Master Tara Singh And The Partition Of Punjab: How His Leadership Delivered East Punjab For India And Saved The Sikh Faith

by Nirmal Kaur and Niyati Choudhary - Apr 18, 2022 11:42 AM +05:30 IST
Master Tara Singh And The Partition Of Punjab: How His Leadership Delivered East Punjab For India And Saved The Sikh FaithMaster Tara Singh (Wikimedia Commons)
Snapshot
  • Almost exactly 75 years later, here is a recollection of Master Tara Singh's pivotal role during the Partition negotiations and how he foiled the worst plans of Jinnah's Muslim League with regards to Punjab.

I.

Kat ke deynge apni jaan, magar nahi deynge Pakistan.” We are prepared to give our lives, but not Pakistan. Legend has it that seventy-five years ago almost to the day Master Tara Singh, kirpan in hand, thundered these words from the footsteps of the Punjab Legislative Assembly in Lahore. The Muslim League’s fanatical and murderous campaign for Pakistan, which had been steadily intensifying since the 1945-46 elections, was about to reach its peak in Punjab.

The League’s drumbeat of direct action, rising throughout 1946, had escalated suddenly in Punjab in the weeks preceding Master Tara Singh’s defiant declaration in response to two events. The first was the decision, in late January 1947, by the coalition government of the province, headed by a Unionist Muslim and supported by Hindus and Sikhs, to rein in the Muslim League’s routine disturbances of public order. Above all, this meant trying to put an end to the League’s well-organised scheme of distributing smuggled weapons amongst its men.

In response, the League launched violent protests against the restrictions, aimed ostensibly at the government but in practice focused on intimidating Hindus and Sikhs into accepting their twin demands in relation to Pakistan: that such a state be created, and that the whole of Punjab (consisting of territory including present-day Indian Punjab, Haryana and Himachal) be given to this new state.

Second, and perhaps more significant, was the British announcement on 20th February 1947 that they would transfer power to Indians by June 1948 at the latest. This lent urgency to the hitherto slow-burning question of Punjab’s future constitutional status—it became clear to all three major communities that they had very little time in which to persuade the British to come around to their respective points of view.

The Muslims, in particular, regarded the decision as declaring open season; they would from hereon repeatedly show their desire to settle the question of Pakistan by force of arms. In the closing days of February 1947, a Sikh policeman was mercilessly lynched in Amritsar by a mob of students affiliated with the Muslim League. The near-daily occurrence of violent marches; the stabbings and arson; the public exhortation to religious violence stunned the Hindus and Sikhs and laid bare the fragility of the outgoing system. On 3rd March 1947, only a few hours prior to Master Tara Singh’s fierce exhibition in Lahore, the Muslim League succeeded in forcing the chief minister of the state (a Muslim, but not of the Muslim League) to resign.

The fall of the coalition government, which had included Master Tara Singh’s Akali Dal and had opposed the creation of Pakistan, was regarded by the Muslim League as the removal of the last powerful resistance to the inclusion of Punjab in the proposed new state of Pakistan. Now that the Hindus and Sikhs were no longer in government in the province, the Muslim League was naturally confident that the state apparatus, manned largely by Muslims, would meekly allow their plans for Pakistan to be worked out. Importantly, the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946 had grouped the whole of Punjab in the Muslim-majority “Group B”. This fed the Muslim League’s claim that if the principle of creating an independent state for Muslims was itself to be accepted, the whole of Punjab (in which the Muslims enjoyed a slight majority overall) should go to this state.

Master Tara Singh saw the decision of the Muslim members of the coalition to withdraw as a deep betrayal; he appears to have clearly realised on that day that the fate of the Sikhs and Hindus of Punjab was now in their hands alone. He would have been confirmed in his cynicism a few days later when in the first large-scale bloodletting of the partition era in Punjab, at least 5,000 Sikhs were killed by Muslims in a one-sided massacre in and around Rawalpindi. The overwhelmingly Sikh villages of Thoa Khalsa, Choa Khalsa and Thamali—each large, with a population equal to that of a small European town—were entirely wiped out overnight. Master Tara Singh’s ancestral house in the village of Haryal in Rawalpindi was also burnt down, and some of his relatives hunted down and killed. Hundreds of Hindus were slaughtered concurrently in Multan and Amritsar.

