punjab while Indian officers, whether Muslims or non-Muslims, had to carry arms and in remote areas move with an escort.
I had to maintain a large map of India with pins of different colours showing locations of all combat units in the country. Red was for British units, Green for Gorkha units and Brown for Indian units. A distinction was made between Indian and Gorkha units. At that time the Gorkhas were officered exclusively by the British with no Indian officers in those units. The Indian units had a mix of British and Indian officers with Commanding Officers and senior officers mostly British. The “mutiny syndrome” prevailed among the British. It was ensured that no location had only brown pins without some red and green pins in situ. Field Marshal Auchinleck, the then Commander-in- Chief frequently visited the Operations Room and would study the map maintained by me.
The paper written by the Director Military Intelligence had a novel security classification – Top Secret, Not For Indian Eyes. My predecessor a British officer in a hurry to go back home to the UK on demobilization, had handed over the key of the almirah containing classified documents to me without checking the documents. This paper was written in the wake of the INA trials.
It stated that the Indian officers of the Army could be divided into three categories – those commissioned before 1933 from Sandhurst, the pre-war officers commissioned between 1933 and 1939, and the wartime emergency commissioned officers. The Sandhurst officers were considered more reliable. They were now middle aged with family commitments and did not nurture much grievance as they had been treated well. They were very few, their total number being about thirty. The pre-war, 1933 to 1939 officers had a grievance because their emoluments were not at par with their British counterparts. This disparity was removed during the war but its memory and of some other discriminations still rankled with them. The wartime officers numbering about 12,000 against a total of 500 of the two previous categories, were considered most unreliable. While in their schools and colleges, they had been exposed to subversive political influence culminating in the Quit India movement.
They faced an uncertain future because they were all emergency commissioned officers and only very few were likely to be accommodated in the permanent post-war cadre of the Army. They were working at the company and platoon level interacting directly with the soldiers.
As for the soldiers, the position regarding them had also changed radically. Prior to the war, the strength of the Army was 1.37 lakhs and recruitment was confined to the martial classes. A large number of soldiers came from traditional military families. During the war, floodgates had been opened for recruitment. The Army had been expanded from 1.37 lakhs to 2.2 millions. The INA had had a psychological impact on the officers and men of the Army.
Further, the bulk of the Army overseas had served in South East Asia, where they had seen how the prestige of the colonial powers had suffered at the hands of the Japanese in the early years of the war. Towards the end of the war, national movements for freedom had erupted in Asian countries ruled by colonial powers like the British, the French, the Dutch and the Portugese. The paper also took into account that an economically exhausted Britain after a long drawn out war, was not in a position to maintain a strong British military presence in India. In the circumstance, the paper recommended early British withdrawal from India. I was much impressed by this very analytical study.
The fact that the Indian Army had an impact on our movement for Independence and hastened the dawn of freedom is indisputable. Earl Atlee the British Prime Minister, who had presided over the liquidation of the British Empire in 1947, confirmed this during his visit to India in 1956. He told Mr Chakravarty, the then Governor of Bengal, that the decision to quit quickly in 1947 had been taken because the British could no longer rely on the loyalty of the Indian Army.
The role of the Army during Partition has not so far been factored into discussions about Partition. The fact that the Army also effected the decision on Partition needs to be taken into account. After their experience with Cromwell’s military dictatorship, the British ardently nurtured the concept of an apolitical army.
It suited them to transplant that concept in the Indian Army that they raised. While this concept continues to hold good in India, it got thrown overboard in Pakistan for reasons which we may not discuss here. After 1857, the British decided not to have one class regiment except for Gorkhas and Garhwalis. All other combat units of the Indian Army had the composition of 50% Muslims and 50% non-Muslims (Hindus and Sikhs). This was in line with their policy of Divide and Rule. Different communities living together in war and peace and encouraged to remain apolitical, developed a regimental ethos which held them together.
I was commissioned in the Jat Regiment which had two companies of Jat Hindus and two companies of Muslims. I served with a Punjabi Muslim company. I found that the regimental spirit among the men was strong and there was no communal divide. This continued in the Army as a whole till the end of 1946 but started cracking in 1947, reaching a breaking point by August 1947. Yet I saw that when the Muslim companies of the Jat Regiment were going to Pakistan, tears were shed on both sides. This happened in other regiments as well.
