In the run-up to the Indian subcontinents’s 75th anniversary of independence from British rule this week, Channel 4 screened their two part documentary, India 1947 Partition in Colour, which tells us about the characters involved in the decision making towards partition.
I have been riveted for the past two Sunday nights. It beats Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi, which portrays ” jolly good fellows just getting it wrong” commentary on partition if discussed at all.
The first part of the two part Partition in Colour, goes into much details about the personal relationship between the lead characters in partition and how that may well have influenced partition itself, even to suggest that “Mountbatten and Nehru were attracted to each other on a romantic level” but that is all best not to dwell on too much. The most important things, we learn are that Mountbatten’s Plan Balkan is approved in London, despite not benign discussed with any Indian leaders that is Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, when he arrives six months before partition. What later became known as the Mountbatten Plan wasn’t his at all, it was YP Menon who hastily came up with the idea to transfer power to two countries rather than a dozen or more provincial governments when facing opposition from the likes of Jinnah.
Whilst it may have over emphasised the personal relationships between the leading characters, it does at least begin to hold the Mountbatten legacy in India to full account.
Firstly out of the blue, Mountbatten declared that independence had to happen by the 15th of August even though the British government had given him till June 1948 to leave British India as its last viceroy. This clearly made a tight programme even tighter and led to bad decisions becoming even more profound as it gave little space to look at bizarre decisions like that of creating a new state of Pakistan with two parts 1,000 miles from each other, and a potential future adversary in between. Furthermore he had to stay around after 15th of August anyway too sort out the independence of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in June 1948. It’s not clear at all what advantages they were in bringing this deadline forward at all apart from personal convenience and vanity on the part of Mountbatten.
Deciding to announce the boundaries of partition till after independence appears to have been solely the decision of Mountbatten and what a crazy one it was indeed, as we see him locking away the maps of the new borders in the second part of the review.This undoubtedly added to the insecurity of many who wanted to be on the right side of the new borders and was clearly a contributing factor to over one million who were killed in communal violence with one of the biggest mass transfers of people humanity has seen of up to 15 million. Once announced, it caused mayhem and chaos and lead to one of the worst humanitarian crisis in human history. On top of this, some parts of Bengal put up the wrong flags on independence only to find out a few days later how wrong they were. In Malda and Murshidabad they hoisted the Pakistani flag before becoming a part of India and similarly Khulna and Chittagong hoisted the Indian tri-colour only two days before becoming part of Pakistan! While Karimganj in Sylhet which had been elected by plebiscite to be part of East Bengal found itself astonishing in India. Thankfully my family stayed put not far from the new India & Pakistan border defined by the Ratcliffe Line.
It is also clear that Mountbatten had also given Nehru privileged access to the Radcliffe lines of partition proposed by British Lawyer Cyril Radcliffe who knew little about India at all. A line that has not stopped bleeding since 1947! Nehru thus was able to argue for certain bits to be included in India like Kolkata in Bengal. Jinnah was clearly disadvantaged and suspected this to be the case and it of course complicated his relationship with Mountbatten even further.
Furthermore there was a complete reluctance to use British troops in communal riots in the lead up to Partition in both Punjab and Bengal by Mountbatten. There may have been a case after independence when the British still had control of the armies even though we had two independent countries now, but beforehand it may well have saved many lives at least as a deterrent to the religious gangs roaming the streets. The reorganisation of the future armies of India and Pakistan was clearly their priority even with the mayhem around them.
Clearly no one in the Indian Office at Whitehall either at Minister or civil servant level, kept an eye on the complete and utter maladministration of Mountbatten and his antics in Delhi at all. This at the great cost of many lives and souring the relationship between the two states created at independence right from the outset.
Where it falls down is its lack of coverage of the circumstances in Bengal with its complete focus on the situation in Punjab which l try to make amends with above. And in doing so does not acknowledge the revolutionaries and martyrs in the independence movement, many of whom were Bengali. Where not Rabindranath Tagore who wrote the Indian national anthem and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose who famously said “Freedom is not given, it is taken” not critical to how partition came about in the first place by offering an alternative. Furthermore many Bengalis were also involved in the All India Muslim League, as its illustrated by its founding meeting occurring in Dhaka. As Gopal Krishna Gokhale, a senior leader of the Indian National Congress once said “What Bengal thinks today India thinks tomorrow”
A copy of this blog was published in the Morning Star on the 17th of August 2022.