It’s 1947. After many long years of struggle, India is about to gain its independence from the British Empire. But freedom will come at a cost. To facilitate the handover of power, the Crown sends Lord Louis Mountbatten – the last Viceroy – to hammer out a deal between the competing political factions. Muhammed Ali Jinnah battles his terminal illness and uncovers a shocking secret. Jawaharlal Nehru falls for a captivating woman. And all the while, India’s Muslim and Hindu communities prepare for a bloody civil war.
It’s 1947. After many long years of struggle, India is about to gain its independence from the British Empire. But freedom will come at a cost. To facilitate the handover of power, the Crown sends Lord Louis Mountbatten – the last Viceroy – to hammer out a deal between the competing political factions. Muhammed Ali Jinnah battles his terminal illness and uncovers a shocking secret. Jawaharlal Nehru falls for a captivating woman. And all the while, India’s Muslim and Hindu communities prepare for a bloody civil war.
Akbar, M.J. Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan. 2011.
Tharoor, Shashi. Nehru: The Invention of India. 2003.
Tharoor, Shashi. Inglorious Empire: What The British Did To India. 2017.
Khan, Yasmin. The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan. 2007.
Guha, Ramachandra. Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World. 2018.
Sarila, Narendra Singh. The Shadow of the Great Game. 2005.
Charles Rivers Editors. The Punjab. 2018.
Charles Rivers Editors. British India. 2017.
Puri, Kavita. Partition Voices: Untold British Stories. 2019.
Malhotra, Aanchal. Remnants of Partition: 21 Objects From A Continent Divided. 2017.
Von Tunzelmann, Alex. Indian Summer. 2007.
Zakaria, Anam. The Footprints of Partition. 2015.
Ahmed Akbar. Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity. 1997.
Urvashi, Butalia. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. 1998.
White-Spunner, Barney. Partition. 2017.
Lawrence, James. Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India. 1997.
Hamdani, Yasser Latif. Jinnah: A Life. 2020.
Fischer, Louis. Gandhi. 1950.
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Hello and welcome to Conflicted, the history podcast where we talk about the struggles that shaped us, the tough questions that they pose, and why we should care about any of it.
Conflicted is a member of the Evergreen Podcast Network; and as always, I’m your host, Zach Cornwell.
You are listening to Part 3 of a multi-part series on the Partition of India.
Of course, it goes without saying, if you haven’t listened to the first two episodes of this series, go ahead and check those out before diving into this one.
If you’d like to support Conflicted, you can become a patron of the show at patreon.com/conflictedhistorypodcast; or you can always just leave a nice review or a 5-star rating on the podcast app of your choice.
I have to say, I am very excited about today’s episode. It’s got twists and turns, romance and betrayal, political intrigue and shocking violence; all that good stuff. And all of the threads we’ve established thus far are going to start to converge in some very interesting and surprising ways. But before we launch into the next chapter of story, let’s take a few minutes to retrace our steps and remind ourselves of what happened last time.
When we last left off, it was August 1946.
All across the subcontinent, India’s leaders watched in disbelief as the crowded city of Calcutta descended into a three-day spasm of sectarian violence – a communal disaster that is known to history as the Great Calcutta Killings.
For 72 awful hours, gangs of Hindu and Muslim militants prowled the streets, slicing and burning and maiming each other until the British Indian Army was finally able to restore some order. Ultimately, the deadly riots claimed the lives of 4,000 people, but the most consequential casualty was the sense of unity and fellowship between India’s two main religious communities – Hindus and Muslims.
It was a relationship that had been unraveling for years. As Mohandas Gandhi had commented sadly just a few months prior: “The hearts of Hindus and Muslims are sundered. The air is poisoned with communal bitterness and rancor.”
Something had snapped in Calcutta. Like a rubber band that had been pulled tighter and tighter, groaning under decades of grievance, until finally, any remaining trust between Muslims and Hindus simply collapsed. As Hajari Nisid writes, August 1946 marked “the moment when the political battle between Hindus and Muslims—until then waged around negotiating tables and in debate halls—turned violent.”
But things had not always been so bad. Hindus and Muslims had been living together in India for a very long time. Last episode, in Part 2: Two Blind Eyes, we traced the trajectory of that fragile coexistence across the centuries.
When Islam first came to India in the 8th century AD, it did so at the point of a sword. Barely a century after the Prophet Muhammed emerged from an Arabian cave with the embers of a new religion, the flames of expansion were licking at the edges of South Asia. By the 16th century, powerful Muslim conquerors had displaced the homegrown Hindus as the ruling elite of the subcontinent.
Initially, Hindus bristled at these monotheistic interlopers, balked at their faceless God and egalitarian beliefs; But through a rocky process of inter-marriage, conversion, and cultural fusion, the loom of history wove Islam into the fabric of India, just as it had done with countless other religions and cultures. India had always been a melting pot; and Muslims just became another ingredient in that complex stew.
And for a while, Muslims reigned supreme in India. Visitors from as far away as France and Japan marveled at intricate Mughal architecture like the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, and the Peacock Throne. But like any golden age, it was doomed to disintegrate. When the English finally came to India in the 17th century, the Mughal Empire was in its twilight phase; The East India Company just finished the job.
While the Mughal Empire frayed at the seams, so too did Muslim hegemony. Before long, India was ruled by a monarch 5,000 miles away in England, and the followers of Islam were reduced to a powerless, if sizable, minority. Hindus, meanwhile, pined for the distant day when they could reclaim their homeland and enjoy the fruits of their majority status.
But for a long time, despite all the historical baggage, things were mostly amicable between Hindus and Muslims under the British Raj. There were sporadic bouts of anger and violence – tiffs over turf and beefs over cow slaughter - but at ground level, writes MJ Akbar, Hindus and Muslims respected the difference between their faiths and lived with it.”
All that began to change, however, in the early 20th century. We’ve already covered the early days of the Indian Independence Movement, how Mohandas Gandhi and his hot-tempered protégé Jawaharlal Nehru ignited a non-violent mass movement that slowly brought the Raj to its knees.
But that was only one side of the coin. Last time, we spent quite a bit of time getting acquainted with another major player in this story: Muhammed Ali Jinnah.
Jinnah, if you’ll recall, was a hotshot lawyer from Bombay. Tall, suave, and rail-thin. A whiskey-swilling, Rolls Royce driving, Shakespeare-reciting anglophile who felt more at ease in a mansion than in a mosque.
Jinnah would go on to become the most powerful Muslim politician in India. The great leader – the Quaid-e-Azam, as his millions of followers called him. And eventually, the father of Pakistan.
Jinnah, of course, is a notoriously opaque figure; even in modern Pakistan he is a “spectral presence, remembered yet unknown”, according to journalist Declan Walsh. Last episode we attempted to pierce that veil of mystery by comparing and contrasting him with some other Indian politicians of the day, most notably our old friend Jawaharlal Nehru. And sometimes, that kind of triangulation is the only way to get a feel for someone as enigmaticl as Jinnah. As Ahmed Akbar put it: Biography is more than the life of an individual; it is also who your friends and who your enemies are.
Muhammed Ali Jinnah was not always the sworn political enemy of Gandhi and Nehru. In the early days, they had been allies in the fight for Indian independence. But that is where the similarities ended. They agreed on the ends, but not the means. Jinnah didn’t like Gandhi’s populism, his demonstrations, or his protests. He thought it was reckless, dangerous. Jinnah believed in achieving freedom for India via constitutional methods. As one writer put it: “He was too much of a lawyer to break the law”.
Still, he believed passionately that Hindu-Muslim harmony was absolutely critical in achieving independence for India. Cooperation and unity, he told a crowd of fellow Muslims, were “essential for the establishment of self-government.”
But by the late 1930s, Muhammed Ali Jinnah had completely changed his position. He no longer believed that Hindus and Muslims could live together under one roof. When the British eventually left, the Muslims would be at the mercy of a powerful - and resentful - Hindu majority. All the old baggage; the wars, the conversions, the religious differences, would come roaring back. Muslims, Jinnah believed, would be second-class citizens in their own home.
And so, Jinnah championed the creation of a new home, a new nation that would be carved from the carcass of the British Raj to serve as a homeland for India’s Muslims. A “land of the pure”, his supporters called it. Pakistan.
For men like Gandhi and Nehru, it was an obscene betrayal of the independence movement. The British Viceroy at the time, Archibald Wavell, described Jinnah as “a fallen angel, one who had once promised to be a great leader of Indian freedom, but who had cast himself out of the Congress heaven.”
