10.2 Partition and Conspiracy: Attlee and Nehru


Now we can move on to examine a few of the more exotic ideas in circulation concerning Partition.

The first example is Jinnah, Man of Destiny (Kalpaz, 2001), by Prakash Almeida. As its name suggests, this book is primarily an assessment of the career of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, asking the classic question; how and why did the nationalist, Congressman Jinnah of 1910 become the separatist, Muslim League Jinnah of 1940? Almeida’s detailed answers have no great originality or authority and need not detain us here. However, his overall conclusions are of interest, because they contain such a strong element of conspiracy and global politics. These revolve around four areas of secrecy; the Partition Plan itself, Jinnah’s advanced tuberculosis and who knew about it, the alleged death in an air crash of Subhas Chandra Bose (the Indian nationalist-socialist leader in exile), and a secret ‘treaty’ between Nehru and leading Labour politicians, signed in June 1938, which allegedly set out a plan to transfer power to Nehru under the next Labour government. In short, Partition was, in Mr Almeida’s view, a British plan, long conceived.

So, how did all this work? ‘Jinnah got his Pakistan…because there were people who were eager to give it to him’, and these included ‘many leaders in the Congress’ who were happy to let him have it ‘without getting the blame for it’ (p. 232). By this he means primarily Nehru, whom he characterises as impatient for power. Nehru is one of the story’s villains, the other main one being Mountbatten, ‘this culprit Briton’, whom he accuses of ‘childish vanity’, ‘playing God’, and consistent deceit. The two main heroes are Subhas Chandra Bose, who was ‘the medicine for the disease of communalism’ (p. 243), and Sardar Patel, who could have been India’s Abraham Lincoln – that is, he would have fought to keep the country together, even at a high cost. But somehow Patel declined to play this role (p. 200). Gandhi is treated as an ambivalent figure; Almeida approves of his patriotism and non-communal politics, but accuses him of having ‘lost’ both Jinnah and Bose for India through his ‘ad hoc leadership’ (p. 240), thus depriving India of her two best chances of achieving both freedom and unity in one package. The other main figure in the story is B. G. Tilak, whose death in 1920 marked the day that ‘Partition began’ (p. 244). If Tilak had lived another ten years, Almeida believes, Congress would have split, with one half under him and the other under Gandhi, and in time the leadership of Tilak’s half would ‘inevitably’ have passed to Jinnah (p. 237).

This did not happen, and Pakistan came into being instead – the result of Britain protecting her post-war interests in South Asia. The British used the threat of Soviet Communism both to prolong British rule in India, while creating Pakistan to ‘build a wall’ (p. 183) against Stalin’s expansionist ambitions in the region. Pakistan was going to come, whether Indians or Muslims or Jinnah wanted it or not, because it was a vital part of President Truman’s policy of Communist ‘containment’, and it was to be imposed no matter what. In terms of the politics of bringing this about, Netaji S. C. Bose played a vital, though passive, part. Through World War II the British were scared of Netaji alive, but they also feared he might be more dangerous dead. So they killed him in an air crash (or afterwards) but then cunningly put out a rumour that he was still alive (p. 201), thus having their cake and eating it. Mountbatten was then able to terrify Nehru with the thought that Bose was still out there somewhere. Nehru was ‘jealous’ and fearful of Netaji, because he was ‘the only available saviour of the destiny and unity of India’ (p. 221). Nehru’s attitude changed ‘overnight’ once Bose was declared dead (August 1945), whereupon Nehru praised and glorified him, and even decided to defend former members of Bose’s nationalist forces – the Indian National Army (INA) – who were being put on trial by the British for disloyalty to the King-Emperor.

Meanwhile news of Jinnah’s illness had leaked out. Gandhi knew of it (p. 199), which is why in April 1947 he made his famous proposal to Mountbatten that Jinnah be made head of the Interim Government. Mountbatten did not know of this illness, although his predecessor as Viceroy, Lord Wavell, did. Wavell, however, chose not to reveal this information to Mountbatten, perhaps ‘as a revenge for his [Wavell’s] unceremonial (sic) dismissal and forced failure’ (p. 181). The sacking of Wavell, announced in February 1947, was merely a cover for a change of policy by the British, ‘who were then busy in Washington’s State Department with the cold war calculations’ (p. 210). Mountbatten’s mission was ‘to thrust partition down the throats of India’s politicians’ (p. 182), which he successfully achieved – ‘a definite falsehood so shamelessly, yet gloriously orchestrated’ (p. 190). Nehru’s trip to London in December 1946 for last-ditch talks with Jinnah and the British Cabinet was in fact just an excuse to remind Attlee of the secret pact they had made in 1938 (p. 229). All these streams finally came together – the anti-Communism, the deceit of Mountbatten, the ambition of Nehru and the Labour signatories to the secret 1938 agreement, the pressing urgency to set up Pakistan while Jinnah was still alive – to produce the eventual settlement in August 1947. That is the thesis. Now for some critical examination.

