Path to Partition: A witness’ account


A perceptive commentary on the political processes that led to the partition of India.

IN the entire corpus of American writings on India, this book stands out in all its uniqueness. Journalists have contributed reportage and scholars have written studies after research in India; both, for publication. Phillips Talbot wrote letters which were not intended for publication. He came to India having learnt Urdu which enabled him to move freely without an interpreter. He met Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru, Patel, Liaquat Ali Khan and others. He was present when the Vicero y Lord Mountbatten addressed Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly on August 14, 1947, and rushed in time to be present at the midnight session of India’s Constituent Assembly on August 14-15, 1947.

What is more, he watched closely as the last opportunities of seeing India’s unity were frittered away, saw the bitter aftermath of Partition, noticed the nuances of the Kashmir dispute, and made observations of enduring relevance, comments that have stood the test of time.

The career itself was unique. After an impressive academic record, he became a local reporter for the Chicago Daily News. He was interested in world affairs, but the editors thought he was too young to be sent out as a foreign correspondent. A small New York foundation, the Institute of Current World Affairs, offered to send him to India on a fellowship. His letters to its director, William S. Rogers, comprise the bulk of the book. He was 23 then. A year at the London School of Oriental Studies (now of Oriental and African Studies) in the company of probationers of the Indian Civil Service, and lessons in Urdu, equipped him well. His first two years in India (1939-41) were spent at the Aligarh Muslim University, a Vedic ashram in Lahore, Tagore’s Shantiniketan, the Kodaikanal Ashram and Gandhi’s ashram in Sevagram. A stint at Manila with the United States Navy, and he was back in India as U.S. Naval Liaison Officer in Bombay (now Mumbai) for two years. In 1946, the Chicago Daily News made him a foreign correspondent and sent him back to India.

The University of Chicago awarded him a doctorate in International Affairs. He came back to spend a year at a time in India and Pakistan, where he wrote reports for the American Universities Field Staff. President Kennedy appointed him Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. That he earned the megalomaniac Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith’s wrath is a plus point. He became president of the Asia Society, of which he is now President Emeritus. The volume concludes with an afterword on India-U.S. relations now.

There are delightful vignettes on cultural life, on the Indian temperament, on the ways of politicians and their interactions with crowds. A letter from Aligarh on January 23, 1940, describes vividly a mushaira (Urdu poets’ conclave): “When that poet comes who can carry the crowd, the one whose voice is good and whose couplets are exciting, he is rewarded by almost breathless attention unsullied by sophisticated detachment. When he scores a touché, a deep rumble originates in the back of the room and rolls majestically forward. ‘Vah, vah’, the tribute greets him ‘bahut khub, bahut khub’, superb, superb. On feeling, more than hearing, the admiration expressed in these vibrations the pleased singer makes a sign of thanks, and moves forward into the next couplet.

“On this night younger student poets recited first. They are amateurs who have found beauties in the Urdu language and who have attempted to do much with them. Hardly any, though, received a hearing. After them came some hands more adept at the craft, and then two or three poets – Jigar and Ravish Siddiqi – whose names are known across India. The minstrel Jigar, whose former propensity for drink has been tamed by tea and coffee, cuts an arresting figure with his hair dropping to curls at his shoulders and his loose, untidy dress. On the platform he gulped down four cups of tea during one recitation. It was such experts as he who kept the interest, until 1 a.m. of 600 students who rise and pray before sunup.” Jigar was a legend in his lifetime.

There are perceptive profiles of leaders. Both Nehru and Gandhi took a liking for Talbot. He met Nehru in late 1939 at a United Provinces Congress Committee (UPCC) conference in Mathura. “During my stay in the camp Nehru spent upwards of three hours explaining to me his view of Indian problems. He is a thorough-going socialist, though he unhesitatingly follows Gandhi in some most unsocialistic channels.

Though a nationalist and sturdily opposed to the British government despite his Harrow and Cambridge education, he puts India in an international setting and describes its situation as one aspect of a world imperialist issue. He views America and Asia rather than Europe as the continents of the future. In some of his speeches he tells his peasant audience that ‘In our battle for freedom the democratic sentiment of the United States of America is with us.’ … Nehru lays the cause of communal strife at the door of economics (in accordance with his belief in the Marxist view of history). The Musalmans’ political organisation, he holds, is encouraged by ‘foreign’ interests and is financed by the taluqdar, or landholding, class, a very important element in the Muslim community. It stands to lose from the advance of Congress doctrinology, with its ‘End the feudal system in India!’

Therefore it may benefit through retention of power by the chief Congress opponent: the British government. But a pro-imperialism stand would be political suicide under popular government in India. Instead, the religious aspect of communalism is plumped for.”

This preposterously shallow theory governed Nehru’s disastrous policy towards the Muslim League. “So Nehru foresees that the communal problem as such will fade if India is left to settle the matter herself and if economic factors come to the fore, causing groups to unite or divide on the basis of bread-and-butter interests rather than according to religious creed.”

All of which shows how little Nehru understood India and the communal question which tore it apart. His arrogance and ignorance contributed not a little to the tragedy. During the First World War, socialists were dismayed to find the working class as nationalistic as any other in place of the solidarity which theoreticians accepted. Sixty years after Independence we face not only the communal question but also caste divisions.

“His philosophy of social and economic reorganisation has been the driving force of his political crusade, but it clashes with Gandhi’s economic concepts. Recognising that any move away from Gandhi would serve to split the nationalist movement seriously, Nehru has fought between his beliefs and his loyalties. He was heard to say, in 1940, ‘I could not write the Autobiography now. I am not sure enough of my ideas any more.’ One leftist labourite European expressed the opinion that Nehru was showing symptoms of schizophrenia.” Once in power, Nehru came to value “stability” (his word) over everything else. In 1947, Nehru imagined that “India as she is situated geographically and situated economically inevitably will become the centre of Asia”. It has not, partly because of his policies.

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