We might expect that the closer we get to the present day the more certain our writing of history should be, because we have surer ground to tread on. To help us we have access both to first hand memories of persons still living, and to an enormous amount of material generated in the modern age, such as newspapers and personal correspondence, not to mention a vast amount of bureaucratic records of all kinds from government in all its branches – elected bodies, local administration, schools, prisons, hospitals and the armed forces. This ‘information explosion’, as it has been called, should in theory make the writing of history easier and the end results more accurate. But this is absolutely not the case with the Partition of India, where ‘historical’ literature has often explored the fanciful rather than the factual.
The human desire to seek extra levels of meaning in events has produced a rich conspiracy literature around Partition, and audiences and publishers seem keen to support attempt to show how the events of 1947 were not what they seemed. This is to some extent understandable in that the political complexity of what happened in 1947 creates a natural demand for simpler explanations, while the divisive nature of what occurred has generated enough enmity and anger for people to attribute wicked purposes to prominent figures.
Such circumstances have tended to neutralise the weighty evidence available via the documentary record, especially as contained in the definitive British government archive, the twelve volume Transfer of Power, collated and published by order of British Prime Minister Harold Wilson between 1969-81. Anyone who believes in conspiracies should dip into this collection, if they possibly can, because it shows, in wearisome detail, just how much attention was devoted by British officials to the whole subject of Indian independence. Thousands of documents span the period 1942-47, with a marked proportional increase towards the end. Even the most casual glance at the index will show just how many letters, minutes and memos were pouring out of the Viceroy’s office every day, covering all aspects of the process.
Anyone who thinks that Partition was some secret deal stitched up in private, in a quiet corner, will be disabused of that notion if they flick through even a few pages of the collection. But those who like the idea of conspiracies will not be easily dissuaded by anything as trivial as five years of detailed archival evidence, and will still be able to dismiss the whole twelve volumes as an obvious sham, a biased collection skilfully edited, or as an irrelevance – simply because they know what happened.
Partisan readings have also been accommodated by the absence of personal accounts from leading actors in the drama. Of the main three – Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League, Nehru, President of the Indian National Congress, and Lord Mountbatten, Viceroy from March 1947 to June 1948 – none wrote a formal memoir of events. This deprives us of much first hand opinion and detail. The lack of an insight into Jinnah’s personal thought processes through the negotiations has hampered historians wishing to understand his strategy and post-Partition vision. Rather more damagingly, this has also left an ideological confusion at the heart of Pakistan’s constitutional development, and of Pakistani nationalism. Jawaharlal Nehru did write an autobiography, called Toward Freedom, but it only ran to the year 1936. For his personal thoughts on the whole business we have to rely on interviews he gave to biographers later.
The one Congress luminary who did publish was Maulana Azad, the leading Muslim member of the Congress leadership, who had been the party’s President throughout the war years. He published a personal account of the independence process in 1958, entitled India Wins Freedom, in which he named Vallabhbhai ‘Sardar’ Patel as the chief ‘author’ of Partition, and absolved himself from all blame for the various tragedies and disappointments that it brought. This view has since been rigorously challenged, principally by Rajmohan Gandhi, in India Wins Errors (1989), which is a detailed rebuttal of many of the Maulana’s self-certified recollections of events.
Patel, who was Nehru’s closest colleague through the crisis, never wrote a memoir at all, and this is a much-regretted absence. Unlike the socialistic, progressive, ‘secular’ Nehru, the Sardar came from a more conservative Hindu constituency, and climbed through Congress politics aided by a close relationship with M. K. Gandhi. He is always characterised as the hard man of Congress politics and, to this day, Indian patriots ruminate as to what might have happened had he been the main Congress leader through the tricky period July 1946 to August 1947. He was denied a leading role, however, because Gandhi backed Nehru for the Congress leadership in July 1946, thus materially shaping the outline of the endgame of independence.
