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Great Management Disasters in history: India’s partition
Ajay Kaul, Author Mumbai Matinee Ajay Kaul, Author Mumbai Matinee
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: San Diego, CA
Wednesday, April 10, 2019


The manager abdicated his accountability and those around him did not call this out. The end result was a human tragedy that rivaled the holocaust: 2 million massacred and 15 million rendered homeless! For the utter callous, unplanned and irresponsible way that it was managed, India’s partition in 1947, makes it to the list of Great Management Disasters in history.

The partition of the Indian sub-continent into the nations of India and Pakistan in 1947 was meant to ease tensions between two groups, but it led to a colossal human tragedy where two million lost their lives and fifteen million were rendered homeless. Evaluation of key facts points to gross mismanagement by the British who were in a hurry to leave the sub-continent after their coffers had been rendered empty post World War II. India had been a jewel in the British Crown for two hundred years, but suddenly after World War II, it turned into a liability for the Colonial Empire.

Mountbatten, flanked by Nehru and Jinnah, announced the partition of India |wikimwdia

The Labor Party led by Clement Attlee came to power in Britain in 1945 post World War II and set a target of June 1948 to grant independence to India. Post World War II, staying in India was no longer financially viable for the British. So when Luis Mountbatten landed in India in March, 1947 as the last Viceroy, his primary task was to determine the path for a transfer of power to an Indian government within the June 1948 deadline.

The environment: Tensions were running high in India when Luis Mountbatten arrived as the last Viceroy. The two major political parties – the Indian National Congress led by Nehru and the Muslim League led by Jinnah, were at odds with each other. Jinnah was insisting on dividing the sub-continent into a Muslim majority Pakistan and a Hindu majority India. He was concerned that the 25% Muslim minority would lose its voice in a Hindu dominated India. The Indian National Congress was strictly opposed to the division and Sir Winston Churchill, the leader of the opposition, was in favor of a gradual handover of power to India. Read: Churchill letter to Attlee

Newspaper headlines covering Calcutta Riots of 1946

A stark reminder to Mountbatten about the dwindling law and order resources at his disposal was the Direct Action Day riots in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in August 1946 that left about five thousand dead. Muslim League leader, Mohammad Ali Jinnah had called for a Direct Action Day on August 16, 1946 to drive home his demand for a separate nation for Muslims.  Rioting erupted soon after a huge crowd collected in the center of Calcutta to demand a separate Pakistan. With policemen absent, the rioting lasted three full days before the army was called in. By then, about five thousand lives had been lost. This was the first sign of British abdication of responsibility and authority in India post World War II.

Time, resources, scope and Budget: Viceroy Mountbatten had about a year to finalize the transfer of power to ensure a smooth transition to the new governments. Intelligence reports from the provinces of Punjab and Bengal indicated that there was unrest – more administrative/law enforcement resources were needed to ensure peace in these provinces. But Britain was in a hurry to get out and the last battalion of armed forces was returned to Britain in June of 1947. With a depleted group of law and order resources at his disposal, Mountbatten dropped a bombshell – independence would be granted and the sub-continent divided into India and Pakistan by August 15, 1947 – in less than three months and almost a year ahead of the timeline set by Prime Minister Attlee. So in one stroke, Mountbatten had increased the scope of the initiative, cut the budget and resources available to enforce law and order and shortened the timeline for the completion of the project. In short, a perfect recipe for disaster had been created.

Lack of Communication: While we place a lot of blame on Mountbatten and the British government, the political leaders – Nehru and Jinnah added to the confusion by not communicating the implication of the partition. The announcement that the sub-continent would be partitioned into India and Pakistan and handed over to the respective governments within three months, took everyone by surprise and created confusion. What did the partition mean to the residents? Both Jinnah and Nehru intended Pakistan and India to be secular nations. This meant that the current population mix could stay unchanged. Mountbatten too, did not communicate that the boundaries would be laid out based on the 1941 census. The population panicked – rumors started floating – people started taking on themselves to facilitate the creation of the boundaries – push out the minority as much as possible. The result: minorities on both sides ended up at the receiving end. The moment the plan was announced, ethnic cleansing started and due to a lack of law enforcement resources, the carnage kept getting bolder with each passing day.

Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the head of the Boundary Commission finished drawing the boundaries and presented them to Mountbatten on August 9, 1947. But Mountbatten sat on it for one whole week, till August 17 – two full days after independence. Both Nehru and Jinnah had no idea where their countries’ boundaries lay when they hoisted their respective national flags. And suddenly, two days after the new nations were formed, people realized that they were on the wrong side of the boundary. The ethnic cleansing that had started before independence, went into high gear. The British intent in delaying the announcement of the boundaries post transfer of power is a clear abdication of accountability. Mountbatten himself shared his decision for delaying the announcement – he did not want the British to be entangled in the partition violence and held responsible for it.

