Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Road to Nehru-Liaquat Pact and the aftermath: The choices and decisions

In the lives of nations there are events that’ll continue to echo and shape destinies continuously. For Germany it is Nazism, for America it is the Civil War, for Russia it is the Revolution and for India it is the partition of the sub-continent along religious lines. 

The Nehru-Liaquat pact, signed nearly 70 years ago by Jawaharlal Nehru and Liaquat Ali Khan, was cited by India’s home minister Amit Shah while piloting a controversial amendment to how India awards citizenship to refugees, has attracted attention. The pact, Nehru justly claimed, pulled India and Pakistan from a precipice of war that was sure to bring widespread destruction. What drove the countries to such brinkmanship, what were the choices, why did these two leaders compromise and what did the pact accomplish?

Nehru lamented then that little do many Indians realize how close India came to imploding and disintegrating. It is true even today. Distance of time and paucity of good academic writing for popular consumption on the subject of partition has masked the complexity of that tumultuous era and in many ways even minimized the impact of the human toll reducing it some dramatic pictures depicting mile long caravans of impoverished refugees and vultures feeding off carcasses. The tragedy ran deeper and brief recounting of some lesser known aspects will help us understand the Nehru-Liaquat pact better.

The Greatest Migration

Nearly 12 million 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”. “This was not simply an ‘exchange’ of population or a straightforward swap. In the months following Independence, Pakistan lost its bankers, merchants, shopkeepers, entrepreneurs”. In Indian cities Muslim craftsmen and shop owners, now ostracized 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. Across colonial India in government offices trays, chairs, paper weights were split. In libraries books were torn to adhere to 80-20. But that was not all. “India had found it necessary to jump civil servants perhaps three grades to fill secretariat vacancies” and “Pakistan had to advance them five grades”. Post partition Pakistan, compared to India, had “fewer bankers, fewer traders, fewer mechanics”. Pakistan “inherited less than 10% of the sub-continent’s steel output and manufacturing capability”.

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 utilized to promote killing and pressmen and propagandists played their part in partition violence behind typewriters as bureaucratic killers in word if not in deed.”

All this carnage was unfolding as Europe and the West were barely coming out of a World War that laid waste large parts of several continents and tens of millions had died. 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, destabilize local economy, governments and treasuries are taxed, labor 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 centralization of the economy. A key determinant factor was the role government had to play in rehabilitating the lives of refugees. Creation of jobs, welfare centers for women and children and orphanages were all organized by governments touching the lives of many millions. This is often forgotten in analyzing 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 lock step with the Pound Sterling while Pakistan did not do so and to Pakistanis it was the most popular decision when the country demonstrated strength against India. “Indians need to give Rs 144 for Rs 100 in Pakistani currency” was a popular retry. Currency devaluation and halting of trade brought conferences related to evacuee properties also to a halt. A labyrinthine set of events if there ever was one. 

Ever since Gandhi’s ‘Calcutta Miracle’ the violence during partition was largely in the western front in 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 and Punjab had lots of them. 

On 20th December 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.

‘The Forgotten Conflagration’

Military historian Srinath Raghavan called 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. Refugees, both sides claimed, numbered in tens of thousands. 

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 totaling over 200 telegrams in one 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. This amidst a time when hostility towards the other country ran high amongst the public and even policy circles. 

Even as he pursued a non-war pact Nehru, disappointed with the sanguine approach of Liaquat to escalating tensions in Bengal, issued orders to mobilize the army and refused to accede to a request to disallow refugees from East Pakistan into India. 

Nehru proposed that Liaquat and he jointly tour afflicted areas but was turned down. His call for a declaration to condemn the atrocities was also met with silence from Liaquat. 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. A ‘population exchange’. The very idea was abhorrent to Nehru. Nehru resisted the choice of war or population exchange as false choices and 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 3rd March 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 Rajagopalachari wrote, “Even I, with all my abhorrence of war and my appreciation of its consequences cannot rule it out completely”. 

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

On 17th March 1950 Nehru addressed the parliament and was roundly criticized. 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 challengers 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.

Though 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 8th April 1950, after a week of negotiations and 11 drafts later, the Nehru-Liaquat pact was signed. 

The Pact and After-Effects

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

Hindu fundamentalist leader Shyama Prasad Mukherjee and Bengali K.C. 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. Nehru returned the courtesy and acknowledged, “Vallabhai has been a brick during these days”.

