Phase One (1927-47)

ImagePhase One (1927-47) describes Advani’s early life in Sindh, narrating the heart-rending story of India’s blood-soaked partition into two separate countries — India and Pakistan — when Britain’s colonial rule came to an end. He was one of the millions of people who migrated from Pakistan to India — and also from India to Pakistan. After giving a fascinating socio-spiritual history of Sindh, Advani describes his life at home and school in Karachi (which he calls his ‘favourite city’). He also writes about two transformative influences on his life: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a nationalist organization which he joined as a swayamsevak (volunteer) at the age of 14, and Swami Ranganathananda, head of the Ramakrishna Math in Karachi and an erudite exponent of the philosophy of Swami Vivekananda whom Advani first met in Karachi.

Triumph Of Freedom, Tragedy Of Partition

We won’t eat these sweets,’ said the Hindu children in Karachi schools on that fateful day. When children refuse sweets en masse, one knows that something has gone terribly wrong. Childhood, it is said, is the sleep of reason and the celebration of innocence. In the case of these children, the age of innocence had rudely come to an end. There was sullenness, fear, anxiety, anger and above all, uncertainty, writ large upon their faces, which hardly surprised me as I moved from one Hindu colony to another on my motorcycle that day. The same heart-rending emotions combined with the question ‘What to do next?’, had also welled up in the minds of their teachers and parents. For, it was not an ordinary day. News of a bloodbath in the neighbouring province of Punjab, and the resultant mass-migration of Hindus and Muslims in reverse directions had been doing the rounds. In the months that followed, all, yes all, those children in Karachi, along with their parents, teachers and friends, would be leaving their schools and homes and playgrounds behind forever. Panic-stricken Hindu families fled in hordes to seek refuge in new towns, located across a newly drawn-up border. Along the way, thousands would be killed and tens of thousands separated from their near and dear ones. In no time, Karachi, and the rest of the Sindh province, would be cleansed of almost its entire Hindu population.

‘In this cyclonic holocaust,’ Sadhu T.L. Vaswani, a widely revered Sindhi spiritual leader, would later gravely reminisce, ‘no one knew where one would find even a humble abode to rest their tired limbs and to have a simple meal. No one knew whether they would ever again be united with their friends and dear ones. In this terrific uprooting of humanity, my two sisters and I had been mercilessly separated from our parents who continued to be in Sindh while we were forced to seek safety in Hindustan. In this worst of tragedies that had befallen our young lives, we had felt totally benumbed.’

All those who migrated from Sindh were Indians until that tragic day, and would continue to remain proud Indians in the refugee colonies that became their new homes in Bombay (now Mumbai), Kalyan, Delhi, Indore, Jaipur, Calcutta (now Kolkata), Kandla…. But their own homeland had, overnight, become a foreign nation and their beloved Karachi had become its capital.

It was the 14th of August 1947.

It was the day Pakistan was carved out of united India as a separate Muslim nation. For some years, I had been hearing an ominous phrase—‘Two Nation’ theory. My young mind had rejected it instinctively. ‘How can Hindus and Muslims belong to two separate nations, just because they belong to two different faiths?’ It made no sense to me, especially when

I looked at the social fabric and cultural milieu of Sindh, in which the Hindu could not be separated from the Muslim, and vice versa. Similarly, Sindh could not be separated from India. ‘No, Pakistan cannot happen,’ I had believed, and so had most of the Hindus in Sindh. ‘We have been part of India for thousands of years and will always remain so. India can never be partitioned on the basis of religion.’

And yet, it was.

Partition, which had seemed a fantasy until a few years ago, had become a reality. I recall that there was no jubilation in a large part of Karachi, although there were fireworks and nightlong revelry in some areas. The following day, India became independent. Again, there was no jubilation, in our part of the city. Instead, a pall of gloom had descended. The Union Jack was lowered forever in both India and Pakistan. But, two separate fl ags had been hoisted in its place—the tricolour in Delhi and the green fl ag with a crescent and a star in Karachi. ‘What an accursed fate mine is,’ I remember thinking in the days that followed. ‘I did not even celebrate India’s freedom on 15 August,’ even though for the past fi ve years, ever since I became a swayamsevak of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), I had been dreaming of nothing else but the arrival of this day. That sad and bitter thought would hurt me for years to come.

At the Feet of Swami Ranganathananda

During the last three years of my life in Karachi, I was exposed to another life-transforming influence. Every Sunday evening, I started going to the Ramakrishna Mission Ashram to listen to the discourses on the Bhagavad Gita by Swami Ranganathananda. I was as fascinated by Swamiji’s personality as I was by his elucidation, in clear, direct and profound manner, of Lord Krishna’s mesmerising philosophical dialogue with warrior Arjuna on the battlefi eld of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata war.

