The Golden Pagdi is Much Better for a Sepoy than a Congress Topi

Firsthand accounts of the situation on the ground on the eve of India's independence including the role played by Qazi Muhammad Essa.
The Golden Pagdi is Much Better for a Sepoy than a Congress Topi

On June 3, 1947, Louis Mountbatten stood behind the mike and made the historical announcement on behalf of the British government: England was quitting India. Mohandas Gandhi’s botched Quit India Movement five years ago was now a success. Of course, the Congress Party was quick to pocket the full credit for this success.

In reality, it was not success but surrender.

There are stories, and there are untold stories, whose number is often more numerous, which is perhaps why they remain buried. As DVG memorably says, “people occupying positions of great power take extraordinary care not to commit themselves to the truth of their decisions or deeds either in speech or writing.”

This essay is a curation of a few such untold stories on the eve of the partition of India also known as the independence of India, culled from our archives at The Dharma Dispatch.

The Golden Pagdi is Much Better for a Sepoy than a Congress Topi
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Commenting on the national mood and sentiment beginning roughly in the middle of 1946, a former journalist at The Bombay Chronicle says,

The majority said: “Quit”; the Moslem minority said: “Divide and quit.”

But there was another facet to this national mood, a facet that throws myth-busting light on alleged settled truths—for example, that Mohandas Gandhi and his Congress Party alone got us independence.

Two weeks after Mountbatten made the historic announcement, the aforementioned journalist was returning to his car after an hour-long interview with Ismay, Mountbatten’s Chief of Staff, held at the Viceroy’s house, renamed Rashtrapati Bhavan. The journalist was escorted by an immaculately uniformed sepoy, an act of courtesy shown by Ismay. The sepoy, a veteran security staff had seen the regimes of several viceroys. The journalist asked him:

“Tell me, what does Swaraj mean to you, personally?”

“I really don’t know. I think Gandhiji will come to live in this building.”

“Would you like that?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think I’ll be paid well. I think I’ll earn a lesser salary than now. And my uniform—that may have to go. Khaddar uniforms don’t look good. The British made the best uniforms. My golden Pagdi is much better for a sepoy than a Congress Topi.”

There are a million messages hidden beneath this conversation.

Muslim League Paralyses the Administration

Around the same time, elsewhere at many high tables in Delhi and in posh hill-station holiday resorts, feverish meetings were being held round the clock. The subject was familiar: the Muslim League, i.e. Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s obstinate demand to slice India. As we’re all familiar, the path to Jinnah’s obstinacy was paved with the marbles of Gandhian appeasement that had begun nearly forty years ago. And by 1946, Jinnah had succeeded in uniting the entire Indian Muslim community under his umbrella of fanaticism.

But there was a little-known side to this appeasement.

The Golden Pagdi is Much Better for a Sepoy than a Congress Topi
What the Archives Tell us: The Congress was Hated, Not Loved After Independence

The Congress party, which now had an impressive influence in the Central government, had allowed the Muslim League to make substantial inroads in the administration. At every turn, the Muslim League created a series of deadlocks in the day-to-day functioning of the administration through strong-arm tactics. Yet, the Congress only escalated its appeasement conceding more and more ground. It was yet another triumph for the Muslim League on an important turf: it had effectively paralyzed the administration from within. By the time Mountbatten made his announcement, the situation was already beyond repair. Congressmen who headed various departments issued sheepish circulars to senior bureaucrats: prevent your department from “rusting.” Here is a small data point that illuminates this paralysis and internal sabotage created by the Muslim League: there was food shortage to the tune of 45,000 tons and clothing shortage of 800,000 yards.

Benegal Shiva Rau’s Encounter with Qazi Muhammad Essa

Now we turn to Benegal Shiva Rau, younger brother of Benegal Narasing Rau, one of the drafters of the Indian Constitution. Benegal Shiva Rau was a journalist and a correspondent of The Hindu and Manchester Guardian. Stationed in Delhi, he had a close and first-hand knowledge of the tumultuous events during that period.

