The tumultuous road that led to the Nehru-Liaquat Pact

The tumultuous road that led to the Nehru-Liaquat Pact

In the history of every nation, there are events that continue to shape its destiny. For Germany it is Nazism, for America it is the Civil War, for Russia it is the Russian Revolution and for India it is Partition. A major event that shaped the destiny of post-Partition India was the Nehru-Liaquat pact, signed nearly 70 years ago by former Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Liaquat...

In the history of every nation, there are events that continue to shape its destiny. For Germany it is Nazism, for America it is the Civil War, for Russia it is the Russian Revolution and for India it is Partition.

A major event that shaped the destiny of post-Partition India was the Nehru-Liaquat pact, signed nearly 70 years ago by former Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Liaquat Ali Khan, one of the founders of Pakistan, to preserve minority rights in both the countries following a riotous Partition.

India’s Home Minister Amit Shah recently cited the pact and its failure in ensuring the rights of minorities, to defend his government’s contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act. But, the situations leading up to the pact and after it was signed are not as black and white as they have been portrayed.

The bilateral agreement, as Nehru justly claimed, pulled India and Pakistan from a precipice of war. But what drove both the countries to such brinkmanship, what choices did they have, why did these two leaders decide to compromise and what did the pact accomplish?

Also read: In Amit Shah’s Partition story, fantasy as fact, villains as heroes

Paucity of good academic writing on Partition has masked the complexity of that tumultuous era, reducing it to a few dramatic pictures depicting mile-long caravans of impoverished refugees and vultures feeding off carcasses.

The tragedy ran much deeper. Brief recounting of some lesser known aspects will help us understand the Nehru-Liaquat pact better.

Partition, a tragedy that ran deeper

Nearly 12 million (1.2 crore) Hindus and Muslims crossed the borders and nearly a million perished in riots and the migration itself. The two countries “had to resettle, feed and house a group as large as the total population of Australia,” wrote British India historian Yasmin Khan in The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan.

“This was not simply an ‘exchange’ of population. In the months following Independence, Pakistan lost its bankers, merchants, shopkeepers, entrepreneurs,” Khan observed.

In Indian cities, Muslim craftsmen and shop owners, now ostracised by Hindus, migrated. Cash outflow from banks across borders in an already impoverished economy plunged the countries into poverty. The plan to partition the assets was based on 80:20 basis with 80% going to India. In Indian government offices, trays, chairs and paper weights were split; in libraries, books were torn to adhere to the 80:20 rule. India had to jump civil servants three grades up to fill vacancies in secretariat while Pakistan had to advance them to five grades.

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Post-partition Pakistan, compared to India, had “fewer bankers, fewer traders, fewer mechanics,” wrote American journalist and diplomat Phillips Talbot in his book An American Witness to India’s Partition. Pakistan “inherited less than 10% of the sub-continent’s steel output and manufacturing capability” (Paul M McGarr, The Cold War in South Asia: Britain, the United States and the Indian Subcontinent).

Refugees crossing borders carried stories of massacres to their new homelands and inflamed local population.

“Partition was a modern event, the technology of the press was fully utilised to promote killing and pressmen and propagandists played their part in partition violence behind typewriters as bureaucratic killers in word if not in deed,” Khan wrote.

Dealing with refugees, economy

All this carnage was unfolding as Europe and the West were barely coming out of a devastating World War (II). The tragedy in India barely registered in the conscience of the world. The International Red Cross had left India already and a UN covenant to protect refugees would not come about until 1951. Pimps, brothel owners and pedophiles plagued refugee camps even as governments, with scarce resources, struggled to cope with the scale of efforts.

Refugees, in any era, destabilise local economy, treasuries are taxed, labour market gets skewed and it never matters that the person who arrives speaks the same language and worships the same God. India’s largest state Uttar Pradesh refused to take in refugees from Pakistan, presumably Hindus. When non-Muslim Sindhis landed in Mumbai, the local government was not thrilled.

A constant criticism of Nehru was the centralisation of the economy. A key determinant factor was the role the government had to play in rehabilitating the lives of refugees. Creation of jobs, welfare centers for women and children and orphanages were all organised by governments. But, this is often forgotten in analysing the economics of the Nehru era.