Some have suggested that Jinnah was just using the threat of Pakistan as a bargaining chip to gain more leverage at the negotiating. That he never *really* thought Pakistan was anything more than a galvanizing wedge issue. But if you listen to speeches from Jinnah at the time, you can hear an undeniable conviction in his voice. And I’d like to play you an excerpt from one of those speeches right now.
Here is Muhammed Ali Jinnah, in his own words:
1:23 – 2:27
Hindu India and Muslim India must be separated. Because the two nations are entirely distinct and different, and in some matters antagonistic to each other. Let me tell you some of the differences. We define our history, culture, language, architecture, music, laws, jurisprudence, calendar, and our entire social fabric and code of life. One India is impossible to realize. It’ll inevitable mean that the Muslim will be transferred from the domination of the British to the caste Hindu rule, a position that Muslims will never accept.
3:37 – 4:04
“Muslims desire freedom more than anyone else. Because love for freedom, fraternity, and liberty is the lifeblood of their existence. But freedom, must mean freedom both from British exploitation and Hindu dominations. 100 millions of Muslims will never agree, merely to a change of masters.
“100 million Muslims will never agree merely to a change of masters.”
Powerful words; and they had a powerful effect. By 1946, the Muslim League was a seismic force in Indian politics. India’s Muslims no longer thought of themselves as a toothless minority, but as a nation unto themselves; and they hung on Muhammed Ali Jinnah’s every syllable.
So when Jinnah and the Muslim League called for a “Direct Action Day” on August 16th, 1946, millions of people answered the call and took to the streets to make their demands for Pakistan heard. It must be said - Jinnah never, ever, intended for things to turn as violent as they did in Calcutta, but his high-minded principles were an insufficient balm for the bad blood people were feeling at street-level. “Direct Action Day” is now virtually synonymous with horrific communal violence.
Not even participants in the carnage were immune to the horror of it all. One militant named Jugal Chandra Ghosh remembered ‘a place where four trucks were standing, all with dead bodies, at least three feet high; like molasses in sacks, they were stacked on the trucks, and blood and brain was oozing out … the whole sight of it, it had a tremendous effect on me.’ -
Hindus and Muslims had often been called the “two eyes” of the beautiful bride that was India. But on Direct Action Day, and in the Great Calcutta Killings that followed, the two eyes could only see fear and loathing for each other. Eye-for-an-eye retribution left the beautiful bride maimed and scarred. And as unspeakable as it all was…it was only the beginning.
So now that we’ve gone given our memories a refresh with a Cliff Notes breakdown of last episode, let’s talk about where we’re going next.
In today’s episode, we’re going to tighten the aperture a bit. The events of this next chapter take place over the course of just two-and-a-half months, but they were arguably some of the most consequential months in world history.
Today we’re going to be a fly on the wall in the room where it happened. Where the fates of India and Pakistan were decided once and for all by a small group of men - and one extraordinary woman.
As the British Empire attempts to finally, at long last, give India back to the Indians, they send a representative to work out all the details. The last Viceroy, Dickie Mountbatten, whom we met back in Part 1, will re-enter the narrative in spectacular fashion as the undertaker of Empire. It is his job to somehow, some way, bring Jinnah, Gandhi, and Nehru to the negotiating table and hammer out an agreement for the future of the subcontinent.
The results, as we will see, were catastrophic.
But this next phase of the story has another dimension. In the midst of all this fear and tumult, anger and tension, a love story begins to unfold. A true-blue romance, in which two people, one who we already know very well, and one who we will get to know very well, forge a deep, yet controversial, connection in the shadow of Partition.
And so, today’s episode will be a fast-paced examination of how India was finally divided. And how two of its major players fell in love at the eye of the storm.
So without further ado, let’s get started.
Welcome to The Partition of India: Part 3: A Tryst With Destiny
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On February 20th, 1947, a miracle took place in London.
It was one of the coldest days of the coldest months in living memory. Snow blanketed the United Kingdom. Crags of ice formed off the coast. Railways were disrupted; Ferries shut down; Over 300 main roads were all but unusable. Stunned meteorologists said they had not recorded anything like it since 1895.
But through the snow and the bitter cold, a small, 64-year-old man went to work. At first glance, he looked like a math teacher, or maybe a bank teller. Thick, round glasses. A neatly-combed mustache. An unapologetic sheen of male pattern baldness.
Clem was his name. Clem was a shy person; a man of few words. If you spoke to him on the street, you’d be lucky to get a one-word response from him. Clem was so tight-lipped in fact, that one acquaintance referred to him not as “Clem”, but “Clam”.
But still, Clem the Clam had a very important meeting that day. Arguably the most important meeting of his life. That afternoon, he was going to perform a miracle.
Clem arrived at work that morning with a pipe clenched between his teeth and a stack of papers waiting on his desk. It was going to be a busy day. But then, every day was a busy day for Clement Attlee, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Clem Attlee was a far cry from the UK’s previous Prime Minister, the indomitable bulldog and wartime luminary Winston Churchill. But it was peacetime now. World War 2 was over. Hitler was dead. Berlin was a heap of ash and rubble. In the cold light of peace, Britain needed a bookkeeper, not a bulldog.
The stack of paper on Prime Minister Clem Attlee’s desk was a monument of problems. Coal shortages. Worker strikes. The Americans wanted money and the Soviets wanted territory. Fighting a World War was one thing; Cleaning up after one was quite another. But the biggest problem in Clem’s stack of papers wasn’t in Washington or Paris or Moscow…it was 5,000 miles away…In India.
For years, Britain’s “jewel in the crown” had been a pain in the ass.
In the days of Queen Victoria, India had been a gold mine, a boon, an ATM for the empire. But now, the Raj was a full-on financial liability. As Hajari Nisid writes, the subcontinent was “no longer the fabled storehouse of rubies and spices that had helped to bankroll England’s rise as a world power. During the war His Majesty’s Government had instead racked up huge debts to India—more than $6 billion (almost $80 billion in today’s dollars)”
In short, Britain was broke. And its grip on its largest colonial asset was slipping. As Shashi Tharoor writes:
Bled, bombed and battered for six years, Britain could divide but it could no longer rule. The British—terrorized by German bombing, demoralized by various defeats and large numbers of their soldiers taken prisoner, shaken by the desertion of Indian soldiers and the mutiny of Indian sailors, shivering in the record cold of the winter of 1945–46, crippled by power cuts and factory closures resulting from a post-War coal shortage—were exhausted and in no mood to focus on a distant empire when their own needs at home were so pressing.
They were also more or less broke: American loans had kept the economy afloat and needed to be repaid, and even India was owed a sizable debt. Overseas commitments were no longer sustainable or particularly popular. Exit was the only viable option: the question was what they would leave behind—one India, two or several fragments?”
A fragmented, balkanized India seemed more and more likely with each passing day. Clem Attlee could only sigh with exhaustion as he considered the feuding cast of characters on India’s main stage. The leaders of India’s homegrown political parties, it seemed, couldn’t agree on anything. Muhammed Ali Jinnah was demanding a separate homeland for Muslims, what he called Pakistan. Jawaharlal Nehru was desperately trying to maintain his coalition and keep the idea of a united India alive. And the 77-year-old old Mahatma, Mohandas Gandhi, was largely a spent force. More of a tired symbol than a tenacious statesman.
On the ground, the situation was even worse. Hindus and Muslims were tearing each other apart in cities like Calcutta and rural areas of Punjab.
What India needed, Clem believed, was a shock to the system. A moment of clarity. A galvanizing development that could clear the air and focus the mind. What everyone needed was a deadline. And so, Prime Minister Clem Attlee shuffled his papers and called for his secretary. He knew what he had to do.
On the afternoon of February 20th, 1947, Clem stood before Parliament in the House of Lords, and performed his miracle.
Centuries of empire were compressed into the lavish décor of the Lords Chamber. Statues of bishops, frescoes of imperial virtues, and stained-glass windows depicting long-dead monarchs.
Every stitch and stone was saturated with the pomp and legacy of Britain’s Empire. History hung heavy in this room, and on that cold February afternoon, Clem Attlee inaugurated a new chapter of it.
The British Empire, he said, would relinquish its control over India once and for all. India would be given back to the Indians by a date no later than June 8th, 1948. After centuries of colonial oppression and decades of activism, it was finally happening. The British Raj was coming to an end.
In in less than 18 months, India would be free.
On paper, it seemed like a dream come true. But hard deadlines have a way of bringing uncomfortable questions and inconvenient logistics into sharp relief. What would an autonomous Indian government would even look like? If Hindus and Muslims couldn’t patch things up – and it was looking very unlikely they would – India would need to be carved up.
All of the Raj’s resources – the army, the infrastructure, the banking system, the trade routes, everything – would need to be portioned out and haggled over. Like a very messy, very contentious divorce settlement.
