Sunday, October 15, 2017

Declassified US Papers Shed Light on India's Independence Movement: Sapru's Committee and Bhulabhai Desai's Attempt. The Hindu Mahasabha at Bilaspur

A morning spent at Princeton University archives of declassified US State Department communications, on microfilm, from Delhi shed light on how US consular officials functioned and gave a window into the epochal Independence struggle of India. It was a thrilling experience and I'll share a glimpse.

Recently I bought access to Princeton University library and I've been spending time in the section where books on India are. They've a fantastic collection that is the dream come true for any researcher, scholarly or itinerant. Works of Gandhi, Nehru, Ram Manohar Lohia, Rajendra Prasad, Sardar Patel, all volumes of the magisterial 'Transfer of Power', nearly 20 years of Times of India's voluminous yearbook that gives stunning detail of India's economy and society, collection of India Today magazines from the date they started till today and much more.

If that is not enough the micro-film section is a treasure trove of what used to be classified, now declassified, filing from US consular officials in Delhi for the years 1945-1949. When I read books of the kind which use extensive archival research, like Simon Sebag Montefiore's biography of Stalin, I've always been thrilled by the historical value of material that lays buried, often in plain sight, from official documents and how an astute historian could play a detective.

When the Wikileaks saga started and most of America was angry about its secrets spilling out a columnist saw a silver lining to the unfolding drama. The columnist argued that now countries will perhaps realize how the US ambassador, they are talking to, could very well be a wise head given the details that were collected and now becoming apparent to all. What to others might seem an empty boast of an American was true. India had its own embarrassments. Karthi Chidambaram, son of P. Chidambaram, explained in detail to a U.S. consular official how elections were bought wholesale by bribing voters in Tamil Nadu. The consular official promptly filed a report to Washington.

Dr. Syama Prasad Mukherjee (Image courtesy Wikipedia)
I picked the first of twenty three microfilms and immediately that wikileaks episode came to my mind and I was amazed at the thoroughness of US consular officials back in 1945. In January of 1945 World War II still raged, most Congressmen except Gandhi were in jail and Jinnah was ratcheting up the Pakistan demand. That despite all that many felt Independence for India was imminent was apparent in the jockeying for demands by Jinnah and Ambedkar and others. I was only looking through the microfilms of the dispatches from US consulate with just a curiosity and only after I came home and checked a few background stories did the significance, while not earthshaking still interesting, become apparent. The US consular dispatches portray a vivid picture of the various forces tugging at each other and away from each other. Time and again I lament that India's educational system does great disservice in creating minds to grapple with complexities and India's struggle to be free of colonial yoke was the most complex liberation movement in human history.

The name Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru is known to few old timers and only to serious students of the history of Independence movement. Biographical details of Sapru are sparse. He was a jurist of repute and played a key role in both Gandhi-Irwin talks and the Poona pact that Gandhi and Ambedkar agreed to. Both pacts are landmark moments in India's history. Following the failure of Gandhi-Jinnah talks Sapru proposed, with Gandhi's acceptance, a non-partisan committee to see if the Hindu-Muslim question could be approached in a conciliatory manner. The committee, in a lesser known aspect, was also to include recommendations on how a free India should confront the problem of a section of Hindu India that was called 'untouchables'.

Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru (Image Courtesy Sapru-e1404642316986-320x335.png
In order to be non-partisan the committee excluded active members of Congress. Some of the members were Sir S. Radhakrishnan, Sir N. Gopalaswami Iyengar, Tushar Kanti Ghosh, P.R. Das etc.

Clayton Lane, signing as Secretary in-charge, filed a report to 'Secretary of State', on January 4th 1945 about the first meeting of Sapru's 'Standing Committee' on December 29th 1944. The report, see pictures in references, details the aims of the committee, lists the members and the disagreements that both Jinnah and Ambedkar had. The report also included a clipping from 'Hindustan Times', dated January 1st 1945. It is amazing that a US consular official makes such a detailed report on an event in India to US barely a week later and that too amidst the Christmas season. It is also interesting that 'Hindustan Times' included a lengthy report, including the correspondence between Sapru and Ambedkar.

