Referendum and the Pakhtunistan Demand (NWFP II)


(Continuation from “The beginning of the New Great Game”)

June 3rd Plan – agreed upon by Congress and Muslim League- envisaged a referendum in the NWFP to determine which constituent assembly the province will join.  Prior to this, Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress had waged a successful campaign against Sir Olaf Caroe, the governor of NWFP, removed because he was deemed by Nehru and Dr. Khan Sahib to be partial towards the Muslim League. Perceptive historians on both sides of the border have since concluded otherwise.  In any event Sir Olaf was replaced by Rob Lockhart.   It was under the new governor, who enjoyed the confidence of the Congress Party and its ministry in the Frontier that the referendum was to be held.

Howard Donovan, the Counselor for US Embassy in Delhi, in his periodic report of 26th June, 1948 addressed to US Secretary of State George Marshall, points out that “observers in New Delhi believe that the Muslim League will win the forthcoming referendum and that it is a foregone conclusion that the NWFP will join Pakistan.  This is unpalatable to Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his recent talks with Jinnah and Gandhi in Delhi were an effort to forestall… Gandhi has supported Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan… Nehru, Patel, and other Congress members of the Government are understood to be opposed to the idea of Pathanistan.  It is of course ridiculous for the Congress to oppose independence of Travancore and at the same time espouse the cause of independence for the North West Frontier Province… Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s action will further complicate the situation in the North West Frontier Province and it will in all probability lead to further strife and bloodshed”

On 27th June, 1947,  Ghaffar Khan announced that “we have decided to establish Pathanistan which will be an independent state of all Pathans”.  He also announced that the British were planning on making NWFP the base of operations against Russia and that the “arrival of Gen Montogomery and his meetings with Mr. M A Jinnah are significant”.  Taking a leaf out of Jinnah’s own political vocabulary, he told the Pathans  “Let us all organize ourselves and work under the discipline”.  He also announced the boycott of the upcoming referendum.   The editorial of the decidedly Indian nationalist newspaper “Statesman” for 28th June, 1947 stated that this amounted to an admission that the Frontier Congressmen who had been claiming that they had killed the Pakistan idea in the elections were now “afraid to meet its ghost”.  It went on to say “Nor can it be regarded simply as a provincial affair; it carries grave all India implications.  It is the first breach in the Mountbatten plan… To that plan the Congress was pledged by Pandit Nehru and AICC.  Frontier Gandhi’s boycott then suggests one of the two unpleasant things;  either the Congress High Command during the recent New Delhi confabulations possessed insufficient authority to get its decision accepted by its Pathan followers or else it abstained from exercising that authority to the extent which its June 3rd commitments morally required.  Perhaps, however, Mahatma Gandhi operating to some extent independently has been a complicating factor. This seems a reasonable deduction from recent comings and goings in the capital… his advocacy of Pathanistan with its Balkanizing implications has involved him in some logical difficulty because of his simultaneous strong denunciation of independence for the state of Travoncore.   Of the possible consequences of boycotting the referendum, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his colleagues cannot be unaware.   Under June 3 plan it was to be the lynchpin of all future constitutional change in the province. Refusal to participate thus looks like an attempt to disintegrate the procedure before it has begun… That the difficult process of the referendum should be followed not long after by general election might cause grave disorder even chaos. Yet if the votes recorded next month result in the province joining Pakistan – as now seems inevitable- it is not easy to see how a ministry which has always opposed and derided Pakistan should remain in office.”

On 2nd July, 1947, Pakistan Times carried a story by API with Peshawar Dateline of 30th June which said that “The idea of an independent Afghan state between Punjab and Afghanistan is supported by the Kabul newspaper,  Islah, the semi-official organ of the Afghan Government which says there is no reason why these Afghans should be forced to live under the domination of Indians of Pakistan or Hindustan as slaves.”

Henry Grady of the US Embassy in Delhi in his report of 1st July to the Secretary of State  wrote: “Jinnah’s charge in June 28 statement that Frontier Congress’ resolution demanding free Pathan state is ‘direct breach’ of Congress acceptance [of] His Majesty’s Government’s June 3rd Plan seems fully justified.  Frontier Congress Resolution favored establishment of a ‘Free Pathan State of all Pakhtoons; constitution based on Islamic conceptions of democracy; and refusal by all Pathans to submit to any non Pakhtoon authority’.  Jinnah pointed out Gandhi speaking at AICC meeting urged acceptance June 3rd Plan which provided for referendum to decide whether Frontier should join Hindustan or Pakistan;  Frontier Congress was bound to honor agreement.  Gandhi, however, has encouraged Khan Brothers ‘to sabotage’ plan and sudden volte-face is ‘pure political chicanery’, Jinnah said only constitution which Pakistan CA could frame would provide for ‘autonomous unit’ but Khan brothers have made false charge that Pakistan CA would ‘disregard fundamental principles of Shariat and Quranic laws’… Gandhi’s decision to effect boycott of NWFP referendum appears to be deliberate effort to embarrass League… While the Afghan Government must realize it is not in a position to control the tribes, it might be tempted to annex the tribal territories and NWFP… Therefore while League will obviously win referendum current Congress campaign, based on wholly on party considerations with no regard for international angle, could produce conditions in NWFP more precarious than at present.”  Prophetic words for what we have been witnessing till today.

On 3rd July, in a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Atlee himself, the India and Burma committee met to discuss inter alia the situation in NWFP.  Here the League’s position as expressed to Mountbatten that the League was not ready to give any assurances regarding the continuation of treaty obligations of the British Raj was cited as irresponsible and it must be pointed out to the League that this would weaken its case on the NWFP considerably.  On 4th of July, the Indian Cabinet met with Nehru, Patel, Rajagopalachari and Liaquat Ali Khan amongst others where the Government of India refuted Afghan Government’s claims on NWFP declaring that it had no locus standi.  Thus both Muslim League and Congress high command were on the face of it aligned with each other on this fundamental question.   In private the Frontier Congressmen were already conceding that a fair referendum would yield a favorable result for Pakistan.  Yet their insistence on boycott of the referendum continued for public consumption.  Rob Lockhart wrote to Mountbatten on 3rd July, 1947 saying “Although the Ministers admitted that there was no question of the North West Frontier Province wishing to join the Hindustan constituent assembly and appeared to agree that there was no way of putting any other alternative before the people except Pakistan or Hindustan without changing the plan of 3rd June, 1947, they would not agree to modify their statement.”

Defending the indefensible, Nehru wrote, in a telegram addressed to one M K Vellodi on 4th July, ” no breach of pledge involved in abstention from referendum by Frontier Congress” but admitting that “quite clear that there is no demand for separate sovereign state as everyone realizes Frontier province too small and weak for such existence”.  Apparently Nehru sahib was not reading the resolutions tabled by the Khan brothers and their followers.

As had been predicted from every corner, the referendum, to decide between Pakistan CA and Hindustan CA, held under an impartial governor who enjoyed the confidence of the Congress, with a Congress government in the province, still resulted in a landslide victory for the Muslim League on the Pakistan question.  Even though, the Congress had itself expected this outcome, its Frontier leaders denounced it as being rigged, though without any real basis. The referendum was held to be largely fair by independent observers and reaffirmed what had been expected by all quarters – quite unlike the referenda that have followed in Pakistan under our military. 

 (NEXT: The Aftermath: Dismissal of the Khan Ministry)


Filed under History, North-West Frontier Province, Pakistan, Partition