But maybe – just maybe – it wouldn’t come to that. There was still a chance, however fleeting, that Jinnah and Nehru could come to the table and hammer out a deal. They just needed the right mediator.
This situation called for a smooth operator – someone with impeccable pedigree, charm, personality, and a genuine affection for the Indian people. No Churchillian bigot could be trusted with a delicate task like this. At this critical juncture, with the fate of 400 people and the dignity of an Empire hanging in the balance, Clement Attlee needed a miracle worker.
Thankfully, the Prime Minister had just the man in mind.
ARRIVING IN DELHI
A month later, on March 22nd, 1947, a plane touched down in the city of Delhi, India. As writer Alex von Tunzelmann atmospherically paints the scene:
The York transporter plane made its lazy approach to the runway. The wheels came down, the back end sank to meet the tarmac, the nose leveled, and the aircraft juddered to a halt. As the four engines whirred down into silence, the door opened and a group of people emerged into the Delhi haze.
Foremost among these was Viscount Mountbatten of Burma, the new viceroy-designate, forty-six years old, handsome and gleaming in his full dress uniform, with rows of medals stretching from breastbone to armpit.
This was Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s chosen miracle worker: Lord Louis Mountbatten, known to his friends simply as “Dickie”.
The last Viceroy of India had a monumental and unenviable task ahead of him, but that day on the tarmac, he was all smiles and pageantry, a sparkling avatar of old-world monarchy. His qualifications were obvious, as one observer quipped: “He looks the part; he says the right things, and he’s the King’s cousin.”
But Dickie’s most dazzling accessory, more impressive than all of his medals and finery, was standing next to him in a chocolate brown suit. His wife, the Lady Edwina Mountbatten.
If you’ll recall, we met the Mountbattens way back in Part 1 of this series. When we last saw Dickie and Edwina, they were boarding the plane bound for India, the very same one that just touched down in Delhi. The enormity and danger of their mission to India was not lost on the couple, or their closest friends. An acquaintance named Noel Coward remarked in his diary shortly after they left England: ‘I wonder if they will come back alive. I think that if it is possible to make a go of it in the circumstances they will, but I have some forebodings.’
Now you’d be forgiven for hearing the Mountbattens’ names and not remembering a single thing about them. So, let’s take a second to quickly recap our time with Dickie and Edwina Mountbatten. Like most royals of the day, they were glamorous, sociable, and filthy rick – true beneficiaries of the wealth and power of the British Empire.
Dickie himself was royalty, a great-grandson of Queen Victoria. And when he met Edwina, the limber, dark-eyed heiress with a disarming smile, ol ‘Dick was smitten. When Edwina took the Mountbatten last name a few years later, it appeared to be happily ever after – a true-blue fairy-tale match. The handsome young Count and his dutiful arm candy.
But Edwina was a free spirit. She developed a reputation as a “famous playgirl”, as one American Lieutenant Colonel phrased it. She liked to kiss and flirt and sleep around. Her affairs and trysts were the stuff of tabloid legend. And it was hard to hate her for it; If she took your arm at a party or a slipped you a seductive gaze, you were putty in her hands. She was a woman of “fierce brilliance and elegance” according to one contemporary, and she had the lifestyle to match, as one writer described:
Edwina’s life was a constant rotation of luncheon parties, garden parties, cocktail parties, dinner parties and weekend house parties. When she was not at parties, she was planning parties, or buying new dresses for parties, or carrying on illicitly with the men she had met at parties or recovering from the hangovers she had incurred by going to too many parties.
Very early on in their marriage, Dickie made peace with her promiscuity, and they agreed in that oh-so-subtle English manner, to carry on with an open marriage. Live and let live, screw and let screw. As Mountbatten recalled years later: ‘Edwina and I spent all our married lives getting into other people’s beds,’ he later remarked. But contrary to appearances, Edwina was much, much more than a shallow party girl. During World War 2, she found her true calling as a passionate humanitarian.
Edwina threw herself into the drudgery of wartime work, touring the fronts and tirelessly inspecting hospitals, welfare establishments, and medical facilities. Observers marveled at the “chic, attractive woman who never stops working”. She went to Baghdad and Burma and Bombay, Malaya, Singapore, and China. Wherever there were British soldiers fighting and suffering, Edwina wanted to make sure they were being properly taken care of.
No area was too dangerous, no task was beneath her. At a Leper hospital in Singapore, she had “had no inhibitions about shaking hands, touching arms and stroking foreheads”. In Burma, she visited the front lines less than 500 yards from Japanese positions, noting in her diary the presence of “live shells and booby traps still strewn around.”
But Edwina was still Edwina. Her playgirl charm lifted spirits and left blushing soldiers in its wake. As one biographer wrote:
“She was an immediate success with the Americans in Burma. Entering wards in their hospitals, she would be greeted by wolf whistles. At Bhamo she autographed the plaster cast on a GI’s leg and caused a riot.”
As for her husband Dickie Mountbatten, he was honestly, legitimately, so, so proud of her. As he told her in a heartfelt letter on her birthday:
‘If you weren’t my wife, I’d offer you permanent employment in a very high rank on my staff, and I know of no other woman I’d say that to.’
The Mountbattens were unconventional, no doubt. And that was exactly what Prime Minister Clement Attlee had been counting on. India was an unconventional problem in need of a unconventional solution. Lord Mountbatten and his dazzling wife fit the bill perfectly. If anyone could slice through the red tape, white-hot tensions and personal politics, it was Dickie and Edwina.
When the Mountbattens stepped off the plane in Delhi on March 22nd, 1947, they were greeted by representatives from India’s political parties, honor guards from the Royal Air Force and the Fourteenth Punjab Regiment. Cameras snapped and pencils scribbled as a ring of reporters documented the historic arrival.
As she was disembarking the plane, Edwina caught sight of a man standing at the head of the crowd, a friendly face waiting to greet her and her husband. The flicker of recognition sparked in her immediately. Like Edwina, this man was middle-aged. He wore a white cap and a traditional sherwani suit buttoned up to his collar. He was nice-looking, if not handsome, with expressive eyes, a warm smile and greying hair. Edwina immediately recognized him and smiled.
It was good, she thought, to see Jawaharlal Nehru again.
As he watched Edwina disembark the plane in her form-fitting brown dress, Nehru couldn’t help but recall the first time he’d met the Lord & Lady Mountbatten, almost exactly one year ago, on March 18th, 1946. It had been a memorable introduction.
Nehru had flown in to Singapore to inspect the condition of Indian troops and tour the large Indian community living in Malaya. As India’s pre-eminent politician, the leader of the Congress party, he was no stranger to jet-setting.
Dickie Mountbatten was no stranger to Singapore either; as the Supreme Allied Commander of Southeast Asia, he had accepted the surrender of more than half a million Japanese soldiers there in September of ’45. It was, he said, “the greatest day of my life”.
So when Jawaharlal Nehru came to town, Lord Mountbatten shrewdly decided to roll out the red carpet and personally welcome him to the city. Dickie knew that this guy might be the future Prime Minister of India, and he was a friend worth making.
And so, Dickie met Nehru with a handshake, a smile, and no shortage of style. The Lord Mountbatten picked Nehru up from the airport in a lavish, open-top limo, and after a quick spot of tea, personally escorted him to a local YMCA welfare center and dining hall to meet some recuperating Indian soldiers. Once they arrived, Mountbatten said, he would introduce Nehru to his wife, Edwina, who was waiting there for them.
When they arrived at their destination, the crowd of Indian soldiers were so excited to see Jawaharlal Nehru that they mobbed the car. Like fans at a Beatles concert, they surged forward. Dickie and Nehru caught sight of Edwina just in time for her to be swallowed up in the crush of the crowd. As Von Tunzelmann:
Edwina was knocked down […] and fell flat on the floor under the stampeding crowd. “Your wife; your wife; we must go to her,” shouted Nehru to Mountbatten. The two men linked arms and barged forward to find her, but she had already scrambled out of the crush. Nehru and Mountbatten helped her up and carried her to safety. As first meetings go, theirs could hardly have established a greater informality. Afterward, Edwina was the first to emerge from the YMCA, which she did to a roar of approval from the crowd. The roar intensified as Dickie appeared, and the two of them, laughing, pushed through to their car.”
That night, the three of them had dinner together. Nehru, Edwina, and Dickie. As Dickie remembered later: ‘We talked about everything under the sun, and that is where our friendship started.” Mountbatten and Nehru instantly clicked. As the former’s press attaché remembered: “the two men made a deep personal impression on each other.”