The failure of the government to respond to these one-sided attacks was equally striking: the police and district administrations were at best negligent and at worst complicit in the massacres—inaugurating a dismal pattern that would hold up through most of the year. It is worth noting here that even though Muslims constituted only the thinnest of majorities in the province, they composed over 70% of the police force and enjoyed similarly disproportionate representation in the civil administration.

The violence of March 1947, though blind in its fury, was motivated, as the British Governor put it, by the belief that “by exterminating non-Muslims now they [the Muslims] would make their districts a safe base for operations against the other communities in due course”. In other words, the carnage was conceived of as a way of strengthening the Muslims’ relative power (and, as importantly, impressions of it) in the course of the campaign for Pakistan.

It needs to be remembered that it was the British who were to ultimately decide whether India was to be partitioned and on what terms, authority that no one seriously disputed at the time. Almost all the events of this period, up until the independence of India (and indeed till the announcement of the Boundary Award on 17th August 1947), should therefore be viewed in terms of the impact they had, and were intended to have, on the calculations of the British.

Viewed from this perspective, Master Tara Singh’s statements and actions from the time Pakistan was first demanded in 1940 reveal a clear strategy to pressurise the British into safeguarding Hindu and Sikh interests in the face of a growing tide of Muslim supremacy. He firmly believed that as much as the British liked to invoke ideas of justice and fair play, the language they understood best was that of power. It was this realistic and pragmatic understanding that guided his approach to the question of Pakistan; it also stood in opposition to the largely quixotic approach of the Congress party.

Thus, when Master Tara Singh declared on 3rd March 1947 that the Sikhs would not quietly accept Muslim domination, he meant not only to warn the British and the League that Muslim violence would not always go unmatched. It was also a reminder to the effete leadership of the Congress Party, whose reins were now firmly in the hands of Jawaharlal Nehru, that, irrespective of the stand taken by it, the Sikhs of Punjab would, by whatever means necessary, fight a constitutional solution that left them stranded in a Muslim-majority country.

It had been Master Tara Singh’s consistent position beginning 1940 that in the extreme event that India was to be partitioned on religious lines, the Sikh- and Hindu-majority areas of Punjab should be separated from the Muslim-majority areas of the state and be given to India. It was only after this position had been forcefully argued by Master Tara Singh that the central leadership of the Congress party endorsed this demand on 8th March 1947—up until then conventional thinking had dictated that any partition of Punjab would be so complicated as to render the idea impracticable.

In the months that followed the dastardly March riots, Master Tara Singh was to hold hundreds of public gatherings in which the demand for Pakistan was aggressively denounced. He would almost single-handedly mobilise, unite and strengthen the Sikhs in order to force the British to meaningfully consider Sikh interests. He would call for the formation and arming of Shaheedi Dals for the protection of Hindus and Sikhs and would work in tandem with Relief Committees set up by the RSS in order to prevent further one-sided massacres of non-Muslims. He would also forcefully rebuff last-ditch attempts by the Muslim League to inveigle the Sikhs into living on in Pakistan. Indeed, while he would not be able to prevent the creation of Pakistan, he would ensure that the Hindus and Sikhs of Punjab could secure for themselves a degree of justice against heavy odds.

II.

Master Tara Singh was the foremost Sikh leader of pre-partition Punjab. Born into a Hindu family in Rawalpindi district in 1885, he was impressed at an early age by the teachings of the Sikh Gurus and sought initiation into the Sikh Maryada under Sant Attar Singh. In the tradition of Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth guru of the Sikhs, he believed that the Sikh Panth was formed to provide a distinct identity to the best and bravest of society, whose highest duty was to protect dharma against domination and injustice. It was for this reason, in his view, that the Sikhs were to remain prepared to deploy armed force.

