How India’s top political leaders responded to the riots in 1947 – analysis
The violence that erupted in northeastern Delhi last week is a spooky echo of the past. The freedom of India in 1947 had a terrible price. From western Pakistan to eastern Punjab, the country burned with communal fires. From Narowal to Dera Baba Nanak, from Kasur to Ferozepur, from Bahawalpur to Bikaner, and from Mirpur Khas to Jodhpur, those who tried to escape were on the move: by train, by ox cart and on foot. In Bahawalpur, a battalion of state troops watched impassively as the Muslims in the main city began to raze the streets. In Delhi, reports of shootings, stabbings and fires began to seep into the department of origin.
Vice President Menon, then secretary of the state ministry, would remember that the skies over the independent capital of India turned red when the fires began to burn in the Old City. When traveling to Bahawalpur, one of Punjab’s bloodiest theaters of violence, to assess the situation in October 1947, Menon found streets full of bloody and decaying corpses that found it difficult to breathe, much less walk. “I have seen 1947,” former secretary of the Interior (and former private secretary of Jawaharlal Nehru), recalled HVR Iengar in 1968, “and if that was the first stage of any kind of revolution, then God help us all.”
History repeated itself last week, during the visit of the president of the United States, Donald Trump, to India. The Capital testified in horror of the worst community violence it has seen in more than four decades. With 47 dead, more than 350 wounded, and bodies still being removed from the labyrinth drains in the area, the riots have hurt the city in a way that many expected to forget. Most victims seem to be Muslim. The evidence of brutality and police apathy has been both dazzling and painful. However, it is the absence of leadership that has most betrayed the residents of Delhi.
As the country moved towards its freedom, history reminds the first leaders of India united for peace. In 1946, Mahatma Gandhi spent four tense months at Noakhali in Bengal (modern Bangladesh), the scene of terrible community violence. He heard heartbreaking stories of forced conversions, rapes and bloodshed, but his message was simple: avoid violence and forgive.
Nehru was the epitome of courage in the face of menacing mobs. He was known for breaking into the gap if he thought he could prevent the violence from exploding. From Roy Bucher to HVR Iengar to New York Times“Correspondent George Jones, there was no one who had not seen the prime minister of India accuse a hostile crowd, or demand that the mobs kill him first before seeing a drop of blood spilled in the name of religion.”
Politics did not matter in the face of bloodshed. As the murders extended until 1947, MA Jinnah demanded that Louis Mountbatten be ruthless to curb the disorder. “I don’t care if you shoot Muslims or not,” Jinnah said, “it has to be stopped.” They could have been on opposite sides of the political division, but Nehru and Jinnah instinctively recognized that blood could not be the first brushstroke on the canvases of their new countries.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the then Minister of the Interior, gave immediate orders. Partisan officials within his government had to be punished and the protesters had to be shot at sight. An emergency committee of Delhi was formed, with a dedicated team of officials and volunteers performing three main tasks: protecting the Muslims of Delhi; organize camps for terrorized Muslims who leave their homes in Delhi and neighboring areas; and establish camps for refugees arriving from western Pakistan. Patel personally went to the sanctuary of Nizamuddin Auliya, where he informed the police commissioner in charge that, under penalty of dismissal, nothing bad would happen inside or outside the sanctuary. The Interior Minister also toured disturbed areas, often defending himself against the swollen and angry crowd to beg for peace.
Menon was instrumental in presenting the rather creative idea of a Central Emergency Committee (CEC), responsible to the Cabinet, headed by Mountbatten. It was a welcome idea by both Patel and Nehru who, given Mountbatten’s undoubted experience in times of war, saw no shame in putting the country’s interests in hands more capable than theirs. The CEC worked on the crucial aspects of restoring law and order: help in the flow of refugees, distribute food, prevent the spread of epidemics and get rid of dead bodies. This was the kind of united leadership, bravery and empathy that remained markedly absent after last week’s violence in Delhi.
The Aam Aadmi Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party have been rightly criticized for their supine attitude during and after the violence, their total lack of compassion and non-existent relief efforts. Congress has been condemned for its late presence on the scene. It has been the citizens who have come together, regardless of their caste or creed, to do what their elected representatives should have been doing.
The leaders of yesteryear were quick to give comfort and faster to act in the interest of their country. They were brave under fire and united under pressure. Today’s leaders have much to learn from them.
Narayani Basu is the author of VP Menon: The Unsung Architect of Modern India. She is also Menon’s great-granddaughter
The opinions expressed are personal.