But the real spark kindled that night was between Jawaharlal and Edwina. Human chemistry is one of those formless, intangible things. Sometimes it’s just there, sometimes it’s not. But either way, you feel it. And when it springs to life, it crackles like electricity. And chemisty was present that night in Singapore.
So, a year later, when Edwina and Dickie stepped off the plane in Delhi, they were very happy to see their new friend Jawaharlal waiting on the tarmac for them. Destiny had brought their paths together again. In the coming months, the Mountbattens would need all the friends they could get.
As Lord Mountbatten set his mind to the task in front of him, the instructions he’d been given by Prime Minister Clem Attlee echoed in his mind. They were short, but unequivocal:
"Keep India united if you can. If not, save something from the wreck. In any case, get Britain out".
---- MUSIC BREAK ----
Two days after he stepped off the plane in Delhi, Dickie Mountbatten was sworn in as the last Viceroy of India.
Trumpets played, horses pranced, and flags fluttered. A more grounded politician like Nehru or Jinnah would’ve rolled their eyes at the ostentatious display, but for a shameless show pony like Dickie Mountbatten, it was heaven. No one loved pinning on medals and playing dress-up more than Lord Louis. As Dickie remembered:
“What a ceremony! I put on everything. My white full dress uniform. Orders, decorations, medals, the whole lot … “
Before a crowd of admirers and onlookers, Dickie took his place as the last Viceroy of the richest possession of the largest empire the world had ever known. As Von Tunzelmann writes:
The Mountbattens marched sedately and in perfect synchrony up the aisle, an ethereal and slender pair of white-clad and gold-strewn presences, shimmering in the crowded hall. They came to a halt in front of two enormous thrones under a towering scarlet-draped canopy, and turned toward each other, then around to face their audience and a salvo of exploding flashbulbs.
For the next several months, the Mountbattens would be living in a resplendent residence in Delhi – the Viceroy’s House – a labyrinthine, borderline obscene estate, honeycombed with 377 rooms and 1.5 miles of corridors. It was a big house for a big man with a big job. And the weight of that job came crashing down on Mountbattens epulet[eh-puh-let] -gilded shoulders almost immediately.
Mountbatten’s predecessor, a weary old company man named Archibald Wavell, had briefed Dickie on the seriousness of the situation the very night he had arrived in Delhi. In Wavell’s private study, the full, ugly picture of India’s political ecosystem began to emerge. As Wavell drearily told Mountbatten:
“I’m very fond of you, but you’ve been given an impossible task. ‘I have tried everything I know to solve the problem of handing over India to its people, and I can see no light.”
For months, Wavell explained, he had been trying to soothe the intensifying tensions between Hindus and Muslims, to no avail. The Muslim League, led by Muhammed Ali Jinnah, was dead-set on having its own country: Pakistan. The Congress party, led by Nehru, was determined to stop that from happening and keep India united.
The British, it seemed, were stuck mediating between an unstoppable force and an immovable object.
At street level, the relations between Hindus and Muslims were at an all-time low. After the Great Calcutta Killings the previous summer, the violence had only gotten worse, spreading across northern India with alarming speed. In the northern regions of India, where intercommunal tensions were hottest, armed robbery had increased by 60%, murder was up 47%.
Horror stories from Calcutta inspired deadly reprisals. As Hajari Nisid writes: “where one community held an overwhelming majority, the killing quickly gained an unstoppable momentum.”
Dickie Mountbatten later called it a “terrible pendulum”.
Hindu mobs burned mosques to the ground, and butcher’s blocks were assembled from spare planks to behead Muslim victims. In other areas, Muslim kill squads murdered Hindu landlords, and raped their wives and daughters. Some of it was true, some of it was hearsay, but at the time, it was impossible to know which stories were authentic and which were exaggerations. Fact and fiction began to blur. As one historian put it: “The only thing that traveled freely in this landscape was rumor.”
Numbers were inflated. Anecdotes were embellished. Rhetoric was cherry-picked. And every atrocity, real or imagined, served as a potent recruiting tool for a groundswell of extremist militias and paramilitary organizations, festering on the peripheries of the religious divide. They were armed to the teeth and itching for a fight. The evidence was everywhere: Rifles and revolvers were selling for as much as 60 pounds on the coastal black market. British police were finding caches of grenades in the countryside. The fringes of both communities were clearly preparing for war. And “Each side, Hajari Nisid writes, had its uniformed fanatics.”
These organizations came in many shapes and sizes, but they all had similar recruiting tactics, using “a heady combination of bombastic rhetoric, militaristic boot-camps and sexually charged appeals which often drew on religious imagery and stripped down ideas of ‘religious identity’ to its barest essentials”, according to Yasmin Khan.
There was the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – simply known as the RSS – which recruited young men, former soldiers, and hardcore activists into its ranks. Once they were in the club, newbies “swore solemn promises to the nation, drilled in formation, and listened to lectures on morality, duty and “history” – in which exciting, epic battles were waged against Muslim enemies and an inventive panorama of Hindu gods and national heroes fought to save the Motherland.”, again from Khan.
Then there was a group called the Ram Sena, which appealed to young recruits with flashy rituals and stylish uniforms, according to Yasmin Khan:
Decked in khaki shorts and shirt, with an orange cap and spear, topped off with the society’s flag, they marched through the streets, helped out at political rallies, and in their free time played sports and spent time together. It was both a youth club and a political party, providing an image and a social life into the bargain. In towns across North India men were collecting together and arming.”
On the Muslim side, there were groups like the Muslim League National Guards, and The Servants of the Dust. These radical groups closely resembled their Hindu counterparts, right down to the khaki shorts and fake history lessons. Needless to say, diversity of thought was not encouraged, as one man named Khan Durrani commented:
‘One must shout with the crowd or get lynched by the crowd, and the feeling has been created that one who is not a Leaguer is worse than a kafir (unbeliever) and should be hanged like a dog forthwith.’
At a time when growing up in India was a confusing, frightening, and unstable experience, these extremist groups offered a refuge in which angry young men could make sense of a non-sensical world. As Yasmin Khan writes:
The attraction was in the simplicity of the organization’s call. It rode roughshod over India’s linguistic, religious and regional melting-pot. Militant groups provided easy answers to complex questions.”
As Lord Dickie Mountbatten sat in his predecessor’s study, listening to this cascade of bad news, it began to dawn on him that he may have bitten off a little more than he could chew. Maybe this was not the glamorous gig he thought it was. The British were sitting on a powder keg. If he didn’t solve this thing, and a civil war broke out on Britain’s watch, the empire would be humiliated. *He* would be humiliated.
As he observed at the time: “There is very little anti-British feeling, but the inter-communal hatred is a devouring flame.’
Mountbatten’s Chief of Staff, Pug Ismay, was also shocked to discover just how bad things had gotten in India. As he wrote later in his memoirs:
I had thought before I left England that a period of fifteen months was far too short a time in which to complete arrangements for the transfer of power. But I had not been three weeks in India before I was convinced that so far from being too short, it was too long. The principal reason for this change of mind was the realisation that communal bitterness had grown to incredible proportions […] India was a ship on fire in mid-ocean with ammunition in her hold."
Even the rank-and-file men of the Raj were anxious to get the hell out of dodge. One regiment in the British Indian army, the 1st Cameron Highlanders, had a chant they liked to sing on the march – an just a warning, it does include a racial slur, an outdated one, but a slur nonetheless:
“Land of shit and filth and wogs,
Gonorrhea, Syphilis, clap and pox
Memsahib’s paradise, soldiers’ hell,
India fare thee fucking well.”
Things were bad, no doubt. All Mountbatten could do now…was get to work. “He had a deadline”, Barney White-Spunner writes, “but no plan.”
Dickie’s first order of business, now that he was on the chessboard, was meeting the other pieces. Over the next two weeks, Lord Mountbatten extended his white-gloved hand to the three biggest power players in Indian politics. The three wise men: Gandhi, Nehru, and Jinnah.
As he recalled two years later: “I just wanted to talk to them to get to know them, to get together and gossip.” Of course it was much more than gossip. The last Viceroy needed to understand who he was dealing with here.
