Jinnah & Mountbatten – A Fateful Encounter

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A. G. Noorani*

*The author is an eminent Indian scholar and expert on constitutional issues.

No two persons could have been more dissimilar than Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy and Governor-General of India. He realised soon after his arrival in India that Jinnah held the key to a settlement between the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League on the transfer of power to India. The Cabinet Mission’s Plan of 16 May 1946, envisaged a Union confined to defence, foreign affairs and communications, based on three Groups of Provinces – Sindh, Punjab, N.W.F.P and Balochistan in the West; Bengal and Assam in the East, with the rest as the third Group – was dead. It was wrecked several times over by M.K. Gandhi and the Congress.

On 6 December 1946 the British Government upheld the Leagues’ interpretation and warned that unless an agreement was reached it would not impose any constitution framed by the Constituent Assembly, set up under the Mission’s proposals, on any “unwilling parts” of the Country. Still, the Congress persisted in its stand and demanded, on 8 March 1947, a partition of Punjab and Bengal; by implication, of India. The Muslim League demanded on 31 January 1947 the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly (Vice the author’s, The Cabinet Mission and its Aftermath; in C.H. Phillips and Mary Doreen Wainwright (Eds) The Partition of India; George Allen and Unwin; 1970; pp. 104-116).

Mountbatten arrived in the Viceroy’s House on 22 March 1947. Within a short time he discovered that the Congress had not accepted the Cabinet Mission’s Plan and said as much to Vallabhbhai Patel on 16 May 1947.

He first met Jinnah on 5 April. Mountbatten’s ‘Report on the Last Viceroyalty’, which he submitted to the King, records the events from his perspective (Ed. Lionel Carter, Manohar; Delhi; 2003). He wrote: “I saw Mr. Jinnah first on 5th April. A few days before this I had been warned what to expect by the Nawab of Bhopal, whom I had seen on 24th March and who had telegraphed to me from Bombay saying that there was now no chance of Mr. Jinnah agreeing to any form of Union Government. : ‘But’, the Nawab added, “if His Majesty’s Government agrees to division and concedes Pakistan, I was agreeably surprised to find that Mr. Jinnah can be persuaded to remain with the Commonwealth!’.

“In complete contrast to Mahatma Gandhi’s charm and friendliness, Jinnah was, when he arrived, in a most frigid, haughty and disdainful frame of mind. He started off by saying that he had come to tell me exactly what he was prepared to accept. This was, in fact, what I wanted to know; because it was clear that this was the man who held the key to the whole situation. Indeed I had been careful to avoid discussions on the method of transferring power with leaders of Congress, apart from Mahatma Gandhi, before I saw Mr. Jinnah; for I felt that my position as an advocate of a united India would be strengthened if it was apparent that the views which I expressed were my own and did not arise from talks with Congress leaders. But at this first meeting I tried, as with Mahatma Gandhi, to confine myself to getting to know Mr. Jinnah, and to an attempt to strike up some sort of friendship or at least understanding with him.

“Our conversations continued on 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th April. Each of these took approximately the same form. He would express his regretful inability to yield to my efforts to persuade him to accept the Cabinet Mission’s Plan. He would say that he considered that the whole basis of this Plan was that it should be worked in a spirit of co-operation and mutual trust. In May 1946 there had been some prospect that this atmosphere might be created. Now, nearly a year later, the atmosphere, so far from improving, had taken a serious turn for the worse; and it was clear, he considered, that in no circumstances did Congress, whose leaders were continually shifting their ground, intend to work the Cabinet Mission’s Plan in accordance with either the spirit or the letter. India had now passed beyond the stage at which any such compromise solution could possibly work. He also said that he considered that the members of the Cabinet Mission had come out imbued with the wrong attitude; they had pleaded for agreement instead of laying down a solution. In this respect he considered my own position much stronger.

