How Nehru aided and abetted by Lord Mountbatten stymied the wily old fox - master of intrigue - head of the British Political Department Sir Conrad Corfield to keep the Princes out of the ambit of Paramountcy and their continued presence as part of the British Empire
Sir Conrad Corfield, heavy hitter of the British Political Department in India, played the field in a Chamber of Princes replete with intrigue and conspiracy. It was fertile breeding ground and he exploited the communal cleave within the Chamber to the hilt. By showing the seductive mirror to these Princes, he took advantage of their insecurities and sense of persecution by the Congress, equally he played on the strengths of Paramountcy and its linkages to bolster the Princelings. He wanted a more active role for himself and though rebuffed by Lord Mountbatten, he conspired by plugging into the undercurrent of hostility for the Congress and Nehru. He went over the Viceroy Mountbatten directly opening a channel of communication with Lord Listowel, Secretary of State who proved to be extremely sympathetic. Corfield's original plan was for the Princes to constitutionalise their authority, limit their private expenditure, and group themselves into viable units. That is how the Confederation idea came up. Cornfield was a determined man and his game plan was predicated on saving at least two to three of the bigger states from Congress engulfment. He also decided to make absorption of other States much more difficult. The loose cannon's instrumentality was Paramountcy. Leonard Mosley in Last Days of the British Raj wrote, "The Princely States had treaties with the British Crown. Otherwise they were completely independent States, owing no sort of allegiance to British India. When the transfer of power took place, Paramountcy would automatically lapse and the Princely States would immediately get back those powers, which had been taken over by the British. In other words, all of them, the largest and the smallest of them would become independent States. They would be within their rights in expelling from their territory troops of the Indian Army, which had been stationed there in agreement with the British. Indian Railways, which ran through their States by agreement with the British, would be stopped. Indian post and telegraph offices, which operated under a franchise from the British could also be closed. Passage through the States from one part of British India to another could be barred."
It was a simple but brilliant plan. One that Corfield thought he could pull off despite Nehru and Mountbatten. But Nehru and Mountbatten were far from brittle and second guessed Sir Conrad's machinations. Nehru argued that the Princely States could never really call themselves independent because 'they did not have the power to declare war or conduct their own foreign affairs.' So, Nehru said that they must come to some interim arrangements to ensure a continuity of agreements with the rest of India, and absorb themselves into the new Indian Dominion without delay. Sir Conrad was determined and he almost pulled it off. He was a master of subterfuge and he managed to convince Lord Listowel to include a clause in the Indian Independence Bill despite Nehru and Mountbatten's protestations, which lapsed Paramountcy only on the day India became independent, so that India unless it could make arrangements by agreement before hand would be confronted on August 15 by nearly 560 odd States containing a mass of 100 million people, each State completely independent. This would have resulted in chaos and as Nehru later said would have led to the Balkanisation of India.
These were extremely trying times. And the diabolical Corfield made sure he did whatever it took to stall the integration of Princes by blindsiding Mountbatten. So, when Lord Ismay and George Abell left for London in May, 1947 with the first and disastrous (Dickie Bird) Plan for Independence, Sir Conrad went with them outwitting the Viceroy by telling him that he was going to ‘arrange about the lapse of the Paramountcy’. But shrewd as he was, he later said, “I don't think Mountbatten understood, and I did not explain, what the lapse of Paramountcy would mean. My job was to look after the interests of the Princely States. It was not part of my job to make things easier for India.” These were dangerous words. More so when they were pitted against Mountbatten, who was working with great alacrity and in a time bound manner to complete the process of partition and integration. Mountbatten had arrived with a specific brief - decolonise India - as quickly as possible. Mountbatten ran an accelerated programme to achieve this.