Swamiji was, at that time, the President of the Ramakrishna Mission in Karachi, where he lived for six years propagating the teachings of Ramakrishna Paramahansa and his disciple Swami Vivekananda. He had come to Karachi after having served for several years in the Ramakrishna Mission in distant Burma. And he hailed from Kerala! Swamiji, who had taken to the path of spirituality and humanitarian service at a very young age, was a disarmingly simple and amiable person. He soon developed a great fondness for me. In no time, his dedicated, mission-oriented and intellectually towering personality began to hold great attraction for me. ‘I should develop these qualities,’ I told myself.

Initially the audience for the Gita discourses was small—about fi fty to hundred. But the number increased week after week and soon reached a thousand! As the Ashram was located in a Muslim locality, some Muslims also began to attend the lectures, as did Christians and Parsis, including Jamshed Nasarvanji Mehta, the former Mayor of Karachi. The Ashram also became a beehive of voluntary social service, in which I too contributed my bit. I recall the Bengal famine of 1943, in which millions died due to British war time policy. Swamiji issued an appeal to mobilise food and other relief material for the famine-stricken people. It evoked a generous response and nearly five lakh rupees were collected in no time. Swamiji used the funds to purchase rice and requested the Sindh government for an export permit to send it to Bengal in a steamer via Sri Lanka. An officer told him, ‘You have to wait for your turn. The Muslim League also wants export permit for the same purpose. We’ll give you the quota after they have used theirs.’ After some weeks, the same officer told Swamiji, ‘The Muslim League sent only sixty tons. The rest of the quota is all yours.’ The Ashram sent 1240 tons.

Swamiji used to invite many distinguished personalities to visit the Ashram. I recall a memorable visit by Dr S. Radhakrishnan, the great philosopher who was then the Vice Chancellor of the Banaras Hindu University (he later became the President of India), in October 1945. He delivered two talks, one at the Ashram and the other at D.J. Sindh College, both of which drew large crowds. Dr Radhakrishnan had requested Swamiji to collect some donations for BHU. The residents of Karachi gave him a purse of Rs 50,000, which was quite a significant amount those days.

I left Karachi in September 1947, whereas Swamiji continued living there until it became impossible to carry on the activities of the Ramakrishna Mission in the city. With a heavy heart, he closed down the Mission and left Karachi in August 1948. My association with him continued almost till the time he passed away in February 2005, at the age of ninety-eight. I would meet him regularly when he was the head of the Ramakrishna Mission in Delhi in the 1960s, and also when he headed the mission in Hyderabad for a long time thereafter. My last meeting with him was in 2003, when I had gone to Kolkata for a function, and Swamiji, after having become the all-India President of the Ramakrishna Mission, was living at Belur Math, the mission’s headquarters in the city.

Our conversation at this last meeting centred on our days in Karachi, the tragic developments triggered by Partition and the role of Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Swamiji, in particular, lauded Jinnah’s historic speech in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 11 August 1947 and said, ‘The true exposition of the meaning of secularism can be found in this speech.’ In a subconscious way, this last conversation with Swamiji was to play a decisive contributory role in my own remarks about Jinnah when I went to Pakistan in May-June 2005.

Swami Ranganathananda was one of the brightest spiritual lights that shone upon Indian society in our times. He was an evolved soul, a seeker who began his life by working as a cook and dishwasher in the Ramakrishna Math, and rising to become one of the most revered propagators, both in India and abroad, of the teachings of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. He was not a conventional spiritual preacher concerned predominantly with an individual’s quest for self-realisation. His inspiringly crafted motto was: ‘Godward passion transmuted into manward love.’ His was a lifelong mission to tell the world that the myriad problems and challenges confronting it can be addressed only through a radical spiritual reorientation to human affairs.

Swamiji was prolific with both the spoken and the written word. A wandering monk, he gave thousands of lectures in cities across India and the world. For a spiritual leader who was completely detached from the material world, his lectures and writings covered a wide range of topics, including the role of teachers, administrators, scientists and businessmen in nation-building. He also interacted with political and social leaders from diverse backgrounds, leaving a positive impression on all of them. His four-volume work Eternal Values for a Changing Society pays respectful tribute to the teachings of all religions.