“Mr. Jinnah on each occasion would then call upon me to hand over power, as soon as possible, Province by Province; and to let the provinces themselves choose how they would form themselves into groups: those with a Muslim majority forming a new State.”

Yet, the Viceroy wasted much time in pursuing the impossible. He had no leverage with the Congress which refused to budge from its stand. The Plan could be worked only by partners; not adversaries. On 10 April, he mooted partition of Punjab and Bengal if India was to be partitioned. Documents in ‘The Transfer of Power,’ 1942-1947, published by the British Government (H.M.S.O, London), record that exercises on these lines had begun in Delhi as well as in London since 1945. In fact, this alternative was proposed to Jinnah by the Cabinet Mission in April 1946. That he was prepared to accept a loose federation rather than partition of the two provinces reveals a lot (A.G. Noorani; ‘Jinnah and Tilak’; Oxford University press, Karachi; p. 179).

The Reforms Commissioner H.V. Hodson’s account, based on the Mountbatten Papers, is very useful (‘The Great Divide’; Oxford University press, 1985). He showed deep insight when he wrote “There was, however, a deeper cause of their political incompatibility than differences of personal temperament or negotiating method. No course was ever more clearly determined by the aphorism that ‘politics are about power’ than Jinnah’s later career. To gain and hold power for himself, for the League and for the Muslims, was his sole and all-embracing object. When Mountbatten confronted him with the realistic choice between less power for a larger Pakistan and more power for a smaller one, they were, for once, really understanding each other. Often they seemed, in retrospect, to have been on different wave-lengths. For Mountbatten was not pursuing power: he was there to get rid of power. For him the exercise was one of diplomacy, of balance, of compromise; like a naval commander set to take part in a continental campaign, he was content to emerge victorious on the high seas but without an acre of conquered land. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the realist of the Congress High Command, for whom also politics were about power, once said of Mountbatten that he ‘would not govern’. Everything else in his responsibility was subordinated – with reason, in circumstances – to the transfer of power. This was inherently a short-term and self-terminating objective.

“But Jinnah’s objective was long-term and perpetual to seize from this moment of history, from these few months of opportunity, what might be a millennium of national identity for ninety million Indian Muslims. With such stakes a leader cannot afford magnanimity or compromises. A concession might prove a perpetual loss, suffered in exchange for an evanescent advantage.

“To the end, the underlying relationship between the two men was one of contest, even if it were professional contest not affecting personal respect, as between rival lawyers in a hard-fought suit. Mr. Jinnah’s warmest and most emotional display of friendship for Lord Mountbatten came, significantly, when the case was over and the verdict given, in Karachi on the eve of Pakistan’s independence. But the slow process of implementing the verdict, with all its consequences, estranged them once more.” A more perceptive account has yet to be written.

They could agree, of course, as they did on a United Bengal, which Mountbatten favoured. He sought Jinnah’s opinion on the subject on 26 April and was told “I should be delighted. What is the use of Bengal without Calcutta. They had much better remain united and independent. I am sure they would be on friendly terms with us” (‘Transfer of Power’; Vo. X; p.452).

Jinnah had nerves of steel: On 15 May Mountbatten “threateningly” suggested transfer of power to the Interim Government. Jinnah’s reply shook him. He could not prevent it, he said (TOP; Vol. X, p. 841). Mountbatten was shaken by this reaction which he found “rather disturbing”. Jinnah knew his strength. They ironed out their differences, all the same. In his broadcast on All India Radio on 3 June 1947, the day Mountbatten’s Partition Plan was announced, Jinnah paid him a warm tribute. “I must say that I feel the Viceroy has battled against various forces very bravely – and the impression that he has left on my mind is that he was actuated by the highest sense of fair play and impartiality, and it is up to us to make his task less difficult and help him, as far as lies in our power in order that he may fulfil his mission of the transfer of power to the peoples of India in a peaceful and orderly manner.” (TOP; Vol. XI; p. 98).

