The Indus River system is intimately tied to the subcontinent’s destiny, from ancient civilisations, to invaders, to modern-day geopolitics. Strategic affairs analyst Uttam Kumar Sinha puts into perspective the Indus Water Treaty, which is up for debate once again. An excerpt:
How did the Ferozepur headworks come to India? While much of the Partition history is about the role of the great leaders, their differences, actions and miscalculations, the foresightedness of the Indian civil engineers in understanding the seriousness of the asset distribution, in this case the headworks, and their fear of India being at a disadvantage by the boundary has received inadequate attention. Kanwar Sain’s account in his memoir is riveting. He writes:
The Award was to be declared on August 15, 1947. Sarup Singh, Chief Engineer, Irrigation, Punjab, left Lahore on August 8, 1947. On reaching Ferozepur, in the evening he learnt from the Deputy Commissioner, Ferozepur, that the latter had received instructions from the Governor of Punjab to select his headquarters outside the three tehsils of Ferozepur district, namely Ferozepur, Zira and Fazilka, as these were likely to be allocated to Pakistan. This meant the transfer of Ferozepur Headworks and the reach of the Gang Canal to Pakistan. He realised the seriousness of this proposal both to east Punjab and to Bikaner. He immediately sent a special messenger to me with a secret, sealed letter written in his own hand, informing me of the situation.
Perturbed by the possibility of the three tehsils being awarded to Pakistan and that the Ferozepur headworks along with the Ganga Canal would be ‘lost to India’, Sain hurriedly went to Sardar Pannikar and apprised him of the situation. Pannikar, who did not hesitate to play tough with the Maharaja of Bikaner, was the prime minister of the princely state since 1944 and had received the Rajput title of ‘Sardar’ for his illustrious service. Sain explains the urgency:
At first, Sardar Pannikar argued that even if the Ferozepur Headworks went to Pakistan, Bikaner state would receive its share according to the 1921 Tri-partite Agreement for sharing the waters of the Sutlej river. I expressed my doubt and anxiety and requested that the matter be brought to the notice of His Highness [of Bikaner], who was contacted immediately. Within an hour, Sardar Pannikar and myself were called to Lalbagh Palace. Explaining to His Highness, I expressed my strong fear that if the Ferozepur Headworks and the Gang Canal went to Pakistan, the Gang Canal Colony, which had been established by his Highness’ illustrious father, would be ruined, as on one pretext or the other, it would not receive its fair share of water. This caused anxiety to His Highness. He asked what could be done. I explained that whatever could be done at my level, I had already done in submitting a strong representation to the Radcliffe Commission.
Sain was not too sanguine about Bikaner’s concerns on the Ganga Canal being addressed by the Punjab Boundary Commission. It prompted him to search for another route—to influence Mountbatten and impress upon him Bikaner’s situation. Mountbatten had known the Maharaja Sadul Singh as they had served together in the trenches of WWI. The Maharaja had hosted Mountbatten when he visited Bikaner in July 1947 along with his wife and daughter with great pomp and show, accompanied by a smart march-past, splendid uniforms and magnificent bearings of all military units. In the investiture ceremony that followed at the Lalbagh Palace, Mountbatten invested the Maharaja as a Knight Grand Commander of the Star of India, an exalted honour. Sain suggested that the Maharaja ‘take advantage’ of the friendship he had developed with Mountbatten and drafted a telegram on behalf of him. After some amendment by Sardar Pannikar, this was dispatched to Mountbatten. It read:
It is strongly rumoured that Boundary Commission is likely to award Ferozepur Tehsil to Western Punjab. This Tehsil contains headworks of Bikaner Gang Canal and under existing agreement State is entitled to receive for its perennial canal specified amount of water. Fear greatly that administration and regulation of this water exclusively to western Punjab may gravely prejudice interest of Bikaner State as its economic life is to very large extent dependent on water supply from Gang Canal. Have every confidence that your Excellency in finally arriving at decision on award of Boundary Commission will be good enough to safeguard interests of Bikaner State especially as we as one of the parties to the Agreement were not consulted in arrangements that are being made. Request your Excellency to very kindly give an opportunity to my Prime Minister and Chief Engineer Irrigation, to place facts before Your Excellency prior to final decision being arrived at. They are reaching Delhi on morning Monday eleventh.
Maharaja Sadul Singh, whose father Ganga Singh had successfully parleyed with the British administration to build the Ganga Canal and change the destiny of Bikaner, was presented with a desperate situation.
News that Ferozepur districts and the headworks, which supplied the waters of the Sutlej to the Ganga Canal, were to be awarded to West Punjab was disappointing. A momentous decision beckoned for Sadul Singh.
In the interest of Bikaner, he would, as told to Mountbatten by Kanwar Sain, have
. . . no option left but to opt for Pakistan.
Despite his idiosyncrasy and
. . . a number of bees in his bonnet,
Sadul Singh played a notable role in the entry of the Princely states, some of whom were hesitant, into the Indian Union for which Sardar Patel acknowledged his contribution. But it was his reply to Liaquat Ali Khan’s provocative statement (22 April 1947) that states had succumbed to the pressure of the Congress that raised his stature. The Maharaja had replied,
We decide to do so certainly not due to any pressure from anyone, much less the Congress, but because we consider it to be in our own interests as well as in the greater interests of India.
Nehru was equally impressed and wrote to the Maharaja (29 April 1947),
Your statement, however, was as good a reply as any that could have been given.
Upon hearing of the Maharaja’s decision to opt for Pakistan, Mountbatten’s face, as Sain relates, ‘changed colour.’ He remained silent and said nothing and
. . . we left his Excellency’s room.
Initially, in the meeting at the Viceregal House on 11 August 1947, when Sardar Panikkar presented the aide-memoire regarding the Ferozepur headworks and quickly briefed Mountbatten about the difficulties that Bikaner would face over the headworks being allotted to Pakistan, Mountbatten had furiously retorted,
The Viceroy had nothing to do with the Radcliffe Commission. That Commission has been appointed by His Majesty’s Government. Radcliffe is not to report to me.
The evening before the meeting with Mountbatten, Pannikar and Sain explained the situation to Nehru, Sardar Patel, as well as to V.P. Menon, who was the secretary general of the State Department. How much this meeting influenced the Congress leaders is not established, but Nehru did send an urgent message to Mountbatten that
. . . both from the strategic and irrigation point of view it will be most dangerous to let Ferozepur go to Pakistan. Whatever may be the decision about area west of Sutlej, no area east of the Sutlej must on any account be accepted, even as a recommendation of the Boundary Commission . . . Similarly no joint control of electricity must be accepted.
On the evening of 11 August, it was announced that the Radcliffe Award would be delayed for a few days. On no account, as Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre reveal,
did Mountbatten want the details revealed before the Independence ceremonies could be held.
And finally when the Award was announced on 17 August, the Ferozepur headworks and the
. . . entire area on the left bank of the river in which Gang Canal was located, were left with India.
Excerpted with permission from Indus Basin Uninterrupted by Uttam Kumar Sinha and published by Penguin Random House India in 2021. You can buy the book here.
Cover Image: Maharaja Sadul Singh with Lord Mountbatten
This article is part of our special series the ‘Making of Modern India’ through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India’s exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.
The Indus River system is intimately tied to the subcontinent’s destiny, from ancient civilisations, to invaders, to modern-day geopolitics. Strategic affairs analyst Uttam Kumar Sinha puts into perspective the Indus Water Treaty, which is up for debate once again.
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