I recently came across a concise edition of Swamiji’s four-volume writings on the Bhagavad Gita. Titled The Charm and Power of the Gita, Swamiji in the book gives an example to illustrate the difference between the traditional orientation towards the Gita and the new man-making and nation-building orientation towards the Gita, which was imparted by Swami Vivekananda. ‘In the past’, Swamiji writes, ‘people mostly read the Gita as a pious act, and for a little peace of mind. We never realized that this is a book of intense practicality. We never understood the practical application of the Gita’s teachings. If we had done so, we would not have had the thousand years of foreign invasions, internal caste conflicts, feudal oppression and mass poverty. We never took the Gita seriously; but now we have to. We need a philosophy that can help us build a new welfare society, based on human dignity, freedom and equality. This new orientation, this practical orientation was given to the Gita for the first time in the modern age by Swami Vivekananda.’

In September 2007, I was invited to release a biography of Swami Ranganathananda at Ramakrishna Math in Paranattukara in Trichur district in Kerala, not far from his birthplace. In that biography, I came across an essay by Dr T.I. Radhakrishnan, a longtime associate of Swamiji, who records an interesting incident. Once when Swamiji was delivering a lecture on Islam and Prophet Mohammed in Karachi, one person entered the hall and sat in the last row. It was Mohammed Ali Jinnah. After the lecture, Jinnah reportedly rushed to the dais and said, ‘Swamiji, so far I had believed that I am a real Muslim. After listening to your speech, I understand that I am not. But with your blessings, I will try to become a real Muslim.’ The author of this essay says that Swamiji had similar experiences with Christians when he lectured on ‘The Christ We Adore’.

Partition: Who Was Responsible?

Woh waqt gaya woh daur gaya jab do qaumon ka naara tha

Woh log gaye is dharti se jinka maqsad batwaara tha

(That time, and that era, are gone when the slogan of ‘Two Nations’ rent the air. And gone from this world are those people whose purpose was to partition our Motherland.)

—Sahir Ludhianvi, a renowned film lyricist

The BOAC aircraft, carrying me from Karachi to Delhi, was so unlike the planes we fl y in today that it would be considered primitive by modern standards. But it was state-of-the-art in aviation those days. A twenty-year-old youth like myself would, in normal circumstances, have been completely enthralled by the pleasure of maiden air travel. But I had to forego that pleasure, on that morning of 12 September 1947, due to the extraordinary and tragic situation of my departure from Karachi to Delhi. While on the fl ight, I never realised when I left Pakistan’s air space behind and entered into India’s. On the ground, however, the boundary, invisible from the sky, was being drawn in blood, literally. Instead of the joy of freedom from the British rule, there were shrieks of communal killings and frantic migration of panicked families, hundreds of thousands of them, in both directions. Delhi was by no means free from this tension and turbulence. Most of the Punjabi refugees, Hindu as well as Sikh, were pouring into the national capital.

My in-flight reflections too were focused on my own immediate concerns—Who would I meet in Delhi? How could we ensure the safety of people migrating from Sindh and where could they be rehabilitated? What would we do to secure the release of the swayamsevaks arrested in Karachi? It was not possible for me at the time to think of the larger tragedy, of which I too was a victim. However, with the passage of time, I have repeatedly refl ected upon the one question that millions of people on both sides of the border have asked themselves: Could this tragedy have been averted?

It was no ordinary tragedy. Partition riots resulted in the slaughter of nearly one million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims on both sides of the hurriedly drawn borders. The haste and indiscriminateness that marked the British action of drawing the borders also caused the largest ever cross-migration of population in human history. More than ten million people became refugees within a time span of merely six months. Irrespective of whether they were Hindu, Muslim or Sikh, their suffering was the same. Partition was bad enough. But it was made immeasurably worse, with its painful memories lasting for a long time, by the callous manner in which it was carried out.

Most of the migrants were wondering why the exit of the British resulted in their own exit from their ancestral homes and villages, where their families had lived for centuries. In the copious literature on Partition that I have read in subsequent years, I was deeply touched by the comments from two ordinary refugees. ‘This country has seen many changes of rulers,’ an old Muslim villager in Punjab said. ‘Rulers have come and gone. But this is the first time that with a change of rulers the subjects are also being forced to change.’ Similarly, an elderly Hindu woman posed this question to Pandit Nehru, ‘Partitions take place in all families. Property changes hands, but it is all arranged peacefully. Why this butchery, loot and abductions? Could you not do it the sensible way families divide?’