He came to be regarded as the tallest leader of the Akali Dal due to his unique ability to combine religious scholarship with pragmatic politics and his unrivalled spirit of public service. He similarly embodied for his students at once affection and discipline in the course of his work as a high school teacher; he was respectfully called “Masterji” long after he stopped teaching. Beginning in 1930, he served as President of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) for over 15 years. By the time the movement for Pakistan began, all segments of Sikh society—including the princely rulers—and even Punjabi Hindus recognised the value of his leadership.

Unlike the Congress, which set its face against the British effort in the Second World War, Master Tara Singh, out of a realisation of the importance of employment in the Indian Army for Sikhs, supported recruitment for the war. He accepted that the most realistic route to freedom lay in the offer for independence in return for Indian support for the war effort. In this, his views mirrored the realpolitik of Veer Savarkar, a leader with whom he shared a close friendship, and of the Hindu Mahasabha generally, who also saw merit in supporting the war for concrete guarantees of freedom at its end.

The conditions in which the Muslim League could transform itself in Punjab from a non-entity before the Second World War to a party that earned from the Muslims of the province a mandate for Pakistan in 1946 point to the short-sightedness of the Congress’s approach and the wisdom in Master Tara Singh’s pragmatism. Ishtiaq Ahmed, a Pakistani academic who, in his writings, has fairly accepted the mistake of partition, has attributed the growth in the acceptability of the idea of Pakistan in Punjab to the failure of the Congress to aid in countering the Muslim League’s propaganda during this period. This failure was occasioned by the fact that the Congress’s top leadership and most of its rank and file remained in prison for most of the war period due to their participation in the Quit India movement.

After the elections to the various legislative assemblies in India in early 1946, a delegation of UK Cabinet Ministers was tasked with building consensus on a constitutional arrangement under which power could be handed over to Indians. When the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946 lumped the whole of Punjab in Muslim-majority “Group B” and provided each “Group” with a recurring right of secession at intervals of ten years (the Muslim League would claim that the idea of Pakistan was thus “inherent” in the Plan), Master Tara Singh sent a letter of protest to the Secretary of State for India, Lord Pethick-Lawrence, of which a certain portion provides an indication of his nous during the partition years and is thus worth quoting:

The Cabinet Mission recognises the ‘very genuine and acute anxiety of the Muslims’ … But is there no ‘genuine and acute anxiety’ among the Sikhs lest they should find themselves subjected to a perpetual Muslim majority rule? If the British Government is not aware of the Sikh feelings, the Sikhs will have to resort to some measures in order to convince everybody of the Sikh anxiety, in case they are subjected to a perpetual Muslim domination.

Sikhs are in an outright majority in present-day Indian Punjab, but in 1946 they constituted only 15% of the province’s population. However, they owned the most productive segments of the state’s economy; they were also reputed for their martial prowess and formed a significant proportion of the British Indian army. The principal genius of Master Tara Singh lay in ensuring that these relatively minor advantages (compared against the general primacy enjoyed by the criterion of population) translated into a powerful voice for the Sikhs when it came to determining the future of Punjab. The harking back to the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh that had preceded British annexation of Punjab; the kirpan brandishing; the emphasis on the Sikhs’ commitment to the war effort; and the rallying together of ultra-loyalist elements within the princely class and among those that had earlier constituted the Khalsa National Party in order to present a united stand: all of these strategies were aimed at strengthening the Sikhs’ claim to greater prestige than their numbers appeared to justify.

Above all, it was the implication that the “highly virile” Sikhs would fearlessly resort to rebellion that pushed the British to accept the Sikh demand for the partition of Punjab as a necessary corollary of the decision to partition India. Given the overriding concern of the British to leave India in a condition orderly enough to not contradict their continuing claim to be a competent and global power, the threat of “counter-direct action” on their watch was a meaningful one, more so because of the particular characteristics of the Sikh faith. It was this vulnerability that Master Tara Singh so pointedly sought to leverage by reminding Pethick-Lawrence of the Sikhs’ ability to convince the British of their “genuine and acute anxiety” at the prospect of finding themselves stranded in a Muslim state.