In keeping with the Army’s apolitical traditions, Indian officers during the British days, hardly ever discussed political matters among themselves. I recall that in Rangoon soon after the end of the war, one junior British officer referred to the INA as traitors and also used vulgar epithets for it.
There was no senior officer present in the Mess. This led to a heated discussion between the British and Indian officers, both Hindus and Muslims. Although politics in India had got much communalized in the Forties, Netaji seems to have promoted complete communal harmony in the Azad Hind Government and the Indian National Army. Vande Matram as an anthem had been a source of discord between the two communities in India. Netaji had coined the slogan Jai Hind which could not raise any communal hackles.
The Indian Army got involved in a strange war in Indonesia. It had been sent to that country primarily to take the surrender of the Japanese. The Dutch had been driven out from those islands. They accompanied the Indian Army to re-establish their colonial rule. The Indonesians had declared their Independence and had raised an army of their own. The Indian Army got involved in fighting the Indonesians. It was a strange situation for us. The Indonesians would tell us that we were ourselves not free and yet we were fighting against their becoming independent.
During my service in Indonesia, I used to feel very embarrassed on this account. However, what surprised me was that when the Indonesians raised the banner of Islam in their appeal to Indian soldiers, a number of Muslim soldiers of the Indian Army deserted and joined them. I was told that about a thousand or more of our Muslim soldiers had deserted. They got left behind when we came out from Indonesia. I am mentioning this because this was for the first time that I saw the communal virus affecting the Army.
Notwithstanding the early signs in Indonesia, it is remarkable that during the outbreak of unprecedented communal violence in August 1946 and till well after 1947 had set in, the Indian soldier, both Hindu and Muslim, showed remarkable impartiality when called upon to deal with communal violence. This was so in Kolkata in August 1946, in Bihar in October 1946 and in Garhmukteshwar (U.P.) in November 1946. Two or three battalions of the Bihar Regiment which had Hindus and Muslims in equal number, had operated in Bihar during the communal riots and had remained completely impartial. The Bihar riots were horrendous.
For the first time communal riots had spread so extensively to rural areas. Hitherto communal riots had remained an urban phenomenon. Several thousand Muslims got massacred in Bihar as a revenge for thousands of Hindus killed in Kolkata and Noakhali. At the time of Bihar riots, I was in Delhi getting daily reports of what was happening in my home province.
Colonel Naser Ali Khan, who later went to Pakistan Army, and I were serving at General Headquarters and were living in the officers mess on Wellesley Road (now Zakir Hussain Road). He was many years senior to me and was always very kind to me. One morning at breakfast after having read of a news report about Bihar riots in the newspaper, he told me excitedly that his blood boiled when he remembered that I was a Bihari. I told him that I condemned what was happening in Bihar more than him. He was not the only Muslim officer I interacted with in Delhi who felt so worked up over the most unfortunate happenings in Bihar.
I am mentioning these incidents to bring out how circumstances were forcing communal virus to spread in the Army. Till March 1947 things appeared to be well under control. Local communal riots were taking place in different places and the Army deployed to maintain order remained very disciplined and impartial. Wavell during his farewell address on 21 March 1947 said, “I believe that the stability of the Indian Army may perhaps be the deciding factor in the future of India.” Pakistan had not emerged as a sovereign State till then and hardly anyone could imagine that it will become a reality in the next four months.
With Muslim League Ministries coming to power both in Punjab and NWFP, communal passions were sought to be aroused in a planned manner. Pictures of atrocities on Muslims in Bihar and Garhmukteshwar started being shown in mosques along with fiery speeches by Muslim clerics on Fridays. Widespread communal riots erupted in Peshawar and Rawalpindi. Soon the whole of North India was on fire. The strain on the soldiers started showing. Most of the soldiers, both Muslims and non-Muslims, were from the North. Their homeland was getting ravaged and in several cases their families had been victims of communal frenzy.