Corfield's manoeuvres against Mountbatten had earned him the Viceroy's wrath. History tells us that a small act of omission turned the tide in favour of Mountbatten. When the first 'Dickie Bird' Plan was abandoned in favour of the second or Menon (VP) Plan for Independence, the Cabinet summoned Mountbatten to London and the Viceroy agreed albeit reluctantly. Mountbatten prepared a “Dickie Bird Plan” for India’s independence. This plan was prepared by a committee of General Sir Hastings Ismay, Sir George Abell and Lord Mountbatten himself. The Plan Balkan was completed and presented on 15-16 April 1947 by Hastings Ismay to an assembly of provincial governors in Delhi. Due to this, this plan was also called “Ismay Plan“. The main proposal of this plan was that provinces should become first independent successor states rather than an Indian Union or the two dominions of India & Pakistan. As per this plan all the provinces viz. Madras, Bombay, United Provinces of Bengal, Punjab & North West Frontier etc. were proposed to be declared Independent. The states later would decide whether to join the constituent assembly or not. This plan was not discussed in detail with leaders of India and Mountbatten discussed it informally. He gave the plan a final touch and sent it to London. Later when he moved to Shimla, Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru joined him as a guest. Here, the details of the plan were put by Mountbatten before Nehru. Nehru rejected the plan right away and told him that this plan would invite Balkanization of India and would provoke conflict and violence. Consequently, Mountbatten cabled to England and the plan was cancelled by the Cabinet. It was also called Plan Balkan. What was accepted though was the VP Menon Plan. Writing in VP Menon - The Forgotten Architect of Modern India, RP Fernando says, “VP Menon was the Constitutional Adviser to the last three Viceroys during British rule in India.” He was the only Indian in Mountbatten’s inner team. Menon’s plan for the partition of India into two Dominions was the one, which was eventually adopted. It was Menon, who realised the need to get the Princely States to accede to India before the date of independence and that Mountbatten was the ideal person to facilitate this. When the communal violence began following independence, Menon asked Mountbatten to take charge.
And there lies the rub for Corfield. Slender it is said is the thread when delicate things hang from them. Mountbatten cabled for his York aircraft, the same one incidentally, had taken Ismay, Abell and Corfield to London with the first plan. Sir Conrad Cornfield returned on it with Lord Listowel's approval of his own nasty scheme. He ignored one very important thing, he failed to inform Mountbatten either of his return or his confabulations
with Lord Listowel. Instead, he battened down the hatches and went to work on the brief given to him
In no time, he ordered the Political Department staff to begin cancelling all the arrangements, such as stationing of troops, operations of the railways, working of post offices, customs and such like, which had been made between the Paramount Power (Britain) acting on behalf of
the Princely States and British India. Mosley writes, "He ordered his subordinates to extract from the files all confidential reports and communications, which had taken place between his department
and the Princes, including those murky and squalid occasions when the Princes had to be rebuked or disciplined or removed for their excesses. These files, he ordered to be burned. The file on the Mr A case involving the Maharaja of Kashmir was consigned to the flames, as were those concerning the pyromaniac tendencies of the Maharaja of Alwar, the murder of the dancing girl Mumtaz Mahal and other notorious scandals, also other predilections and peccadilloes of the Princes which had not, for one reason or another, even be allowed to become public."
Four tons of papers concerning the Princes were destroyed. Certain others were shipped by diplomatic bag to London to be sifted there. Even as the York aircraft with Mountbatten and Menon was flying to London, one of the crew inadvertently mentioned that Sir Conrad had returned on the flight into India. Mountbatten's famous words to Menon who was beside him were - "Sneaked back to India without telling me, I wonder what the son of a bitch is upto?" On Mountbatten's return, at Viceroy House, Nehru, Jinnah and Sir Conrad gathered for meeting on June 13 where Nehru was in a boiling rage.
Nehru asked, "By what right have the Political Dept gone ahead and taken action that will be highly injurious to the Govt of India (referring to the Dept's action in relinquishing rights acquired by the British through Paramountcy in the Princely States). I have been writing letters on this subject for four months and have got nowhere. I and my colleagues have not till now been shown the common courtesy of being brought into consultation. A completely unilateral action has been taken."
And then famously he turned towards Sir Conrad and shouted - I charge the Political Dept and Sir Conrad particularly with misfeasance and that a judicial inquiry at the highest level into their actions is necessary." It was clear that Nehru was in the midst on uncontrollable and violent anger and as Sir Conrad bearing the brunt of this virulent attack looked towards Mountbatten for support, the Viceroy kept quiet. The first response came from Jinnah who said, "If Mr Nehru is to introduce emotion, bombast and unfounded allegations into the discussion, it doesn't seem worth while going on with the meeting."
By this time there was tension and tumult in the room. Sir Conrad realised he had to defend himself and he rose to say, "I have nothing to hide. Everywhere I have acted under the instructions of the Crown Representative and with the approval of the Secretary of State. As to the relinquishing of rights, it has been accepted by the Secretary of State that if such rights were retained by the Paramount Power up to the very date of transfer, His Majesty's Govt would be false to their promise that Paramountcy would not be transferred to the New Dominions."
Both Nehru and Jinnah then pounced on him for his destruction of State documents. He replied that the process he was following was being carried out in consultation with the Imperial Record Department, which was a very skilled body. He was ready to give his personal guarantee that nothing of value had been destroyed. But he was also determined that nothing should get into the hands of the politicians, which might give them a stick to beat the Princes.