The extent to which Sikh warnings of civil war preoccupied British thinking in the period leading up to the decision to partition India and Punjab is shown in the internal correspondences of the British. As early as August 1945 (ie, prior to the elections for the Legislative Assembly) Governor Bertrand Glancy, in a report to the Viceroy on the “fanatical” electoral campaign of the Muslim League, thus described Sikh sentiment: “non-Muslims, especially Sikhs are not bluffing, they will not submit peacefully to a Government that is labelled ‘Muhammadan Raj’.”

On taking over from Glancy, Governor Evan Jenkins provided, in his first report to the Viceroy, a special description of Sikh power: “The Sikhs, in particular, could adapt the techniques of their religious mass movements (in which the villagers join wholesale) to a political offensive.” The reference of course is to the long tradition amongst the Sikhs of forming ad-hoc groups, consisting of fighting-age Sikh men and known as jathas, for purposes that could be either purely spiritual or part-spiritual and part-military.

III.

Admittedly, Master Tara Singh was not able to obtain for the Sikhs what he believed to be the optimal constitutional solution: keeping Punjab united in a closely federated India. Yet, within the constraints that resulted from an in-principle decision, taken at the national level, to create Pakistan, he succeeded in forcing acceptance of the second-best solution: a division of Punjab along religious lines, too.

It bears mention that the whole of Bengal had similarly been grouped under Muslim-majority “Group C” by the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946. It was Master Tara Singh’s early and doughty resistance against the inclusion of the non-Muslim-majority areas of Punjab in Pakistan that prompted Hindu leaders like Shyama Prasad Mukherjee and N.C. Chatterjee to launch a complementary campaign demanding the partition of Bengal on religious lines. This camaraderie between Masterji and leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha would continue after independence. (This is discussed in the final section.)

As important as Master Tara Singh’s demand of partitioning Punjab was his untiring pressure campaign, once the first demand was accepted, on a number of sub-questions on how the boundary between East and West Punjab was to be drawn up. The first sub-question centred on what measure of numerical strength was to be adopted. This was contestable because three separate communities lived in Punjab. The Muslim League had initially claimed that all areas where Muslims formed the single-largest community should be given to Pakistan. Such was Sikh outrage at this idea that the British specifically stated in their declaration of 3rd June 1947 (which announced the partition of India) that the starting principle for the partition of Punjab would be that areas in which Muslims formed an actual majority, and not merely a plurality, were to go to Pakistan.

The second sub-question related to the geographical unit to be considered in ascertaining contiguous majority areas. The Muslim League had first asked for the province to be divided broadly along divisional lines: three divisions (Rawalpindi, Multan and Lahore) being Muslim-majority for Pakistan and two (Jalandhar and Ambala), having a majority of Hindus and Sikhs, for India. This would have meant present-day Amritsar, Tarn Taran, Gurdaspur and Pathankot districts, which used to be in Lahore Division, went to Pakistan.

In January 1946 (ie, much prior to when it became clear that partition was indeed to take place), Viceroy Wavell, in a letter to Pethick-Lawrence in which he had considered the idea of partitioning Punjab on divisional lines, had stated that what stood in the way of such a neat demarcation (from the perspective of the British) was the importance of Amritsar to the Sikhs. Again, it was the belligerence with which Master Tara Singh and his associates protested the idea of divisional boundaries as the basis of partition that it was dismissed out of hand by the British.

Later, in its submissions before the Boundary Commission, the Muslim League would claim that the relevant unit should be the tehsil, on the basis of which Muslim-majority contiguous territory could be said to extend deep into the Jalandhar and Hoshiarpur districts. It was also the basis of Pakistan’s more serious claim to Ajnala tehsil in Amritsar; Ferozepur and Zira tehsils in Ferozepur district; and all the tehsils in Gurdaspur district.

