It was in fear and trembling that the Hindus and Sikhs of West Punjab and the Muslims of East Punjab opened their eyes on the morning of August 15. Some of them were dead before freedom’s opening day was over; around 200,000 would be killed before year-end. By the middle of 1948, about five and a half million non-Muslims would move to India from West Pakistan and roughly the same number of Muslims from India to West Pakistan.
Recognising a bitter reality ahead of everyone else, Patel said on August 16 – when Liaqat, Pakistan’s first Premier, came to Delhi for a conference with Nehru, Patel, and Mountbatten – that “the only solution to the Punjab award was a transfer of population on a large scale”. Kripalani had foreseen “no need for migration”: he calculated that, mindful of repercussions in India, Pakistan would protect its minorities.
Violence had escalated since then, yet Liaqat maintained at the August 16 meeting that he would “stand up for the rights of the Sikhs in West Punjab”; neither he nor Nehru nor Mountbatten took up Vallabhbhai’s suggestion. However, after twenty-five days and several thousand more deaths, the Government of India decided that “priority should be given to the transfer of refugees rather than the maintenance of law and order”. A month later India and Pakistan formally agreed that East and West Punjab should exchange their minorities.
By this time the Great Migration had already taken place. On September 21, Patel and Manibehn had seen, from a plane, “refugee on the roofs of trains; lines, more than a mile long, of people and bullock-carts moving from east to west and west to east; and camps”. It is not certain that the mass exchange could have been peacefully implemented when Vallabhbhai first proposed it. Not only were the minorities reluctant, in the middle of August, to forsake their roots for a life elsewhere, there was neither the climate nor a machinery for shepherding them to the border and across it.
In both Punjabs, the route to safety was dominated by a hostile majority, and the only neutral military force available, the PBF, was hopelessly overstretched. Moreover, every Muslim official in East Punjab and every non-Muslim official in West Punjab was suddenly transferred from the ranks of helpers to those of the utterly helpless. His first concern was to move with his family to the other side, not to escort others. A fair part of the machinery of government had thus collapsed, and the rest had become fiercely partisan. A smooth exchange of minorities was a solution for happier times. The exodus took place nonetheless. En route to safety, thousands were slaughtered when their trains or convoys were attacked.
The evil that entered the subcontinent’s bloodstream in 1947, turning neighbours into killers, also affected relationships between colleagues, making them less considerate and more touchy.
When, on September 1, Patel, anxious about Hindus and Sikhs awaiting evacuation from West Punjab, asked Matthai to depute to Lahore a senior railway officer armed with the power to commandeer trains, Matthai sent a rude reply. The railway Minister’s outburst was linked in part to Vallabhbhai’s choice of words – the Sardar had conveyed an order rather than a request – and in another part to Matthai’s reluctance to delegate his authority, but it was also influenced by an account Matthai had received of the murder, before the eyes of inactive policemen, of fifty Muslims on a train from Kalka to Delhi.
As Home Minister, replied Matthai, Patel should apply his mind to “preventing railway staff and passengers from being murdered”. Implying that it was the Sardar’s fault that hooligans were attacking trains in East Punjab, Matthai was also suggesting that the fault invalidated Patel’s plea for help in rescuing West Punjab’s Hindus and Sikhs. Since Vallabhbhai had been careless with him, Matthai would be graceless in reply, and also uncharitable and hardhearted. Such was the spirit of 1947.
No human heart could react with equal anguish to every cruelty of 1947 – neither Patel’s nor Jawaharlal’s nor Azad’s. Vallabhbhai’s was a Hindu heart. He was, unquestionably, roused more by a report of fifty Hindu or Sikh deaths than by another of fifty Muslim deaths. But his hand was just. Patel agonised over Hindu and Sikh suffering but punished Hindu and Sikh offenders, a sense of duty rather than his heart governing the Home Minister’s hand.
Yet suspicion and bitterness had fouled the air of 1947, and while Vallabhbhai’s frank tongue revealed his Hinduness, many an observer failed to see Patel’s effort to enforce the law, or his anxiety to save Muslim lives.
Sucheta Kripalani would, however, recall the “severe scolding” she received from the Sardar for releasing to the Press a report of horrors in Rawalpindi on Hindus and Sikhs. Before administering the rebuke, Vallabhbhai had ensured the suppression of the explosive report. “His searching eyes,” says Sucheta, “were looking out for anything that may aggravate an already difficult situation, [and] his firm hand guided us.”
