Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
Imagine having less than 24 hours or less to move to a new country. A new country created by the redrawing of a border. Moreover, you must leave as soon as possible because if you remain your neighbours will kill you. To add to this trauma, you can expect attacks as you make your way. And finally, when you get to your new home don't expect a warm welcome. Nobody is ready to receive you, no NGO's or refugee agency is in situ awaiting an influx. You, your wife and kids are on their own.
That's what happened to 12 million people overnight on 14th to 15th August 1947. As British rule of India ended, the nations of Pakistan and India formed. A Muslim Pakistan, a Hindu and Sikh India. A new border announced by an indifferent British regime. This set off a human scramble of massive proportions with terrible consequences.
Madness erupted as sectarian violence exploded. By the time it was over an estimated 1.5 million men, women and children lay dying. Families who'd lived for centuries in peace with their neighbours faced untold horrors. Muslims attacked Hindus, - whilst gangs of Hindus did vice-versa. Trains transporting refugees attacked with wholesale slaughter. Mass suicides took place. Especially amongst women seeking to avoid rapes and forced conversions.
It remains a mystery that before partition people of all religions lived in peaceful coexistence. What also remains a mystery is how the British government could justify its actions. Partition came at short notice. There was no preparation, no contingency plans, no help available and no thought for the consequences.
Britain was a much-weakened nation at the close of World War II. Keen to divest itself of troublesome colonies, it looked for closure on its imperial commitments. Indian independence was a certainty, having been held in abeyance whilst the war was won. Thus the rush to get India off it hands was evident. Further, the new Labour government of Clement Attlee had no appetite for colonial endeavours. Attlee had supported Indian independence since the 1920s.
Yet the main player in this shocking episode was Lord Mountbatten. He announced his plan for partition in June 1947. A new border between India and Pakistan - as drawn up Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a London barrister - come into existence. These proposals meant millions of people were displaced at the sweep of a pen over a map.
Simmering tensions between the two new nascent countries rumbled on. Then ignited a wave of killing.
Louis Mountbatten allowed less than six months for an agreed plan on the partition. Then, he suddenly advanced everything. Next, he stepped back.
A study in 1951 suggested 2.23 million people went missing as a result of partition. Meanwhile, the movement of people continues to this day. Bouts of communal violence prompt a fresh wave of refugees.
Mountbatten must shoulder some blame for rushing the whole process. Independence was announced before actual partition. Thus, it was left to the new governments of Pakistan and India to deal with public order. Both had neither the resources nor the organisational ability to act. This ‘washing of hands' by the British meant a lack of any protection for communities under siege. Likewise, vulnerable refugees faced attack they fled. In effect, law and order broke down.
Mountbatten was stunningly complacent. He knew violence was certain. His response revealed a blatant disregard for the communities in his charge. “At least on this question I shall give you a complete assurance. I shall see to it that there is no bloodshed and riot. I am a soldier and not a civilian. Once partition is accepted in principle I shall issue orders to see that there is no communal disturbance anywhere in the country. If there should be the slightest agitation, I shall adopt the sternest measures to nip trouble in the bud.’ The man was incompetent, unfit for his role and a national disgrace. It remains baffling that he is held in any regard. That Prince Charles seeks to laud this man is revealing. That’s another subject altogether.
Fearful of a civil war, Mountbatten cut and ran. The reasons put forward for Mountbatten's actions are plausible, although hardly acceptable. It is evident his motivation was selfish British interests. Little thought or concern was given to the impact on the communities about to be uprooted. Even a cursory small risk assessment would have indicated terrible violence was coming. Yet, Mountbatten was either negligent or uncaring for the event he was about to start.
History will judge his actions. I doubt he will come through with flying colours.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.