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India: The Imprint of Empire


In 1947, on the eve of Indian independence, my parents arranged for me to fly from Britain for what promised to be our last family holiday in the subcontinent. As a British member of the Indian Civil Service, my father expected to leave with the departing Raj.1 My mother and I drove up from New Delhi to the Vale of Kashmir. We visited my brother’s grave in Srinagar, where he had died in infancy a decade earlier, one of an estimated two million graves the British left behind. Then we trekked the final 2,000 feet on tiny ponies up to Gulmarg, where my father joined us after attending the Indian independence ceremonies in New Delhi on August 15. It was an idyllic holiday, Raj-style: golf on two of the most beautiful courses in the world, where the ball soared encouragingly far in the thin mountain air; picnics among the firs and pines; bridge in the club; the latest Agatha Christie mystery in the evening before turning in.

But on the plains of the Punjab, where I had grown up, one of the greatest human tragedies of the twentieth century was taking place. The proudest province of British India, which had just been partitioned between the successor states, India and Pakistan, was collapsing into a state of nature. Sikhs and Hindus killed their Muslim neighbors; Muslims killed Sikhs and Hindus. Millions of Hindus and Sikhs fled eastward to India, Moslems westward to Pakistan.2 Hundreds of thousands didn’t make it.

Trainloads of refugees were ambushed and boarded before they reached the border, and their occupants slaughtered to a man, woman, and child.3 Only the engine driver would be left alive so that he could deliver his grisly cargo across the border.4

Rumors began to reach Gulmarg that former comrades-in-arms of the British Indian Army, now divided into the armed forces of the new nations, were about to fall upon each other in the disputed province of Kashmir. Situated on the Indo-Pakistani border, Kashmir was supposed to have its future decided by the maharaja. Since over 75 percent of Kashmiris were Muslims but the maharaja was a Hindu, both countries hoped for his adherence. He procrastinated, then opted for India. No Pakistani leader since has been willing or able to live with the small portion of Kashmir which his country retained after the fighting of 1947-1948. And so, fifty years and three wars later on, a costly arms race continues, nuclear weapons are developed, missiles are deployed, border clashes take place as I write.5

I left Gulmarg on an American plane sent to Srinagar to evacuate embassy staff. Flying low over the Punjab, we saw villages burning below. In New Delhi, our house was deserted; the Muslim servants had fled to refugee camps in the capital. Working as a volunteer, I saw the pitiful condition of the wounded in one of the camps. When my parents returned we located our servants and smuggled them out of New Delhi, where killings were still taking place, hiding them in the bathroom of our carriage on the train to Bombay, where things were calmer. I sailed home to school.

In the years that followed, I returned often to the subcontinent, but always to examine some current problem. “What’s gone wrong with us now?” my friends used to ask plaintively. Going back to New Delhi for the fiftieth anniversary of independence this summer, however, it was the scenes of 1947 that were uppermost in my mind. How did Indians look back on the bloodshot moment of Partition which marked the end of British rule?


Answers were hard to find; there has not been a German-style soul-searching in the subcontinent. According to the Delhi University historian Gyanendra Pandey, “Indian intellectuals have tended to celebrate the story of the Independence struggle rather than dwell on the agonies of Partition.” Pandey lists evident reasons why the Hindu- Muslim violence has had little attention. Bitter conflict between Hindus and Muslims persists in parts of India today; and those who pursue the history of such strife run the real danger of reopening old wounds. In addition, there is no consensus among Indians about the nature of Partition. “We have no means of representing such tragic loss, nor of pinning down—or rather, owning—responsibility for it. Consequently, our nationalist historiography, journalism, and filmmaking have tended to generate something like a collective amnesia.”6

For the political scientist Ashis Nandy at Delhi’s Center for the Study of Developing Societies, “the silence was one way known to the South Asians to start life anew and contain bitterness. It was a means of restoring community life, interpersonal trust and the known moral universe.” Many wanted to wipe away the memories, “both what had been done to them or what was done or sanctioned by them.” Still, Nandy wrote, it is gradually “becoming obvious that the summer of 1947 brought out the worst in us, so much so that even our imagination of evil failed.” Writing of the “psychopathic and sadistic dimensions of the carnage,” he concluded that independence meant “genocide, necrophilia, ethnic cleansing, massive uprooting and collapse of a moral universe.”7