Mountbatten never wrote an autobiography. Had he done so it would have covered much more than the period of his life as Viceroy, for Lord Louis occupied several senior military posts through the Second World War and rose even higher in the 1950s, when Sir Winston Churchill and the Conservatives returned to power. Stanley Wolpert tells us that Churchill was privately enraged by Mountbatten’s settlement in India, but eventually forgave him and promoted him when he returned to office after 1951. Mountbatten declined to set out his life story on paper, but he managed over the years to represent himself (favourably) in the public record. One way he did this was to present a television series dedicated to his life and achievements, in 1969. Another was to publish his personal archive, including notes of meetings, private correspondence and confidential memos. He also gave an important lecture in 1948, outlining, and justifying, his conduct in India.
There are three other contemporary records that should be mentioned; a double memoir and a diary. The memoirs are by V. P. Menon, a fascinating character who remained at the heart of events throughout. He had risen by sheer personal merit (and ambition) to become Reforms Commissioner, directly attached to the Viceroy’s staff, with first Wavell then Mountbatten. He wrote his recollections in two books, one entitled The Transfer of Power in India (1957) and the other The Story of the Integration of the Indian States (1961). Together they cover the process of Partition and the negotiations surrounding the absorption of the Indian Princely States into the Union of India. Menon was a key player in this last process, which highlights his close personal association with Sardar Patel. It was also Menon who throughout the Petition negotiations was keeping the Congress leadership informed of developments in Viceregal House, balancing the progress of offer and acceptance.
Importantly, it was Menon who came up with the eventual key to the whole independence deadlock, by suggesting that the transfer of sovereignty could be accomplished by the immediate grant of Dominion Status – i.e. not complete independence. This had long been a serious sticking point between the Congress, who wanted a clean break with the colonial power, and the British, who wanted to keep any united India, or multiple successor states, within the Commonwealth by some means. By 1947 Dominion Status, in practice, had come to mean complete independence, as enjoyed by Canada and Australia. Nominal inclusion in the Commonwealth did not preclude any nation from leaving the organisation, or from altering its own constitution in any way it so wished. But Congress had a historic antipathy to the idea of subordinate status within any British framework; it did not sit well with the old slogan of ‘Purna Swaraj’ from the 1920s. In fact there were evidently still strong feelings about this as late as 1947, reflected in a defiant resolution of the Constituent Assembly, vocally supported by Nehru.
The issue of sovereignty was also problematic for Pakistan. Jinnah was most concerned not to take his League into a Constituent Assembly, and then be forced to carve out independence for Pakistan from that position – outvoted within an all-India body. Jinnah had always wanted a direct handover of sovereignty to the League from the British, without any intermediary stage within an Indian Union, a procedure that had been a key element of the Cabinet Mission Plan worked out in mid-1946. To pursue this Plan to its endpoint was still, nominally, Mountbatten’s brief.
Menon’s scheme, however, circumvented both of these problems. Nehru would get his ‘independence’, at least in the sense that once Dominion Status was granted the new India could reconstitute herself at her leisure without first having to hammer out all the details of a new constitution under British supervision, while Jinnah could pass straight from party leader to head of state of his new sovereign Muslim country. Menon’s memoir is not entirely reliable, but he gives an insider’s view of the delicate situations that all the leaders had to confront.
Menon’s books can be read in tandem with, and never directly contradict, a contemporary diary written from the British angle by Alan Campbell-Johnson, Mountbatten’s Press Attaché. His Mission with Mountbatten (1951) gives a day-to-day account of Mountbatten’s viceroyalty and, although a little dry in places, it is another fascinating close-up view of events. Even more than Menon, Campbell-Johnson is constantly referenced by historians, especially about Mountbatten’s relationship with Jinnah.
Neither Menon’s nor Campbell-Johnson’s privileged view is complete but, taking the entirety of their parallel accounts, the density of events, and the constant tension and uncertainty of the political processes surrounding Indian independence, there is simply no room for conspiracy and no trace of the deliberate unfolding of any pre-determined plan. No one knew what was about to happen, and the sheer messiness of the whole business is a powerful argument against plots skilfully managed. Intrigue there certainly was, but the settlement was all worked out on the fly. Purposes were being served by all parties – but that is normal politics.
So how does conspiracy wedge itself into the story? There are three classic issues.