Who was responsible for the division of the great Indian Family, and the butchery that accompanied it? I hold the Muslim League primarily guilty. The Two Nation Theory propounded by it to rationalise its demand for the creation of Pakistan as a separate ‘Muslim homeland’ was deeply fl awed. As I have explained earlier, it had no basis in truth—social, cultural or spiritual. To argue that Hindus and Muslims constituted two separate nations was an affront to their shared history of over a thousand years. The fl aw in the Muslim League’s demand was further aggravated by its aggression and obstinacy in attaining this demand. The Direct Action* call given by the League on 16 August 1946 resulted in the killing of thousands of innocent persons, mostly Hindus, in Calcutta in what came to be known as ‘The Week of Long Knives’. The panic created by the massacre in Calcutta could be felt even in distant Karachi. Although few could foresee it then, the bloodshed was a precursor to what was to happen in the months immediately before and after Partition. But was the Muslim League alone responsible for the tragedy of Partition? I do not believe so. We cannot forget the culpability of the British, which was evident not only in the ‘Divide and Rule’ policy adopted by them, especially vigorously, after the 1857 War of Independence, but also in the manner in which they fi nally divided India. I have found the most persuasive account of Britain’s guilt in imparting a bloody denouement to Partition in Stanley Wolpert’s book Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British Empire in India. Wolpert, an eminent American historian, who has authored many acclaimed books on India and Pakistan, became a good acquaintance of mine after he met me in New Delhi in 1998. He had brought his latest book India, which begins with a profound description of our country: ‘India is the world’s most ancient civilization, yet one of its youngest nations. Much of the paradox found everywhere in India is the product of her inextricable antiquity and youth.’*

* ‘Direct Action’ was the campaign launched by the Muslim League to demand immediate acceptance of its demand for Pakistan. It started on 16 August 1946, when massive riots were instigated by the League in Calcutta and the surrounding regions of Bengal and Bihar. Within 72 hours, more than 6,000 people lost their lives, at least 20,000 were seriously injured and 100,000 residents of Calcutta were left homeless.

In Shameful Flight (2007`) Wolpert holds Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, primarily guilty for the horrendous human tragedy that accompanied his ill-conceived time-table for partitioning Punjab and Bengal. British Prime Minister Clement Atlee had announced on 20 February 1947 that His Majesty’s Government (HMG) intended to transfer power to Indians, in a united or partitioned India, by June 1948. Mountbatten arrived in India in March 1947. In a maddeningly short span of fi ve months, he completed the task of dividing India in August 1947, with little regard for the horrifi c consequences of such rushed action. Wolpert shows that Mountbatten was well aware of the likely violence and the lack of an effective plan to deal with it. The maps of India and Pakistan drawn by Cyril Radcliffe were guarded with utmost secrecy, and the people residing in areas that were to fall along the boundary lines were deliberately kept in the dark. This naturally created tremendous uncertainty in their minds. And uncertainty often results in suspicion, which turns neighbour against neighbour, more so in a communally charged atmosphere. Coupled with the sudden collapse of the British law and order machinery, it aggravated fratricidal violence. The bitterness and prejudice that this ‘Shameful Flight’ generated has continued to blight relations between India and Pakistan even sixty years after that tragic event.

It is, of course, equally true that there are countless accounts of neighbour protecting neighbour; these inspiring acts kept the fl ame of hope and brotherhood from being completely extinguished by the typhoon of bestiality. Nevertheless, these isolated incidents of benevolence cannot lessen the human loss, grief and pain caused by the Partition riots. Whether Partition itself could have been avoided or not is a question that has beguiled historians. I am, however, convinced that Partition riots were, to a large extent, avoidable.

My reflections on the tragedy of Partition would remain incomplete if I did not express my views on the role of the Congress leadership. I share the highest regard and a deep sense of gratitude that every patriotic Indian has towards the stalwarts of India’s freedom movement. Nevertheless, in the face of a colossal catastrophe in the life of a nation, it is natural for an inquisitive mind to ask the question: ‘Should our leaders have conducted themselves differently to avert the blood-soaked division of India?’ In answering this question, I tend to agree with the analysis of the eminent socialist leader Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, with whom I would interact closely in later years. In his book The Guilty Men of Partition, Dr Lohia contends that, with the exception of Mahatma Gandhi, most Congress leaders were ‘tired’ after long years of struggle and wanted to see India become independent in their own lifetime. They agreed to Partition, much against the advice of Gandhiji, because they were led to believe by Mountbatten that it was the best and the quickest solution to the Hindu-Muslim dispute. Clearly, it was an error of judgement, though not one of intent.

Pandit Nehru himself later admitted the blunder in these words: ‘When we decided on Partition I do not think any of us ever thought that there would be this terror of mutual killing after Partition. It was in a sense to avoid that that we decided on Partition. So we paid a double price for it, fi rst, you might say politically, ideologically; second, the actual thing happened what we tried to avoid.’ Sardar Patel also later stated that he should never have consented to Partition. ‘You cannot divide the sea or the waters of the river,’ he said.