Nehru himself was aware that the pact would not satisfy all or solve the problems completely. Nehru’s letter, on 15th April, to chief ministers, a tradition he created and maintained, recounted the dangers of war and how war was almost a possibility. Rejecting the charge of appeasement he wrote, “If anything that is not war is appeasement, then perhaps we have appeased. It would be equally true to say that Pakistan has tried to appease us. If an attempt to prevent a reversion to barbarism is appeasement, then perhaps the charge is true”. 

Writing again to chief ministers, on 2nd May, Nehru spoke candidly of how the exodus had fallen and then risen since migration was more streamlined now. He also highlighted that while 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.

Evaluating Nehru and the Pact

It is a common refrain today to characterize Sardar Patel as some strongman who’d have taken the battle to the enemy, that is Pakistan, whereas Nehru was effete and 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 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. It is wrong to suppose that a diplomatic course 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 spiraling 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 from antiquity and not quite prevalent in Indian history and this is probably also 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 the Soviet regime in private his brother Robert Kennedy was bartering missiles located in Turkey as a price for Khrushchev to remove the missiles. 

Military strategist George Kennan, the architect of the containment strategy, disillusioned during the Korean war, wrote, “Only the diplomatic historian, it seems to me, working from the leisure and detachment of a later day, will be able to unravel the incredible tangle and reveal the true aspect of the various factors and issues involved”. Srinath Raghavan’s “War and Peace in Modern India” is one such attempt that does justice to Nehru and the complexity of that entanglement. 

The decline of 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 for, yet again, 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 masterful 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 US in 1949, before the crises, when he was feted across the cities and Eisenhower, as President of Columbia University, honored him with a honorary Ph.D 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. 

Why would Nehru even try to have a pact with Pakistan? One should study geo-political history, notably the Cold War history of US-Soviet relationship to understand how fixed perceptions and prejudices can stifle possibilities for cooperation or peace.

When we contextualize the trajectory of Pakistan’s history and it’s failure to standby the pact it is clear that the failure was neither Nehru’s nor India’s. Even today discussions of how minorities are treated in Pakistan are often juxtaposed with how Muslims are treated in India and Muslims 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”. 

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, 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 protect minorities. Swaran Singh replied, “ The hon. 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 organizations 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 mediations 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. Palace Raghavan makes the case that we should look beyond habitual hostility in understanding the Indo-Pak relationship. 


It is specious to use Nehru-Liaquat pact to justify the Citizenship Amendment Bill that imposes a religion as a criteria to selectively confer citizenship on refugees. The very idea would’ve been abhorrent to Jawaharlal Nehru. There was a time when a bill was moved in the Constituent Assembly by a member of stature, Anathasayanam 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 the 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. 


  1. War and Peace in Modern India - Srinath Raghavan
  2. The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan — Yasmin Khan
  3. An American Witness to India’s Partition — Phillips Talbot
  4. Nehru: A Political Biography — Michael Brecher
  5. Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography (Volume 2) — Sarvepalli Gopal
  6. Patel: A Life — Rajmohan Gandhi
  7. Army and Nation — Steven Wilkinson
  8. The Cold War in South Asia: Britain, the United States and the Indian Subcontinent, 1945-1965 — Paul M. McGarr
  9. Nehru’s India — ed. Mushirul Hasan
  10. Letters for a Nation: Jawaharlal Nehru — ed. Madhav Kosla
  11. Geirge F. Kennan: An American Life — John Lewis Gaddis
  12. Text of Nehru-Liaquat Pact https://mea.gov.in/Portal/LegalTreatiesDoc/PA50B1228.pdf 
  13. Sardar Swaran Singh reply in Rajya Sabha http://rsdebate.nic.in/rsdebate56/bitstream/123456789/527138/1/PQ_57_16081966_S454_p2636_p2640.pdf 
  14. The Making of the India-Pakistan Dynamic: Nehru, Liaquat, and the No War Pact Correspondence of 1950 —- Pallavi Raghavan https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/091C9228053BF0028CD13DB7B75F2C1B/S0026749X15000554a.pdf/making_of_the_indiapakistan_dynamic_nehru_liaquat_and_the_no_war_pact_correspondence_of_1950.pdf