As ever, conspiracy involves, by definition, bad people doing bad things in secret. Almeida is clear about his bad people; the British, the Americans, Stalin, the Labour politicians – chiefly Cripps, who wanted to be Prime Minster (p. 231) – and the Indian traitors, particularly Nehru. Believing the worst of these people is easy enough, but this whole nest of tangled purposes and supposition is held together by little more than Almeida’s prior decision that all these people were bad. He despises them so greatly that he repeatedly doubly accuses them of incompatible and contradictory crimes. In the case of Mountbatten there is ‘a ring of secret things’ around his appointment as Viceroy, ‘which indispensably included the partition of India’ (p. 184). But Almeida then gloats that the final plan was not Mountbatten’s. ‘And the partition scheme that was finally accepted was not his own but was of V. P. Menon. He just happened to be there’ (p. 210). So there are two problems here. First, how can Mountbatten really be the arch villain with an exact brief and a pre-prepared plot, if at the central point of his mission he was reduced to a helpless onlooker? Second, who was V. P. Menon working for? He was, as we have seen, well known as Sardar Patel’s man. And, as Almeida points out, Nehru’s secret pact of 1938 was not known to other Congress politicians (p. 197). So we are getting into trouble here with the wider picture. Suddenly it is Patel that is the author of Partition and Mountbatten is edged out. How can this be either the British-American, anti-Communist plan, or Nehru’s ‘pact’ in operation if Patel is the main instigator?

Similarly, Almeida’s eagerness to blacken Mountbatten fails to convince over the matter of Jinnah’s illness. At one point Almeida explicitly says that Mountbatten was not told of it (by Wavell), but then insists that Mountbatten did know, and that his later professions of ignorance are lies. Almeida, of course, knows that Mountbatten was a liar, so this not a difficult conclusion for him to reach. The contradiction here is resolved by stating that Jinnah’s illness was known to Gandhi, as told to the author by a friend of Jinnah’s doctor. One might say that this is a magically convenient piece of insider information, so convenient indeed that it requires no actual proof of any kind beyond mere assertion. Mountbatten, we are told, must have known. The weakness here is the lack of evidence, coupled with Almeida’s very evident need to have Mountbatten know about the gravity of Jinnah’s illness, in order to explain the rush to Partition.

Finally, Almeida shoots himself in the foot in yet another way. He states that the British were prepared to find somebody else to front the new Pakistan, that in fact Jinnah was not required. The all-powerful and devious Brits would have found another patsy if Jinnah had not come along, or at any stage had not played ball. He is quite sure about this, and makes the point no less than three times. The British ‘would have invented a Jinnah if they had none’ (p. 266); ‘with or without Jinnah His Ex [Mountbatten] was going to partition India’ (p. 275); ‘the British would have partitioned India with or without Jinnah’ (p. 276).

This paints Jinnah as a weak man – useful to Almeida’s overall view of him – and it also portrays the British as malign and omnipotent. But he seems unaware that this insistence undercuts his whole argument. If the British could have found anyone to sit on the throne of the new Muslim state, then why rush to make sure it was Jinnah? If the British could have done what they wanted, regardless of the wishes of Indians, then to scamper around trying to ensure that a very sick man was going to run the new state would have been nothing short of stupid, as it would open up the immediate prospect of impotence, followed swiftly by a struggle for succession in the new country. As it was, the effect of the early death of Jinnah on the nascent Pakistan has been considered by some to have been a crucial factor in determining the long-term instability of the country. The clever British surely could have foreseen that. But Almeida wants it both ways. The British knew, yet somehow they didn’t. They needed Jinnah, but they didn’t. Mountbatten had a plan, yet it was someone else’s Partition that was implemented. This is not quite adding up.

There is no need to add deep, hidden levels to the rationale of speed within the Partition process. It was deteriorating public order that was the determining factor. There were problems with provincial governments, especially in the Punjab and NWFP, but also with government at the centre, where a long transition between the Interim Government and the two new successor governments would have created an impossible situation. The Interim Government, as constituted under Wavell from September 1946 onwards, was unstable from the start and became more so with the addition of Muslim League members in October. There was also a tricky constitutional difficulty as to when exactly power could he handed over. Once Partition was decided upon, the transfer had to come very quickly afterwards, from the point of view of all parties. Thus there was not just a rush to find (or force) agreement over Partition, there was also a rush to complete the transfer of power after that agreement was signed. There was a real fear, shared and expressed by Indian leaders, that a long transition period could have severely damaged or even destroyed central authority in both successor states.

