Shameful Flight, The Last Years of the British Empire in India,pp 231,OUP, 2006, where historic photos mislead us!

India’s Partition and why we feel shy to avoid the topic?

This book by a serious scholar of India’s modern history, an authoritative writer on Gandhi and Jinnah has now produced a book that would give us, Indians of the older and younger generations, a new perspective and a thoroughly balanced account of the historic conditions that led to the tragic partition of India in 1947.

Perhaps, a careful reading of the book, now in the new century, after half a century of time span, also with India’s leaders totally cut off from the emotional bondings that come with active political participation or even cultivating some political ideological beliefs would, realize that after all Jinnah is not the only villain.Nor,Mountabtten is the other villain. How to assess the role and the capacity of our own heroes, Gandhi and Nehru? May be the younger generation might judge the issues more dispassionately! Who knows! Anyway, here is a masterpiece of a book, written in the style that brings out the gravitas that mark the greatest tragedy of modern India! 

May be this book might prove to be the one last book that would remain as an authoritative interpretation of India’s tragic partition.

This is an extraordinary book, well-researched and comes out after almost a life time of research on the principal players. Stanley Wolpert is a well-known name in modern history writing and his celebrated classics,” Gandhi’s Passion, Nehru: A Tryst with Destiny”,”Jinnah of Pakistan” are all now standard books on the subject. This book too comes with very serious research and study of the rare documents of the period. He had met some of the principal players, notably Mountbatten and others.

This book will remain for long the definitive reference to the difficult topic.There is so much to write about the tragedy of India’s Partition. But I am confining myself to some of the small things that came as a shock to me, the inner most thoughts and secret messages, the use of vulgar words and expressions against one another in fact constitutes how everyone was determined to keep India together and at the same time how at least a section, notably led by Churchill were determined to see India was divided, not into two nations, even one or two more for the Princes, for the Sikhs too!

Who are the guilty men of India’s Partition? A very difficult and a very unpleasant question indeed! Somehow we Indians find it difficult to reconcile with our own heroes having feet of clay and they when the occasion came found themselves unequal to the task.

What this book along with its select photographs brought home to me is the fact that we in India, as young and old, grew up reading some history of the Partition days and the standard photographs we are accustomed to see in such texts used to give us a feeling of some historic message. What I found after reading the passages and the photos was that the photos gave us a very oppositive truth, indeed.

Haven’t we seen the photo, for instance, the Mountbattens, husband and wife, standing, so friendly a pose by the side of the Mahatma? You know what the Mountbattens thought of Gandhi when he first met them?

“On March 31, Mahatma Gandhi arrived at 5 p.m. for his first meeting with Mountbatten. Lady Mountbatten remained with them for the first hour, all facing up to a “barrage of cameras, and then. Purely social, friendly talks,” Mountbatten noted. Gandhi “talked of his life in England, of his life in South Africa, his recent tour of Bihar, his discussions with former Viceroys and Members of the Cabinet”.” Since Gandhi promised to give me two hours everyday for the rest of the week, I felt there was no hurry” Mount batten added” and deemed it advisable to let him talk along any lines that entered his mind” He clearly decided during this first meeting that prolix old Gandhi was too popular an iconic figure to offend by cutting him short, but nothing he said was very practical and or important enough to take seriously”(page 137).

In the second meeting Gandhi informed Mountbatten to invite Jinnah to head the interim government that was led by Nehru so far. That afternoon Mountbatten told Nehru what Gandhi had told him.” Nehru was not surprised. This was his position all along since the 1946 Cabinet Mission. but Nehru told Mountbatten that” Gandhi was away for four months and he was out of touch with events at the Centre”(137).Nehru then put forward the suggestion for the” immediate partition of Punjab” to avoid bloodshed. Mountbatten didn’t have a clue as to the complexities of the situation. But “Nehru was so outraged by Gandhi’s “treacherous” idea, that neither Mountbatten nor Nehru was willing to give it the chance, Jinnah presiding over the interim government”(page 139).

Yes, Gandhi remained steadfast in opposing the Partition of India but he had no clue as to how to avoid it with Jinnah insisting that the Muslims in a Hindu majority India won’t be safe. The Muslim separatism was there since 1905, since the Partition of Bengal and the British kept the fire burning first promoting Agha Khan as their spokesman, then Jinnah emerging as the sole undisputed leader.

The events described in detail read like crime thriller, the ending of the Second World War, the interest the US President Roosevelt took in India’s freedom; Churchill was bound to listen to the US President, as American help was necessary in ending the war and one of the preoccupations of the American public was the freedom of India. One more irony in the events is that the day when Churchill was at Potsdom in Germany to negotiate the surrender of Germany with Atless as the Deputy Prime Minister the Labor election victory was announced. Churchill was unseated and Atlee took charge.

Even otherwise, the Second World War saw Britain weak; it won because of the American entry and also because President Truman threw the atom bomb on Japan and got it surrender. There were naval mutinies in Bombay, there was revolt of the Indian soldiers under Netaji Bose, and in fact, it was already became clear that Jinnah’s intransigence proved too much for Britain to hold India together. The pictures in the book give us an idea of who were the key players in the last years and months of the British rule in India. Everyone, including Mountbatten acknowledged that Gandhi was a saint and that is all. He was seen as not a practical person and this became increasingly clear as the final days came nearer.

Now, as the book goes into so much graphic detail, it can now be said with some common sense that the Quit India movement was a hasty step on the part of Gandhi. It entailed so much suffering for the people as for the leaders who were all locked up in Pune and Ahmednagar fort. Even Kasturbha said that Gandhi brought this great suffering on people unnecessarily. She died so soon without medical help.