On September 2, when Nehru was in Lahore to explore a joint Indo-Pak response to the communal madness, Patel sent him a letter by courier:
“From morning till night my time is fully occupied with the tales of woe and atrocities which reach me through Hindu and Sikh refugees from all over West Pakistan...These accounts are also being spread by word of mouth...You know the mass psychology. People are openly clamouring as to why Muslims are allowed to go about in peace openly in Delhi and other towns, why there are any Muslims at all in the police and the civil administration.
I am writing all this not in any extenuation of the folly of this attitude of mind, but only to make you acquainted with the temper of the people here. A goods train carrying baggage for the Pakistan government was burnt at Bahadurgarh. Attacks have taken place on Muslims walking on the road, going on cycles or in trains.
If things do not settle down quickly in West Punjab, the situation here and in other places may become beyond control...The Pakistan government should be asked to put down lawlessness and disturbances with a strong hand.”
On his part Nehru sent word to Vallabhbhai that his joint tours with Liaqat on both sides of the border “have done much good” and that “everywhere Liaqat Ali and Nishtar have delivered strong and good speeches”. In a public statement, Nehru emphasised that “the various governments” – two national and two in Punjab – “are acting in a spirit of cooperation in putting down lawlessness everywhere”.
Nehru acknowledged what the leaders of Pakistan were doing; Patel warned of the consequences of their not doing enough.
Nehru recognised the goodwill in Liaqat and Nishtar, Vallabhbhai the anger in the refugees from West Pakistan. Nehru’s was “the voice of charity”, Patel’s the note of reality. Each was right, each incomplete.
“Who could have thought,” Gandhi had written to Vallabhbhai on August 30, “that you would have to face an ordeal like this so soon! May god give you the necessary strength and wisdom.” On August 31, Patel went to Jullunder in a bid to protect and evacuate East Punjab’s Muslims. “Both on my onward and return journeys,” he wrote the next day to Nehru, “I saw several villages on this side of the Sutlej in flames”; he admitted the “savagery and atrocities” in East Punjab as well. Three days later Patel flew to Lahore where he, Nehru, Jinnah and Liaqat looked together at the evidence of the subcontinent’s hates. It was not a proud moment for the leaders of liberation.
Gandhi, meanwhile, had been sharing a roof with Suhrawardy in one of Calcutta’s crowded and riot-prone localities. Vallabhbhai rebuked him for living in “a ruffians’ den” and for choosing Suhrawardy’s company. Yet a contrast to Punjab was provided by Calcutta, with a huge crowd of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs attending a prayer meeting that Gandhi called on August 18. However, violence started at the end of the month, provoking a fast by Gandhi that began on September 2, the day before Patel’s trip to Lahore.
On the fast’s fourth day the 500-strong police force of North Calcutta, including British and Anglo-Indian officers, started a 24-hour sympathetic fast while remaining on duty. Peace returned, and on the night of September 5 Gandhi broke his fast by sipping juice from a glass handed to him by Suhrawardy.
That day Delhi caught Punjab’s infection. “I will not tolerate Delhi becoming another Lahore,” Vallabhbhai declared in Nehru’s and Mountbatten’s presence.
He publicly threatened partisan officials with punishment, and at his instructions orders to shoot rioters at sight were issued on September 7. Four Hindu rioters were shot dead at the railway station in Old Delhi.
Gandhi arrived in Delhi on the morning of September 9. Despite Patel’s word to him that “you will not be able to put out the conflagration in Punjab”, Gandhi had hoped to visit Punjab, but the Delhi disturbances detained him. The grim face of Vallabhbhai, who received him at Shahdara station, surprised Gandhi, as did the realisation that he was being motored to Birla House: Bhangi Colony had been occupied by refugees from West Punjab.
In the car a downcast Patel gave the Mahatma the facts of Delhi’s lawlessness. Later that evening, when Menon and HM Patel were conferring with Vallabhbhai at 1 Aurangzeb Road, a man rushed in to say that a Muslim had been butchered close to the house. In a voice charged with the deepest anguish – Menon has recorded – the Sardar exclaimed: “What is the point in waiting and discussing here? Why don’t you get on with the business and do something?”