The complexity of the era is best exemplified by the decision of India, in September 1949, to devalue its currency to be in lockstep with the Pound Sterling while Pakistan did not do so. To Pakistanis, it was the most popular decision when the country demonstrated strength against India. “Indians need to give ₹144 for ₹100 in Pakistani currency” (Talbot) was a popular retort. Currency devaluation and halting of trade brought conferences related to evacuee properties also to a halt.

Bengal’s forgotten blaze

Ever since Gandhi’s ‘Calcutta Miracle’, the violence during partition was largely concentrated in the western front of the Punjab region. Military historian Steven Wilkinson identified a causal relationship between high incidence of riots and presence of military ex-servicemen in a region. Punjab had lots of them.

On December 20, 1949 policemen, reportedly in search of communists, entered Khulna, a village in East Pakistan and killed a Hindu, triggering violence against Hindus. Now, the East started exploding.

Military historian Srinath Raghavan calls the violence in Bengal, The Forgotten Conflagration, because of its relative lack of significance compared to Kashmir, the integration of Hyderabad and violence in Punjab.

Following the Khulna episode, reprisals began in West Bengal and Muslims left for East Pakistan by the thousands. A cycle of violent reprisals set in as Hindus were in turn massacred in the East and they started streaming into West Bengal.

Nehru’s pitch against war Vs Liaquat’s complacency

Historian Pallavi Raghavan adds an interesting backdrop to the Nehru-Liaquat pact. By January 1950, Nehru started floating the idea of a ‘non-war pact’ with Pakistan and started with Liaquat a flurry of communications totalling over 200 telegrams a year. The surprising part is that while the attempt for a non-war pact eventually floundered, the Nehru-Liaquat pact for Bengal crises happened. Popular understanding of that era is that the two nations were implacable foes, but Pallavi establishes that the idea for a non-war pact was actually seriously considered in both countries and not dismissed outright.

Disappointed with the sanguine approach of Liaquat to escalating tensions in Bengal, Nehru issued orders to mobilise the army and turned down a request to disallow refugees from East Pakistan into India.

Nehru’s proposal to Liaquat to jointly tour afflicted areas and his call for declaration to condemn the atrocities on refugees was turned down. Both Liaquat and Nehru were increasingly facing domestic pressures to go to war. Nehru steadfastly refused to consider that the only choices were war or population exchange. By now many in India, including Sardar Patel, were demanding that India, in retaliation to Hindus being chased from East Pakistan, send Muslims from Bengal. The very idea was abhorrent to Nehru.

Also read: Where is the Bengal, which once swore by non-violence to decry injustice?

Nehru instead pursued the diplomatic track. Sardar Patel and others also pushed the idea of demanding territory from Pakistan in response to the tens of thousands that were streaming into India. To Nehru, this was fantasy because, as he correctly cautioned, it would mean all-out war in Eastern and Western fronts with Pakistan. No one other than Nehru worried about the cost of war. But Nehru had his limits too.

Addressing the nation on March 3, 1950, Nehru said, “Anyone who knows me should know that I hate war…But to talk complacently of peace, when there is no peace and when something worse than war is possible is to be blind to facts.” He also added that the crisis was “outcome of the very nature of Pakistan: minorities in a religious state were bound to lack full sense of citizenship and security”. Concerns that echo eerily in today’s situation in India. Later, Nehru in a letter to C Rajagopalachari, wrote, “Even I, with all my abhorrence of war and my appreciation of its consequences cannot rule it out completely”.

Nehru, not one to crumble under pressure

Even as Nehru was signalling the seriousness of military action by moving troops, the press in Bengal fuelled war-mongering. The Amrita Bazar Patrika led the charge in editorials and even conducting an opinion poll asking if readers favored war: 82.7% responded in ‘yes’. Nehru fumed and asked the administration to clamp down on press reports. The crises continued to spiral and pressure Nehru.