Responding to Sapru's letter asking Jinnah's cooperation gets a curt reply from Jinnah, "I regret to say that I cannot recognize the non-party conference or its standing committee". A google search for corroboration took me to a Pakistani PhD candidate's dissertation titled "Sapru proposals and the demand for Pakistan". The Consular official's dispatch was based on a news report and the Pakistani's doctoral dissertation, footnoted, corroborate 100%. Essentially, at this stage Gandhi was opposed to partition. Note, Jinnah's call for Direct Action was more than a year away and it would drench the streets of Calcutta in blood. Jinnah on the other hand would not entertain any proposal unless it included conceding Pakistan. A later dispatch that quoted a report about Sarojini Naidu bears this out too.

Ambedkar who was actively courted by Sapru for candidates to represent Scheduled castes refuses to participate saying "I must say that some of the members do not inspire any confidence in me". He also alleges that Sapru promised that the committee would comprise only of "pure jurists". Sapru sends a beautiful but eventually futile reply, "I have taken good care to exclude men who belonged to either the Congress, the Muslim League or the Hindu Mahasabha. It'd be impossible for me to find persons who have not at one time or another expressed some kind of opinion, but the point is whether these persons can approach the question now with a free mind. There are are four retired judges."

Sapru committee nevertheless produced a report that argued against the creation of Pakistan. I can understand Jinnah's intransigence but Ambedkar shows up as the usual truculent and ever suspicious factional leader that he was when negotiating the Poona pact.

Another attempt, less grand and equally futile, was the one by, another barely recognized name today Bhulabhai Desai. Desai tried to forge a pact with Liaquat-Ali Khan. It is now widely supposed that this effort, too, disavowed, when it became public, by both Congress and Muslim League, had the blessing of Gandhi. The US consular official's dispatch based on an interview with Desai himself on January 2nd 1945 along with a biographical data sheet (marked confidential) sent on January 3rd 1945, puts to rest the speculation on whether Gandhi blessed the Desai effort.

Desai had met with Patel who was interned at Ahmadnagar fort, along with Nehru and Azad, for providing legal services. He was not even allowed to talk to Nehru or Azad. Desai, despite restrictions on non-legal chit-chat, discussed with Patel if the latter was ok with Desai returning to Central Legislative Assembly and if Patel was ok with the recent overtures that Congress made to Jinnah.  Patel, Desai told the official, was ok with both. Here the Consular official adds, "this is interesting since Patel is generally considered to be one of the most anti-British and anti-Muslim members of the Working Committee'. Apparently Patel had quite the reputation. Pained by what he perceived as Patel's anti-Muslim bias Gandhi in one of his last letters before the assassination wrote, "you're not the Sardar I once knew".

Desai then tells the official that he was going to visit Gandhi and get his approval for his talks with Muslim League. When asked who in Muslim League would be interested in talking to him, Desai said possibly Liaquat Ali Khan. Desai's reasoning was that the second rung of leadership in the league was "becoming restive at the present futile and do-nothing policy of the Muslim League". As for Gandhi, Desai confessed that "it was not beyond the bounds of possibility that Gandhi would refuse to give his blessing to any such move". The official adds, "In other words, Desai considers Gandhi, as does everyone else to be unpredictable in his political moves and judgments". Once the Desai deal became public all concerned disavowed it and Desai found himself marginalized in Congress. Bhulabhai Desai died on 6th May 1946.

A communique dated January 10th 1945, 'Confidential', with the subject "Political tendencies" says that Sarojini Naidu was critical of Rajagopalachari influencing Gandhi to accept his views on 'Hindu-Muslim formula'. "She says that Gandhi has not in the least conceded the principle of independent sovereign Muslim State and says that even if "the two old fools" could be persuaded to meet again they could never agree". The communique adds, "Shyama Prasad Mukerji's attitude as new President of Mahasabha is anti-British and mildly pro-Congress". The communique ominously ends noting "On British side there is slight indication here of substantial change while Churchill is Prime Minister".

Again, it seems there were several trying to prevent what everyone saw the country was hurtling towards, a bloody vivisection. And, it is quite apparent that at this stage Gandhi and the Congress, barring a few like Rajagopalachari, were opposed to partition. Jinnah, of course, was hell bent on partition. Ambedkar, in addition, was his usual sulking and suspicious self.

A communique sent on January 10th 1945, marked 'unrestricted', has the subject "Talk of Mrs Sarojini Naidu to Congress Workers at Calcutta on January 4th 1945". Asked if Congressmen should work with Communists and others Sarojini Naidu gives a beautiful reply that only a Gandhian can give, "In a country that is going to be free every party will have the right to exist. Every  party whether we think it bad or not will have the fullest freedom to propagate its views. But the views that will prevail in the country will be the views of that party which is strongest in its service to the people."

