When Christians were partitioned in the Punjab-IV

One of the fascinating cases during the partition of Punjab

Perhaps the most fascinating case during the partition of Punjab was that of Mr Edward Nirmal Mangat Rai. Hailing from Multan, the Mangat Rais had settled in Abbotabad in the erstwhile North West Frontier Province, but were destined to be known far beyond the small towns they lived in. Interestingly, when the senior Mangat Rai converted to Christianity, his family tried to disinherit him from even the family name, and it was Lala Lajpat Rai, the ‘Lion of the Punjab,’ who represented the family. However, Mangat Rai won the day and retained the family name.

Born on March 30, 1915, Edward Nirmal Mangat Rai was educated first at Abbotabad and then at St Stephen’s College Delhi. Thereafter, he joined the Prince of Wales Royal Indian Military College Dehra Dun, from where he sat for his ICS examination, and then spent his probationary year at Keble College, Oxford. He arrived in India in October, 1938. He served in various capacities in the Punjab Secretariat and by 1947, he was the director of the Civil Supplies Department.

When the time came for a choice to be made between East and West Punjab, Mangat Rai was put in a quandary. He had been visiting his sister who was teaching at the premier women’s college in northern India, Kinnaird College at Lahore, and it was not going to be an easy decision for him. His sister, Priobala Mangat Rai, was adamant that she was not going to leave either Kinnaird College or Lahore and so it was certainly a difficult choice for Edward Nirmal. (His sister rose to become the principal of Kinnaird College from 1950-69).

Writing his autobiography, Mangat Rai noted the dilemma facing him. He wrote: “For a Christian, the choice between Pakistan and India was genuine, for he did not, by virtue of his religious label fall automatically within one fold or another.” He thought long and hard about his choice, especially since it was still unclear what final shape the two provinces, and even the two new dominions, would take. He noted: “Yet, as it was inevitable, when the choice was put to us in the form of either/or, many of us debated and considered an assessment of the future shape of things.” But in the end, he decided to throw in his lot with East Punjab, emphasising, “I myself had no doubt whatever that I would opt for India, and not for Pakistan.” In a twist of history, Mangat Rai moved to India with his wife Champa who was the daughter of Dewan Bahadur Satya Prakash Singha, a leader of the Punjabi Christians, who was an ardent supporter of the Muslim League. The daughter and the father would remain on opposite sides!

For Edward Nirmal Mangat Rai the choice of East Punjab did not prove to be a bad decision. He rose to become finance secretary and then later planning and development commissioner in the government of East Punjab. His crowing achievement was becoming chief secretary for five years — from 1957 to 1962. Working closely with the chief minister of East Punjab, Pratab Singh Kairon, Mangat Rai was key in the creation of Chandigarh as the new capital, the modern ‘replacement’ for Lahore, as it was piqued to be. Later, he became the first ICS officer to become chief secretary of the State of Jammu and Kashmir from 1964 to 1966 under Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq.

It was during his tenure that the most significant constitutional changes took place in the state since the passing of its constitution when the office of the ‘prime minister’ of Jammu and Kashmir became that of the ‘chief minister’ and the elected ‘sadr-e-riyasat’ became the centrally appointed ‘governor’ in the state. As chief secretary he also had to contend with the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war over Kashmir and its aftermath. Thus, his tenure in Kashmir was very significant in the history of the state as well as India and South Asia.

The story of Indian Christian ICS officers certainly adds another dimension to the usually two-dimensional saga of the partition of the Punjab, with Muslims on one side and Hindus and Sikhs on the other.

After his stint as chief secretary, Mangat Rai returned to the centre and became special secretary in the petroleum ministry. However, he entered the bad books of the government under Indira Gandhi when he stood up for the petroleum secretary, PC Naik, and as a result had to take early retirement.

Outside the civil service, Edward Nirmal, or Bunchi, as he was affectionately called by friends (since as a child his cheeks were said to resemble a bunch of flowers!), became better known for something else. While living in Chandigarh, he fell in love with Nayantara Sehgal, the daughter of Vijaylaxmi Pandit, and niece of the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. Their love eventually led them to separate from their spouses and live together, finally marrying in 1979. The love between the two was so intense that within a three-year period they wrote over 6,000 letters to each other!

The famed writer Khushwant Singh later narrated an incident where: “During Morarji Desai’s short premiership, Nayantara Sehgal (Vijaylakshmi Pandit’s daughter) was offered the ambassadorship to Rome, provided she married Mangat Rai with whom she was living, after both had divorced their spouses. She married Mangat Rai and was ready to leave for Italy when Desai’s government fell and Indira Gandhi returned to power. The first thing Mrs Gandhi did was to cancel Nayantara’s appointment as ambassador and sidelined her husband by refusing to make him full secretary and forced him to retire. Mrs Gandhi was a very vindictive woman: she loathed her aunt and all her family.”

Edward Nirmal Mangat Rai lived happily with Nayantara Sehgal, and died on January 9, 2003 at the ripe age of 88 years, after a full and eventful life. His brother, Edward Raj Mangat Rai, also remained in India and retired as a brigadier in the Indian army, with his other sister, Leena Sushiela who married Arthur Lall, another Punjabi Christian ICS officer (but who had been working in the central government for years), who had also opted for India in 1947.

The story of Indian Christian ICS officers certainly adds another dimension to the usually two-dimensional saga of the partition of the Punjab, with Muslims on one side and Hindus and Sikhs on the other. The manner in which these officers made their choices certainly makes it clear that the decision to ‘pick’ a side in 1947 was not easy for anyone — even for people from communities not connected with the political debate on the partition. Questions of where their ‘home’ was, always loomed large in the minds of people.

It also exhibits that the partition touched upon the lives of every community in the Punjab. No matter what the community, families were separated, people uprooted and violence suffered. No one, even the ‘heavenly born’ ICS officers, were immune to the ravages of the partition of the Punjab.

Lastly, this account shows how people from a different community from that of the majority made their mark on the new provinces and even the new countries. The contributions of SM Burke and Justice Cornelius were second to none in Pakistan, while EM Mangat Rai, AL Fletcher and HD Bhanot, severed the government of India in high and distinguished posts.

Thus, while the partition was based on the majority and minority of two sides (Muslims vs Hindus and Sikhs), other communities also found a chance to stake their claim and excel in the new environments. Ultimately, the careers of these civil servants also show how the new countries of India and Pakistan, and East and West Punjab, were much more diverse and open in their formative years than what some observers might expect, highlighting a more nuanced consolidation of these countries as nation states in these early years.


The author is a Research Excellence Fellow at the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary. He tweets at @BangashYK and his email is: [email protected]

When Christians were partitioned in the Punjab-IV