On March 17, 1950, Nehru addressed Parliament and was roundly criticised. Opposition to Nehru mounted within Congress party led by Sardar Patel. Nehru had earlier offered to resign and go to Pakistan as an individual, akin to Gandhi’s idea before he was assassinated. Now, Nehru renewed his threat to resign. An aging and sick Patel turned him down and, once again, became an ally. Nehru had a competitive spirit of standing up to challenges and knew well that the party would not countenance his resignation. Second only to Gandhi, the most popular pan-Indian leader was Nehru. There was a time when India loved Nehru.

Although Liaquat exuded confidence in public about meeting India’s military challenge, the reality of India’s military superiority compelled him to negotiate and he took up yet another offer from Nehru to negotiate a pact. Liaquat arrived in New Delhi and on April 8, 1950, after a week of negotiations and 11 drafts later, the Nehru-Liaquat pact was signed.

The pact and its after-effects

The key provisions of the pact were that minorities commission will be setup in each country, cabinets in East and West Bengal and Assam would include representatives from minorities, evacuees returning by December 30 would get back the homes they left behind, forced conversions will not be recognised, adult refugees can carry cash up to ₹150 each and a child could carry ₹75.

Key features of the Nehru-Liaquat Pact
  • Migrants were allowed to carry movable property and jewellery with them; adults allowed to carry cash up to ₹150 each and children ₹75 each
  • Evacuees returning to their respective countries by December 1950 were promised back their homes and lands
  • The pact did not recognise forced conversions
  • It was decided that cabinets in East and West Bengal and Assam would include minority representatives
  • The pact planned formation of minorities’ commissions in each country

Hindu fundamentalist leader Syama Prasad Mookerjee and Bengal’s KC Neogy resigned from Nehru’s cabinet expressing dissatisfaction towards the pact. Nehru’s biographer Sarvepalli Gopal pays glorious tribute to Sardar Patel for returning to the role Gandhi had asked of him, supporting Nehru. Patel championed the pact to skeptics in West Bengal.

Also read: The truth about Nehru and new India’s tryst with fake propaganda

Nehru himself was aware that the pact would not satisfy all or solve the problems completely. In his letter to chief ministers on April 15, he recounted the dangers of war and how it was almost a possibility. Writing again to chief ministers on May 2, he spoke candidly of how the exodus had fallen and then risen since migration was more streamlined now and that while the minorities felt safer than before to stay back in the countries of residence they also feared for the future. Of the 3.64 million Hindu migrants who had entered India in 1950, some 1.77 million felt encouraged enough to return.

Neither a war monger, nor a peacenik

It is a common refrain today to characterise Sardar Patel as a strongman who’d have taken the battle to the enemy, whereas Nehru was a dreamy idealist.

While Nehru was no war monger, it is a complete mistake to cast him like an idealist peacenik. Whether it was crushing the Communist-led insurgency within India or accepting war as an option to be exercised, Nehru had a hawkish side too. On the contrary, Patel lacked Nehru’s vision and moral compass.

From dictators to democratic leaders across history, pursuing a peace pact is often considered a braver course of action, instead of the popular notion that it is a sign of weakness or misguided idealism. A conservative hawk-like Ronald Reagan pursued eliminating nuclear weapons with arch-enemy Soviet Russia. Harry Truman fired a legendary general to control the spiralling Korean crises. Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat signed peace treaties when no one thought that those warring parties would even meet in the same room.

Signing treaties for cessation of hostilities is more a western tradition and not quite prevalent in Indian history, which is probably why Indians fail to appreciate what Nehru achieved.

During peace pacts compromises are made and no statesman will gloat that he forced the other side to capitulate. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, while John F Kennedy postured in public about standing up to the Soviet regime in private, his brother Robert Kennedy was bartering missiles located in Turkey as a price for Khrushchev to remove the missiles.

Should Nehru be blamed for Pak’s failures?

The decline in Hindu population in today’s Pakistan and Bangladesh and especially the massacre of thousands of Hindus during the riots preceding the liberation of Bangladesh are often cited as a failure of the pact and Nehru is blamed, yet again, for his idealism. The failure is Pakistan’s not that of India’s or Nehru’s.

Pakistan was cursed by the untimely and early demise of Jinnah and the short-lived leadership of Liaquat Ali Khan, who was assassinated just a year after the pact with Nehru. Liaquat, who was not a popular leader, “used executive powers to impose central rule on recalcitrant provinces” and such acts created a climate of alienation in Pakistan. Nehru’s relative youth, physical fitness and longevity coupled with his unmatched intellect and idealism provided invaluable stability to India while Pakistan stumbled into a morass of dictatorship.