The implication of such an account is that the responsibility for the slaughter has to be borne by “ordinary” Indians and Pakistanis who turned against each other; the manner of the bloodletting allows of no other conclusion. But what about the Partition that sparked it? The “communal” tensions between Hindus and Muslims in the subcontinent date back centuries to the successive waves of Muslim conquerors who swept down through the Khyber Pass and forced their Hindu subjects to convert. In the twentieth century, some Muslims feared religious, cultural, and economic subordination to the Hindu majority, perhaps even revenge for their earlier victories. Their leaders embraced the theory that the subcontinent comprised “two nations,” each of which deserved its own homeland; the idea of a unified subcontinent was imposed by the British.

At the same time Indians have long blamed British divide-and-rule policies for exacerbating and entrenching communal barriers. The Raj was certainly Machiavellian from time to time, not to mention blundering and harsh, but closer to the mark was probably the well-known Indian judgment: “We divided and they ruled.” In one of the articles for the fiftieth anniversary, Nitesh Sengupta blamed the British for not conceding home rule after World War I when the future founder of Pakistan, M.A. Jinnah, was still a loyal member of the Indian National Congress.8

Sengupta, however, blamed the Congress for the political missteps that occurred thereafter. For instance, in June 1946 Nehru told a press conference that the central government of an independent India (which would be dominated by his Congress Party) would reserve its rights to intervene in the component states of the union on issues of planning and economic development. (India was ultimately to be divided into twenty-five states and centrally administered territories.) Since the Congress had earlier accepted a three-tier constitutional arrangement designed to allow Muslims to exercise all powers in their regions except for defense, foreign affairs, and communications, Jinnah regarded Nehru’s assertion as treachery. According to Sengupta, only the final nail in the coffin of a united independent India was driven by the British, when Mountbatten arrived as Britain’s last viceroy and decided to accelerate Britain’s departure by ten months. It is over this issue that British historians have been arguing.

Essentially, the case against Mountbatten, apart from justifiable jibes about his relentless self-glorification—“I was governing by personality,” he later told Nehru’s authorized biographer—is that he was pro-Indian and anti-Pakistan, pro-Nehru and anti-Jinnah. He put pressure on the supposedly neutral Boundary Commissioner, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, to make critical adjustments in favor of India when drawing the frontier through the Punjab. A Cambridge don of Pakistani origin has asserted that “if Jinnah is the first Pakistani, Mountbatten is the first Paki-basher.” Mountbatten and his wife certainly hit it off instantly with Nehru, while the viceroy later made it clear that he had found Jinnah impossible to deal with.9

Cyril Radcliffe had no expert knowledge of India. He was given a task of Solomonic proportions to be completed in an irresponsibly short period of time. He was not insulated from lobbying as claimed but was in contact with Mountbatten and his staff. But since Radcliffe destroyed all his papers on returning to England we cannot know if his earlier ideas on the Punjab boundary were modified by common sense or by the Congress Party via Mountbatten. Auden’s caustic poem on his performance remains one of the most telling commentaries written on the Partition.

Time,” they had briefed him in London, “is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation…”
Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.
The next day he sailed for England, where he quickly forgot
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.

The second set of charges against Mountbatten is that by deciding in June 1947 to advance the date of independence from June 1948 to August 1947, he left no time for further negotiation and therefore made Partition inevitable. This also ensured that the exchange of populations would be hurried, chaotic, and bloody. He delayed announcing the location of Radcliffe’s boundaries until after independence, at which point the responsibility for law and order devolved on India and Pakistan. He did so, it is alleged, because he sensed a PR disaster in the making for himself and Britain. So, disastrously, there was no British-led unified Indian Army to oversee the transfer of populations. It was issues like these that led Kuldip Nayar, a leading columnist and former High Commissioner in London, to suggest holding a joint Indo-Pakistani seminar to mark the fiftieth anniversary entitled “The Trial of Mountbatten.”

