On 23 March 1947, standing beneath a huge illuminated map of the continent, Nehru opened the Asian Relations Conference with the words: 'When the history of our present times comes to be written, this Conference may well stand out as the landmark which divides the past of Asia from the future.' From the Levant to China was represented: there were delegations of Jews and Arabs from Palestine; commissars from Soviet central Asia; courtiers from the Kingdom of Thailand; hardened communist guerrillas from Malaya, and polished Kuomintang diplomats. The greater number of delegates were from the lands of Britain 's imperial crescent, and the official language of the meeting was English, but the largest individual contingents were from Southeast Asia. Few of the 200 delegates and 10,000 or so observers were known to each other. Nehru and many other Indian leaders felt that they had brought Asia to the threshold of a new millennium.1

The closing session was addressed by Gandhi, who arrived following a tour of Bihar and Bengal, where he was trying to stem the tide of communal violence. 'He looked', recalled one witness from Malaya, Philip Hoalim, 'very tired and extremely frail'. The Mahatma was an inspiration, but, in the words of Abu Hanifah from Sumatra: 'We thought the idea of turning the other cheek was silly. We had then preferred the ways of Kemal Ataturk”--the WWI hero of what later came became known as Turkey.2

The regional entity that was later to emerge, in the shape of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1967, in fact was much smaller, and next three years Nehru was plagued with doubts about whether India would survive at all. Lasting well into coming November 1947, riots and killing continued marked by military precision and unbelievable sadism: in some cases whole train loads of innocents were burned alive or disemboweled. In spite of the conspiracy theories that abound about it; Sir Cyril Radcliffe was dependent on maps and on the evidence given to him by the local political parties, with all their communal and factional biases. Whatever he ruled, most Muslims were likely to be outraged and no one would be entirely satisfied.3

The British boundary force policing the division ordained by Sir Cyril Radcliffe's commission was too small and ineffective to make much difference. Also in northeastern India, members of recently armed and self-aware nationalities such as the Nagas, Lushai and Chin, sought autonomy and looked with suspicion on the new nation-states. Local politicians agonized over the fate of what had come to be called India 's 'Mongolian fringe'.4

Hindu politicians in Assam felt they had a 'refugee problem' as poor Muslim squatters from eastern Bengal grew in numbers, allegedly enticed into the province by the local Muslim League to bolster its case for Assam to be incorporated into East Pakistan.5

Burmese Arakan suffered not only separatist and communist movements, but also the attempts of Muslim parties to annex their populations to East Pakistan. Nowhere down the length of the crescent did relinquished or devolved British authority pass quietly into the hands of homogeneous nation-states. The divisions of colonial politics were to scarify the region for two generations. In Bengal people came only slowly to understand the imminence of partition and even after the event most could not believe that their homeland had been irrevocably sundered into a crazy geographer's nightmare, preferring instead to believe that their Hindu or Muslim leaders would see their error and help to unite the region again. Somewhat surprisingly, support for this sort of idea came from the leader of the local Muslim-dominated ministry, H. Suhrawardy. The chief minister, the local Muslim League and allied politicians were acutely aware that millions of Muslim peasants would suffer if partition actually came about. They feared, correctly, that any 'East Pakistan' without Calcutta would be an economic disaster area. The partition agitation, asserted Suhrawardy, was a move by the 'propertied classes' to serve their own interests.6

He even managed to prevail on Jinnah to moderate his demands that Pakistan should include the whole of Bengal to see whether the unity plan got off the ground. Bose and Suhrawardy were both to be disappointed. The majority of the middle-class Hindu politicians opposed any move that would maintain a Muslim preponderance in Bengal 's politics. Their most vocal leader, Shyama Prasad Mookherjee, denounced the 'ten year communal raj' that the Muslims were said to have imposed since the 1935 constitutional reforms. Throughout the early part of 1947 the Hindu middle classes presented petitions and held public meetings to demand partition. The main Hindu organization, Hindu Mahasabha, the Bengal Chamber of Commerce, and the vast majority of local associations in which Hindus predominated pressed for separation. Mookherjee characterized the Bengali 'paradise to come' promised by Suhrawardy as simply more of the 'hell that exists in Bengal today', the result, he argued, of the chief minister's well-documented maladministration and the Muslim League's 'campaign of hatred’.7

