Quibbling ‘brothers’



How who got what at the partition



When the political demand for the partition of the Indian subcontinent was met under the 3 June Plan in 1947, the next task was to divide the assets between the two new countries for which a Partition Committee was formed under the last Viceroy Lord Mountbatten which in turn set ten Expert Committees comprising equal number of Muslim and non-Muslim bureaucrats to divide in less than seventy days, the legacy that included every big and small thing ranging from ceiling fans, board pins to stationery and office furniture. This uphill task could not be achieved without cooperation, however, overall, the task was carried out in an atmosphere of heightened religious nationalism that bred suspicion in which the two sides suspected each other of running away with more than its due share.

The interesting aspect was that not one uniform but different principles were employed for the division of assets. One complex task was the division of records of the state keeping in mind their potential relevance for each of the two states. Although territory and religion were the major determinants in the classification of files, more important became the imagination of the dividing officials as to how they imagined the decolonisation of the subcontinent. More often, their imaginations clashed with one another. All officials files relevant to Pakistan were marked “A”, those to India were marked “B” and the ones of common interest to both the countries were marked “C.” Initially, fourteen files of the ministry of external affairs related to Kashmir and Gilgit were marked “A” by an official, who perhaps thought that being a Muslim majority state, Kashmir would join Pakistan, however, at the last moment, a senior official changed the category of these files to “C” with the note that stated “As Kashmir administration have not yet decided as to which dominion they are finally to join, files referred to “A” alone should be classified as “C”… in any case India should be interested in the Gilgit affairs as three frontiers (Afghanistan, Russia and China) meet there.”

Theoretically, a Muslim could opt for India and a Hindu for Pakistan but in the case of the defence forces, the choice of the personnel was restricted by their religion as a Muslim from Pakistan serving in the armed forces could not opt for Indian defence whereas a non-Muslim from the rest of India could not join the forces of Pakistan. This principle was reversed in the case of prisoners whereby it was stipulated that “prisoners will be transferred to their respective places of conviction irrespective of religion.” In other words, there was a total disregard towards their right to freely exercise their choice rather they were treated as “inanimate objects” or like children, whose opinions did not matter.

On the other hand, the civil servants had not only the facility to join the country of their choice but were also given the luxury to initially make a “provisional” choice which they could reverse in the six months after partition. As a result, in the divided province of Bengal, there emerged surplus employees in the Indian West Bengal whereas in East Pakistan, there were more vacancies than the staff available.

Anwesha Sengupta of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in her research on the division of assets writes that not only the humans but animals and birds were also profoundly affected by partition. One such animal was an elephant named Joymoni which belonged to the Forest Department of undivided Bengal whose value was determined as equal to that of a station wagon which was already in the use of the director of Land Records and Surveys so West Bengal got the vehicle and East Pakistan got the elephant, the latter was incidentally in the town of Malda at the time of partition, which fell in the Indian Bengal. Now, Joymoni had to be taken to Pakistan but both the “mahout” and attendant of Joymoni opted for India. It took a year for the Forest Officer of East Pakistan to arrange a forest guard, a mohout and an attendant to fetch the elephant but on arrival in Malda they were detained by the Collector, who refused to hand over Joymoni till the Pakistanis paid Rs 1900/- as the amount spent on the maintenance of the animal but the Pakistanis refused to pay a single penny on the ground that the Indians had used the elephant throughout this period, therefore, they should also bear its expenditure.

Equally bizarre was the case of sixty ducks that were imported in 1946 by the united Bengal’s Agricultural Department under Suhrawardy’s government at the cost of 250 pounds, however, when these ducks reached Calcutta from England just before partition in July 1947, the Finance Secretary refused to pay their cost on the plea that it was uncertain as to which country would get these ducks or whether the ducks would be divided between the two countries and each would pay for its share of the birds. As the partition mayhem grew with every passing day, the fate of the ducks went in limbo as “The Statesman” of 3 August 1947 rather jokingly reported: “While protracted departmental inquiries continue, the neglected ducks await the result in a city warehouse.”

While most things could be divided, there were some institutions that could lose their utility and productivity if divided, so, on Mountbatten’s suggestion they were designated as “unique institutions” from which both Pakistan and India could jointly benefit for a specific period of time. Though both the countries accepted this idea in principle yet it badly failed when 19 students from East Pakistan, who went for studies to the Dow Hill Forest School in the Indian Bengal, had to return within two months because of the discriminatory attitude of the Indian state as well as the bad treatment meted out to them by the school staff, teachers and management. Thus died the experiment of the “unique institutions.” Although, Gandhi had termed partition as the division between two ‘brothers’, the nitty-gritty was not carried out in a brotherly spirit notwithstanding the fact that the “quibbling brothers” had lived together for over a millennium.

(The writer is an academic and journalist. He can be reached at [email protected])