Prime Minister Clement Attlee told the House of Commons on 15 March 1946: “If India elects for independence she has a right to do so.” The Raj had, at last, decided to pack up. A British Cabinet Mission comprising three cabinet ministers—Lord Pethick-Lawrence, the Secretary of State for India, Sir Stafford Cripps, President of the Board of Trade, and AV Alexander, the First Lord of the Admiralty—arrived in India on 23 March 1946 at the initiative of Attlee to discuss and plan for the Indian independence, and the transfer of power to Indian leadership. Their discussions with the INC (Indian National Congress) and the AIML (All-India Muslim League) did not yield a common ground acceptable to both. So as to make a headway, the Cabinet Mission unilaterally proposed a plan (“16 May Cabinet Mission Plan”) announced by PM Attlee in the House of Commons on 16 May 1946, which, among other things, stated that independence would be granted to a UNITED dominion of India, which would be a loose confederation of provinces, and the Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan was turned down.

Thanks to Gandhi, Nehru had become the President of the Congress at the end of April 1946, and hence the would be first PM (Blunder#6). Nehru did a blunder at the very start of his Presidency. After the AICC ratification of the CWC’s acceptance of the ‘May 16 Cabinet Mission Plan’ on 25 June 1946, Nehru remarked at the AICC on 7 July 1946: “… We are not bound by a single thing except that we have decided to go into the Constituent Assembly… When India is free, India will do just what she likes…”

At a press conference in Mumbai three days later on 10 July 1946, he declared that the Congress would be “completely unfettered by agreements and free to meet all situations as they arise, and that “the central government was likely to be much stronger than what the Cabinet Mission envisaged.” Nehru also emphasised that the Congress regarded itself free to change or modify the Cabinet Mission Plan as it thought best.

How could Nehru talk of unilaterally changing what was mutually agreed upon by the Congress, the Muslim League, and the British? What then was the sanctity of the agreement? Nehru then made controversial remarks on the groupings proposed in the May 16 Plan.


As it was, Jinnah was under severe pressure from his colleagues and supporters for having accepted the ‘May 16 Plan’, and thus giving up on an independent Islamic State of Pakistan. Nehru’s statement gave Jinnah an excuse to repudiate his earlier acceptance of the Plan, and demand a separate state of Pakistan. Patel wrote to DP Mishra:

“Though President [Nehru] has been elected for the fourth time, he often acts with childlike innocence, which puts us all in great difficulties quite unexpectedly. You have good reason to be angry but we must not allow our anger to get the better of ourselves… He has done many things recently which have caused us great embarrassment. His action in Kashmir, his interference in Sikh election to the Constituent Assembly, his Press conference immediately after the AICC are all acts of emotional insanity and it puts tremendous strain on us to set matters right…”Maulana Azad called Nehru’s act “one of those unfortunate events which change the course of history .” Maulana Azad wrote:

“…The Working Committee [CWC] accordingly met on 8 August [1946] and reviewed the whole situation. I pointed out that if we wanted to save the situation, we must make it clear that the statement of the Congress President [Nehru] at the Bombay Press Conference [on 10 July 1946: pl. see above] was his personal opinion… Jawaharlal argued that he had no objection… but felt that it would be embarrassing to the organisation and also to him personally…”

The Congress tried its best to back-track on Nehru’s statement, and issued statements reassuring its commitment on ‘May 16 Plan’. But, the deed was done. Jinnah had got the excuse and the opportunity he wanted. Wrote Maulana Azad, who had always favoured Nehru over Patel, in his autobiography:

“…Taking all facts into consideration, it seemed to me that Jawaharlal should be the new President [of Congress in 1946—and hence PM]. Accordingly, on 26 April 1946, I issues a statement proposing his name for Presidentship… [Then] I acted according to my best judgement but the way things have shaped since then has made me to realise that this was perhaps the greatest blunder of my political life… My second mistake was that when I decided not to stand myself, I did not support Sardar Patel. We differed on many issues but I am convinced that if he had succeeded me as Congress President he would have seen that the Cabinet Mission Plan was successfully implemented. He would have never committed the mistake of Jawaharlal which gave Mr. Jinnah an opportunity of sabotaging the Plan. I can never forgive myself when I think that if I had not committed these mistakes, perhaps the history of the last ten years would have been different.”