Firstly, Mountbatten is considered to have had ‘secret’ instructions, and to have come to India already intending to Partition the country, bent on creating havoc and misery on behalf of a British government embittered by Indian resistance. This is simply not true, and there is ample documentary evidence to show it. Mountbatten had a three-point set of instructions:
1) to execute and finalise the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946 with its complicated three-tier, all-India constitution, or
2) to obtain agreement among Indian leaders to some other formal plan, or
3) as a last resort, to hand over power to whoever he thought fit, by June 1948 at the latest.
All this can be found on the public record, in letters and in Parliamentary speeches. There was no mention of Partition in any of these options, although of course, the last two did not preclude it. In a private letter, since published, there was also a request from the King to try to secure Commonwealth membership from the successor states.
More solidly, there is good evidence that the British thought that a hobbled Pakistan was likely to come back to an Indian Union within a few years, and some of Mountbatten’s decisions and interventions were intended to further this possibility. Nehru later confessed to a similar optimistic outlook.
There is no trace in official papers of any bias towards Partition, as finally executed, over other options. On the contrary, a very full minute of 4 March 1947, from the Secretary of State for India to the Viceroy, listed it as a fourth, and worst option.
The next issue is the descent of India into anarchy, civil war, communal violence, or whatever the preferred expression. This descent was certainly in progress. The question is: did the British cause it? It is here that a classic conspiracy technique finds a perfect home. What conspiracists love to do is to turn a cause into an effect. Because India was dissolving politically, this is assumed to have been a British plan. Anarchy = British plan = cover for deeper purpose = Partition. This is spurious and untenable. The opposite reading is the correct one. The British could not stop India descending into chaos, because the people were underfed and underemployed, and had decided that the end of the war meant freedom, as the British had promised from 1942 onwards. Indians decided that the end of British rule had arrived, and the British agreed. Therefore the unwillingness on the part of the British to enforce order directly produced their increasing inability to enforce order.
This is not a mysterious process. Lord Wavell’s military confidence had been badly shaken by a series of mutinies though 1945-46 and the widespread violence in Calcutta and Bihar from August 1946. There were, meanwhile, persistent attempts by Muslim League supporters to unseat a Unionist government in Punjab and a Congress ministry in NWFP. The maintenance of civic order runs hand-in-hand with the confidence that one can do so. We can justifiably accuse the British authorities of cowardice or dereliction of duty during this period, but there was never a deliberate attempt to destabilise India. At most, the British plan on the ground was to save British lives, once it no longer seemed that there was any political reason to take casualties.
The last great area of contention is the issue of bias. Pakistani partisans, including senior politicians, such as M. A. H. Ispahani, accused Mountbatten of a pro-Indian bias. Similarly, Indian partisans accuse him of collaboration with the Muslim League. This debate generates a great deal more heat than light. On a general level one might argue that if both sides feel hard done by then the man in the middle has probably done favours for neither side. In Mountbatten’s case there is evidence that he certainly favoured India more than Pakistan. This was partly because he personally liked Nehru much more than he liked Jinnah, but there were wider issues. The idea that Mountbatten’s wife Edwina, had an affair with Nehru is still strong. No physical evidence of this survives, in terms of a single letter or eyewitness account that clinches the matter.
But it must be said that Nehru and Edwina were remarkably close to each other for the rest of their lives, and that the very least one can say is that they had a special bond of some kind between them. Of course, how (or if) this materially affected the Partition settlement is entirely another matter, and one that it is almost impossible to decide definitively. I have dealt with one attempt to do so here.
But it is not just Mountbatten that is accused of bias. There is a long running thread in Partition lore that somehow Winston Churchill was mixed up in the whole endgame, with a recurrent suspicion that he actively helped Jinnah to obtain Pakistan. This is certainly not true, and it is very difficult to see how this idea could ever have taken root. It runs directly against everything Churchill believed. Nor is there any record of his ever having given any supporting statement that might have triggered this bizarre idea. Churchill was certainly ignorant and prejudiced about India and Indians, but the notion that as either wartime Prime Minister, or as Leader of the Opposition after 1945, he would have directly connived at the dismantling of British India is bewildering. In fact any attempt to make this charge stick will encounter formidable problems of plain common sense, never mind the complete absence of archival or literary evidence.
