Sunday, September 11, 2011

Triumph and Tragedy: Reminiscences of 1947

Lt Gen (Retd) S K Sinha 8/17/2011 1:36:43 AM
I belong to a now vanishing generation which witnessed the triumph and tragedy of events that unfolded in 1947. I was at that time a junior General Staff officer at GHQ, designated Army HQ after Independence.
Blurb: Each refugee train carried about ten thousand refugees. Escorts were provided at the front, middle and rear of the train along with open flats and sandbagged post with light machine guns. Mobile patrols with armoured cars travelled parallel to refugee trains along the Grand Trunk Road, which was close to the main railway line. An aircraft flew overhead with ground to air communications, to warn the escorts of any approaching mob or saboteurs. Not a single refugee train was attacked thereafter.
The Interim Government came to power in September 1946. This accelerated the process of "Indianisation" of the Army. Military Operations Directorate at GHQ had hitherto been an exclusive British preserve. Only British officers and British clerks served in it. Three Indian officers were posted to different sections of this Directorate, Lt Col Manekshaw to Planning, Major Yahya Khan to Frontier Defence and I in the rank of Captain, to Internal Security. The Great Calcutta Killings had taken place in August 1946. Later that year, widespread communal violence erupted in Bihar. Hitherto, communal violence was primarily an urban affair. After Calcutta and Noakhali killings, widespread urban and rural communal violence took place in Bihar. By the end of the year, the Army managed to restore peace in that State. In 1947, communal violence started spreading westwards and other parts of the country. It reached a crescendo in Delhi and Punjab, after the Partition was announced. Millions were killed and millions got uprooted in that holocaust. The Army played a seminal role in restoring peace.
A change of guard at the top was announced. Lord Mountbatten was to take over as Viceroy from Lord Wavell and preside over transfer of power in India. One morning in late March 1947, I stood in the verandah projecting from South Block, connected to our Operations Room, which now is the office of the Foreign Secretary and his secretariat. The Commander-in-Chief's office was linked to the other projection close to ours. Currently that is the office of the External Affairs Minister. A cavalcade of cars was racing up Raisina Hill towards the Viceroy's Houes (now Rashtrapati Bhavan). My colleague and friend, Major John Spittle was with me. We saw a black limousine flying the Union Jack in that convoy. Obviously Mountbatten was in that car. John remarked that it was in the fitness of things that the great grandson of Queen Victoria has come to transfer power to Indians. He quoted the extract of the great Queen's proclamation inscribed on the arch at the entrance of North Block. "Liberty will not descend upon a people. A people must raise themselves to liberty that must be earned before it can be enjoyed." I felt like retorting that a militarily and economically exhausted Britain, after the Second World War, had no other option. Restrained myself and replied that Winston Churchill had asserted that he had not become the Prime Minister of Britain to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire. And now his prodigy, whom he built up during the Second World War, had come to do the needful. Neither John nor I could have foreseen the sequence of events that were soon to follow and that the British Empire in India as also an undivided India, would cease to exist in less than six months.

Partition was announced on 3 June 1947. All combat units of the army underwent a surgical operation. Muslim subunits went to Pakistan and non Muslim subunits remained in the Indian Army. I had served in Burma in the Jat Regiment with a Punjabi Musalman company comprising mostly soldiers from the Poonch area in Jammu and Kashmir. I went to the regimental centre at Bareilly to bid farewell to our Muslim comrades going to Pakistan Army. It was an emotional function with tears shed on both sides. Brigadier KM Cariappa the senior most Indian officer and other Indian officers hosted a farewell party at Delhi Gymkhana Club for our colleagues going to Pakistan. Lord Mountbatten and Field Marshal Auchinleck were present at that party. Cariappa in his farewell speech said, "We have shared a common destiny for so long and our history is inseparable. We shall always remain brothers. We will never forget the great years we have lived together." He presented a silver trophy to Brigadier Raza the senior Pakistan officer, as a parting gift. The trophy showed two soldiers, a Hindu and a Muslim, with their different turban styles, standing side by side and pointing their riffles towards a common foe. It was indeed ironical that two months later, in October 1947, the two armies were on the battlefield fighting against each other in Kashmir. Colonel Akbar Khan from Weapons and Equipment Directorate at our Headquarters was at that party. He went to Pakistan and under the pseudo name of General Akbar Khan, commanded the Pakistan forces comprising tribal raiders and soldiers that invaded Kashmir in October 1947. I met two officers who were present at that party again in 1972 when they were our prisoners of war. Niazi and I had served together as Captains in Indonesia in 1945. I also met him when he was our prisoner. I was then responsible for looking after the 93,000 prisoners of war, who had surrendered to us in Bangladesh. Subedar Pahlwan Khan from my company in 6 JAT had served with me in Burma. He became an officer and fought against us in Poonch.
I remember that one afternoon, the then Defence Secretary Mr Dundas, a British officer of the ICS, who had opted for service as Defence Secretary in Pakistan, rushed into our Operations Room. He was very agitated and told our Director, General Lentaign, "Furniture, documents, and stores stacked near the hutments for despatch to Pakistan are being attacked by a howling crowd." Those hutments have now been replaced by the Sena Bhavan. In those days, all army officers at the Headquarters carried their service revolvers. I was asked to take with me, a couple of armed sentries of Defence Security Corps who were manning the gate at South Block. Dundas came along with me. I found a large crowd shouting slogans and preparing to burn the stores earmarked for Pakistan. I ordered firing of a couple of rounds in the air and the crowd dispersed.
-To be continued-
Part 1
click here to read Part 2...

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