Gandhi’s relationship with Jinnah, though outwardly friendly, the famous photo of Gandhi and Jinnah in front of “Jinnah’s elegant hilltop home, where they conferred for over three hours on the first day,” a test of my patience” Gandhi called Jinnah “Great Leader and he conveyed to Rajaji Jinnah’s “contempt for your formula (for Pakistan) and his contempt for you is staggering.” Two charismatic leaders know well, they were old enough, wise enough, how many lives would be lost and ruined if they failed “and yet they failed to reach an understanding. So, the picture of Gandhi putting his friendly hand on Jinnah’s shoulders belies the deep contempt they had for each other. So, the picture of Nehru and Jinnah walking together in Shimla. Mountbatten had his own time table, he was in a hurry to get back to his naval job, a great honor and he was more concerned about the display of his medals along with his wife’s jewellery etc. He was soon to realize there was no alternative but to go for surgery!

The book brings out some rare gems of vulagrity, Churchill called Gandhi, the old rascal, the most cunning, the most deceptive etc.So too Linlithgow,the Eton-educated headstrong Viceroy who locked up Gandhi and the nationalist leaders so cruelly over the Quit India call.

The point here is the Indians, then or even now don’t want to face up the realities of how their country was divided. Luckily, the country divided into two; otherwise, the Sikhs and also the Indian princes played their own reckless game of asking for separate existence for their states.

The bitter truth is this: India would have got its freedom, almost undivided, if Gandhi didn’t force the pace of his agitations too often. This lesson comes out so dramatically, if we look at the partition. So, too is the case of Satyagraha, fasting as a weapon for civil disputes seem to have not much relevance in modern times, then as now. Gandhi was an enigmatic personality, he made much of his spiritualism, and spiritualism for a political leader has severe limitations. He was too much of an expositor of Hinduism, as the others were. This proved dangerous in the end.

Hindu-Muslim issues remain even now with us. May be, our present parties and leaders, the BJP and the regional caste parties must take some leaf out of this book and must go slow in exciting the masses over their religious and caste identities. We can’t have any more this kind of communal and caste conflicts in a modern society.

One hopes the 2000 and odd years of Indian history, the 60 years of our democracy all give us some perspectives, for the political class at least, so that we all strive for unifying people in a multicultural and multi-linguistic society, as a one modernizing society with a unity of shared historic experiences.

The villains are really Churchill, Mountbatten and of course Jinnah!If Jinnah didn’t persist with his one point of agenda, then somehow India’s partition might have been averted. But then Jinnah was playing his card close to his chest and then once the events accelerated, as they did after the failure of the Cabinet Mission, then Jinnah only had his job cut out for him, to stick to Pakistan demand.

But then there are other disturbing questions about the roles played by Indian leaders. Gandhi was never at grips when negotiations started. Even he didn’t take the Cabinet Mission seriously, half way he left for Sevagram! This only weakened the Mission’s authority. Of course, Gandhiji was a saint but then this only contributed to Jinnah claiming a separate homeland for Muslims, Muslims felt insecure in a Hindu-dominated India! Here Gandhi’s own identification with Hinduism, religion etc proved a liability. The book does a signal service by going through in detail the various sections, army, British Governors of the states and the bureaucrats, even Suhrawardhy and other Muslim leaders who were all against the division of the country, who were apprehensive also against any hasty handing over power. But Mountbatten proved to be a great fool! A man deluded more by his medals than by any political wisdom. The other British leaders, even Wavell, were for a united India.

The Indian partition brought about enormous suffering to the Indian people. So too Gandhiji’s last Quit India movement. There were not many who were happy with the hasty announcement and the fatal consequences for the Indian people, so many were thrown into jails. Was such a drastic step wise in such historic context? Nehru too proved weak, Azad so ineffective. Jinnah refused to shake hands with him!

When communal violence broke out in Bihar and then in Novkhali, Gandhi simply was at his wit’s end. He had to undertake a walk through the villages and this was no effective way to face the challenge of such mass scale migration!

Indians don’t like to talk about what is India’s greatest tragedy in our freedom fight. But then one day or other, we have to face the issues. The issues that still remain with us are just, it looks, the same! Any talk of separatism, ethnic chauvinism, as in TN, Assam or Nagaland or Manipur are inherently has the potential to break up India’s unity! So, politicians have to guard against politics of ethnic chauvinism, separatism, language politics etc. They are Indian history’s lingering enemies!

One personal note

As I was reading and also glancing through the book and the photographs, I felt let down by the photos that show our leaders, as if they were all relaxed. The true story behind every photo, most of which are familiar through innumerable publications and textbooks, there was betrayal, doubletalk and mistrust and utter contempt for each other! That clearly pained me!

One or two photos, like the one of Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck (188-4-1981), Commander in Cheif, India, 1943-47 brought back memories of my Oxford time when I, in a daring act, wrote to the great military man who was then was well-known in England and invited him to Oxford to speak to the Indian students! He wrote me back on a post card to say that he would come and we were to fix the date! Alas, it never happened and I also lost the card! In the book here I find he tried hard to keep Indian unity, but his political superiors over-ruled him, the military’s role.

Lord Pethick Lawrence (1971-1961), was the Secretary of State for India and a well-wisher from the beginning. Lord Linlithgow, Viceroy, an Estonian, was a bit ruthless with Gandhi and his colleagues and it was he who locked up them in 1942 so cruelly. The real villains, besides Mountbatten, were Churchill and here I see some of the most hated faces, the Indian princes, who luckily didn’t get the opportunity. Otherwise, India today would have been divided into hundreds of states!

As I see now, more than the personal roles, the individual personalities, it is historic context, the Second World War, the breakup of Britain’s military etc that led to India’s independence! So, let us understand historical forces better!

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