The dispatch presents in entirety an editorial from Amrita Bazaar Patrika that covered the speech of Mrs Naidu. The report went on to say, "In times of great crises, she said, humanity was greater than all political parties. Humanity was greater than Congress, greater than God."  Criticizing Congressmen who stayed away from relief work during Bengal famine Mrs. Naidu said, "why did they leave the work of relief to the Communists, or the Hindu Mahasabha or the Muslim League?"

A communique dated January 3rd 1945, subject "Annual Session of the Hindu Mahasabha held at Bilaspur". This communique details the new office holders of Hindu Mahasabha, Savarkar and Moonje were amongst 6 vice presidents. The communique enclosed "an article from the Hindustan Times of December 28th 1944, entitled "Fundamental Rights in Free India".

The 'Fundamental Rights' that the Hindu Mahasabha enunciated sounded a lot like the Bill of Rights of US constitution. Sample these:

1. Citizens shall be equal before law and shall enjoy equal civic rights. There shall be no law of discriminative nature.
2. No citizen shall be deprived of his or her liberty of person except in due process of law.
3.All citizens shall enjoy the right of free expression of opinion as also the right pf assembly of peacefully.
4.All citizens shall be subject to public order of morality, enjoy freedom of conscience, and free profession and practice of religion and protection of culture and language.
5.The provinces of Hindustan may, where necessary, be redistributed on a linguistic basis. Religion, language and culture of minorities shall be respected and guaranteed.
6.The press shall be free and no measures shall be taken to hinder publication, sale and distribution of any writing or newspaper subject to the rules of morality and public order.

Elsewhere (I forgot to take a screenshot) the Hindu Mahasabha actually asked for "freedom to take up arms" much in the lines of America's 'Second Amendment'.

A communique dated January 5th 1945, marked confidential, is about the "correspondence between Dr. Ambedkar and Mr. Gandhi".

Ambedkar writes to Gandhi, "You know as well as I do, that Hindu-Muslim problem is not the only communal problem that has to be settled and that there is the Communal problem between  Hindus and untouchables, not to mention others, which is also awaiting solution." Gandhi replies that for him the "Hindu-Muslim question" is a "life long question" and confesses that unlike what he thought before solving the problem would not solve all of India's political problems and on the other hand the issue of untouchability, an issue that has troubled him since his teens, was a question of "social and religious reform." Having said that Gandhi adds, "I would love to find a meeting ground between us on both questions. I know your great ability and I would love to own you as a colleague and co-worker. But I must admit my failure to come nearer to you."

The consular official astutely observed, "In his reply", Mr. Gandhi, "again resorted to his time worn formula when desiring to evade an issue i.e., stressed his anxiety for settlements and agreements but deplores his inability to come nearer to the individual or group concerned".

In a word, stunning. Dispatches in just one month, several in the space of a day or a two, span interviews with Bhulabhai Desai, news reports of Sapru's botched efforts, a Gandhi-Ambedkar correspondence, an editorial of a speech by Sarojini Naidu and resolutions adopted by Hindu Mahasabha. The next time any Indian tells you that the West doesn't understand India please discard it contemptuously. Also, the next time people think US consular office just dish visas please disabuse them of such simplicity. Finally, when you hear grand vilifications of India's Independence movement tell the purveyors of hatred and ignorance to first learn history.


1. Wikileaks on India Election Bribing

2. Bhulabhai Desai

3. Pakistani Ph.D Student's paper on Sapru committee,%20Amanullah.pdf

4. Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru
Bhulabhai Desai Report

Desai Report (contd)

Hindu Mahasabha - Fundamental Rights

Sapru-Committee Report Page 1

Spare Committee Report Contd. 
Sapru-Comittee Report Contd.


வன்பாக்கம் விஜயராகவன் said...

Good work, Aravindan. US Consular officials are educated, broadminded , astute, interested in local matters and with an ear to the ground wherever they are. Not for nothing, the USA is a superpower. Their political masters in Washington and the White House may take completely different decisions incongruent with Consular reports, but that does not invalidate the latter's hard work

வன்பாக்கம் விஜயராகவன் said...

Coming to think of it, contrary to Left/Liberal painting of the only Hindu party of those days i.e. the Hindu Mahasabha as a backward looking, sectarian, communalist, reactionary and feudal minded orthodox Hindus , the Mahasabha comes out as fairly decent , modern and democratic in it's striving.