Date with Controversy?

A corporate executive’s tryst with pre-Independence history, in his quest for answers to unresolved puzzles surrounding the birth of two nations.

Here is a trick question: ‘India attained Independence from British colonial rule on August 15, 1947’. True or false?

If the quizmaster is Pankaj Phadnis, Group Vice-President of a large Indian Industrial House you’d get full marks only if your answer is ‘False’. He has just published a book (The War for Truth, 2007 Abhinav Bharat) l isting his arguments, petitioned the courts, filed applications under the Right to Information Act and so on.

“India did not achieve Independence on August 15, 1947; it continued as a British colony until January 26, 1950,” he says, referring to the date on which the Constituent Assembly proclaimed India a sovereign democratic republic.

We are sitting one Sunday in the drawing room of his home in Shivaji Park, the heart of middle-class Mumbai. His book on the subject was released the previous day by Fali Nariman, the constitutional law expert. He gives the impression of someone who has rid himself of something that had been gnawing at his heart for 10 long years.

The argument

His arguments on why he thinks India was still a Crown colony in August 1947: One, if India did really free herself from British rule on August 15, 1947, how come Lord Mountbatten took oath of office as the first Governor General of the so-called Independent India, swearing allegiance not to the people of India but to King George VI?

Two, how is it that the Government of India failed to counter his public interest litigation that India continued to be a colony of the British even after August 15, 1947, before the Division Bench of the Bombay High Court despite twice being given extension of time by that Court? Why would it want to run the risk of inviting the Court’s wrath if the matter could have been easily disposed of with a reply?

The third argument is somewhat technical in nature. Britain had taken the official position that as the Head of State for India and the UK is one and the same (King George VI) India is not a State ‘alien’ to that of the UK. So it is legally permissible for the UK to accord preferential tariff for Indian imports into the UK and other nations cannot complain.

“It is no longer just my claim. It has been accepted by the Home Ministry. However the Government is fighting shy of publicising it for obvious reasons. The National Archives had written to the Ministry of Culture saying my petition is too sensitive to handle,” he says.

He adds, “Do you know that the Supreme Court has not formally celebrated Independence Day all these years? The only time a function was held on its premises the Court was at pains to clarify that it was a function organised by the Bar Council of India and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court participated as a guest. The CJ of the day came to this considered opinion and his successors chose to follow him on the precedent set by him.” Sensing our disbelief, he is quick to reassure us that he is not making it up and he has the Court’s answers to this effect to his question filed under the Right to Information Act.

Past imperfect?

But in 2007 wasn’t the question of whether India became independent in 1947 or 1950 only of academic importance? He says much of human inquiry into the past, which is what historical research is all about, could then be termed meaningless. But that would be an absurd proposition.

He goes on to argue that the interim administration headed by Pandit Nehru that was in power on August 15, 1947 had taken certain administrative decisions that were manifestly unfair to the people of India. In such a situation he sees only three possibilities. One, the administration was negligent. Or two, it chose to accept unfair terms imposed by the UK government in bilateral agreements prior to August 15, 1947, as a precondition for a quick transfer of power. You can see that neither of these interpretations is particularly favourable to the Indian rulers of that period. We are therefore left with only the third possibility that nothing changed on August 15 that year and that affairs of the nation continued to be conducted subject to the overall suzerainty of the UK government as before, he says. The public therefore has the right to know what the circumstances were, he concludes.

When asked if he had in mind any particular issue that hurt Indian interests then, he says that the interim administration ought not to have agreed to a grossly unfair arrangement on the settlement of monies owed by the UK to India. It was never described as ‘loans’ but rather as ‘balances’, as though by some quirk India happened to be left with some surpluses in Britain’s custody, he says.

“We gave enormous sums of money between 1939 and 1946 to Britain. The money India did not have.” Here Phadnis adds a side note by claiming that the era of hyper-inflation that India experienced and which led to the Bengal famine that left more than two million dead, was wrongly attributed to wartime shortages when, in fact, it was due solely to the excess money supply to divert resources to the UK for its war effort.

The Sterling balance

“By August 15, 1947, the loan had ballooned to 1.16 billion pound sterling. The principles of settlement in this loan were flawed. There was no recognition of principal, the terms of repayment and collateral, etc. We should have charged at least 5 per cent on those, considering that India itself borrowed at 3 per cent locally. Yet we agreed to an interest rate of 0.81 per cent. That meant we were giving an interest subsidy of about 4 per cent on the loan or roughly Rs 60 crore at the prevailing exchange rate. Where was the need for it,” he asks.