Jawaharlal Nehru was the first- and the easiest. The two men slipped back into the warm rapport they’d established in Singapore immediately. Dickie appreciated Nehru’s education and charm, his liberal idealism and friendly temperament. Even his daughter Pamela was smitten with the slim, well-spoken Nehru; she recalled being enraptured by:
not only by his beautiful speaking voice and impeccable dress, a white buttoned-down tunic with the famous Nehru collar, jodhpurs and a rosebud in his buttonhole, but also by his warmth and charm, which enveloped me from our first handshake. Watching him interact with others, I could see that he reacted to things instantly, was quick to laugh or make you laugh, and always interested in what you had to say. I realized that both Gandhi and Nehru were the most extraordinary people I had ever met.415
Nehru was impressed with Dickie in turn. In the Last Viceroy, Nehru saw a kindred spirit. Someone who he could deal with, who treated him with respect. Dickie may have been an English Lord, but he was no Reginald Dyer or Winston Churchill. Mountbatten liked Indians; He saw them as flesh-and-blood people, not colonial chattel. And unlike his predecessors, Mountbatten had no patience for the casual bigotry that had defined the Raj for much of its history. His daughter Pamela remembered one incident during a party at the Viceroy’s House in Delhi:
“I was shocked as I overheard two guests say how ‘monstrous’ it was that ‘all these filthy Indians’ should have been invited, and when I told my father later, he was so incensed that he told the Military Secretary that if he ever heard anyone making a racist remark they should be asked to leave immediately.”
Nehru, it seemed, had finally found an Englishman he could respect.
After Nehru had been charmed, next up on Dickie’s docket was the Mahatma himself. The great soul. India’s spiritual leader and avatar of the independence struggle: Mohandas Gandhi.
In 1947, Gandhi was 77 years old. His best years were behind him, and he knew it. But still, he campaigned tirelessly for peace between Hindus and Muslims. He dragged his frail body from province to province, trying to heal the rifts and ease the tensions. And yet it felt so futile, so insurmountable. In Nehru’s estimation, his old mentor was “going round with ointment trying to heal one sore spot after another on the body of India, instead of diagnosing the cause of this eruption of sores and participating in the treatment of the body as a whole.”
To many, Gandhian non-violence was a quaint memory. A thing of the past.
Still, the Mahatma hoped that Lord Mountbatten could pull the British out of India in a way that would not make things worse than they already were. When Gandhi arrived at the Viceroy’s House, he turned on his famous charm, plying Dickie with his entire life story before they’d spoken a single word about independence. From the moment they shook hands, Mountbatten admired Gandhi, respected him deeply, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that the Mahatma might complicate negotiations with his high-minded morality and
Only time would tell.
Dickie Mountbatten’s first two meetings had gone very smoothly. Nehru was a friend. Gandhi was a saint. Now – it was time for the most difficult meeting. The one he had been dreading since he stepped off the plane.
Muhammed Ali Jinnah.
In 1947, the Quaid-e-Azam’s reputation preceded him.
He was known amongst Raj officials as a “man with a problem for every solution”. Prime Minister Clem Attlee called him “the most difficult man he’d ever met”. Jinnah claimed to be the “sole spokesman” of all Muslims in India. Anyone who wanted to make a deal involving the subcontinent’s 100 million followers of Islam – had to go through Mr Jinnah.
As he strode up to the Viceroy’s House, Jinnah cut a formidable figure. Tall, bone-thin, his pale grey hair matching his pale grey suit, the Quaid-e-Azam was all business and no smiles. This was not a social call; the fate of 400 million people hung in the balance.
Most men might have been intimidated or humbled by a meeting with Lord Mountbatten, but Jinnah had never been one to shrink or wither in the shadow of imperial power. On one occasion, as a young Bombay lawyer, a British judge has interrupted his arguments by mumbling “rubbish”. Jinnah turned on his heel with cobra speed and snapped: “Your honor, nothing but rubbish has passed your mouth all morning.’
Dickie Mountbatten thought that he could butter Jinnah up with his usual stories and jokes, but Jinnah was having none of it. As historian Lawrence James writes: “The magic did not work for Jinnah, who was not a man to be one over by breezy wardroom good-humor or soft words”
As they sat in Mountbatten’s study, which the Viceroy kept at 69 degrees with a constant flow of air conditioning, the atmosphere turned equally chilly. As Mountbatten remembered: “For half an hour he made monosyllabic replies to my attempt at conversation.”
Jinnah was distrustful of this prissy prince, and he was skeptical as to whether the Viceroy would be a truly neutral arbiter. As one contemporary observed: ‘Jinnah, being overly honest, thought everyone else dishonest.”
The tension briefly thawed when Lady Mountbatten popped by for a quick photo-op for the reporters and journalists. But even that had an icy tension. Hajari Nisid writes:
“The one moment of levity came when the two men stepped outside with Edwina to pose for the gathered photographers. Jinnah had prepared a canned line of flattery for the vicereine: “Ah, a rose between two thorns.” Unfortunately, as flashbulbs popped and reporters scribbled down his words, the Quaid realized that he had positioned himself between the glamorous British couple.”
Cue the Curb the Enthusiasm music. Most historians think it was an innocent faux pax. Others suspect it was Jinnah’s barbed-wire wit at working, making a sly joke at the expense of his hosts. Either way, the first meeting between Jinnah and the Viceroy was conspicuously strained.
And it only got worse from there. From April 5th, to April 10th of 1947, Jinnah turned up at the Viceroy’s House for meetings. Each one was more contentious than the last.
“Is it your intention, Jinnah asked, “to turn this country over to chaos and bloodshed and civil war?” It was a rhetorical question; What Jinnah was really asking, was will you give me what I want or not? And what he wanted, was Pakistan.
At home at his Delhi villa, Jinnah had a map above the mantle. It was the Indian subcontinent, painted in shimmering silver. But leaping out from the silver, daubed in bright green, like emeralds, were the territories and provinces he envisioned making up a hypothetical Pakistan.
There were Muslims scattered across the entire country, but the highest concentrations were in Punjab- in the North-West, and Bengal - in the East. Without these areas – all of these areas – Pakistan would be, in Jinnah’s words “a shadow and a husk, a maimed, mutilated and moth-eaten state”. Jinnah made it clear to the Viceroy that the Muslim League would accept nothing less than all of Punjab, all of Bengal, and a corridor connecting them, not to mention the frontier areas bordering Afghanistan, maybe even Kashmir.
Jinnah’s demands were as vivid and clear as the green splotches on his silver map.
They were also, Lord Mountbatten explained, impossible to fulfill. The majority Congress party, led by Nehru in practice and in spirit by Gandhi, would never agree to a deal like that. After all, there were as many Hindus and Sikhs living in Punjab as there were Muslims. Bengal was a mostly even split as well. The only option, Mountbatten realized, was to carve the contested areas in two. Like King Solomon, Britain would have to cut the baby in half, and piss off everyone in the process.
Jinnah left in a huff, vowing to press his case until the bitter end.
The next day, on April 11th, Mountbatten vented to his staff that Jinnah was, as one member recalled, a “psychopathic case. He was impossible to argue with. Until he had met Mr Jinnah he had not thought it possible that a man with such a complete lack of sense of responsibility could hold the power which he did.”
Before all was said and done that summer, a flustered Mountbatten would confer an avalanche of hyperbolic insults on Jinnah behind his back, dubbing him “vain, megalomaniacal, an evil genius, a lunatic, a bastard.” Jinnah was not going to make Mountbatten’s job easy. And one thing was abundantly clear. Partition was inevitable.
Things looked grim. As Von Tunzelmann writes:
India—with its impossible politicians, its religious combustions, its villages laid to waste by bloodthirsty mobs, its corpses in burned-out cars, its tangled, ghastly web of tensions, histories and grievances, and the enormous weight of expectation to fix all of this laid heavily upon his shoulders—had already reduced the beaming new viceroy of 24 March to jelly. Aghast, he wrote to Attlee: “The scene here is one of unrelieved gloom … . At this early stage I can see little ground on which to build any agreed solution for the future of India.
Lord Mountbatten may have not been able to woo Muhammed Ali Jinnah, but elsewhere in the Viceroy’s House, other relationships were flowering. Because the Edwina, Lady Mountbatten, was doing some wooing of her very own.
---- ----- MUSIC BREAK- ----- -------- -------
It’s late June 1947. Less than two months before Partition.
We’re in Muhammed Ali Jinnah’s study. Smoke swirls around the Quaid-e-Azam as he sits at his desk, thinking, thinking, thinking. At this point, he’s up to fifty cigarettes a day, with no intention of cutting back. It was old habit, one he enjoyed for decades with no real consequences, but now in his 70s, the past had finally caught up with him.
Jinnah had always been a thin man, but by 1947 he was downright skeletal. His cheekbones were like chipped flint, his voice was a ragged rasp, and his 130 pound frame was little more than skin and bones. No one knew except his sister, his doctor, and a few close allies, but Jinnah was dying.
The diagnosis had come as a shock. Tuberculosis, Jinnah’s trusted physician informed him, would kill him within a year. Maybe two. The illness was terminal, there was no cure; but Jinnah could prolong his life a bit more – IF he took a break from his punishing work schedule, went on bedrest, and stopped smoking. But that was not Jinnah’s style. “Do you know how much is at stake?” he asked his worried sister, Fatima.