Only the Mahatma remained unreconciled to Partition until the very end. Above all else, he believed India’s division on communal lines to be an ungodly act. Although he too ultimately gave his consent, he did so in the desperate hope that Partition could bring the ongoing communal bloodbath to an end. He harnessed his entire moral force to spread the message of peace and harmony in the midst of fl ames of hatred and violence. He did succeed, but only partially and locally, such as in Noakhali where he undertook a heroic padyatra. Elsewhere, he too was powerless to stop the killings and the two-way movement of refugees. Clearly, Partition and its cruel aftermath, once set in motion, had attained a force of inevitability beyond any human control.

As we reminisce, we cannot but be struck by the collective inability of the leaders of our freedom movement to anticipate the likely negative course of events and, hence, to try to prevent its inevitability. One way of looking at their failure is to recognise that they too were, after all, human. And to err is human. More often than not, it is not human beings who control their own history but history that controls them. Having said this, I also feel that a nation is better served if its people and leaders acquire a better understanding history and forge stronger unity and, thereby, a greater ability to shape its destiny. For this, we—and by ‘we’ I mean both the people and their leaders—need not only a truer knowledge of India’s past but also a sounder vision of India’s future. We should know where we as a nation have come from, and where we ought to go. We should know, too, the fundamental basis of India’s unity so that we appreciate the basic absurdity of India’s Partition. This, according to me, is the main lesson that we should learn from the epochal development that took place in India’s history in August 1947.


In the preceding pages, I have described the seminal infl uence that Swami Ranganathananda, the head of the Ramakrishna Mission in Karachi, had on me in my formative years in Sindh. Like me, he and his institution in Karachi too were victims of Partition. The Ramakrishna Math was vandalised by communal mobs and, with great reluctance and utter helplessness, Swamiji left Karachi for good in August 1948. While still in Karachi, Swami Ranganathananda wrote a lengthy essay on 15 August 1947 refl ecting upon the past, present and future of India. I consider this, along with Maharshi Aurobindo’s radio address to the nation on the previous day, as the two most profoundly philosophical articulations of Indian nationalism. Reading these two, I feel as if it is the Soul of India that is speaking. Both belong to India’s long and hoary rishi parampara (tradition of seers) and both have prophesied that the division of India is not the fi nal and irreversible development in the history of our ancient nation.

Swami Ranganathananda writes: ‘When the abnormalities of the present situation with its gushing passions and blinding hates will pass away, leaving the Indian sky clear, the country will recognise the correctness and cogency of the above faith and vision; the faith of a steady few will then become the enthusiasm of the many, leading to a reconciliation and reunion of the sundered parts, and the unsettling of a settled fact through popular will.’

Similarly, Maharshi Aurobindo, too, says: ‘The old communal division into Hindus and Muslims seems now to have hardened into a permanent political division of the country. It is to be hoped that this settled fact will not be accepted as settled for ever or as anything more than a temporary expedient.… This must not be; the partition must go. Let us hope that that may come about naturally, by an increasing recognition of the necessity not only of peace and concord but of common action, by the practice of common action and the creation of means for that purpose. In this way unity may fi nally come about under whatever form—the exact form may have a pragmatic but not a fundamental importance. But by whatever means, in whatever way, the division must go; unity must and will be achieved, for it is necessary for the greatness of India’s future.’ I seek the indulgence of the readers to reproduce the two texts as appendices. Suffi ce it to say here that the hope of Mahayogi Aurobindo (Appendix I) and Swami Ranganathananda (Appendix II) remains my hope too. It is a hope that Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya and Dr Rammanohar Lohia, the great socialist leader, had articulated in the form of a confederation between India and Pakistan in their historic joint statement in 1964. It is the same hope that I have often expressed by endorsing the concept of the confederation, which should also include Bangladesh.

All that I have written above on the calamity of Partition, those responsible for it, and how we might possibly undo its worst effects in the future is, obviously, a perspective I have gained in hindsight in later decades. It is the outcome of study and contemplation during my life as a political activist in India, throughout which, with the passing of each year, my departure from Sindh has become a distant memory. However, as I have mentioned earlier, the thoughts that preoccupied me as I departed from Karachi on the BOAC fl ight were anchored in my own immediate concerns: How will I meet Rajpalji? How will I fi nd the RSS offi ce in Delhi? I should, therefore, take this narrative to the point where my air journey from Karachi to Delhi brings the formative phase of my life in Sindh to an abrupt end, and also inaugurates the next phase of my life—as a RSS pracharak in Rajasthan.