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Witness to Creation


B.G. Verghese

THE FIRST FLUSH OF FREEDOM: RECOLLECTIONS AND REFLECTIONS; RITES OF PASSAGE: A CIVIL SERVANT REMEMBERS
By H.M. Patel
Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2005, pp. 296; pp. 440, Rs. 695.00 each

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 4 April 2005

It is not given to many to be witness to creation, not as remote or passive bystanders but as major actors. H.M.Patel had the good fortune to be among those chosen few. He carried an astonishing weight of varied responsibilities in effecting the Partition of India as a key civil servant who advised the country’s new political masters and executed the policies they laid down through turbulent and traumatic times. His memoirs, written in tranquillity, are redolent of a human and political drama that has few parallels and still remains an insufficiently told story.     Few know that H.M, as he was known, was Cabinet Secretary at the time of Partition but accepted “demotion” to take charge as Secretary Defence, a Department that represented terra incognita, having hitherto been handed by British Commanders-in-Chief under the direct guidance of the Imperial Defence Staff and Cabinet in London. It was as Partition Secretary, Vice-Chairman of the Delhi Emergency Committee, set up to handle the Partition riots that almost paralysed the Capital, Cabinet Secretary and Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, Jawarharlal Nehru, to boot that he was the king-pin in coordinating critical political-administrative-security decisions and ensuring their follow up through a variety of structures, institutions and programmes that had to be improvised or refashioned to meet the exigencies of a completely new milieu.     H.M. is unstinting in his admiration for Sardar Patel and Mountbatten who cut through many a Gordian knot, taking instant decisions on intricate problems to achieve what had to be done or risk collapse and chaos. The Muslim League’s resort to “Direct Action” and the response to it, resulted in a bloody and brutal cycle of violence and uncertainty that was aggravated by the League’s entry into the Interim Government, after first staying out. Events soon signalled that coexistence was no longer possible and Partition was inevitable.     Some have argued that Partition was avoidable and that the Congress leadership panicked into accepting the vivisection of the country. H.M. gives short shrift to that view. As one at the centre of the maelstrom, he shared the deep anxiety of Nehru, Patel and others that intensified communal strife might soon lead to civil war that could turn hope to ashes. Discounting hindsight, he is categorical in stating that “there is not the slightest doubt that at the time these decisions were taken, all ...


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