“The resignation of the Tiwana government has set light to the tinderbox that is Panjab.” Vallabh gazed at the reports on his desk. “The Muslim League’s agitations have paid off, but at what cost? Governor Jenkins was unwise to ask the Khan of Mamdot to form a government. A clear signal to the Hindus and Sikhs that the days of coalition are over...”
“Master Tara Singh sees it as the return of Muslim tyranny,” Vidya Shankar added. “As you see, Sardar, he’s called for the formation of Akali Fauj – ”
Vallabh raised his furrowed brow to gaze at his personal secretary. “The private armies already exist – Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, all have been raising them for a while now. But the Master brandishing his kirpan on the steps of the Panjab Legislative Assembly is like waving a red flag before an enraged bull ...’ He read aloud from one of the papers on his desk. ‘“Kat ke denge apni jaan, magar na denge Pakistan.” Do or die. It’s an ultimatum. Which the Muslim extremists will answer.’
“Sardar, now that Governor Jenkins has assumed direct charge, perhaps things will calm down?”
“One can hope, Shankar, but Panjab’s unity is dead.” Vallabh squared his jaw. “Get me VP Menon.”
“The Raj’s reforms commissioner?’”
Vallabh nodded. “Tell him, it’s urgent.”
Vidya Shankar appeared to hesitate. “Sardar, may I speak freely?” At the home minister’s nod, he continued. “Mr Menon has the Viceroy’s ear. And Lord Wavell’s sympathies, as we know, lie with the Muslim League.”
Vallabh did not speak. Upon appointment as the home minister in the interim government, he had realised the need for a private secretary. Morarji Desai had suggested the name of Vidya Shankar. Vallabh had grilled the young Indian Civil Service (ICS) officer for an hour and a half, assisted by Manibehn. Shankar was efficient, organised, quick on the uptake and, as Vallabh was learning, loyal.
“Aurangzeb or Clive?” Vallabh asked.
Vidya Shankar started.
“That was the choice I was given when I took office as the home minister in the new twelve-member Constituent Assembly. Whether to live on Aurangzeb Road or Clive Road? Between the two conquerors, do I choose the old Mughal or the new English?” Vallabh snorted.
“In the end, it was the house itself that settled the question. Manibehn figured the rooms – entrance foyer, bed, living, this office – would serve well. The government provides a gardener, a couple of servants to help Mani run the house, and a guard, yes, in civilian clothes to man the gate. See him there?” He pointed to the window which overlooked the garden and the gate beyond. “It provides employment for one man – though I doubt the household or I need protection. It is India that has to be secured.”
Vallabh looked intently at Vidya Shankar.
“My new role has brought me new associates, Shankar, both English and Indian – many of whom were responsible for sending us Congressmen to jail. Now, those men are my subordinates. They have to work for me and I have to make them follow my orders. I cannot let our past history or rancour come in the way. There is only one goal; that of building a free India.”
Vallabh paused, a faint twinkle in his eye. He then nodded towards Vidya Shankar. “To address your specific concern. It is precisely because Menon has access to the Viceroy that he has a superior understanding of the Raj’s intentions. As for his sympathies... Well, they match yours.”
As she served him a simple lunch of dal, vegetables, and rice, Manibehn updated her father. “You have an appointment with VP Menon for 2.30 pm. Perhaps a nap after lunch to – ”
“Panjab is in flames, Mani. Reports, phone calls, telegrams are coming in by the hour as the situation deteriorates. See for yourself.” With his left hand, he pushed a sheaf of papers for her to read.
Manibehn glanced at the top sheet. “Lahore silk market set ablaze”. Then sifted through a few more.
“Amritsar becomes an inferno”.
“Gangs roaming streets with knives, lances and lathis in their hands”.
She looked away. Refilling her father’s glass of water, she sat down.
Vallabh pushed his plate away, right hand atop. He had eaten less than half his usual lunch. “Not just Lahore and Amritsar, the madness has spread to all major cities of Panjab. Rawalpindi, Jullunder, Sialkot, Multan...The League has been spoiling for war for too long. They refused to accept Jawaharlal as the Cabinet leader in the interim government, openly proclaiming they were in only to get a foothold to fight for their cherished goal of Pakistan. They agitated against Tiwana’s government because they do not believe in coalition building and now...” Vallabh swallowed hard, “now we have civil war on our hands!”
Manibehn sat back in her chair. Her years of sitting in on her father’s political meetings, taking notes, getting acquainted with Congressmen, had given her an unparalleled political education. As she smoothed the cover of the dining table with one hand, she said, “Attlee’s statement of 20 February has meant one thing only to the League: partition. Even Bapu said that the wording was ambiguous enough that it could lead to the demand for Pakistan from those provinces that wanted it.”
Outside the room, the usual bustle of the home minister’s home office was amplified by the telephone ringing non-stop. To avoid adding to the din, Manibehn had instructed the cook not to use the pressure cooker in the kitchen. However, it seemed as though the birds too had followed her instruction. Birdsong, that usually floated from the open windows through the day, was missing. As if the mynahs and sparrows too were stunned by the gathering storm.
She cleared her throat. “So, are we looking at a divided India?”
Pushing his chair back, Vallabh arose. His face did not give anything away, but there was a stillness in her father’s piercing eyes that Manibehn had seen before. She was just four years old when Mother had passed away, and she had heard of that incident when Father got the news as he was cross-examining a witness in a courtroom in Anand.
Apparently, he read the telegram that was handed to him, put it in his pocket, and continued. In the end, the witness broke down. Only later did Father inform others of the contents of the telegram: the announcement of his wife’s death. Manibehn imagined that when he read the telegram, her father’s eyes had that same peculiar stillness she had just witnessed.
“Jinnah’s mad dream might be coming true,” Vallabh said as he walked back to his study.
Excerpted with permission from Lahore: Book 1 of The Partition Trilogy, Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, HerperCollins India.
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