Next we can look at the ‘treaty’ of 1938. Almeida never quotes any details of this alleged pact, but he is entirely certain that it existed, and of its contents. Here we enter classic conspiracy country, where a conclusion already reached drives the whole of the rest of the argument, which is held together with strong bonds of belief but yet never quite has the strength to survive the mild buffeting of a quite normal level of scepticism. We can start by pointing out again how Almeida wants it both ways. He knows what was in that treaty, but he never quotes it. Instead he gives us an exact day, 24 June 1938, an exact location, Filkins – the country house of Sir Stafford Cripps, and an exact cast of characters, of whom the principals are Attlee, Cripps, Nehru and Krishna Menon. That meeting did certainly take place, but it had a banal purpose, namely the discussion of what position a future Labour government of Britain might be expected to take re Indian independence.

But Almeida wants much more. He turns it into a top-level plot, in which Attlee agreed to give India to Nehru, with Partition built in. Why either man would agree to this, or how either thought they could possibly deliver such a thing absolutely defies imagination. But Almeida is convinced. The text of this treaty ‘could be found’, he tells us, in a book called Empire or Democracy by Leonard Barnes (p. 277). Why no quote? Why only ‘could be’? ‘Could be’, perhaps, if Barnes had actually put it in that book, which was written in 1939 and is a left wing critique of imperialism. It does not mention Attlee or Cripps, or this secret pact, let alone set out its terms.

Almeida insists that Barnes was at the meeting, and so knew of the pact. Almeida’s knowledge of it is confirmed by two further circumstances. First, Barnes told the historian Partha Ghosh about it, and Ghosh subsequently ‘has exposed this first time in his book’ (p. 277), but Almeida does not specify which book. An odd oversight this, as Almeida is quite capable of punctilious references and extensive verbatim quotes when he needs them. Second, there is a reference to the 24 June meeting in a manuscript of an early draft of Attlee’s autobiography, indicating that in terms of ideas about India it had gone ‘further’ than any previous discussion of the subject. Attlee, however, does not say that Nehru was gifted the post-war premiership of a partitioned India. The fact that this passage was left out of the eventual book (As it Happened) is only significant if we already feel that there is a massive secret at stake. In which case why did Attlee ever refer to it in the first place? He probably left it out of the final version because it was rather dull, not because it was hugely significant. The truly astonishing thing is that Almeida allows this ragbag of assumptions to drive the whole of his Partition narrative.

More prosaically, Almeida had probably never read or seen this document but simply took the archival references out of a very good, though rather forgotten book by Partha Sarathi Gupta, titled Imperialism and the British Labour Movement, which analysed Labour Party policy towards the later British Empire. The ‘Filkins Pact’ is mentioned there, but sadly for Almeida’s thesis, it attracts little attention and is granted no extra significance beyond being a perfectly appropriate attempt by Labour politicians, then in opposition, to envisage how the British-Indian link might work under a future socialist government in London. It is rather loosely referred to as a ‘treaty’ on pages 255 and 267, though it was only ever an outline of a potential public agreement concerning the relationship of two governments, and this might have over-stimulated the attention of some readers. The footnote on Gupta’s page 255 refers to Barnes, and to the vanishing passage about the Fikins conference in Atlee’s autobiography. We cannot believe but that Almeida read no more than this note, and knows no more than it told him.

The Nehru-Labour ‘Pact’ of 1938 is Almeida’s way of joining the pre- and post-war worlds, in order to show the depth of British duplicity and the long-term nature of their determination to partition India. It is also a way of blackening the character of Nehru. But as a convincing explanation for anything grand it is pitifully weak. We are expected to accept that a secret agreement between private individuals – none of whom was a head of state or even an ambassador at the time – was made to stick, nine years later, following massive political changes in Britain and India, and after the greatest military upheavals the world had ever known. Attlee, Cripps and Nehru were no more powerful than any other leaders in this era, and were as buffeted by events as any others. Neither Attlee nor Nehru could possibly have foreseen the circumstances pertaining in early 1947; the pact of 1938 had no direct connection with what followed.

Labour politicians sympathised broadly with Congress ambitions for self-government and social, economic and agrarian reform, so to have had friendly relations with Nehru was entirely to be expected. To agree to divide up India to suit him – at a time when public talk of Partition was still years away – is to call him a liar and a fraud, and to do the same to Cripps and Attlee, men who later strove very long and hard to deliver a united India. Why go through all the stress and disruption of the Cabinet Mission in 1946 if the ‘pact’ was in place? Why not recall Wavell after the failed Simla Conference in 1945 and simply give Nehru what they are supposed to have agreed at Cripps’ house?

Finally we have to consider whether the setting up of a fortress Pakistan to defend South Asia against Communism was a viable idea. Militarily the answer has to be ’no’, based on a very long list of published opinions from senior military figures. One of the most succinct, and weighty, was a memo drafted by General Claude Auchinleck, dated 11 May 1946, which took as its main subject the vulnerability of south Asia to outside invasion, and the unsuitability of using the mooted Pakistan as a base from which to resist any such invasion.