But differences simmered not far beneath in the days that followed. Jinnah took a dim view of the speed with which Mountbatten went about his task (Hudson; p. 226). They were accomplished conversationalists. At the Viceroy’s dinner on 6 April, Jinnah “stayed until well after midnight”. That was when “the ice was broken” (ibid.; p.225). Jinnah got on much better with the Viceroy’s Chief of Staff, Lord Ismay and came to rely on him.

Mountbatten was prepared even to amend the Cabinet Mission’s Plan. “The only difference between the schemes I was prepared to give him and … the Cabinet Mission plan was that under the Cabinet Mission Plan he was obliged to accept a small weak centre at Delhi controlling defence, communications and external affairs. I pointed out that these three might really be lumped together under the heading of general defence, and that I did not see how under the new scheme he could possibly avoid joining some organisation at the Centre to take care of general defence.”

On 19 April Mountbatten pleaded with Liaquat Ali Khan to accept the alternative he proposed. Liaquat Ali Khan said: “it was useless discussing it; the Muslim League had now a phobia towards the mere words ‘Cabinet Mission’. But what, asked the Viceroy, if he produced a Mountbatten Plan, very nearly the same in form and substance? This, thought Mr. Liaquat, would have a far better chance psychologically. Did he think, then, that the League would accept the Mission’s Groups B and C, with safeguards for the Sikhs, and with two separate Armies under their own Army headquarters, though under an overall Defence Headquarters? To this he replied: ‘Now you are beginning to talk. But with the central authority empowered to raise taxes for defence finance the Hindus would be given a crippling hold over the economy of the whole country.’ Lord Mountbatten then suggested that the groups might be assessed according to their respective populations and the size of the forces they maintained, and pay a contribution on that basis towards a Central Defence Fund for running the central activities, including joint technical schools for the Services.” (ibid.; p.242). It got nowhere.

Immediately after the Partition Plan of 3 June, Jinnah and Nehru disagreed on the future of the princely States; an issue which created differences between Jinnah and Mountbatten also. Nehru held that accession to one or the other Dominion was to be decided by the people; Jinnah retorted it was to be decided by the ruler. As we shall see, Mountbatten had a different conception. He wanted each State to join the Dominion which was contiguous and had the same religious composition. He was miffed when Jinnah wooed the Maharaja of Jodhpur (Hudson; pp. 379-389). Having lost East Punjab and West Bengal, Jinnah sought a third bloc of princely States.

Mountbatten was not pleased by Jinnah’s suggestion that he alone should occupy the seat of honour, as President of the Constituent Assembly, and not share it with Mountbatten when he arrived in Karachi on 14 August 1947. Mountbatten wrote to Jinnah directly on this matter on 6 August. It reads: “Dear Mr. Jinnah, My Military Secretary has been in touch with your Private Secretary concerning the form which the celebrations in Karachi on 14th August should take. I understand from my Military Secretary that your Private Secretary has proposed that in the Constituent Assembly, the President should occupy the seat of honour rather than the Governor-General.

“I am sure that there must be some misunderstanding since it is the invariable practice throughout the Commonwealth that, whenever a Governor-General visits any part of the territory in which he represents the King, his precedence is supreme. I must therefore go so far as to say that the proposal put forward by your Private Secretary would, if implemented, amount to discourtesy to the King, and establish an unfortunate precedent.

“I must make it absolutely clear that I am not writing this letter on a personal basis. My only object is to safeguard the position of the Governor-General as a representative of the King. I would be grateful if you could confirm that your Private Secretary has been acting under a misapprehension.” (Ed. Z. H. Zaidi, ‘Jinnah Papers’; First Series, Vol. IV; p. 272). No State interest was involved in this unfortunate episode.

But State interest was involved in the issue of a common Governor-General for both States. Here Jinnah was right. At the very outset when Mountbatten posed the question, Jinnah expressed his preference for two G.Gs. with a Crown Representative to supervise transfer of assets as “a supreme arbitrator”.