Then there was the other aspect of notional repayment with absolutely worthless pieces of military assets that they left behind and which they couldn’t have carted with them anyway. To cap it all, the Government made the worst blunder when it committed to keep the loan designated in Pound Sterling, which, he argues, was widely seen as a worthless currency. It was only a matter of time before it was devalued.

“About two years later, when the Pound was devalued our loan got devalued by 30 per cent. How can we term this as an agreement between two sovereign States? Where then is the question of celebrating India’s Independence on August 15 every year,” he asks.”

The most charitable interpretation that one could place on whatever was agreed to then could be that the two parties, namely India and the UK, were not entering into a contract as equals but rather as servant and master.

He reminisces, “The tragedy in this country is that Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated on the wrongful belief that he allowed Pakistan to get away with Rs 55 crore of India’s money at the time of Partition when in fact it rightfully belonged to Pakistan.”

“Had the fact of India gifting away Rs 60 crore to the UK in interest subsidy come to light, would the lay public have not felt so agitated about the money going to Pakistan and possibly Gandhiji’s life spared from an assassin’s bullet?” he wonders. That would forever remain one of the many puzzling questions about India’s modern history.

He reckons that the loss suffered by India due to the unfavourable terms of the loan settlement was a staggering $5 billion then, and reckons today this would amount to $100 billion.

The search for answers

The story of how Phadnis happened to get involved so deeply with a slice of pre-Independent history is an interesting one. He credits, of all people, a real-estate agent for sparking it off.

He reminisces, “By 1997, the lease agreement of my previous house had expired and I chanced upon this house through a real-estate agent. It was a mere accident that I rented my current house, which once belonged to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. I had no idea about the history of this house. I asked my landlord what was the connection between Savarkar Sadan and V.D. Savarkar. He said that the house, which I have rented, once belonged to Savarkar.”

This immediately brought to his mind Freedom at Midnight by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins. The authors depict the house as an evil place and one in which the murder of Mahatma Gandhi was plotted. But, says Phadnis, he found the house to exude an air of calm and rather enchanting. But while he decided to take up the house, he was also worried about bad vibes that could harm his children. So he decided to find out the truth.

Thus began a delving into the history of India’s Partition and the transfer of power to the leaders of India and Pakistan. Phadnis’s training at the Asian Institute of Management, Manila, where he did his Masters programme in business administration, must have helped. The country analysis studies and the framework used by students proved greatly useful.

Much of his conclusions were drawn from data made available by the UK Public Record Office. The UK Government had just then declassified 50-year-old Cabinet files relating to the transfer of power in India. He read all the files between 1945 and 1948. It didn’t come cheap. He spent about Rs 2 lakh as documentation fees and on photocopies of the files. “It was a lot of money but my wife completely supported me in this venture. I could have bought jewellery for my wife but instead I got a trinket from history with that money,” he says.

But he regrets that the Courts in India were not supportive enough of his endeavours. The Mumbai High Court had accepted his PIL and directed the Government to give a reasoned order to his petition to declare through an official notification that India obtained absolute political independence from British colonial rule only on January 26, 1950, and not August 15, 1947.

It even passed strictures when the Government didn’t comply with its order the first time. But, strangely, when the second extension to the Government lapsed, the High Court chose not to do anything about it. Even the Supreme Court dismissed his petition, he claims.

But he would savour the experience. “When I appeared before the Supreme Court all by myself the atmosphere was so daunting. I was asking myself, ‘What am I doing here, leaving the comfortable cocoon of a corporate existence?’” He was quite nervous when he stood up to present his case. But the judges, he says, treated him well. “The court heard me but did not further entertain my petition,” he concludes ruefully.

Despite the support he received both at home and office in his endeavour, he was forced to pay a price in terms of his health. He developed cardiac problems that necessitated an angiography. But he is philosophical about it. “If you try and do too many things something goes wrong somewhere,” he says.

“People think that I’m obsessed with history. They ask me, ‘why rake up the old ghost?’ But one needs to look at history to find out what went wrong. Only with clearer understanding is it possible to erase false notions that drive a wedge between members of the society,” he says.

We couldn’t agree with him more.

D. Sampathkumar
Rahul Wadke