Bengal indeed remained a kind of hell. If the conditions of ordinary people hadnot been so desperate it is possible that the Bengal assembly might not have voted for partition later in the summer. By now, though, even the representatives of the poor, low-caste Hindu peasants of the east of the province who had previously shared interests with the Muslim peasantry were alarmed and apprehensive. Communist organizers tried to persuade the peasantry that it was an alliance of bosses, imperialists and landlords who were fomenting the communal rioting. They had some success in northeast Bengal. Curfews were regularly imposed on Calcutta and other cities while magistrates banned groups marching in shirts of 'a certain color', presumably a reference to the green and saffron hues favored by Muslim and Hindu agitators, respectively.8

By 1947 probably a majority of Nagas were Christian, and American Baptist missionaries protected them against the British civil administration and encouraged them to evolve an identity as a chosen people of God, distinct from the pagans of the Assam valley. An excellent account of this can be found in Julian Jacobs with Alan Macfarlane, Sarah Harrison and Anita Herle, Hill peoples of northeast India, the Nagas: society, culture and the colonial Encounter.9

This sense of separate identity had been strengthened during the war when many of them had fought against the Japanese on the Allied side. British officers had armed them and taught them that they were independent people and owed nothing to the seditious nationalists of the plains. Naga political associations gradually came into being, some pressing for local autonomy, some for outright independence. In July 1947, a delegation came to meet the Congress leadership and seek guarantees for an independent Nagaland. Initially Gandhi seemed to accept this, stating that Congress wanted no one to be forced into the Indian Union. But by August the Congress leaders were rattled by the prospect that riot and secession would fragment the whole subcontinent. Their position hardened, provoking some Naga leaders to declare their own declaration of independence on 14 August. In contrast to the wild celebrations elsewhere in India, very few attended the flag hoisting in Nagaland. The messianic prophetess Gaidiliu, who had led a Naga rebellion against the British in 1930, remained in prison until 1948 at the behest of the suspicious Indian authorities.

In the northeast meanwhile Dacca was designated the capital of East Pakistan. Already tense from minor communal incidents, the town was sadly lacking in facilities for the large number of Muslim clerks and officials who were congregating there from all over Bengal. The residence of the former Nawab of Dacca was commandeered as Government House while a British army barracks became the secretariat building and dormitory home for 3,500 disgruntled clerks.

Independence in Bengal was an even more shambolic affair than it was in Delhi. A few days before 15 August the Calcutta Corporation renamed three streets in the city centre 'Netaji Subhas Bose Street', souring the occasion for the British. C. Rajagopalachari, the moderate Madras Congressman who had been nominated governor of West Bengal, also showed little inclination to respect British traditions. He entered the splendor of the throne room of Government House for his swearing-in dressed simply in homespun dhoti and cap. Perhaps it was just as well. On 15 August a huge crowd waving Congress flags and shouting 'Jai Hind!' invaded the building, stirred to action, it was rumored, by Sarat Bose. They swarmed through the governor's quarters seizing everything from door handles to table ornaments as mementos. The police removed them only after several hours by throwing tear-gas canisters into the building. In the meantime, the outgoing governor and his family beat a hasty and ignominious retreat. As Arthur Dash recalled it, 'someone who recognized him jammed a Gandhi cap on his head and the last British Governor went out of Government House by a side door so crowned and with his wife waving the new Dominion (late Congress Party) flag.10

Historian Tapan Raychaudhuri related that out in the district town of Barishal his father had kept awake throughout the night of 14 August with a gun in his hand. The disturbances he feared did not come that night, but they came soon enough.11

On his way to London, Aung San flew on ahead of the delegation to meet Indian leaders and stayed at Nehru's house in Delhi between 2 and 6 January. Nehru and Aung San had struck up a friendship when the RAF 'reds' had flown the Indian leader into Rangoon on his way to meet Mountbatten. Nehru eulogized Aung San to the Indian press. Wavell, now in his final weeks as viceroy, invited him to lunch. He was less complimentary: 'He struck me as a suspicious, ignorant but determined little tough.'12