How he would have emerged from a fair trial remains unknowable. Mountbatten was an energetic and charismatic viceroy, if often guilty of gross errors of judgment. His colleague Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer once commented: “You’re so crooked, Dickie, if you swallowed a nail you’d shit a corkscrew.” Yet many knowledgeable British officials with no cause to admire him felt that in the light of the deteriorating communal situation in the spring of 1947, Britain had no alternative but to hand over power as soon as possible; further delay would have spread the massacres beyond the Punjab to all of India. Moreover, although Mountbatten claimed credit for advancing the timetable, the decision was actually taken in the India Office in London.10

  1. 1

    According to Philip Woodruff, The Men Who Ruled India, I: The Founders; II: The Guardians (London: Jonathan Cape, 1953, 1954), in 1939 there were 1,384 officers in the ICS, of whom 759 were British expatriates (II, p. 363). After partition, my father went to Karachi to work for the new Pakistani government.

  2. 2

    According to the 1941 census, the undivided Punjab consisted of 52.88 percent Moslems, 29.79 percent Hindus, and 14.62 percent Sikhs; Indu Banga, editor, Five Punjabi Centuries: Policy, Economy, Society, and Culture, c. 1500- 1990 (New Delhi: Manohar, 1997), p. 243.

  3. 3

    Philip Ziegler, Mountbatten: The Official Biography (Collins, 1985), p. 437, and Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, Freedom at Midnight (Simon and Schuster, 1975), p. 342, quote estimates of the dead ranging from 200,000 to 500,000; J.S. Grewal, The Sikhs of the Punjab (Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 181, and Patrick French, Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division (HarperCollins, 1997), p. 349, agree on a million. The highest figure I have seen is “almost” or “over” 2,000,000 in Akbar S. Ahmed, Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity: The Search for Saladin (Routledge, 1997) pp. xi, 166. Estimates of the number of refugees who managed to survive the two-way border crossing in the Punjab and elsewhere range from 8,000,000 to as high as 17,000,000.

  4. 4

    For recent accounts of the “ethnic cleansing” of Partition, see S.M. Burke and Salim Al-Din Quraishi, The British Raj in India: An Historical Review (Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 609-625, and French, Liberty or Death, pp. 342-356.

  5. 5

    Prem Shankar Jha, Kashmir, 1947: Rival Versions of History (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996). For a scalding critique of Britain’s handling of its treaty obligations to princely states like Kashmir, see Ian Copland, The Princes of India in the Endgame of Empire, 1917-1947 (Cambridge University Press, 1997).

  6. 6

    Gyanendra Pandey, “In Defense of the Fragment: Writing about Hindu- Muslim Riots in India Today,” in Ranajit Guha, editor, A Subaltern Studies Reader, 1986-1995 (Univer-sity of Minnesota Press, forthcoming 1997).

  7. 7

    Ashis Nandy, “Too Painful for Words,” Times of India, July 20, 1997.

  8. 8

    Nitish Sengupta, “Partition need not have happened if…,” Times of India, August 6, 1997. Sengupta is the director general of the International Management Institute, New Delhi.

  9. 9

    Nehru and the Mountbattens had similar leftish political outlooks, and there is the imponderable importance of the undeniably affectionate relationship between the Indian premier and Edwina Mountbatten.

  10. 10

    The case for the defense is given principally by the official biographer, Philip Ziegler, in whom Mountbatten has been fortunate: Mountbatten, pp. 349-379, and especially pp. 438-441; Collins and Lapierre, Freedom at Midnight, gave Mountbatten the opportunity to state his own case; French, Liberty or Death, pp. 305, 443, note 45, takes a more objective view, but rejects the notion that a premature British departure was a primary cause of the massacres. Andrew Roberts, in a chapter titled “Lord Mountbatten and the perils of adrenalin” in his Eminent Churchillians (Simon and Schuster, 1994), pp. 55-136, attacks Mountbatten’s character vigorously and presents a caustic exposé of the egregious errors which he contends littered his entire career; the famous quote from Templer is on page 133.

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