Jinnah had styled himself the “sole spokesman” of India’s Muslims, and that power was a double-edged sword. If his political enemies found out that he was dying, they would just delay the Partition negotiations and drag their feet until he was dead and buried. Then, there would be no one standing in Nehru’s way. No one to tangle with the Viceroy. No one to speak for 100 million people and the homeland they desired.
If Mountbatten ever found out that Jinnah was a dead man walking, Pakistan would never be born at all. And so, Jinnah’s people buried it. The medical file was sealed and kept hidden from all but a handful of friends and advisors close to Jinnah. One writer called it “the most closely guarded secret in India”
But Jinnah was not the only keeper of secrets that summer.
On his desk, in his study, Jinnah had a small bundle of documents. Very important documents.
The documents had been intercepted earlier that month. Stolen from Dehli and whisked away in secret. Like his tuberculosis diagnosis, the facts contained in these papers could sway the fate of India, and it was in Jinnah’s bony hands what to with them.
As he read them, Jinnah realized the importance of what he had uncovered. They weren’t government papers, or statistics, or party memos - they were personal, hand-written correspondences. Love letters between Lady Edwina Mountbatten, and Jawaharlal Nehru.
If the words in these letters were to be believed, the Viceroy’s wife and the most powerful politician in India were having an affair. The letters were brimming with innuendo and filled with emotion:
“Dickie will be out tonight—come after 10:00 o’clock,” said one of Edwina’s. Another revealed, “You forgot your handkerchief and before Dickie could spot it I covered it up.” A third said, “I have fond memories of Simla—riding and your touch.”
With these letters in hand, Muhammed Ali Jinnah could burn down the Raj. He could embarrass two of his political adversaries in one fell swoop. Nehru would be forced to resign or step back from his position. Lord Mountbatten would likely be replaced and called back to England. It was also useful blackmail, protection, ammunition, something for a rainy day.
But when his advisors showed him the love letters, Jinnah handed them back, and instructed them to quietly return the papers. “Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion”, he rasped. Jinnah could play hardball with the best of them; he could ruthless, pragmatic, and icy-cold…But these kinds of crass tactics were beneath him. Besides, the undue closeness between Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten was all but an open secret anyway.
In fact, it had begun the very week the Mountbattens had stepped off the plane in Delhi.
In 1947, Edwina Mountbatten was 46 years old. The playgirl and party queen of the 20s and 30s had matured into an elegant and committed humanitarian. For the fans and the flashbulbs, Lady Mountbatten was the very epitome of royal pedigree, the doting and dutiful wife of a handsome Viceroy. But behind the gentle smile and the sparkling charisma, Edwina was hurting, and deeply unhappy.
Menopause had descended upon her body like a slow-rolling storm. She was anxious, tense, and dealing with mood swings and depression. She couldn’t sleep; and the only relief for her insomnia was pills or her favorite songs on the gramophone. Natually, it put a heavy strain on her and Dickie’s marriage. Their daughter Pamela remembered:
“My father would try to comfort her, but he just didn’t know how. He was very patient with her, but he couldn’t cope with tears and – like a bull in a china shop – he always seemed to say the wrong thing and put his foot in it, when all he really wanted to do was help.’
Of course, it wasn’t just hormones at work; Over the years, Dickie and Edwina’s open marriage had never quite found its groove. Dickie seemed to prefer monogamy, but he took other lovers to keep things on an even footing. Edwina was prone to fits of jealousy, even while enjoying the benefits of that open arrangement. Dickie also had a much closer relationship to their daughter than Edwina did, and the always resented that fact.
By the time the Mountbattens arrived in Delhi in 1947, Edwina was “miserable”, according to one historian. But in this place, in the midst of an Indian summer, she found a flicker of relief. A flicker that became a flame became a fire. That relief came in the form of Jawaharlal Nehru.
Nehru had been married once before to a woman named Kamala. The match, orchestrated by his imperious father and fussy mother, was not for love. Kamala was pretty and nice enough, but there was no spark. In his autobiography, Nehru devoted a single sentence to his wedding: “My marriage took place in 1916 in the city of Delhi.”
As the years rolled on, the couple wasn’t especially happy; Nehru’s niece called the union: “a grievous mistake for two profoundly different people.” But they both did what was expected of them, had children, suffered through their incompatibility. In 1936, tragedy struck. Tuberculosis – the same disease that was ravaging Jinnah – snuffed out Kamala’s life.
So when Nehru met Edwina in ‘46, he had been a widower for 10 years. Middle-age had mellowed him out a bit, but Jawaharlal was certainly not a monk or a celibate. As Alex von Tunzelmann writes:
Though once a flamboyant youth, Nehru had become a man of simpler tastes. Yet there were two pleasures he could never resist: the vitality of mountain scenery and the company of an interesting woman.”
To an introspective, intellectually curious man like Nehru, there was no woman in the world more interesting than Edwina Mountbatten. They’d hit it off immediately after their first meeting in Singapore, when Nehru and Dickie had charged into the fray to save her from a stampeding crowd. But when the Mountbattens arrived in Delhi in 1947, things really went into overdrive.
Nehru and Edwina felt an instant connection with each other. They became close “almost immediately” according to one historian. Just a week after they’d arrived, one observer wrote that: “Nehru’s relationship with Lady Mountbatten is sufficiently close to have raised many eyebrows.’
As Edwina wrote at the time: ‘Our meetings have been rare and always fleeting but I think I understand him, and perhaps he me, as well as any human being can ever understand each other”.
Things happened very fast between Nehru and Edwina, as Tunzelmann writes: “By 31 March, the Mountbattens had been in India for only a week. Yet even so quickly it is possible to be attracted to a person, to feel a sympathy with them and even to develop the beginnings of a romantic attachment. They were together remarkably often during that first week, and the informality of their friendship was obvious.”
The chemistry was undeniable. Photographs from that summer show two people who are clearly infatuated with each other. In some pictures, Edwina is gazing up affectionately at Nehru. In others, Nehru is laughing and smiling next to her. During one garden party at the Viceroy’s House, when there were not enough chairs for everyone, Nehru sat cross-legged at Edwina’s feet like a lovestruck little boy, They were putty in each other’s hands – like teenagers on summer break. There connection was, in the words of one historian, “deep, permanent, and intense.”
As one friend of the Mountbattens commented: ‘Edwina had no will where he was concerned. Just like water.’ For Nehru, Edwina was an island of understanding during one of the most turbulent, frustrating, and scary periods in his life. While India burned around him, Edwina brought him a sensation of calm. According to Nehru’s biographer, the Vicereine “sensed that what Nehru most wanted and did not know how to achieve was to relax.”
Debate has raged for the better part of a century as to whether their relationship was more than a platonic romance. The biq, all-consuming question was: Were they sleeping together? Was it sexual? There seems to be a grudging consensus, even among more buttoned-up historians…that yeah – it probably was. Nehru and Edwina were known to conspicuously disappear with each other, spending long nights talking alone; And of course there were the letters Jinnah had intercepted. On one occasion, a young aide accidentally walked in on them and saw Nehru and the Vicereine “embracing”.
For Edwina, Nehru was a breath of fresh air. A gust of mental stimulation and intoxicating physicality. He was so different from Dickie, as Ahmed Akbar writes:
“What a contrast between Mountbatten and Nehru. For [Dickie] Mountbatten sex was hydraulics, for Nehru it was part of a total relationship in which two beings fused, in which literature, politics, art and culture became part of the fusion. The difference was between an empty-headed English schoolboy and a sophisticated guru from India. There was no match.”
Alex von Tunzelmann comments on the distinction as well:
With Dickie, she was in an affectionate, sexless companionship; with Jawahar, she had found something more profound and more passionate.”
The truth was, they fell in love.
Of course, darker and more cynical interpretations of Nehru and Edwina’s relationship make suggestions of a kind of cross-cultural fetishization. For Nehru, they say, a British woman – a white woman. - was the ultimate prize, the crowning “eff-you” to the Raj establishment he had despised for so long. And for Edwina, Nehru was a glorified souvenir - the exotic, eastern guru she could add as a new notch to her very seasoned belt.
But that kind of analysis, I think, cheapens what appears to have been a very real, very deep, very sincere emotional connection between two lonely people, grasping for intimacy during one of the most stressful periods in their lives.
It all begs the question, though…what did Dickie, Mr Mountbatten, think of Nehru’s relationship with his wife? The Viceroy desperately wanted Edwina to be happy, not only because he loved her, but for the selfish reason that it made his life easier. A happy Edwina meant fewer long nights and fewer bad fights. He liked Nehru personally, and even considered him a friend. And if his friend and his wife found comfort in each other’s company, he was willing to look the other way.