On 2 July Mountbatten hit the ceiling when Jinnah informed him that he had decided to be Pakistan’s G-G. A G.G. acts on the Cabinet’s advice. How could a common GG function at all? It inflicted a deep wound on Mountbatten’s enormous ego. He reported to the King that he had warned Jinnah that he might lose all of Pakistan.

That he influenced Sir Cyril Radcliffe to alter his boundary award on Punjab in India’s favour is well documented by H.M. Seervai in his excellent study, ‘Partition of India: Legend and Realty’; Oxford University Press; Karachi; pp. 149-150, 160); not to overlook disclosures by C. Beaumont, I.C.S. Secretary to the Radcliffe Commission on 24 February 1992 on Radcliffe altering the Punjab line by allotting Ferozepur and Zira to India. However, years earlier the truth was in ‘Reminiscence of an Engineer’ by Dr. Kanwar Sain was published by Young Asia Publications, New Delhi in 1978. It contains texts of document on the deal. Chapter 11 is entitled “Mountbatten Alters Punjab Boundary at Eleventh Hour”. Bikaner threatened to accede to Pakistan unless the Ferozepur Headworks and the Ganga Canal were assigned to India.

A major dispute arose over Junagadh to Pakistan. Both sides adopted positions contrary to their stands on Kashmir – in respect of the Instrument of Accession and the Communal factor. India asserted that India was divided on a religious basis. Pakistan retorted that the principle did not apply to the States (Zaidi [Ed] ‘Jinnah Papers’; Vol. VIII; p. 287). They stood on “different footing”. Jinnah wrote to Mountbatten on 25 September (p. 287). Mountbatten’s reply of 29 September took “strong exception to tone of message. Discourtesy neither resolves differences between governments nor is it compatible with established diplomatic usage”. (p. 306). Hudson reveals that India’s Cabinet had resolved to go to war but Mountbatten, assisted by V.P. Menon, got the decision reversed. A final decision was to be taken on 17 September.

On Kashmir, the records show that it was at Mountbatten’s insistance that: (a) the condition of a plebiscite was imposed and (b) the dispute was referred to the UN’s Security Council (Vide Prem Shankar Jha; The origins of a Dispute; oxford University Press, 2003. Minutes of the Defence Committee of the Cabinet on 25 and 26 October; pp. 197-213). He said “accession would not be considered until there was an opportunity to find out the popular will”. Till then it would be a “temporary accession” (p. 203).

Mountbatten met Jinnah at Government House in Lahore on 1 November and presented this formula: ‘The Governments of India and Pakistan agree that, where the ruler of a State does not belong to the community to which the majority of his subjects belong, and where the State has not acceded to that Dominion whose majority community is the same as the State’s, the question of whether the State should finally accede to one or the other of the Dominions should in all cases be decided by an impartial reference to the will of the people.’

“SUGGESTED PROPOSALS TO PAKISTAN GOVERNMENT TO FORM THE BASIS OF DISCUSSION: 1. It is of paramount importance, not only to the Government of India, Pakistan and Kashmir, but also to the cause of world peace, that the fighting in Kashmir should cease at the earliest possible moment. 2. The best, if not the only, hope of achieving this object is a very early meeting between accredited representatives of the two countries. 3. The Government of India, for their part, have no desire to maintain troops in Kashmir, once the valley is safe from attack and law and order have been restored. They are therefore prepared to give an undertaking to withdraw their troops immediately (after) the raiders have left the country and returned to their homes. 4. It is the sincere desire of the Government of India that a plebiscite should be held in Kashmir at the earliest possible date and in the fairest possible way. They suggest that UNO might be asked to provide supervisors for this plebiscite, and they are prepared to agree that a joint India-Pakistan force should hold the ring while the plebiscite is being held. 5. The Government of India suggest that both Governments should agree on the form of the public announcement to be made in regard to the procedure for accession of those States in which this matter is in dispute. A draft is attached as a basis of discussion. (See formula above) 6. They suggest that the above proposals should be the subject of a round-table discussion at the earliest possible date.” (Durga Das; ‘Sardar Patel’s Correspondence’; Vol.1; pp. 81 and 93).