This June 13 meeting was significant because it was here that Nehru first announced that the Congress Party had accepted a suggestion that a States Department be formed to deal with the Princes and Jinnah thereupon said that the Muslim League would do the same. This is when the able Sardar Patel was given charge of the States Dept while V P Menon was made Secretary to oversee the transition period of integration. This was like pouring cold water over Sir Conrad's aspirations to remain a player. He contended that though each Dominion could decide this question for itself after the transfer of power, it would not be in keeping with the spirit of British promises and Fair Play to the Princes if these ministries were allowed to be established in advance of the transfer. Now this was integral to his plan and he said, "It seems to me that whatever the safeguards or precautions these ministries will, if established under the aegis of the Crown, be looked upon and will behave as though they have inherited the Paramountcy which the Political Dept has exercised hitherto."
The frigidity between Nehru and Sir Conrad continued thereafter, though Mountbatten did try his hand at a rapprochement with Corfield. This was to no avail for relations between the two remained strained. His only consolation being that he had made sure that in no circumstance would Paramountcy be passed on to either of the two Dominions. Slighted, he decided to resort to carefully conspiring with the more important Princes articulating very subtly that when the transfer of power was upon them, they had three rather than two choices - acceded to either India or Pakistan or chose not to accede at all and declare themselves independent, whispering calmly that this was not merely his own interpretation of the Independence Bill but Lord Listowel's understanding of it.
Sir Sadul Singh, Maharaja of Bikaner's Secret Note to his fellow travellers was something that all the Princes were using as a weather vane. The Maharaja's note understood the changing dynamic as he played counterpoint to the cabal of Princes being propped up by Cornfield and instigated by Jinnah. Once again he took up cudgels on behalf of the States and their people and advocated why the Princes needed to do the right thing. "There is one other important aspect to which I must refer. The interests of the people of the States obviously lie in joining hands with British India in establishing a strong centre, and they are keenly alive to that necessity. If the Princes are to help in attaining that objective then the interests of the people and the Princes would continue to remain identical. But if for any reason the Princes were to decide otherwise, they would be putting themselves in opposition to the very strong wishes and interests of their people. Such a state of affairs would not only be deplorable but disastrous in the interests of the ruling dynasties as it will unnecessarily alienate the loyalty and support of the people.
"Amongst the people of the Indian States there has, of late, been a rapid and general awakening in regard to political issues. Boundaries may separate the States from the rest of India, but the wave of nationalism which has come about throughout India has not failed to penetrate into our States and when it comes to a general all-India issue (as undoubtedly is the question of the States' participation in the Constituent Assembly) the people of the States feel equally in regard to their own Mother Country - India - as we the Princes should ourselves as true, patriotic and worthy sons of India. We would be straining their inherent and strong loyalty to us, if at this stage we were to take a step, which would undoubtedly be considered unpatriotic by our people also."
And then some very wise words of advice, "Furthermore, a policy of wait and see will give a loophole to interested parties to make mischief in every possible way. As it is, it is amply clear that such a policy is not only being definitely and seriously mistaken and misunderstood everywhere, but it is openly being said that the Princes in their heart of hearts do not wish to cooperate in the work of farming a Constitution. This position is calculated prejudicially to affect the negotiations which the States
will have to conduct in the future to safeguard their essential rights...It is now for the Princes to judge whether at the present crucial juncture they can afford to follow a policy of wait and watch, which I say with great reluctance can only be described as suicidal, and as forfeiting the loyalty
and support of their own people. It also goes without saying that they can ill afford to antagonise British India unnecessarily without gaining any real advantage. I desire to stress that the Princes have a golden opportunity to play a noble and decisive part in India's advance towards independence and thus to show to our brethren and to the world that we as of old do not go back on our word. Such an opportunity may never come again and we may repent not having taken advantage of it. A belated declaration of our readiness to cooperate with the Constituent Assembly will lose all its spontaneity and appeal. Our brethren in the rest of India are ready to receive us with open arms. Let the Princes of India rise to the occasion, to be hailed as co architects of the structure of India's Independence and greatness. I therefore most emphatically and with all the earnestness at my command urge that the Princes and Ministers who are present in Bombay at the General Conference, should take a bold and statesmanlike step and decide to continue to cooperate in framing a constitution by entering the Constituent Assembly at the earliest possible stage."
As was his wont, Mountbatten sided with Nehru in this devious battle of supremacy with the wily old fox Corfield, saving the Princes from his clutches and preparing the road to their absorption into the new Indian Union. Wavell's replacement handpicked by Clement Attlee had his own pressing timetable to adhere to as India made its tryst with destiny several months before the earlier set deadline of June 30, 1948.