Next morning a Delhi Emergency Committee was formed, with HM Patel as its driving force and vice-chairman and CH Bhabha as chairman. Two young and able officials, LK Jha and KB Lall, joined the DEC as secretaries; and a dedicated team of officials and volunteers, men and women from several communities, took on three major tasks: protecting Delhi’s Muslims; organising camps for frightened Muslims leaving their homes in Delhi and the neighbouring areas; and setting up camps for devastated Sikhs and Hindus arriving in the capital from West Pakistan.
Vallabhbhai’s own exertions continued. He supported and guided the DEC, calling frequently at its headquarters in Old Delhi’s Town Hall. He toured the disturbed areas. He had four key officials reporting to him several times a day: Khurshid Ahmed Khan, Delhi’s Muslim Chief Commissioner, MS Randhawa, the Sikh Deputy Commissioner, Banerjee, the Home Secretary, and Sanjeevi, the intelligence chief. He kept himself in steady and frank touch with Master Tara Singh, whose attitude was crucial in view of the Sikhs’ thirst for revenge against Muslims, and in constant contact with army officers and Defence Minister Baldev Singh.
On September 13 the Mahatma referred to the weight on Patel’s spirits.
“The Sardar always used to walk with his head high,” he said, “but I tell you today he walks with his head bent.” Yet the battle against lawlessness was being won. Its character forever altered – a large segment of the capital’s Muslim population had gone or was going and vast numbers of Punjabis, Hindus and Sikhs, had come in – Delhi slowly limped back to peace.
Realising that Mountbatten’s experience of wartime emergencies would be of value, Vallabhbhai and Nehru asked him to head a Central Emergency Committee responsible to the Cabinet. This unusual and even unconstitutional proposal originated, it would seem, in Menon’s mind. Patel agreed with it when Menon put it to him; so did Nehru; and Mountbatten acceded to the joint plea of the PM and the Deputy PM.
The CEC did enormously useful work at a critical time, assisting with the flows of refugees, the movement of food, the disposal of corpses, the prevention of epidemics and other needs, but the admiral was guilty of gross and unbecoming, but not alas untypical, exaggeration when he claimed in later years that “Nehru and Patel asked him, in so many words, to take over the country”.
Some Sikh and Rajput soldiers attacked Muslims in Delhi instead of protecting them. “We have lost control over our own soldiers,” Vallabhbhai said to Devadas Gandhi. And he had the Madras regiment replace some units of the Sikh and Rajput regiments. Shankar has given an account of Patel’s anxiety for the Dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya in south Delhi:
“Threats had been held out against the safety of the shrine. There was a state of panic among the hundreds of men, women and children who resided in the vicinity of the Dargah or had flocked to its safety. The Sardar wrapped his shawl round his neck and said, ‘Let us go to the saint before we incur his displeasure.’ We arrived there unobtrusively.
Sardar spent a good forty-five minutes in the precincts, went round the holy shrine in an attitude of veneration, made enquiries here and there of the inmates, and told the Police Officer of the area, on pain of dismissal, that he would hold him responsible if anything untoward happened.
However, Vallabhbhai was not going to tolerate Muslim misbehaviour or give up his no-nonsense attitude. Shots from a building under Muslim control whizzed past him on September 13 when, during a tour of the city, he stopped outside the Faiz Bazar police station. Told by a police officer that it was impossible to silence the snipers without blowing up the building, he merely said, ‘Blow it up’.”
A report reached Patel at the end of September that Sikhs in Amritsar intended to block and attack Muslim convoys that were about to trek past the city on their way to Pakistan. Apart from his responsibility, as India’s Home Minister, for the Muslims’ safe passage, Vallabhbhai was aware that on the other side of the border caravans of Hindus and Sikhs were making their way towards India. Blocking the Muslim convoys could have only one result. Deciding on his own to make a dash to Amritsar, Patel spoke there, on September 30, to Sikh leaders and Jathedars. Anger had blinded them to the link between the Muslims’ safety and that of the India-bound Sikhs and Hindus. Vallabhbhai urged the Sikhs to see the link and appealed to their sense of honour:
“I think it is in keeping with your dignity, reputation for valour and self-respect that you should raise a volunteer force which will [protect] these refugees.” And he made a practical proposal: “Break the vicious circle of attacks and retaliation at least for a week.” If the Pakistanis did not respond satisfactorily, India would take them to task. Finally, he held out a vision: “You (the Sikhs) can create in East Punjab the garden which you created in West Punjab by your efforts.” His points going home, the Sikh leaders “pledged to hold themselves responsible for the safety of the big Muslim caravan which was to pass Amritsar in a few days”.