It was becoming increasingly difficult for the soldiers to retain their impartiality. The downslide in this regard became more perceptible after Partition was announced. The day after that announcement I met two officers in their uniforms in Delhi wearing strange shoulder tittles – RPE and RPASC. In those days officers from Engineers and Army Service Corps wore shoulder titles, RIE for Royal Indian Engineers and RIASC for Royal Indian Army Service Corps. Some officers had begun to wear Pakistan shoulder titles within hours of the Partition announcement and much before Pakistan came into being.
There were reports of senior Muslim officers going to meet Jinnah who then lived in his house, 10 Aurangzeb Road. This showed how officers going to Pakistan were getting politicized. It also showed the fervour for Pakistan among some Muslim officers. On the morrow of Independence in August 1947, the Gilgit Scouts staged a coup arresting Brigadier Ghansara Singh of the Kashmir Army who had been sent there as Governor by the Maharaja. This was the first military coup in Pakistan Army. More were to follow later.
As mentioned earlier, the Punjab Boundary Force comprising in equal measure, units earmarked for Indian and Pakistan Army, was set up under a British commander in late July 1947. It was hoped that it will help in maintaining order on both sides of the border, at a time when communal violence and migration was reaching a crescendo. The experiment failed because the impartiality of the soldier had got eroded and there were several instances of soldiers taking sides.
Large scale violence again erupted in Kolkata and Mahatma Gandhi had gone there to restore sanity among the people. He undertook a fast which had a dramatic effect. It was then that Mountbatten made his famous remark that a one man boundary force had succeeded in Kolkata while the 50,000 strong Punjab Boundary Force had failed in the North. The Punjab Boundary Force was disbanded within a month of its raising and the two Dominions assumed responsibility for maintaining order on their side of the border. As a tailpiece, I may add that after a couple of months, Indian and Pakistan Armies were locked in fighting a war against each other in Kashmir.
No doubt the Partition holocaust was the greatest tragedy in the history of the Subcontinent in which millions got killed and millions got uprooted. Soon after Hindus and Muslims had fought unison in the First War of Independence in 1857, the seeds of separatism were sown by Sir Syed Ahmed. He conceived a separate nationhood for the Muslims of India. Lord Morley by accepting separate electorate in 1906 provided the oxygen for it. It fully matured by 1947 and was exploited to the hilt by Jinnah.
Looking back in hindsight, one can say that Partition could have been averted had the Congress been more accommodative and the Muslim League less obdurate. However, after the planned genocide started by Jinnah on i6 August 1946 as part of his Direct Action programme, there could be no going back from the path of disaster. The Qaid-e- Azam had become Qatl-e- Azam.
The puerile attempt by some people to underscore Jinnah’s secular image on the basis of a lone speech by him while inaugurating the Pakistan Constituent Assembly does not carry conviction. One swallow does not make a summer. It now transpires that Jinnah made that conciliatory address not out of any goodwill but under compulsion. The inside story has been revealed in a book Select Documents on Partition of India by a distinguished historian, Dr Kripal Singh. Lord Ismay the Chief of Staff of Lord Mountbatten told him in an interview on August 17, 1964, the background to that much hailed address.
Mountbatten had asked Ismay to convey to Jinnah the need for his taking that line, now that he had achieved his Pakistan. The sole aim was to check the spiraling violence in Pakistan and the counter violence in East Punjab.
That Jinnah ‘s animosity towards India had not changed is made amply clear by Pakistan’s invasion of Kashmir launched on 22 October 1947. His earlier slogan was India Divided or India Destroyed. That had now changed to India Divided and India Destroyed. It is a different matter that on 7 November 1947 the Indian Army turned back that invasion from the outskirts of Srinagar. This was perhaps in line with what Charles Martel had achieved at Tours in 732 against the Saracens thereby saving France or Jan Sobleski had done in 1683, throwing back the Turks from the gates of Vienna and saved Europe.
Lately attempts have been made by some people to exonerate Jinnah for his role in Partition.( COMMENT: Jaswant Singh !! ) They have even gone further, by trying to blame Patel and Nehru for accepting Partition. It is even insinuated that they were tired and old, and were in a hurry to grab power. Having opposed the two nation theory and partition all their lives, they caved in and opted for Partition. Ralph Emerson rightly wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” In the Army the saying is that consistency is the hallmark of a mule.