Here we have a rebuttal to three intertwined elements that recur repeatedly in Partition conspiracy theories;

1. that the British wanted to divide India – they didn’t, because they believed this would render the region more vulnerable

2. that Pakistan was a viable military entity – they didn’t believe this for a moment – too small, too poor

3. that the use of Pakistan to resist Russian encroachment was a sensible or feasible option.

To recap, Pakistan was much the smaller of the two successor states, and with fewer resources it had to defend the key passes against Russia – this in addition to very complicated new borders to guard against India. Why a separated Pakistan could be considered a better defence against Stalin than a united India neither Almeida nor any of the others that have propounded this theory, have ever made clear.

Insisting that a secret British plan to divide India was actually part of Truman’s Communist Containment plan is also to believe that the British were happy to divide up their imperial possessions to oblige him. This does not sit well with another major thread Almeida has been running, about Churchill carving up Europe in a secret pact with Stalin – a pact, he claims, that hastened President Roosevelt’s death. More whimsy. Churchill did actually have direct talks with Stalin about a post-war European settlement – at Yalta, which was an attempt to salvage something for the West in the face of an enormous victorious Soviet tank army that was then rolling through Eastern Europe. but in Almeida’s world Churchill is made to seem more pro-Communist than Attlee. This does not fit easily with Britain’s fierce resistance to President Roosevelt’s pressure to give India even a little more freedom during the war – a struggle Almeida is well aware of. And this does not sit well with another assertion, that ‘Churchill had planned to divide into as many parts as possible’ (p. 223). By now there are so many secret pacts and plans flying round the world that it is difficult to force them into one coherent system – and further efforts in that direction would assuredly prove futile. This is the sort of historical soup that an obsession with secrecy can all too easily produce.

A few final comments may be appropriate.

If the reason to create Pakistan was to make it a new American sphere of influence, it is rather odd that, militarily, the Americans refused to have anything to do with the infant nation, despite desperate attempts by Karachi to rouse Washington’s interest while Nehru was openly courting Moscow. Oddest of all, at the time of Partition it was a justified Pakistani grievance that the British were rushing the independence process and not allowing the new state’s defence structures to be properly set up. M. A. H. Ispahani was explicit about this and never forgave Mountbatten for it. The new leadership felt that the Pakistani military was being deliberately starved of men, funds and material, including the award of the arsenal at Ferozepur to India. A funny way to treat the new front line state, wouldn’t one think, if the overall purpose was efficient defence? And the idea that independent Muslim states would necessarily prove reliable allies against Communism was a wildly speculative idea. Surely colonies, or liberal democracies were a better bet – so why take the most vital part of the ‘wall’ and hand it over, freely, to a bunch of untried, potentially divided Muslims (led by a cadaver) to do with as they wished?

This is all really a bit of a mess. As usual, the existing version of events is more coherent, and has the advantage of being supported by all the existing documentation and by quite normal readings of the interests of all the parties concerned. Trying to replace all this with a few fragments of rumour and a large amount of misunderstanding really will not do.

The trouble here is that once a conspiracy has been detected, all evidence of whatever kind can always be twisted to support the existence of that conspiracy. A standard approach is to represent any delay, diversion, setback or alternative interpretation of events as mere window-dressing to throw the unwary off the scent. Such things can all be made to do service as yet further proof of the duplicity of the plotters. Sure enough, Almeida finally presses this button when he says the British may have destroyed documents that could have exposed their conspiracy (p. 210). Anyone still impressed by Almeida’s overall conclusions is probably incapable of persuasion otherwise.

There are several reasons for examining such a tenuous theory in depth. One is that this sort of thing is widely believed and can be found spread all over the Internet. It also provides a chance to show the techniques employed to support such bogus history, and to run real facts alongside the fantasies. Almeida has written a book that is particularly guilty of imaginative narration, but he is not the only one.

Part 3

 Posted by at 12:48 pm

  2 Responses to “10.2 Partition and Conspiracy: Attlee and Nehru”

  1. I think it is natural for the Pakistan goenmnrvet to want to blame al-quaeda, as there have been moves towards a rapprochement between the two states. At partition Mountbatten allowed Kashmir to be controlled by Pakistan on the understanding that there would be a referendum, so the inhabitants could decide. This has never been allowed.One wonders what influence his wife had on his decision, since she was having her affair with Nehru. Among the many tragedies in my time, one was the asassination (by a religious fanatic, of course) of Gandhi who was very much hoping to keep the two religions together in one nation.

  2. Nevertheless, ‘the nationalist leadership’s choice of the path of compromise, and the eventual acceptance of Partition as a necessary price’ was made at the cost of millions of displaced people and innumerable sacrifices.

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