The recent disturbances in Delhi have had far-reaching consequences already and are likely to have still more serious results both for Delhi city and the country. This is what Jawaharlal Nehru had written to his cabinet on 18 September 1947.
India was going through an unprecedented wave of violence as a result of Partition. Delhi was no exception. Its relief camps were flooded with Hindu and Sikh refugees from West Punjab as well as Muslims from Delhi and surrounding areas. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Home Minister Sardar Patel were busy fighting on many fronts.
And fake news was already doing the rounds in Delhi, to which even Rajendra Prasad had fallen victim. So, Sardar Patel had to step in. As the home minister, he saw his role as a kind of ‘fact-checker’ at the time.
Delhi riots and fake news
Rajendra Prasad, the minister for food and agriculture, wrote a letter to Sardar Patel complaining about a large group of Meo Muslims who held demonstrations in Karol Bagh. He concluded that the situation was ‘extremely explosive and the non-Muslims in that area, who are in minority, are very apprehensive of an attack’. (Sardar Patel’s Correspondence, Vol-4, Ed: Durga Das, Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1972, page 337). Prasad added a postscript to draw Sardar Patel’s attention that ‘the Government of India has made a grant of 5 lakhs for the relief of Meos. All this is bound to inflame further the feelings.’ (Page 338)
Sardar Patel was quick to dismiss the hearsay. Replying on the same day, he sent Rajendra Prasad a copy of the Delhi Daily Situation Report for 4 September 1947. Commenting on the facts presented in the report, Sardar Patel wrote, ‘You will notice that the attacks have been almost all one-sided and the aggressors have been Hindus or Sikhs. This seems sufficient to disprove the fears entertained by Hindus and reported to you.’ (Page 338) It is worth remembering that the situation was exponentially worse than Delhi riots that took place recently.
Yet, Sardar Patel the administrator was not willing to pay heed to ‘fake news’ even if they were forwarded by esteemed colleagues. He never condoned violence of any community even though he had more than enough reasons for quoting kriya-pratikriya (action-reaction) theory. He even declined to ‘give the matter such a prominence as to issue a contradiction’ noting, ‘Canards like this appear from time to time, and the best policy seems to be to ignore them.’ (page 339-340)
Decisive administrators and a Gandhi
During the violence in Delhi post-Partition, Nehru found it imperative to propose a ‘clear… common policy… for civil and military personnel’. In his 12-point note, first point was about bringing security to the citizens of Delhi for which he expected police and military actions to be ‘preventive, protective and punitive according to circumstances.’ (Sardar Patel’s Correspondence, Vol-4, Ed: Durga Das, Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1972, page 341)
When Nehru wrote to Sardar Patel about, among other things, ‘the atmosphere of Delhi is being poisoned by the numerous news sheets…’ and specifically pointed out the Hindu Outlook, suggesting strong actions against it, (30 September 1947, Page 398), Sardar informed the PM, ‘There is no doubt whatsoever that it does not deserve to exist as a newspaper. We have, however, passed a pre-censorship order against the paper and hope that either its contents would improve or it will come into further trouble and will eventually have to stop publication.’ (11 October, 1947, Page 401)
Noting the breakdown of the Delhi Police even when CID did provide reports, Sardar Patel blamed it on the ineffectiveness of the head of the police administration and wrote, ‘I have under contemplation a reorganisation of the whole Delhi police and I expect to have in a day or two proposals for its complete overhaul. I have no doubt that after this reorganisation is carried through, which would obviously take some time, the Delhi police would be a very efficient body and breakdowns like the one we had to face lately would not occur.’ (Page 402)
But it was a vision for the future. The situation around the time of India’s Independence was grave. The line between truth and lie had blurred. Nehru and Sardar Patel were bearing the brunt as the administrators who could not prevent or control the communal violence including that in Delhi.
Many times, the complaints reached Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and he would write to Sardar Patel for verification and clarification. In one such case, two Muslims related to the Khaksar movement met Gandhi and cried foul about the governments’ use of brute force in a Delhi mosque. On inquiry from Gandhi, Sardar Patel summarily dismissed claims by the Khaksars and informed Gandhi that ‘the Khaksars were conspiring to disrupt the celebrations of 15 August 1947 conspiring in the mosque and hence they were arrested from the mosque.’ (11 August 1947, Bapuna Patro-2: Sardar Vallabhbhaine, Ed: Maniben Patel, Navjivan Prakashan Mandir, 1952, Page 360)
Gandhi knew Patel for almost three decades and trusted him for his non-communal credentials. Nehru and Patel did have different approaches for tackling communalism, but in the poisonous atmosphere of Delhi, Gandhi himself had vouched for Patel many times.
The challenge Delhi faced during those testing times was enormous, but the consolation was presence of leaders like Nehru and Sardar Patel as main administrators and Gandhi as an unwavering apostle of peace.
The author is a senior columnist and writer based in Ahmedabad. Views are personal.