But the romance between the Nehru and Edwina was much more than a simple tryst. An inappropriate closeness between the Vicereine and India’s most powerful politician could have huge ramifications for the Partition process. Muhammed Ali Jinnah may have decided to be the bigger man and give back the intercepted love letter, but he was not left empty-handed. Those frank correspondences had given him key insight into one very distressing fact:
Nehru and the Mountbattens were very close. As one acquaintance put it: “I can’t think of any three people who had such a natural and uninhibited affinity with each other”. When it came to mediating fairly between the Muslim League and the Congress Party, the Viceroy would have a clear bias.
As historian Lawrence James commented: “this was a disastrous intrusion of private passion into public life.”Ahmed Akbar put it a bit more harshly: “Nehru appeared to command the Viceroy’s office through his bedroom.” Although that’s a very salacious way to phrase is, the huge amount of influence and familiarity Jawaharlal Nehru had with the Viceroy’s Office became readily apparent that May.
It was the evening of May 10th.
The Viceroy and Vicereine had decided to take a break from the hustle and bustle of crowded Delhi, and spend a few days up in the mountains. The Viceroy’s Retreat was what one historian called a “charming, secluded cottage” in the Himalayan foothills. The house itself was “hideous” according to Edwina, a gaudy monstrosity that looked like “Hollywood’s idea of a Viceregal Lodge.” But whatever beauty the accommodations lacked, was more than made up for by the surrounding natural scenery. It was like an Indian fairytale, as Von Tunzelmann writes:
It was set among some of the most captivating scenery in the whole of India. Lush gorges plunged dramatically down thousands of feet to glittering sapphire tributaries of the mighty Sutlej River, and colossal mountains rose thousands of feet behind them. Wild cacti and delicate orchids sprouted forth from the roots of conifers; families of monkeys swung through the pines and picked keenly at strawberry bushes; above the treetops, eagles circled.”
A few days into their getaway, the Mountbattens invited Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter to join them. The families hiked and strolled together through the picturesque orchards, doing handstands and walking up hills backwards. It looked more like a holiday than a political conference. On the evening of May 10th, Dickie decided to take Nehru further into his confidence.
The two were becoming close, and on what he called a “hunch”, Mountbatten decided to give Nehru a sneak peak of the exit plan for India. The tentative plan was meant to be secret, Viceroy’s eyes only– his staff advised against showing Nehru, protocol forbade it, but Dickie showed his buddy what was going to happen when the British left India.
Nehru was horrified.
“Plan Balkan” as it was called, essentially called for the breakup of India. The only way to satisfy all parties, the Lord of London had decided, was to throw India up in the air like a jump ball, and let the chips fall where they may. As Von Tunzelmann cogently explains:
Having for centuries enforced rule by unelected men from London, the British government had recently developed an unprecedented enthusiasm for the will of the people—preferably, for the will of as many people as possible.
There would be an India, there would be a Pakistan, and each province could choose which one to join. But the principle of self-determination would be extended further yet. Should Bengal or the Punjab be divided in their wishes, each state could be split; or it could choose to become an independent nation. Should the troublesome North-West Frontier Province wish to become independent, it could do so too.
As for the 565 princely states, each of those could also determine its own future in or out of the two dominions, “presumably as feudatories or allies of Britain,” Nehru commented sharply. What Nehru had foreseen was the prospect of Balkanization, but on the colossal scale of the subcontinent: the proliferation of dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of small and potentially antagonistic nation-states. Too small to survive alone, these would inevitably end up serving the interests of peripheral giants: not just Britain but the United States, Russia, China and Afghanistan. This would stir up civil conflict, undermine the central authority and split the army, police and services.
It was colonialism with a new coat of paint. The proposal, Nehru admitted later “produced a devastating effect upon me. It was a picture of fragmentation and conflict and disorder, and, unhappily also, of a worsening of relations between India and Britain.” Mountbatten remembered that Nehru turned “white with rage” as he read the plan.
But by falling on his face, Dickie had dodged a bullet.
The Viceroy had assumed, ludicrously, that Nehru would be fine with the plan, but showing it to Nehru early – a huge breach of protocol and a betrayal of his neutrality – had saved his ass. If he had unveiled it publicly, like he’d planned to do in a few weeks’ time, Nehru would’ve been forced to reject the plan; The Mountbatten would be humiliated, and he’d likely be sent back to England.
But that is not what happened.
High up in the mountains, Dickie allowed Nehru and his advisors to make revisions for a new plan, one that the Viceroy could take back to London for approval; and one that Nehru could get the greenlight on from his Congress allies. In only three hours, the contours of India’s future were drawn. Edwina helped smooth out the sticking points with Nehru, and all three descended from the Himalayan foothills in the glow of eternal friendship.
There was, of course, one person who was not consulted about this new plan: Muhammed Ali Jinnah. The Quaid-e-Azam had been shut out. It was Nehru and Mountbatten’s ball game now. The Muslim League would have to take what it could get, or risk embroiling itself in an endless cycle of proposal and counter-proposal, rejection and reconciliation. It was now or never, and Jinnah had run out of time.
On June 2nd, 1947 at about 10AM, Mountbatten unveiled what was now dubbed “Plan Partition” to the rest of the Indian political leadership. It wasn’t a perfect plan, it satisfied almost no one, even with Nehru’s revisions. As Nehru himself admitted to a journalist in 1960:
‘The truth’, is that we were tired men and we were getting on in years … The plan for partition offered a way out and we took it.’
But the basics were sound, according to historian Andrew Lownie it “ticked all the boxes providing for an early transfer of power, retained the essential unity of India and gave Jinnah his desired Pakistan.”
It would be, however, a moth-eaten and truncated Pakistan, just as Jinnah had feared. Punjab would have to be split. Bengal would have to be split. Pakistan would be born into the world missing key vital organs.
That evening, Mountbatten cornered Jinnah, looking for his final agreement to the plan. The Viceroy needed an answer now - Right now. The conversation that followed was heated. Dickie had never liked this man; This obstinate, holier-than-thou serpent who used religious populism as his own personal career track. Jinnah had nothing but contempt for this Viceroy; this spoiled brat, incompetent commander, and empty-headed cuckold who seemed to treat the subcontinent’s future like a glorified hobby.
Jinnah refused to agree to the plan.
Mountbatten sneered: “If that is your attitude, then the leaders of the Congress Party and the Sikhs will refuse final acceptance at the meeting in the morning; chaos will follow, and you will lose your Pakistan, probably for good.”
Jinnah replied laconically: “What must be, must be.”
Mountbatten exploded: “Mr. Jinnah! I do not intend to let you wreck all the work that has gone into this settlement. Since you will not accept for the Moslem League, I will speak for them myself.”
The next moment was critical for the history of South Asia. As one historian described:
“At that instant Mountbatten had absolutely no idea what the Moslem leader was going to do…[he] would always look back on that instant as ‘the most hair-raising moment of my entire life’. For an endless second, he stared into Jinnah’s impassive, expressionless face. Then, slowly, reluctance crying from every pore, Jinnah indicated his agreement with the faintest, most begrudging nod he could make.”
And with that, the deed was done.
Muhammed Ali Jinnah was a famously tenacious person. As the writer Sarila Singh Narendra observed: “Once he accepted a brief, his professional barrister’s pride and ego would drive him to win at all costs, irrespective of other considerations.” Gandhi, describing Jinnah, had said: “Once he made up his mind, nothing in the world could divert him from his chosen objective.”
So why then, did he accept the raw deal that the Congress Party and The Viceroy presented to him? As Ayesha Jalal writes: “Jinnah was offered an unenviable choice—an undivided India with no assurance of the Muslim share of power at the center or a sovereign “Pakistan” devoid of the non-Muslim-majority districts of Punjab and Bengal.”
It was choice was between a moth-eaten Pakistan or no Pakistan at all. To paraphrase Ahmed Akbar, The choice was an obvious one and Jinnah took it. As one contemporary reflected: “He had no alternative. He had rejected so much, so many times.”
Not only that, but Jinnah’s terminal illness – his tuberculosis – was slowly, surely, secretly eating away at him from the inside. If he didn’t lock in a deal for Pakistan before he eventually succumbed to his illness, Pakistan would never be born. As Barney White-Spunner puts it: “The whole idea of Pakistan was embodied in his person”. So, he took the deal.
The truth was, no one was completely satisfied. Not Jinnah, not Nehru, and not Gandhi, who commented: … the future of independence gained at this price is going to be dark”. But no one had any better ideas. As Nehru admittedly candidly: “Division, is better than a union of unwilling parts”. Perhaps, Jawaharlal was thinking of his first marriage when he made that comment.
