Negotiations on Punjab–1947

By Ishtiaq Ahmed

The News, September 1, 2007

The Punjab governors, Sir Bertrand Glancy (from April 7, 1940 to April 7, 1946) and Sir Evan Jenkins (April 8, 1946 to August 14, 1947) had been warning repeatedly that if India was partitioned, the partition of Punjab would become impossible to prevent. But attempts to keep it united continued almost to the very end. Sir Khizr Hayat Tiwana proposed that the Punjab could choose to remain undivided and seek direct dominion status within the British Commonwealth as an independent unit.

Mountbatten, otherwise notorious for a hurried and bloody partition of India, was supportive of a Punjabi solution that would result in an agreed international boundary. He threw his weight behind a meeting held in May 1947 between Jinnah and the Maharaja of Patiala for a settlement on the Punjab. That round of negotiations failed. The Punjab Muslim League, the Punjab Congress and the Sikhs exchanged messages and even met a number of times to find a solution to the Punjab problem, but the Congress and the Muslim League top leaderships at the national level overruled an independent settlement among Punjabis.

The last serious attempt to achieve a Muslim-Sikh settlement that would keep the Punjab united took place in June-July 1947 when Major Short, a man very close to the Sikh leaders and Sir Penderel Moon (then a minister in the Bahawalpur State), an old Punjab hand, tried to facilitate a deal, but it too fizzled out because the Rawalpindi massacres had created deep suspicion among the Sikhs while the Muslim leaders did little to assuage their fears.

Meanwhile, on June 3 the Partition Plan was announced. It stated that contiguous Muslim majority areas in the Punjab will be separated from non-Muslim ones, but also "other factors" will be considered when demarcating the international boundary. The statement also emphasised the special case of the Sikhs and the need to protect their interests. Using the 1941 census as the basis of population distribution, 17 districts constituting the whole of Rawalpindi and Multan divisions and except for Amritsar district the rest of Lahore division were notionally placed in western Punjab. The remaining 12 districts constituting the Jalandhar and Ambala divisions were placed in eastern Punjab.

In subsequent clarifications, the government stressed that such a division was only notional and the actual border between India and Pakistan would look different once the Punjab Boundary Commission had considered the arguments of the parties involved and the chairman announced the boundary award.

On July 17 a Punjab Boundary Force under Major-General Rees was announced. It was to monitor events in 12 central districts -- Lahore, Sialkot, Gujranwala, Sheikhupura, Lyallpur, Montgomery, Amritsar, Gurdaspur, Hoshiarpur, Jalandhar, Ferozepur and Ludhiana -- where most trouble was expected to take place. The PBF had no jurisdiction in the Sikh states and was woefully undermanned. It had at most 9 to 12 thousand men at its disposal, all locals except for the highest officers who were British, to cover 37,500 sq. miles. The PBF was to take up its task from August 1.

The India Independence Act of July 18 laid down the mechanism for the partition of the Punjab. The Punjab Assembly (elected in 1946 but in suspension since March 5 when the governor's rule was imposed) was to meet, but as two separate entities: East and West Punjab assemblies. The notional division of Punjab was used for separating the two assemblies. They were to meet to vote on whether the Punjab should be partitioned or not. If either assembly voted by majority in favour of partition it would be implemented.

The Muslim members of the East Punjab Assembly voted in favour of keeping Punjab united while the Hindus and Sikhs voted for the Punjab to be partitioned. By an overwhelming majority it voted in favour of the partition of the province. In the West Punjab Assembly Muslim members, including Khizr and other member of his Unionist Party, voted to keep Punjab united while Hindus and Sikhs wanted it to be partitioned. The government considered the result a sufficient basis to accept that the Punjab will be partitioned since the East Punjab Assembly had voted in its favour.

A Punjab Boundary Commission comprising Muslim League nominees, Justice Din Muhammad and Justice Muhammad Munir, and Justice Mehr Chand Mahajan and Justice Teja Singh, nominees of the Congress and Sikhs, was set up. Sir Cyril Radcliffe was to be its chairperson. The commission met during July 21 and 31 and heard the arguments from not only the main parties but also minor ones such as Christians, Anglo-Indians, and the scheduled castes (so-called untouchables). Sir Cyril never attended any of the sessions held in the premises of the Lahore High Court. He remained in Delhi and received the transcripts of the proceedings everyday.

Meanwhile, violent activities were affecting more and more of the Punjab. From the middle of June, besides Lahore and Amritsar, Gujranwala, Sialkot and Jalandhar where reporting rioting. Non-Muslims were largely on the receiving end but in Gurgaon district in the Ambala division the Muslim minority was increasingly being attacked by the Hindu Jats. From the middle of July reports of Sikh jathas beginning to operate in Hoshiarpur, rural Amritsar, Ludhiana and Jalandhar were coming in.

The exodus of non-Muslims from the western districts had started already in March 1947 and by August 15, according to Major-General Fazal Muqeem, nearly 300,000 had crossed into the eastern districts. Other estimates put the figure at at least 500,000. On the other hand, although the Sikh jathas had begun to attack on a large scale in the Amritsar district from about August 9 the first large-scale movement of Muslims from the eastern districts towards the western regions was reported as late as August 12. The whole of Punjab was now disturbed.

It must be said to the full credit of the Punjab Governor, Sir Evan Jenkins, that despite his Hindu, Muslim and Sikh officials becoming partisan, especially after having opted for either India or Pakistan as was allowed to them, he was able to prevent large-scale killings till he handed over charge to the East and West Pakistan governments on August 15.

In the figures on casualties up to August 2, 1947, the governor reported 3,753 Hindus and Sikhs killed and 879 Muslims. Most of the non-Muslim deaths occurred in Rawalpindi district while most Muslims lost their lives in Gurgaon. August 2 onwards, the scale of killing increased dramatically. In the final essay next week in this current series on the Punjab partition we will try to explain what happened after British colonial rule ended in Punjab after 98 years.

The author is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore on leave from the University of Stockholm. Email:

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