Jinnah and the AIML exploited Nehru’s faux pas to the hilt. Jinnah contended with the British that Nehru’s remarks amounted to “a complete repudiation” of ‘May 16 Plan’, and therefore he expected the British government to invite him, rather than the Congress, to form a government. In the absence of any action in that respect from the British government, the Muslim League Council met at Bombay during 27–30 July 1946. Jinnah took the extreme step: he got the Muslim League to revoke its acceptance of the ‘May 16 Plan’, and gave a sinister call for the launch of “direct action to achieve Pakistan”. Asking the qaum to observe 16 August 1946 as Direct Action Day, Jinnah said on 30 July 1946:

“Today we bid goodbye to constitutional methods. Throughout, the British and the Congress held a pistol in their hand, the one of authority and arms and the other of mass struggle and non-cooperation. Today we have also forged a pistol and are in a position to use it… We will have either a divided India, or a destroyed India.

The date 16 August 1946 was cleverly chosen. It was a Friday in the month of Ramzan, on which the Muslims were likely to gather in large numbers in mosques. Handbills exhorted:
“Let Muslims brave the rains and all difficulties and make the Direct Action Day meeting a historic mass mobilization of the Millat.”
“Muslims must remember that it was in Ramazan that the Quran was revealed. It was in Ramazan that the permission for jihad was granted by Allah.”
This is from a pamphlet written by the Calcutta Mayor SM Usman: “…By the grace of God, we are crores in India but through bad luck we have become slaves of Hindus and the British. We are starting a Jehad in your name in this very month of Ramzan… Give your helping hand in all our actions—make us victorious over the Kaffirs—enable us to establish the kingdom of Islam in India… by the grace of god may we build up in India the greatest Islamic kingdom in the world…”

HS Suhrawardy, the then Premier of Bengal, also held the portfolio of Law & Order. He transferred Hindu police officers from all key posts prior to 16 August, and ensured that while 22 of the 24 police stations had Muslims as in-charge, the remaining 2 had Anglo-Indians. Further, to mobilise large Muslim crowds, he declared 16 August as a public holiday. Goondas and bad characters were mobilised by the AIML from within the city and outside to create trouble. While Muslim leaders gave provocative speeches on 16 August, Suhrawardy crossed all norms for a Premier and told the gathered mammoth crowd that he had seen to it that the police and military would not interfere… Suhrawardy even usurped the charge of the Police Control Room on 16 August. He made sure that any Muslim arrested for rioting was released immediately! However, after the initial heavy set back and casualties, once the Hindus and Sikhs began to hit back causing counter damage, something the AIML had not reckoned, Suhrawardy promptly called in the army.

The cumulative result of all the above was the Calcutta Carnage , the Great Calcutta Killings , the worst communal riot instigated by the Muslim League, that left 5,000 to 10,000 dead, 15,000 injured, and about one lakh homeless! Like Dyer, the butcher of Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919, Suhrawardy came to be known as ‘the butcher of Bengal’ and ‘the butcher of Calcutta’.

Wrote Maulana Azad:
“Sixteen August 1946 was a black day not only for Calcutta but for the whole of India…. This was one of the greatest tragedies of Indian history and I have to say with the deepest of regret that a large part of the responsibility for this development rests with Jawaharlal. His unfortunate statement that the Congress would be free to modify the Cabinet Mission Plan reopened the whole question of political and communal settlement…”
Nehru’s indiscretion put paid to the scheme of united India, precipitated Jinnah’s call for Pakistan, and resulted in the ghastly Direct Action described above.

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