This underestimated Aung San's growing political sophistication. Passing through Karachi, he had arranged to meet Jinnah. In fact Aung San remained suspicious of British intentions, replying in a non-committal way to Indian journalists' questions about whether he would resort to non-violent or armed rebellion should the London talks fail. He also alluded to the contemporary situation in Indo-China, where Ho Chi Minh's Vietnamese republic was fighting for its life against French reaction.13

The end of the war had revived the Burmese fear of being 'swarmed' by Indian immigrants, as one of their delegates later put it. At his press conference, Aung San declared that 'Indian vested interests -like any vested interests - are not in favor of independence.'14

The critical point during the India-Burma Committee Cabinet meeting on 22 January 1947 in London according to Kyaw Nyein, was not so much British commercial interests in Burma as the status of the hill areas. It was no use getting independence unless these territories and peoples were firmly welded to the new state. Three generations of British officials, commercial agents and missionaries had sought to deny it - control over the ethnic minorities. As with the Indian princes, though not the Indian Muslims, the British simply abandoned their long-term clients in the face of political reality. Aung San was deeply suspicious of the British Frontier Service officers and Tom Driberg increased his alarm by saying that even one British government representative at Panglong might encourage the more recalcitrant sawbwas or minority tribal leaders to hold out for too much.15

Economic disagreements were significant, too, even though they seemed less pressing than the security issues. The AFPFL wanted a full-blown nationalization plan as any compromise on this might hand the communists a propaganda victory. The British cabinet wanted enterprises such as Burmah Oil to remain private. Apart from the question of profits, ministers noted that Burmah Oil was currently dependent on another British company, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, for marketing and distribution. The last thing anyone needed that bitter winter in a shivering and malnourished Britain and Europe was an interruption of fuel supplies.16

Nationalization was to remain a contentious issue between the British and the Burmese for several years. Nationalization was to remain a contentious issue between the British and the Burmese for several years. Thakin Nu even complained to Rance that the British were dropping arms to the Karens as a preliminary to a full-scale revolt, a rumour that Rance had explicitly to deny. On 27 January, the British government announced the successful conclusion of the negotiations for Burmese independence. A smiling Aung San, accompanied by Attlee and Tin Tut, emerged onto the steps of 10 Downing Street to speak to the world's press. Burma would be independent in January 1948.17

The night before he returned to Burma Aung San had met Tom Driberg who said that it would be best to slay in the Commonwealth, and Aung apparently answered that he could not persuade his people.18


1. T.A. Keenleyside, 'Nationalist Indian attitudes towards Asia: a troublesome legacy for post-Independence Indian foreign policy', Pacific Affairs, 55, 2,1982, pp. 210-30.

2. Abu Hanifah, Tales of a revolution: a leader of the Indonesian revolution looks back, Sydney, 1972, p. 236.

3. Joya Chatterji, 'The fashioning of a frontier: the Radcliffe line and Bengal 's border landscape, 1947-52', Modern Asian Studies, 33, I ,1999, pp. 185-243.

4. Statesman, Calcutta, 5 May 1947.

5. Statesman, 10 May 1947.

6. Statesman,1 May 1947.

7. Statesman, 2 May 1947.

8. People's Age, Bombay, 20 April, 18 May 1947.

9. Stuttgart, 1990, pp. 151-70.

10. Dash, Bengal Diary, vol. IX, p. 106, Centre of South Asian Studies, Cambridge.

11. Quoted in Romonthon Atharba Bhimratipraptar paracharit cllarcha, Calcutta, 1993, p.98.

12. Angelene Naw, Aung San and the struggle for Burmese independence (Copenhagen, 2001), p.186.

13. Dawn, Karachi, 6 January 1947.

14. New York Times, 6 January 1947.

15. Hugh Tinker (ed.), Burma. The struggle for independence 1944-48, vol.II: From general strike to independence, 31 August 1946 to 4 January 1948, London, 1984, pp. 271-84.

16. Tinker, Burma, vol. II, pp. 242-3.

17. Naw, Aung San, pp. 188-9.

18. Tom Driberg, Ruling passions, London, 1978, p.217.

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