None of these claims would be accepted by Cyril Radcliffe. Instead, and most controversially, three out of four tehsils in Gurdaspur (including the strategically important Pathankot) were given to India. In addition, a substantial chunk of Muslim-majority Kasur tehsil of Lahore district was given to India. Compared with the “notional” boundaries that had been drawn up by the British in June 1947 for purposes of preliminary planning, the net gains for India were substantial.

Map of Punjab pre-partition (Wikimedia Commons).
Map of Punjab pre-partition (Wikimedia Commons).

These gains were directly linked to the success of Master Tara Singh’s stand on the third sub-question, namely whether the Viceroy’s declaration of 3rd June 1947 should be read in a way that reduced factors other than numerical majority to subsidiary status. The Sikhs had argued that ownership of economically productive assets and attachment to land and sacred sites should also be weighed commensurately.

It should be noted that in their emphasis on “other factors”, the Sikhs had, in the political sphere, fought a solitary battle: Jawaharlal Nehru, in a meeting with Mountbatten on 11th May 1947, abandoned the criterion of property ownership that the Sikhs had been insisting on even though senior members of the viceregal staff themselves agreed that “it will be most unfair to both Sikhs and Hindus if the division of the Punjab is made merely on the basis of the incidence of population by ignoring all other factors such as the relative share of the various communities in the national asset, their relative contribution to the prosperity of the province. …”

The Sikhs’ insistence on the parity of “other factors” could not support the rather expansive proposed boundary up till the Chenab River, but it provided a justification and momentum against the preponderance of numerical majority. The result was that on most of the truly contentious issues, so characterised by Radcliffe, he accepted the Hindu-Sikh point of view. (One must also make a mention of the erudition with which the lawyer Sardar Harnam Singh presented the Sikhs’ case before the Boundary Commission.)

There has been much speculation as to why the Boundary Award made the above determinations in favour of India, especially since Radcliffe himself provided little reasoning for them. Some insight is provided by the boundary earlier proposed by Viceroy Wavell in 1946 in the event of partition, which had included Gurdaspur district in India on the ground that if this was not done, Amritsar—which, as has been noted, he insisted would have to be given to the Sikhs—would be surrounded by Pakistan on three sides and its future defence thus compromised. (The presence of Gurdaspur district in India prevents Amritsar district from bulging out into Pakistani territory.) A similar consideration was voiced by Governor Jenkins in a report to the Viceroy on 15th June 1947, in which he stated that the Sikhs “were fairly well organised in the districts they thought critical, and it was quite likely they would refuse to go very far with Partition until they knew where the boundary would run.”

These comments illustrate the simple fact that the Sikhs under Master Tara Singh were the most vehement and well-organised party on the boundary question—as the only community wholly concentrated in Punjab, they had the most at stake. The importance of their opposition and of their militant posture, however, can be obscured if one were to look at the working of the Boundary Commission as a purely juristic process, a pretence that the British sought to keep up till the end. But the process of ascertaining the boundary was by definition political. The submissions of the parties, as well as the opinions of the judges, spanned questions of history, military strategy, economics and religion, and there existed no precedent or formal standards on the basis of which the rival claims were to be assessed.

The extent to which politics seeped through the decision-making process is best illustrated by the partisan nature of the non-binding opinions of the four Indian judges (two Muslims, and one Hindu and Sikh each). Justice Munir’s opinion, of which he devotes large sections to martial-themed Sikh historical sources, for example, resembles more a polemic than a judgment. There is no reason to believe that Cyril Radcliffe (whose decision was the only effective one) did not also have the political reality in mind when he decided to award parts of Muslim-majority Gurdaspur and Kasur to India; if he was initially unaware of the Sikhs’ unyielding belligerence, he would be served repeated reminders, both directly and through his consultations with British officials.