The mistake probably arises principally because Indian onlookers imagine that Churchill was pro-Muslim in some hidden way. This is a misconception, arising from Churchill’s intense dislike of Hindus in general and Gandhi in particular. Churchill was not complicated in his views. He vigorously opposed the constitutional reforms embodied in the Government of India Act 1935, which he considered gave Indians too much control over their own affairs. This was largely because he despised Indian politicians as ‘men of straw’, meaning men of no principles who had no real standing among the nation they claimed to speak for. He maintained, right up until Partition, that India’s politicians and political classes were not truly representative of their own people, and were a self-interested minority, out of touch with the feelings of the mass of Indians, whom he took to be natural Empire loyalists. In this he was wrong, but it influenced his thinking at every juncture. Secondly, once the war had begun he was consumed with the single aim of winning it. He fully realised that after the war there would be a different situation, win or lose. He was prepared to countenance a degree of concession to Indians during the war, as undertaken by the Cripps Mission of 1942. However, his idea of the degree of appropriate concessions was radically at odds with the views of the Labour members of the War Cabinet. Churchill personally wished to make no more than absolutely minimum concessions.
If we look at Churchill as an old-fashioned imperialist, which is what he was, then we see certain traits that governed his actions and opinions. He despised Hindus, in the way that nineteenth century British liberals had done so. He disliked ‘priestcraft’, and he considered Hindus to be shifty, cowardly and disloyal. Churchill always believed Gandhi was a charlatan. He never took his fasts seriously and used to enjoy morbid and cruel humour on the subject in a way that does him no credit. But in Gandhi he saw the archetypal spineless, over-clever clerk, a caricature the British treasured. The point here is not to harp on about Churchill’s lack of diversity awareness, the point is that Churchill absolutely rejected the idea that giving power to, or sharing power with, men like Gandhi was wise, even in order to win the war. Along with the generality of Conservatives he thought that the war could be won without such men. And he was right.
He was also exercised by the treatment of the Untouchables by the Hindu majority, and he returned to this theme repeatedly after the war, when for every sentence seeming to support Muslims, he devoted at least one to the plight of the Backward Classes. Churchill was fond of pointing out that 90 million Muslims and 60 million Untouchables, plus the population of Princely India, actually composed a majority of the Indian population. None of this disposed him favourably to either Hindus or the Congress. The effect of this mountain of prejudices was that Churchill preferred Muslims to Hindus, although not by much.
During the war, he felt beholden to India’s Muslims because they were willing to fight for the King Emperor. But this did not dispose him in any way to want to give ‘Muslims’ (a very large and disparate category, distributed all over the subcontinent) any kind of ‘independence’. Why indeed should it, if these were the most loyal people, who seemed willing to fight for the Empire? It was hardly necessary, let alone advantageous, to hand such people concessions.
Moving on from the war, any willingness or ability Churchill might have had to deliver Pakistan to Jinnah was entirely negated by his political fall. His views became almost irrelevant within British politics once he lost his position as Prime Minister in July 1945, when Clement Attlee’s Labour Party swept to a landslide victory, riding on a wave of post-war public optimism. Churchill then became Leader of the Opposition, but an Opposition trounced and demoralised. Personally, Churchill was devastated by the rejection his country dealt him after such faithful, historic service. This, however, did not remove his interest in India, and now he had different strategic ends in view. Where Gandhi in government had threatened to be a shortcut to a Japanese India in 1942, now Nehru in government was an open invitation to the Russians.
The idea of handing over India to a Hindu-socialist government appalled Churchill and it was this that aligned his sympathies with Jinnah and the Muslims, although he also wished to honour British ‘obligations’ to other minorities, and of course to the Princes. During this period Churchill was demoralised and tired, personally and politically cowed until around late 1946. He was living in a state of cognitive dissonance, a figure of world renown, endlessly praised and lionised, yet entirely powerless. He had won the war yet had been peremptorily consigned to irrelevance. He was not a young man and the world upon which he now gazed was changed forever and, he thought, much for the worse. The idea that Churchill was either an energetic participant in the Partition process, or a figure of any importance within British politics at this time is mistaken.