A relieved Vallabhbhai was on his way to the airfield when thousands of refugees from West Punjab surrounded his jeep and demanded that he address them.
Seeing “blood in the eyes of the refugees”, Shankar suggested “that he might say that he would have to leave the airport before dark”, but Patel had chosen to face the crowd. Soon it swelled – to one-and-a-half to two lakhs, Manibehn, who was accompanying her father thought. To it Vallabhbhai made one of the greatest speeches of his life:
“Here, in this very same city, the blood of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims mingled in the bloodbath of Jallianwala Bagh. I am grieved to think that things have come to such a pass that no Muslim can go about in Amritsar and no Hindu or Sikh can even think of living in Lahore.
The butchery of innocent and defenceless men, women and children does not behove brave men…I am quite certain that India’s interest lies in getting all her men and women across the border and sending out all Muslims from East Punjab.
I have come to you with a specific appeal. Pledge the safety of Muslim refugees crossing the city. Any obstacles or hindrances will only worsen the plight of our refugees who are already performing prodigious feats of endurance.
If we have to fight, we must fight clean. Such a fight must await an appropriate time and conditions and you must be watchful in choosing your ground. To fight against the refugees is no fight at all. No laws of humanity or war among honourable men permit the murder of people who have sought shelter and protection.
Let there be truce for three months in which both sides can exchange their refugees. This sort of truce is permitted even by laws of war. Let us take the initiative in breaking this vicious circle of attacks and counter-attacks.
Hold your hands for a week and see what happens. Make way for the refugees with your own force of volunteers and let them deliver the refugees safely at the frontier.”
Again the message went home. His action had been brave, his words candid, his plea realistic. No convoys were attacked after this speech, which marks a turning point in Punjab’s story.
The inevitability of exchanging Punjab’s minorities was accepted by Nehru but neither he nor the Mahatma nor Azad was prepared to agree with Patel’s alleged wish to see the Muslims of Delhi, western UP and princely states like Alwar and Bharatpur also depart. Liaqat Ali, who had belonged until partition to western UP, asked whether Vallabhbhai’s Amritsar speech meant that India wanted to oust Muslims from areas other than East Punjab, and Jawaharlal clarified that an extended non-Muslim zone was “an impossible proposition”.
Taxed by Gandhi with a report that he was “encouraging the idea of Muslims going away to Pakistan”, Patel denied it indignantly. However, he told the Mahatma that Muslims not loyal to India should leave, and he could not help adding that he suspected a majority of disloyalty.
The idea of emptying great areas of India of Muslims, and Pakistan of Hindus and Sikhs, was against all that the Mahatma had stood for. The Punjab exchange tormented him; he had longed, earlier, to be able to avert it. Therefore he was miserable and full of self-reproach when, on October 2, his 78th birthday, Vallabhbhai and Manibehn called on him. It was not even two days since Patel’s Amritsar performance but Gandhi did not refer to it. He spoke only of “the sin I must have committed because of which I am alive to witness the violence around me”.
Vallabhbhai and Manibehn had left home “over-brimming with joy”. They returned “with heavy hearts”. Gandhi’s and Patel’s hearts were yearning for different things. The ruler sought a solution, the Mahatma a miracle. Vallabhbhai was relieved that the caravans would pass unharmed, Gandhi anguished that they had commenced their journey.
For Patel, a Muslim vacating his house spelt shelter for a Hindu or a Sikh refugee; for Gandhi it was new proof of his failure. But neither spoke against the other, and the Mahatma explained Vallabhbhai’s position to Delhi’s Muslims: the Sardar (said Gandhi) did not want loyal Muslims to leave India and was not one to “let his suspicions colour his actions”.