Ishtiaq Ahmed, a Pakistani author who has exhaustively researched the issue of the partition of Punjab, has suggested that “awarding the seven Muslim-majority tahsils to East Punjab was Radcliffe’s idea of fair play in meeting, in some substantial measure, the Sikh demand to be consolidated in East Punjab”. He goes on to state that such an “inference is plausible as the various public statements of the British government mention a consideration of the special status of the Sikhs.” Impressions of the Sikhs’ relative power, rather than abstract notions of fair play, are of course more likely to have influenced the British decision.

These successes, however, cannot make up for the fact that Partition marked a disaster for the Sikhs. Lakhs of Sikhs were murdered, raped and abducted; the Sikhs, being the most prosperous community throughout Punjab, also suffered the heaviest economic losses. It cannot be denied that Master Tara Singh pushed for a partition of the province despite knowing that no reasonable boundary could have prevented the large-scale displacement of Sikhs or immense losses of property and wealth on their part. Yet he asked the Sikhs to make these difficult sacrifices because he knew life in a country built on Muslim nationalism would result in the near-total destruction of the Sikh faith. In return, he did what he could to mitigate the losses of partition by delivering able and pragmatic leadership—leadership that has been vindicated by the direction Pakistan has taken in the past seventy-five years.

IV.

It is a grave injustice that Master Tara Singh’s firm opposition to Muslim rule over Punjab has been characterised by fellow Indians as irresponsible war-mongering. An article by A.G. Noorani in The Frontline magazine, for instance, makes the following gratuitous comment about Master Tara Singh’s role during this period: “Sikhs were led by a man devoid of sense, who was to make a mess of things even after independence.”

He is not alone in such criticism. Countless Punjabi Muslims, in interviews conducted by researchers, have cited Master Tara Singh’s kirpan brandishing in Lahore as setting in motion a chain of events that led to ethnic cleansing, perpetrated first by Muslims and later by members of all three communities. This was in fact the import of the submissions by the Muslim League’s counsel, Zafrulla Khan, before the Boundary Commission. It is perhaps difficult for those unfamiliar with the proud character of Punjabis—Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims—to understand the significance of this one act. The kirpan is a ceremonial sword carried by Sikh males (the right to carry which was and remains protected by law) as a symbol of their martial vigour, and the simple act of unsheathing it publicly was commonly understood under the largely agricultural mores of Punjabi society as throwing down a challenge to settle disputes by force.

One therefore cannot deny that Master Tara Singh’s bravado was designed to show intent, on behalf of all Sikhs, to commit violence in response to Muslim butchery. Viewed simplistically, and through the values of a society at peace, this posture is at least questionable—in most cases, an eye for an eye indeed leaves the world blind. Yet, on the eve of Partition, Punjab had ceased to be a society with normally functioning laws; it was a place where violent stasis reigned in all but name.

As has been noted in the earlier sections, the Muslim League had settled on bigotry, violence and intimidation as the principal instruments of its politics beginning the 1945-46 elections, ie long before Master Tara Singh’s counter-declarations of bellicosity. He was in fact the main force behind the coming together of Unionist Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs in a coalition that formed the provincial government in 1946. He also enjoyed relationships of mutual respect with nationalist Muslims in the Khaksar and Majlis-e-Ahrar movements. In other words, Master Tara Singh had, for a sustained period and in good faith, first attempted to protect Sikh interests through ordinary political means.

Those who criticise his later militant posture ignore the fact that it was the Muslim League that had precipitated, by its actions from the 1945-46 elections through March 1947, a situation where the Sikhs had to rely on their own force to protect their safety and future status. In March 1947, the Muslim League forced Unionist Muslims into resigning their ministries, thereby defeating the ideal of communal co-governance and exposing Hindus and Sikhs to the partisan actions of the overwhelmingly Muslim administration. (It should be remembered that this marked the final straw for Master Tara Singh.) It is also notable that the Muslim League had been running a concerted and barely-concealed campaign to arm its supporters since at least mid-1946.