Planning/Logistics: While the political leaders were engaged in the “partition – yes or no” debate, there was no thought given to the logistics of the partition. Sir Cyril Radcliffe was identified as the owner of laying out the boundaries, but he was given just one month to finish the job!

Sir Cyril Radcliffe and the Radcliffe Lines |indiatimes.com

No thought was put to how movement of people would be managed. All sides seemed to be hoping that there would be no movement of people across the two countries. But people did move – en masse – they moved on foot, on bullock carts and on cramped trains. With limited administrative support, hundreds of thousands of migrants died of starvation, exhaustion and lack of medical care. The most gruesome of all modes of mass transport were the trains, some mere coal wagons. Without proper escort, they ended up being mass graveyards in motion as they got attacked at various stations en-route to the final destination. The minuscule few that had armed escort were the ones that finally made it alive to their respective destinations. Since provincial governors had been providing reports of unrest in the border provinces, to not plan for mass migration was an abject dereliction of duty. Mountbatten was asked by a few leaders to be prepared for mass migrations, but he gave mere lip service, knowing he was short on resources. Watch: The Day India burned

The result: About 2 million lost their lives across both sides of the border. 15 million were rendered homeless – that meant thousands of refugee camps sprung up in both countries to provide food and shelter to the displaced masses. Lady Mountbatten was so horrified at the outcome that she herself started volunteering at the refugee camps. It took about a decade to resettle the migrants – about 3% of the population ended up being migrants.

On the demographic side, the entire landscape of South Asia underwent a drastic change. In 1941, Karachi, Pakistan’s first capital, was 47.6 per cent Hindu. Delhi, the capital of independent India, was one-third Muslim. By the end of the decade, almost all the Hindus of Karachi had fled, while two hundred thousand Muslims had been forced out of Delhi. The most impacted city though, was the bustling metropolis of Lahore – one of the richest and most cosmopolitan cities in British India, culturally and economically. Lahore was in flames and several key landmarks like the Shahalam Market were razed.  It took several decades to get back its vibrancy, but it was never able to regain its cosmopolitan vibe. Read: Post-partition Lahore

Post-mortem: At the core of the tragedy was a lack of law enforcement resources and the hurried exit of the British. If Mountbatten had not compressed the one year timeline to less than three months after announcement of the partition, the chaos and the bloodshed could’ve definitely been avoided. Sticking to the original timeline would’ve ensured re-establishment of law and order before transfer of power as depicted in the original timeline below:

Mountbatten’s foremost task should’ve been to restore law and order and establish confidence in the administration across India after the Calcutta riots of 1946. It was clear that a bunch of miscreants were causing trouble across a few provinces and these elements needed to be brought to book instead of being given a free hand.

After partition was announced, a lot of thought and effort needed to be spent on managing the logistics – from communicating to the public about the process of laying out the boundaries to setting up transport and medical infrastructure to support migration. The two month timeline for handover of partition was ridiculous and should’ve been called out by the ruling Labor party as well as the political leaders – Nehru and Jinnah.  Nehru and Jinnah seemed more excited about taking on the reigns of government than thinking about the safety of their peoples. They should’ve spent a lot of time with the masses assuring them that minorities on either side of the boundaries could stay put without any fear of violence. The gradual transfer of power should’ve included appointing a few regional Governors with outside support of the British administrators, while retaining British control over key provinces like Punjab and Bengal. Gandhi, who was a brilliant mass-communicator, went into a shell, disappointed that the country was being partitioned. Gandhi took to fasting to induce mobs to give up violence. Instead, Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah should’ve pressed Mountbatten to boost the security infrastructure and set that as a pre-condition to any political dialog.

Surprisingly, the carnage of the partition got lost in history books, maybe because the world was busy in re-construction after a deadly World War II or maybe the British Empire used it’s might to suppress any coverage. The leaders of Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan were tried under the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, but no investigation or trial was carried out to book the guilty in the gross human carnage that followed the partition.

Seventy years after the partition, India inaugurated the Partition Museum on August 25, 2017 in the city of Amritsar – to maintain a central repository of stories, materials, and documents related to the post-partition riots and migrations that followed the partition.

The world acknowledged the partition migration as the biggest mass migration in recent human history, yet stopped short of investigating what led to it. In the end, it was a clear abdication of accountability and responsibility on part of the British and Mountbatten. The crown jewel of the British Empire deserved a better parting gift than a hurried exit.

Any stories you can share where the leaders abdicated accountability, leading to a disastrous outcome?

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