October 2, 2022

G.D. Khosla, Custodian of evacuee properties after partition recounted his experience “It was a crazy nightmare”

Book Excerpt

 “The Government of India appointed a senior member of the Indian Civil Service the Custodian of Evacuee Property, it was his duty to protect Muslim property and ‘administer’ it according to law. But this was easier said than done. A Problem of such magnitude and complexity needed a large measure of initiative, resourcefulness, patience, tact and administrative ability above all it demanded a knowledge and understanding of the Punjabis, The Custodian selected by the Government of India was a south Indian, and very soon there were loud complaints of incompetence, favouritism, nepotism and corruption. The matter was raised in Parliament, and an immediate sifting enquiry by a High Court Judge was ordered. The Judge had to be a Punjabi, conversant with the people of the Punjab and their problems, the choice fell upon me.

In Delhi I called on the secretary to the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation, and asked for the terms of reference of the enquiry entrusted to me, I was told that the terms were very wide-as wide as I wished. I was to report on the work of the Custodian and ‘clean up the mess’. This was a tall order, and I was doubtful about the legality of at any rate the wisdom of embarking on such a vague and limitless venture without something in the form of an order of Government notification, I went to see the Minister. He assured me that the secretary had acted under his orders and that there was no need to limit the scope of my assignment. I would have an entirely free hand and the government had complete confidence in me, etc., etc.

Just as I was taking leave of him. He dropped a bombshell: ‘ The Custodian is proceeding on leave and it may be some time before his successor is appointed. So you will be in complete charge of the department. This was staggering. I had come to hold an enquiry and now I was being asked to run the entire show. But it was hardly the time to demur or argue about the matter. It would have been churlish not to shoulder the responsibility, even thought it was being thrust upon me so unceremoniously.

The next few weeks were like a crazy nightmare. I was so irretrievably overpowered by the immensity of my task and the multifarious problems surrounding me on all sides, that I had scarcely any time to look into the alleged malpractices of the earring Custodian. Thousands of Muslim families, seeing the temper of the refugees and anticipating trouble, left their houses to go to the camps set up as temporary shelters, at safe distance from the town. In most cases a single (usually the oldest) member of the family stayed on as evidence of continued possession or of animus revertendi. It was difficult to know which of them would ultimately decide to return home, and which would Prefer to go to Pakistan like so many others who had already joined the exodus.

When I Visited the Muslim quarters to see thing at first hand, and check the inventory of houses prepared by sub-ordinate officials I was besieged by homeless refugees clamouring to be let into the empty houses abandoned by Muslim occupants. Was it fair, they asked me to deny them shelter after they had been handed out of their homes. How long would they remain lying in the streets when houses were available? Couldn’t I see that they were rapidly falling victim to exposure and the cold winter nights of north India? Didn’t I know full well that the Muslims would not come back? For years they had been shouting and agitating for Pakistan, and now their demands had been conceded. If they didn’t want to go to the homeland of their choice, they should be sent there by force. Had I no feeling. No sympathy, no understating, no sense of justice where my own people were concerned? They expected better treatment from a Punjabi. And much more in the same strain.

In my office I received hundreds of visitors each day. I knew many of them personally. Among them were my own relatives, friends and acquaintances. There were others whose names were familiar. Physicians, surgeons, lawyers, engineers, an X-Ray specialist a well-known caterer of Lahore, a fashionable tailor, dozens of a retired Government officials came seeking my assistance. All they wanted was a house – a portion to house, a room, an empty garage or a shed to live in and to work in. It was not easy to maintain a cool and dispassionate attitude when faced by these demands, and to remain just and impartial.

I began to entertain doubts about what was just in the circumstances. Should I let the homeless people occupy the empty houses? Should I allow the Muslims to be chased out of India as Hindus and Sikhs had been chased out of Pakistan? I didn’t know what answer to make to the people who importuned me daily, asking for what, they said, was theirs by right.

In my perplexity, I sought Mahatma Gandhi’s advice. He was in those days living in Mr. Birla’s house on Albuquerque Road, and held prayer meetings every evening. I telephoned his secretary, and though he was very busy and had a crowded programme of visits, interviews and discussions with political leaders, he agreed to receive me at 11 o’clock the following morning.

But then, suddenly, I was overcome by a strange apprehension, which only they can appreciate who knew the position held by Mahatma Gandhi in India and the influence he exercised in every sphere of activity, political, social and economic. It was reported that there was, about him, an aura of saintliness and a magical power which hypnotised his interlocutors and reduced them to tame, supine creatures ready to efface themselves, to agree to whatever he said and carry out his directions.

Lord Irwin was supposed to have been affected in this manner when he gave his assent to the Gandhi-Irwin pact in 1931. His fasts had converted his strongest opponents, and it was rumoured that die-hard British politicians and administrators were unwilling to meet him, lest under his mysterious spell they compromised their principles. Only a few days previously the world had witnessed a demonstration of his powers. A sum of 550 million rupees was due to Pakistan, but the Government of India was reluctant to pay. It as it was feared that the money would be used by the Government of Pakistan to purchase arms for use against India in Kashmir where a state of hostilities prevailed. Sardar Patel, the Home Minister, made a statement to this effect on January 12, 1948. It was well known that Mahatma Gandhi was strongly opposed to any decision which might savour of breach of faith on our part.

On the day Sardar Patel made his statement, the All India Radio announced that Mahatma Gandhi had undertaken a fast with the object of improving Hindu-Muslim relations in the capital.

Three days later, the Government of India announced that immediate effect would be given to the financial pact arrived at between India and Pakistan, and that orders had been issued to the Reserve Bank of India to pay the entire amount due to Pakistan.

On the same day Mahatma Gandhi broke his fast. The nationalist newspapers highlighted these two items of news with bold headlines announcing that the Government of India had at last surrendered to ‘Pakistan due to pressure from Gandhiji’ The leaders of Pakistan were ‘overcome with excessive joy’, and though nothing was openly said against Mahatma Gandhi there was an undercurrent of sorrow and resentment at what had happened.

As I turned over these events in my mind, I wondered if I should be able to place my problem before the Mahatma and explain it various aspects. Sitting in my small office room that day towards the end of January 1948, my only thoughts were of the embarrassing situation in which I had placed myself. However, the appointment had been made and there was no question of going back upon it. Also, there was within me a genuine desire, a pardonable curiosity to meet the great man who had done more to achieve political freedom for India than the rest of the country put together.”


‘The Murder of Mahatma” by G. D. Khosla (Formerly Chief Justice of Punjab, who heard the appeal of Nathuram Godse & others and gave his most historic verdict in the case of assassination), First published- 1965