Sardar Patel had the uncanny gift of foresight and the ability to take hard decisions. He rightly assessed the situation prevailing in mid 1947. Based on his experience in the Interim Government when the Muslim League had brought government functioning to a grinding halt, the crescendo of communal violence and the Army getting contaminated, combating communal violence for nearly a year, he realized that there was now no alternative to Partition. His decision to salvage the wreck in 1947 was an act of great statesmanship. If that had not been done, things would have become much worse.
We would have had a civil war on our hands with the Army broken up and participating from both sides. One does not know what the outcome of such a conflict may have been. India may have broken up into several independent States like erstwhile Yugoslavia or could have become a much larger version of present Lebanon. In his own words, the Sardar chose to save 80% of the country. Had a patchwork solution of unity with a weak centre been accepted in 1947, the results could have been disastrous. With a weak Centre the integration of the 500 odd Princely States may not have been possible.
The minority population of India was about 12% in 1947. Today, the combined minority population in an undivided India would have been over 40%. Petrol funded Islamist forces that have now emerged in the world would have swamped India. India as we know it today would not have existed. Patel’s acceptance of a moth eaten Pakistan and getting the Congress to accept it, was a great achievement. This was almost at par with his universally hailed achievement of integrating the Princely States with the Indian Union.
The first vivisection of India had taken place in the beginning of the second millennium. Although the Arabs had conquered Sindh in 712 A D, they had remained confined to the deserts of Sindh for three centuries and subsequently Sindh had not broken away from India. The Hindu Shahi dynasty ruled over Afghanistan with their capital at Kabul. They guarded the country’s North West Frontier. Starting from 999 A D, they succumbed to the invasions of the great conqueror and plunderer, Mahmud Gazni. India was exposed for the first time to the ferocity of religious fundamentalism. Soon, Afghanistan ceased to be a part of India. That was our country’s first vivisection.
The second took place in 1947 again on account of religious fundamentalism. Sardar Patel ensured that the 80% residual India was fully integrated and became a strong nation. Despite that part of the country which broke away becoming a theocracy and carrying out instant ethnic cleansing in the West and gradual in the East, Nehru and Patel ensured that India retained her secular values.
In August 1947 the residual Muslim League in India adopted a resolution reviving itself. Surprisingly, undeterred with all that had happened leading to Partition, its representatives in the Constituent Assembly, demanded reservation for Muslims and also separate electorate. Muslim members of the Assembly other than the few of the Muslim League, did not support this demand. It got rejected by an overwhelming majority. Speaking on this issue the Sardar stated, “I know they have a mandate from the Muslim League to move this amendment. I feel sorry for them. This is not a place for acting on madness. This is a place today to act on your conscience and to act for the good of the country. For a community to think that its interests are different from that of the country in which it lives, is a great mistake”.
Unfortunately the successors of Sardar Patel in his party have shown lack of vision. For the sake of garnering Muslim votes, they have been following the policy of appeasement and are prepared in that process to sacrifice national interest.
B K Nehru, an eminent member of the dynasty, in his autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Second, wrote that the old guard in the Congress considered national interests supreme but the new generation feels otherwise, giving priority to party interests.
The Congress practicing secularism selectively has been giving an impetus to communalism. It treats Muslim League as a secular party and welcomes it as an alliance partner in the Government, both at the Centre and in Kerala. It treats the BJP as untouchable and wants to have nothing to do with it, even when BJP has Muslim members but Muslim League does not have a single non-Muslim member.
It has been facilitating the illegal migration of Bangladeshi Muslims to build its vote bank. A Congress Prime Minister declares that Muslims must have the first call on the Nation’s resources. It has been decided to set up four new Muslim Universities like the Aligarh Muslim University, which had been the nursery for Pakistan. Several other such instances can be quoted. If we continue like this, the day is not far when we will have to put up with a third vivisection of the country.
The second partition was the product of separate electorate, the third may be the product of the policy of appeasement. Justice in full measurfe must be provided to the minority but appeasement can be disastrous both for them and the country.
The Indian Army made a significant contribution towards ushering the independence of India. Its role during the Partition holocaust was also of great significance.
I conclude quoting from Stephen Cohen’s book on the Indian Army. “India has virtually ignored the military as a factor in nation building. This is surprising, for the military had a profound impact on the course of nationalist politics and also upon policies after 1947.”