Monday, January 25, 2016

Republic Day Musings: A 1947 without Lord Mountbatten – History Revisited

“Sir, I suffer from the congenial weakness of believing I can do anything”. –
Lord Louis Mountbatten to Winston Churchill when the all important offer of Indian Viceroy post was made.

Compared to somewhat middle class conservative mannerism of my parents and a dose of ideological upbringing, I saw my cousins and friends around were brought up with more worldly wise wisdom and pragmatism. Success in school examination mattered most to people of my generation during younger days. It still does, I suppose. 
To these worldly wise lots – out of box thinking and even dreams do not matter much. Looking around, I am different more given to useless pondering of much more futile issues. So most often I am a failure.

Sand work of Sudarshan Pattnaik

Nevertheless, on a chilly winter morning of New Delhi as India celebrates yet another Republic Day my wild thoughts are lost somewhere. What would have been the course of Indian history had not protagonists like Mountbatten came around to decide about India’s history?
Mountbatten was chosen by British leadership under then Prime Minister Clement Richard Attlee then to take over the reins of India. In the words of Mountbatten’s predecessor, Earl Wavell (Viceroy from 1943-47) India and the British Raj then had already “reached a completely impasse” situation.
This ‘impasse’ actually relates to the gulf of difference several events and history had created between Wavell and the then Indian political leaders – in fact a galaxy of them.
Mountbatten later in an interview to writers Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre had said, “there was nothing wrong with Wavell at all, except this handicap which prevented him from being able to communicate”. He further puts it eloquently, “they did not mistrust him – it wasn’t that they mistrusted him – they didn’t feel they could get anywhere with him”.        
Mountbatten and Prince Charles in 1970s

Mountbatten later in an interview to writers Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre had said, “there was nothing wrong with Wavell at all, except this handicap which prevented him from being able to communicate”. He further puts it eloquently, “they did not mistrust him – it wasn’t that they mistrusted him – they didn’t feel they could get anywhere with him”.

One can always ponder on the fascinating choice of its players by the history. Mountbatten was ironically the great-grandson of Victoria now being chosen to preside over the severing of the link of the British empire with Indian sub-continent.

But what was supposed to be Mountbatten’s precise agenda? Did the British Raj already made up their mind for withdrawal and grant Indian independence? Were they looking for a scapegoat in Mountbatten to pull them out of the mess?  

On the other hand, Indian political scene had offered five foremost protagonists then to be dealt effectively and individually then collectively. The famous five – Mahatma Gandhi, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru, Liaquat Ali Khan and Sardar Vallabhai Patel – were already divided politically by then. 


The 16 August, 1946 Calcutta protest – Direct Action Day - demonstration by Jinnah had already given a glimpse of how horrifying things could turn.
The protest by Jinnah’s supporters on the fateful day had already left 15000 injured and at least 5000 killed. 

(Direct Action Day (16 August 1946), also known as the Great Calcutta Killings, was a day of widespread riot and slaughter between Hindus and Muslims in Calcutta now Kolkata. The 'Direct Action' was announced by the Muslim League Council to show the strength of Muslim feelings both to British and Congress, says Wikipedia, because Muslims feared that after the British pulled out, Muslims would surely suffer at the hands of overwhelming Hindu majority)

This brings us to the issue of India’s partition. But before that we must take a closer look at the five political stars mentioned above. Although the communal passion had come to stay in Indian public life and Jinnah was a ‘player’ in the theater, it is also true that all these five players had submerged completely their entire life into politics and freedom struggle. All Five had actually started to dream about the ‘culmination’ of their lifetime’s sacrifice and struggle. In other words, Indian independence would have come sooner than later despite Mountbattens or the likes of Jinnahs and Nehrus.
Jinnah: A key player
The western writers and historians have shown a great tendency to hail Mountbatten’s stint as a success. In doing so they declare rather unhesitatingly that “many colonial nations were not so fortunate and were forced to pay the price of their freedom with bloody wars”. (the quotes attributed to Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre).

But what was our partition then? And more importantly, did they miss the blood bath and the post-1947 sort of permanent enmity between India and Pakistan? 

Would India of 2016 be different without 1947 and the chief protagonist Mountbatten who scissored the map of India? A United India – in retrospect – today is only a wishful thinking. Many would say the division of India was a blessing in disguise. Others can argue, Moutbatten was against partition himself and would have preferred Indian leaders to settle for a united country. 

It was later claimed that Jinnah’s illness and possible premature death was not known to many including the people who mattered like Mountbatten. 
“If somebody had told me he’s going to be dead in X months would I then said let’s hold back India together and not divide it? Would I have put back the clock, and held the position? Most probably. I have a feeling Jinnah may not have known himself he had tuberculosis,” Mountbatten reportedly told Larry Collins and Lapierre in exhaustive interviews later in 1970s.

Lapierre's autographed book 'Freedom at Midnight'
This is something difficult to stomach as Mountbatten’s predecessor Wavell had got a wind of it. The British staff under Wavell also perhaps knew and had “kept it to themselves”, Mountbatten claimed. 

To me this argument is not convincing as Mountbatten came and started ruling India with every minute details about India and Indian politics and the political stars. 
They could not have missed this vital information about India. The 'Partition of India' was perhaps a lasting revenge of the colonial masters as they felt ‘defeated’ and had to reluctantly withdraw from India. 

However, no last word can be said. Muslim scholars like Rafiq Zakaria believed partition had rather harmed the cause of Muslims in the sub-continent. No contemporary scholarship can bring an end to hundreds of questions raised by historical phases. Indian partition is certainly one of them. Similar issues pertain to the fate meted to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. There will always remain room for more studies.

In the ultimate analysis, the Republic Day is also an occasion to ponder about governance in the country and the roadmap for future.
Basically the two pronged approach of industrialization concentration and poverty alleviation and improvement in qualitative life remains our national need if not the focus of administration. There is further need for investment in social sectors and education and the entire mechanism has to dispel any type of regional imbalances and discrimination.  
At this time for reflection, the true spirit of Republic is well summed up in the immortal number of one of my all time favourites, Yesudas.
“Tere aane se saj gayee humaree yeh tutee phutee naav

…..Goree yeh duwaaye karna jarur, maajhi se naiya ho nahi dur

Sabko kinare pahunchaayega, maajhi toh kinara tabhi paayega


Truly without democracy and the republic spirit India would not have been as beautiful as it is today. As the theme of the song underlines --- the Republic will not be deemed as successful till every passenger in the boat reaches his/her destination of happiness and prosperity.



  1. thanks your brief always cherish yr oneliners and encouragement !!