This insecurity was compounded by the British announcement on 20th February 1947 that they would leave by June 1948 at the latest—a decision which Governor Jenkins had called a “breakdown decision” that invited the communities of Punjab “to make real war upon one another”. The authority of the colonial government would rapidly decline after this point; it would now become impossible for the resource- and manpower-stretched British to convince Indians that violence would be met either with serious prosecution or with heavy retaliation. The anarchical state of affairs would become unavoidable after the events in Rawalpindi and Multan in early March 1947.

Given the prevailing situation, the choice confronting Hindus and Sikhs was tragically clear: either place their safety and future in the hands of the Muslims or resort to measures of self-help. That Master Tara Singh’s choice of the latter was contrary to ordinary norms does not show a lack of responsibility; rather the strength of his leadership shines through more clearly because of it.

This is not to say that the Muslims bear the entire blame for the partition-era violence. Hindus and Sikhs would prove themselves capable of equally horrific acts, especially in the period after 15th August 1947. It is, however, invidious to suggest equivalence between the Muslim League’s hateful and supremacist campaign for Pakistan and the decisions taken by Master Tara Singh to defend Sikh interests against it.

The Shaheedi Dals constituted by Master Taster Singh and the Relief Committees of the RSS would play crucial roles in deterring attacks on Hindu-Sikh localities in the major cities of West Punjab; in Lahore, for instance, armed Hindu and Sikh civilians would fend off Muslim mobs, directed by District Magistrate Muhammad Ghani Cheema, for just long enough to enable the evacuation of most non-Muslims to India. There can be no doubt that had it not been for the decision to arm and mobilise Hindus and Sikhs, and for credible demonstrations of the ability to retaliate, the pogrom in Rawalpindi would have been reprised countless more times.

That the Hindus and Sikhs recognised that their only hope lay in self-help is shown by the contrasting receptions accorded to Gandhi and M.S. Golwalkar, the then sarsanghchalak of the RSS, on their visits to Punjab during this period. In July 1947, while passing through Lahore on train, Gandhi was met with a barrage of hostile sloganeering by Hindus and Sikhs assembled at the railway station, in scenes reminiscent of his reception in Karachi in the aftermath of Bhagat Singh’s execution in 1931. Conversely, when M.S. Golwalkar had travelled to Punjab a few months earlier, he had been welcomed in Lahore, Multan, Lyallpur and Sialkot by throngs of thousands of impassioned Hindus and Sikhs.

The rare hostility with which Gandhi was treated can be understood by the fact that his nominee for Prime Minister of the interim government, Jawaharlal Nehru, did precious little to remind the provincial administration of its duty to protect Hindus and Sikhs; Nehru, in fact, had consistently resisted calls for the evacuation of Hindus and Sikhs from Muslim-majority areas. Nor for that matter did Nehru, despite his much-vaunted rapport with the Viceroy, advise against Mountbatten’s last-ditch efforts to nudge the Sikhs into arriving at a compromise with Jinnah that would keep Punjab united. When, in May 1947 (ie, following a brief lull in the Muslim League’s violence against Sikhs and Hindus), Master Tara Singh, at the request of the Maharaja of Patiala, met Jinnah and Mountbatten in Delhi, he listened patiently but did not even pause to consider the rather generous terms being offered by Jinnah late in the day. There was, of course, no question of Mountbatten going over the head of Master Tara Singh on this question.

Certain historians, perhaps more out of an obedience to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty than out of respect for facts, have laboured to make the point that the Mountbatten-Nehru combination made crucial and intelligent decisions to secure the interests of India vis-à-vis those of Pakistan. It remains little mentioned in their histories that Mountbatten was, insofar as the Punjab is concerned, doing Jinnah’s bidding. Similar motivations have perhaps guided them to suppress Master Tara Singh’s sterling contributions to the unity of India and indeed to portray him as a menacing figure.

Nirmal Kaur is an ex-IPS officer who retired as Director-General (DG) of Police, Jharkhand. She currently lives in Delhi. Niyati Choudhary is an alumna of Jawaharlal Nehru University, who is currently working in Delhi.
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