Muhammed Essa with Jinnah
Muhammed Essa with Jinnah

Benegal Shiva Rau narrates a revealing account with a “curly-haired, burly young Moslem in his thirties” accompanied by a “squad of four hefty Pathans” at the Imperial Hotel, Delhi. The burly young Moslem was Qazi Muhammad Essa, a wealthy and powerful Zamindar of Quetta, which was still part of India. Essa was one of the most die-hard lieutenants of Jinnah and had set up the Muslim League office in the Baloch Province. He toured various cities and towns of Northwestern India drumming up support for the separate Muslim country of Pakistan by delivering highly-charged speeches to the Muslim community.

In the first week of August 1946, Muhammad Essa delivered a fiery speech at the Anglo-Arabic College in Delhi. Benegal Shiva Rau covered the speech. This is how he describes it:

Essa made a speech at the Anglo-Arabic college here in Delhi. I was there and heard him speak. He made a vicious attack on those Moslems who had joined the Congress and threatened them… The words he used were ‘WE GIVE TEN DAYS TO THESE HERETICS TO RETURN TO THE FOLD OR ELSE THEY WILL BE DEALT WITH AS TRAITORS UNDER THE KORANIC LAW’.

Capitalisation Added

The Islamic word for heretic is Murtad. It is an offence punishable by death according to the Quranic law.

Benegal Shiva Rau then recounts how after Essa’s fanatical speech, the American correspondent of the Chicago Tribune, Alfred Wagg III spoke to Essa. Brimming with confidence and full of bluster, Essa told Wagg: “You’re wasting your time here, in Delhi. If you want a really hot story, go to Calcutta immediately. That’s where you’ll see the real fireworks.”

The Golden Pagdi is Much Better for a Sepoy than a Congress Topi
The Lal Ishtahar and the Bloodbath of Hindus in Bengal

As we now know, Essa was simply making a declaration of a sure-shot eventuality that would occur: the deadly Direct Action Day of August 1946, which occurred directly under the Muslim League ministry headed by Suhrawardy, the butcher of the Hindus of Calcutta. Sure enough, Wagg landed in Calcutta and witnessed the genocide of Hindus and reported it. Equally, this is how The Statesman described the Direct Action Day:

…It is a jehad, a holy war… “This is not a riot. It needs a word found in mediaeval history, a fury. Yet a fury sounds spontaneous, and there must have been some preparation and organization to set this fury on its way. ... It has been three days of unprecedented, concentrated, Indian civil war.

Quite obviously, Qazi Muhammad Essa remains a highly-decorated national figure in Pakistan. In 1990, Pakistan Postal Services issued a postage stamp in his honour, regarded as one of the “Pioneers of Freedom.” His son, Qazi Faez Issa is a justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. A nephew, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi was Pakistan's High Commissioner to India in 1997.

A Nation is Known by its Heroes

On this side, this is what happened fifteen months after India attained independence:

Honourable Members…I ask you, Members, to stand in your places to pay our tribute of respect to Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who by his grim determination and steadfast devotion was able to carve out and found Pakistan and whose passing away at this moment is an irreparable loss to all.

That was the Honourable President of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad addressing the Constituent Assembly of India on Thursday, 4 November 1948.

That was the Honourable President of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad addressing the Constituent Assembly of India on Thursday, 4 November 1948. It remains the greatest example of peak Gandhian infection.

Perhaps the wise and noble President had forgotten his own recently-lived experience dealing with the Muslim League and Jinnah. Perhaps he, as a freedom fighter, had failed to understand the real meaning behind Jinnah’s “grim determination and steadfast devotion.” That Jinnah and his Muslim League did not fight for India’s independence but for a separate Muslim Nation. Perhaps he did not read his own colleague, K.M. Munshi’s memo, which said:

Pakistan was created to placate Mr. Mohamed Ali Jinnah who wanted a kingdom for himself.

As they say, the character and strength of a nation is known by the character of people it honours as heroes.

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