Sixty years ago, on the evening of August 14, 1947, a few hours before Britain’s Indian Empire was formally divided into the nation-states of India and Pakistan, Lord Louis Mountbatten and his wife, Edwina, sat down in the viceregal mansion in New Delhi to watch the latest Bob Hope movie, “My Favorite Brunette.” Large parts of the subcontinent were descending into chaos, as the implications of partitioning the Indian Empire along religious lines became clear to the millions of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs caught on the wrong side of the border. In the next few months, some twelve million people would be uprooted and as many as a million murdered. But on that night in mid-August the bloodbath—and the fuller consequences of hasty imperial retreat—still lay in the future, and the Mountbattens probably felt they had earned their evening’s entertainment.
Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, had arrived in New Delhi in March, 1947, charged with an almost impossible task. Irrevocably enfeebled by the Second World War, the British belatedly realized that they had to leave the subcontinent, which had spiralled out of their control through the nineteen-forties. But plans for brisk disengagement ignored messy realities on the ground. Mountbatten had a clear remit to transfer power to the Indians within fifteen months. Leaving India to God, or anarchy, as Mohandas Gandhi, the foremost Indian leader, exhorted, wasn’t a political option, however tempting. Mountbatten had to work hard to figure out how and to whom power was to be transferred.
The dominant political party, the Congress Party, took inspiration from Gandhi in claiming to be a secular organization, representing all four hundred million Indians. But many Muslim politicians saw it as a party of upper-caste Hindus and demanded a separate homeland for their hundred million co-religionists, who were intermingled with non-Muslim populations across the subcontinent’s villages, towns, and cities. Eventually, as in Palestine, the British saw partition along religious lines as the quickest way to the exit.
But sectarian riots in Punjab and Bengal dimmed hopes for a quick and dignified British withdrawal, and boded ill for India’s assumption of power. Not surprisingly, there were some notable absences at the Independence Day celebrations in New Delhi on August 15th. Gandhi, denouncing freedom from imperial rule as a “wooden loaf,” had remained in Calcutta, trying, with the force of his moral authority, to stop Hindus and Muslims from killing each other. His great rival Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who had fought bitterly for a separate homeland for Indian Muslims, was in Karachi, trying to hold together the precarious nation-state of Pakistan.
Nevertheless, the significance of the occasion was not lost on many. While the Mountbattens were sitting down to their Bob Hope movie, India’s constituent assembly was convening in New Delhi. The moment demanded grandiloquence, and Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s closest disciple and soon to be India’s first Prime Minister, provided it. “Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny,” he said. “At the stroke of the midnight hour, while the world sleeps, India will awaken to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”
Posterity has enshrined this speech, as Nehru clearly intended. But today his quaint phrase “tryst with destiny” resonates ominously, so enduring have been the political and psychological scars of partition. The souls of the two new nation-states immediately found utterance in brutal enmity. In Punjab, armed vigilante groups, organized along religious lines and incited by local politicians, murdered countless people, abducting and raping thousands of women. Soon, India and Pakistan were fighting a war—the first of three—over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Gandhi, reduced to despair by the seemingly endless cycle of retaliatory mass murders and displacement, was shot dead in January, 1948, by a Hindu extremist who believed that the father of the Indian nation was too soft on Muslims. Jinnah, racked with tuberculosis and overwork, died a few months later, his dream of a secular Pakistan apparently buried with him.
Many of the seeds of postcolonial disorder in South Asia were sown much earlier, in two centuries of direct and indirect British rule, but, as book after book has demonstrated, nothing in the complex tragedy of partition was inevitable. In “Indian Summer” (Henry Holt; $30), Alex von Tunzelmann pays particular attention to how negotiations were shaped by an interplay of personalities. Von Tunzelmann goes on a bit too much about the Mountbattens’ open marriage and their connections to various British royals, toffs, and fops, but her account, unlike those of some of her fellow British historians, isn’t filtered by nostalgia. She summarizes bluntly the economic record of the British overlords, who, though never as rapacious and destructive as the Belgians in the Congo, damaged agriculture and retarded industrial growth in India through a blind faith in the “invisible hand” that supposedly regulated markets. Von Tunzelmann echoes Edmund Burke’s denunciation of the East India Company when she terms the empire’s corporate forerunner a “beast” whose “only object was money”; and she reminds readers that, in 1877, the year that Queen Victoria officially became Empress of India, a famine in the south killed five million people even as the Queen’s viceroy remained adamant that famine relief was a misguided policy.
Politically, too, British rule in India was deeply conservative, limiting Indian access to higher education, industry, and the civil service. Writing in the New York Tribune in the mid-nineteenth century, Karl Marx predicted that British colonials would prove to be the “unconscious tool” of a “social revolution” in a subcontinent stagnating under “Oriental despotism.” As it turned out, the British, while restricting an educated middle class, empowered a multitude of petty Oriental despots. (In 1947, there were five hundred and sixty-five of these feudatories, often called maharajas, running states as large as Belgium and as small as Central Park.)
1.From the passage, what can we conclude about the view of the author about Lord Mountbatten?