Jinnah rejected them, insisting that Hyderabad be excluded. Nehru knew that militarily he held the upper hand and was resolved on a military solution. It drew a strong protest from Mountbatten on 26 December. It bears quotation in extenso because it is not widely known or available. “I have come to the conclusion that it is my duty, not only as Governor-General from the political aspect, but also as a war time commander from the military aspect, to restate my views on the Kashmir question in some detail. In so doing believe me I have nothing but the good of India at heart. As the Government knows I am most seriously perturbed in my mind on the question of where the present situation is going to lead us, and how it is going to affect the whole future of this country.

“In this connection may I quote the records showing what my views were at the time? (They have not changed). This is an extract from the minutes of a Defence Committee meeting held on 4th November. ‘The Governor-General drew attention to the risk which was inherent in Indian troops entering in predominately Muslim area for liberation purposes. Such an area was likely to include both hostile persons and friends, including members of the National Conference. It was impossible to distinguish between the two and unfortunate incidents were likely to occur. In his opinion the sooner a solution was found to stop the fighting the better it would be. He remained with the view that representatives of the Government of India and Pakistan should get together at the earliest possible moment to discuss ways and means of stopping the fighting.

“During my absence in London this object changed. It then evidently became the purpose of the Government of India to attempt to impose their military will on the Poonch and Mirpur areas. No one can say for certain what proportion of the hostile element in the Poonch areas consists of persons who have come in from outside the State, and what proportion represents the local inhabitants. But I think that none will deny that the latter are in large majority. I agree with you that it would be morally unjustifiable to try by force of arms to inflict our will on a predominantly Muslim population and I know that you feel that the plebiscite will ultimately settle the issue. But in the meanwhile how can we escape the charge of using military force against people who do not want to link their fortune with India.

“When I first suggested bringing U.N.O. into this dispute, it was in order to achieve the object I have quoted above – to stop the fighting and to stop it as soon as possible. What has happened since then has only served to reinforce my views and to increase the urgency.

“If you do not agree – and it is you not I who must decide the policy of the Government of India with what I have written and the steps which I have suggested, I must put it to you that you owe it to me as your Governor General to tell me and to inform me what your long-term policy in regard to the future of this country and Kashmir is.

“You will forgive me I know for writing you so long a letter over Christmas. You may take it as an indication of my unhappiness at the way events are moving.”

In an interview to Larry Collins and Dominique Lappiere, authors of ‘Freedom at Midnight’, Mountbatten said that he had told Maharaja Hari Singh ‘I think you might be wise to accede (to Pakistan) because the majority of your people are Muslims’. I wanted Kashmir to accede to Pakistan. … Radcliffe let us in for an awful lot of trouble by making it possible for them to accede to India” (‘Mountbatten and Independent India’; Vikas; pp. 39 and 43). The book was published in 1984.

In 2011 appeared a book by an admirer of Hari Singh which contains the full text of his long complaint to President Rajendra Prasad in August 1952 from Poone where Hari Singh prepaired for the races. He wrote: “The impression which I gathered from my talks with Lord Mountbatten who explained the situation with plans and maps was that, in his opinion, it was advisable for me to accede to Pakistan. … In August 1947 Lord Mountbatten gave me the impression that I should accede to Pakistan.” (Harbans Singh, Maharaja Hari Singh, Brahaspati Publications, New Delhi; pp. 298 and 322).

In this, V.P. Menon concurred with him because he was a wise man. Mountbatten was just being sensible and alert to British interests. He wanted no war between India and Pakistan and prevented it twice in September and December 1947. In both countries people nurse simplistic notions of a complex personality.