Steven Wilkinson’s study of how India and Pakistan took different approaches to the role of army vis-a-vis the state portrays Nehru, in particular, as sagacious and forward looking while his counterparts who spared no thought let the country slip into the grip of the army.

Nehru had a whirlwind trip to the US in 1949, before the crises, when he was feted across the cities and Eisenhower, as the president of Columbia University, honoured him with a honorary PhD. But, the visit was also a disaster because America expected Nehru and India to be a meek suppliant which Nehru refused to be. Post-crises, stung by his inability to stand up to India’s military superiority, Liaquat too visited the US but unlike Nehru he was clear that the US can hold Pakistan almost as a vassal state.

Also read: Beyond Hindu-Muslim binary: The Buddhist Claim on Ayodhya

Why would Nehru even try to have a pact with Pakistan? A study of the geo-political history, notably the Cold War history of US-Soviet relationship, shows how fixed perceptions and prejudices can stifle possibilities for cooperation or peace. When we contextualise the trajectory of Pakistan’s history and its failure to stand by the pact, it is clear that the failure was neither Nehru’s nor India’s.

Even today, discussions on how minorities are treated in Pakistan are often juxtaposed with how Muslims are treated in India and are reminded that they should be grateful to Hindus. To Nehru, how India treated its minorities had nothing, whatsoever, to do with how Hindus were treated elsewhere. He wrote to Patel, “The belief that retaliation is a suitable method to deal with Pakistan, or what happens in Pakistan is growing. That is the surest way to ruin…That is surely not the way to protect minorities”.

Minorities’ rights his priority 

That Nehru’s philosophy about protecting minorities was the governing philosophy of his cabinet and his successor is evident in the reply that Sardar Swaran Singh, a one-time member of Nehru’s cabinet too, gave as external affairs minister to a query raised in the Rajya Sabha in 1966 about whether Pakistan has, unlike India, failed to protect minorities.

Swaran Singh replied, “The honourable member would no doubt be aware that in our Constitution we gave equality of treatment to every person, whether of the majority community or minority community, whatever may be his religion, and we are wedded to pursue this policy according to our Constitution— equality of every Indian irrespective of religion or caste or creed—and it is our determination to pursue this policy whatever Pakistan does.”

Nehru would’ve been proud of Swaran Singh. The no-war pact proposal failed because Pakistan insisted on identifying mediatory organisations and India balked at it for valid reasons and some extraneous reasons too. However, since the pact was discussed publicly, both governments decided to publish the correspondence, that too simultaneously, to avoid one side or the other making incorrect claims.

While India rejected mediation on topics outside Kashmir, the World Bank did mediate the Indus Waters Agreement. The no-war pact idea kept resurfacing twice by Nehru and twice, in later years, by Pakistan. Pallavi Raghavan makes the case that we should look beyond habitual hostility in understanding the Indo-Pak relationship.

Shah’s analogy a fallacy

It is specious to use Nehru-Liaquat pact to justify the Citizenship (Amendment) Act that imposes a religion as a criteria to selectively confer citizenship on refugees. The very idea would’ve been abhorrent to Nehru. There was a time when a bill was moved in the Constituent Assembly by a member of stature, Ananthasayanam Ayyangar, to “for the separation of religion from politics and for India becoming a secular state”.

Replying on the bill, Nehru said, “We must have it clearly in our minds and in the mind of the country that the alliance of religion and politics in the shape of communalism is a most dangerous alliance”.

Alas, we now live in an age when members of the ruling party chant “Jai Shri Ram” when a Muslim member of Parliament rises to take oath. The Prime Minister says that some Indians fear to chant “Jai Shri Ram”. No, Mr Prime Minister, Indians hailed as ‘Mahatma’ a man who died calling out to Rama. India needs to be reclaimed in the name of Nehru, Gandhi and Ambedkar and be home to all as equal citizens.

(The author is a New Jersey-based freelancer who writes on contemporary issues in Tamil and English.)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal.)

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