If Vallabhbhai differed from Gandhi, he clashed with Azad. In this stressful time, each thought the other communal, and while Azad blamed Patel for plumping for partition and persuading Gandhi to acquiesce in it, Vallabhbhai could not forget the Maulana’s inability to prevent the qaum’s crossover to the League. By reducing the nation’s Muslim percentage, partition had diminished Azad’s influence, whereas the Sardar’s had grown with independence; this shift in the Patel/Azad balance of power did not improve their relationship.
After the August-September killings, both often laid claim to the same scarce resource –money or space or a quantity of tents or blankets or a protecting police unit – Azad wanting it for Muslims in transit camps, Vallabhbhai for Hindu or Sikh refugees. When the Cabinet considered the question of houses vacated by Muslims in mohallas in Delhi that were predominantly Muslim, a majority agreed that the houses should first be offered to Muslims who had fled from their places but wished to remain in India. Believing that incoming Hindu and Sikh refugees had an equal right to the accommodation, Patel had opposed this proposal; Azad and Nehru had backed it.
There was a dispute over Delhi’s Sikh Deputy Commissioner, Randhawa. Azad and Nehru told Vallabhbhai that Randhawa was not trusted by Muslims and should be transferred. “You have only to express your wish and I will execute it,” Patel said to Nehru, but he added that the transfer would be “fraught with serious consequences”. Replying that it was for Vallabhbhai with his “more direct sources of information” to decide, Nehru backed away. So did Azad, but a week after Patel’s Amritsar speech, the Maulana proposed a discussion with Vallabhbhai in Gandhi’s presence. The three spent 75 minutes together on October 7, but the thorns in the Patel-Azad relationship were not removed.
Two days later Vallabhbhai went with Manibehn to Pataudi, in the district of Gurgaon, because the Nawab of Bhopal, whose daughter Sajida was married to the Nawab of Pataudi, was anxious about the couple’s safety. After embracing the ruler of Pataudi, Patel asked him whether he wished to come to Delhi. The Nawab said that his place was with his people. His Begum said that her place was with her husband. Thereupon Vallabhbhai sent for the leading Hindus from the neighbouring villages and “pledged them to the security and safety of the family and the Muslims there”. Returning to Delhi, he wired Nawab Hamidullah in Bhopal: “Situation well in hand. You need have no anxiety.”
On October 11, Patel took an ill and coughing Gandhi to a meeting organised by Delhi’s Gujaratis, who wanted to donate money for the Mahatma’s Harijan fund.
Asked to speak at the meeting, Vallabhbhai protested: “He is to receive the purse and I am to do the speaking – that is most unfair.” “See,” he went on, “how quickly the old man has recovered to relieve you of your money.” “The Sardar will not miss a laugh even at the foot of the gallows,” Gandhi exclaimed.
On October 31, Vallabhbhai was again at Birla House, but Gandhi did not realise the day’s significance. The next day he wrote to Patel: “You came and saw me yesterday but I did not then remember that it was your birthday. Therefore I could not give you my best wishes on the spot. Such is the sorry plight I am in.”
So far so good. But the Mahatma went on to ask the Government of India to declare that mosques would be protected, forcible conversion to Hinduism and Sikhism not recognised and no Muslim thrown out of India or his house. Gandhi wanted to allay Muslim fears but, conscious of Hindu and Sikh anger, Vallabhbhai did not like the advice. Though cordial banter survived, the Minister and the Mahatma were now on different wavelengths.
It was at a public meeting that Vallabhbhai’s heart, where bitterness and hurt pride jostled with concern for India and for Gandhi, was bared. Replying to a civic address from the Bombay Corporation, he said on January 16:
“You have only mentioned about my having gone to jail several times. I was only one of thousands who did so...To tell you frankly, if as a result of what I have been doing at the Centre I get imprisonment, I would welcome it, because from experience I have found imprisonment to be much sweeter.
If in spite of having achieved independence Gandhiji has to fast today in order to achieve real Hindu-Muslim unity, it is a standing shame for us.
We have just heard people shouting that Muslims should be removed from India. Those who do so have gone mad with anger. I am a frank man. I say bitter things to Hindus and Muslims alike. At the same time I maintain that I am a friend of Muslims.
Some of them went to Gandhiji and complained over my Lucknow speech...Gandhiji felt compelled to defend me. That also pained me. For, after all, I am not a weak person who would like to be defended by others.”
Excerpted with permission from Patel: A Life, Rajmohan Gandhi, Navajivan Trust.