The next day, on June 3rd, 1947 – Mountbatten announced the plan to the country on All-India Radio.
“For more than a hundred years, 400 millions of you have lived together, and this country has been administered by a single entity. This has resulted in unified communications, defense, postal services and currency, an absence of tariffs and customs barriers, and the basis of an integrated political economy. My great hope was that communal differences would not destroy this.
To my great regret it has been impossible to obtain agreement either on the Cabinet mission plan or on any other plan that would preserve the unity of India. But there can be no question of coercing any large areas in which one community has a majority to live against their will under a Government in which another community has a majority—and the only alternative to coercion is partition.
The whole plan may not be perfect, but like all plans its success depends on the spirit of good will in which it is carried out.”
The revelation that partition was actually happening was jarring enough, but Mountbatten had one last surprise up his sleeve. Something that no one, not Jinnah, not Gandhi, not even his dear friend Nehru had anticipated.
Partition would occur much sooner than originally planned. The original date, June 1948, was cast aside. The new deadline would be August 15th, 1947.
That was only ten weeks away. 72 days.
India was about to be cleaved in two. One of the most colossal and disruptive geopolitical developments of the 20th century. And the people of the subcontinent would have about two months to prepare for it.
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On July 8th, 1947, a surgeon arrived in India.
It had been more than a month since The Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, had sat in front of a microphone and told the world that in only ten weeks, two new countries would enter into existence. India & Pakistan.
The only problem was - no one had any idea what the borders of these new countries would be. Where would Pakistan end and India begin? What would the map look like? 400 million people did not have a clear idea of what nation they would be living when the clock struck midnight on August 15th, 1947.
Someone had to draw the map. Someone had to perform the surgery, and amputate Pakistan from India in a way that would keep the pain to a minimum and not kill the patient. And so, the British government sent a surgeon to India – not a literal surgeon of course – this man’s expertise was more cartographic, than anatomical; but he was performing a delicate operation, all the same.
The man in question was a 48-year-old British judge named Cyril Radcliffe. Lord Radcliffe’s job was to draw and determine, mile by mile, village by village, river by river, the boundary between what would become two of the most populous countries in the world. As one historian wrote, Radcliffe’s job was “to devise a territorial formula that would leave as many Hindus and Sikhs in India and as many Muslims in Pakistan as possible.”
And he had about 40 days to do it.
It usually takes me about 40 days to research, write, record and edit an episode of this show. Radcliffe was tasked with determining the fate and future of 400 million people in about the same time.
Now of course, you’d think that, given the time-table, the British government would’ve sent a man with a deep understanding of the Indian subcontinent; a reflexive familiarity with the people, the geography, the culture, the history – all the things that can factor heavily into a new nation’s borders. Well, if you thought that – you’d be wrong. That is not the sort of person who Great Britain sent. Lord Cyril Radcliffe had never been to India before in his life; in fact, he’d “never been east of Gibraltar” according to one historian.
The British government, however, viewed this as a feature, not a bug. Radcliffe’s complete lack of knowledge, they believed, would allow him to remain neutral and unswayed by the petty politics of South Asia. The judge’s justice would be blind, fair, and rational. At least in theory.
In reality, it was a bit like asking a dermatologist to perform open-heart surgery.
And so, Lord Radcliffe sharpened his pencil, gathered his staff, and began studying the maps of India like a kid cramming for a final exam. In a hot, uncomfortable cottage, the 48-year-old judge soon discovered just what an impossible task he’d been saddled with.
Creating Pakistan and India was not as simple as drawing a line down the middle of the subcontinent. Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs were not cleanly divided into neat little areas of India. They were scattered throughout, in varying concentrations and delicate balances of majority and minority. More of a casserole than a layer cake.
Then there was the geography issue. The two most important areas of what would become Pakistan, the Punjab and Bengal, were separated by thousands of miles. As Hajari Nisid writes:
“The country would be one of the strangest-looking on the postwar map of the world. One half would encompass the fierce northwestern marches of the Indian subcontinent, from the Khyber Pass down to the desert that fringed Karachi; the other half would include the swampy, typhoon-tossed Bengal delta in the far northeast.”
A contemporary historian named K.M Panikkar had an evocative analogy to help visualize the bizarre geography. “Hindustan (or India) is the elephant…and Pakistan the two ears. The elephant can live without the ears.”
So, Radcliffe had to draw a boundary through two hotly contested provinces, on the opposite sides of the subcontinent, filled with a mix of many different religions and ethnic groups. As historian Andrew Lownie writes:
Amongst the factors he had to take into account were river courses and irrigation systems, balancing assets between the two countries, ethnic population divisions, natural boundaries, the integrity of forests and communication networks – all in just over a month. When Radcliffe recommended that disruption to Punjab’s intricate canal system could be minimized by India and Pakistan jointly operating the head works, Jinnah replied that, ‘he would rather have Pakistan deserts than fertile fields watered by the courtesy of the Hindus,’ while Nehru ‘curtly informed (Radcliffe) that what India did with India’s rivers was India’s affair.’ It was an indication of what was to come.
In short, there was no clean way to do this. As historian Declan Walsh put it: “Every flick of Radcliffe’s pencil had the potential to uproot or enrage entire communities.” Radcliffe’s staff was understandably demoralized and overwhelmed. As his secretary, Christopher Beaumont wrote:
The actual job is difficult. Neither the Punjab nor Bengal were ever intended to be partitioned, and it will not be possible to do it otherwise than by leaving nearly everyone with a grievance, more or less legitimate. Altogether, a thankless task.”
And so, as Radcliffe got to work, the subcontinent began to absorb and process what was happening to them. Those weeks had a surreal, “Alice-in-Wonderland” quality to them, writes historian Joya Chatterji.
For Hindus, there was a sense of anger and tragedy. Mohandas Gandhi spoke for many when he said the following at a prayer meeting on July 5th: “The very creation of two nations is poison. The Congress [Party] and the Muslim League have accepted this but a vice does not become a virtue merely because it is accepted by all.”
For Muslims, the pure elation and relief of finally securing a homeland was muddied by a feeling of confusion on what that actually meant. For years, Muhammed Ali Jinnah had been banging the drum for a Muslim nation, but his rhetoric had always been vague and abstract. The United States OSS called the idea of Pakistan “a kind of Muslim Never-Never Land, a fairy tale utopia.”. As Hajari Nisid writes:
If no one could say what it was, everyone could see what they wanted in it. Landlords envisioned rich fields being added to their holdings. Farmers imagined a life free of Hindu moneylenders. Bureaucrats saw themselves ascending to senior posts. Mullahs pictured a society lived according to the Koran.
Yasmin Khan expands on that idea:
People inevitably filled in gaps in their understanding with their own experiences of oppression, their own hopes and expectations. Pakistan, then, meant myriad things to different people. The call for Pakistan could be equated with all manner of ambiguous hopes and dreams.”
But what no one could understand, and what people still struggle to understand, is why Dickie Mountbatten had decided to move the date forward so dramatically in the first place. Why had the Viceroy chosen to expedite the process and push it through, rather than stick to the original deadline of June 1948? “It all seems so sudden,” said one journalist. At the time, even British civil servants were angry and disoriented. As Radcliffe’s secretary later fumed:
“There was not enough time. It was rushed through. Much more thought should’ve gone into it. “
Another army officer seethed in his diary:
The pace is unrealistic. I think he [Mountbatten] is prepared to accept bloodshed and human miseries. Everyone can see the tragedy looming. Strangely enough, Mountbatten does not see it. Maybe he could not care less. One has a feeling that he wants to please his bosses in the United Kingdom and get out before a greater mess is created. Then he can blame all the politicians for the disaster…”
On July 20th, The Viceroy issues a tear-off calendar to his staff. Each page had the day of the month at the top and then underneath was “X days left to prepare for the Transfer of Power”.
Almost everyone involved thought this was happening way too fast. Nehru, Jinnah, Gandhi, the British Army brass – everyone. But Dickie was determined to kick the grenade down the road and get out of dodge before it blew up in his face. As Von Tunzelmann put it: “The rush was Mountbatten’s, and his alone.” In interviews later in life, The Viceroy claimed there was no real reason for August 15th, 1947. He “had plucked the date out of thin air” according to Hajari Nisid.
His own chief-of-staff, Pug Ismay said of Mountbatten: “I’ve never met anyone more in need of front-wheel brakes,”
But Mountbatten’s haste was as rooted in pragmatism and self-interest. There seemed to be no way of avoiding the looming bloodbath. And Mountbatten knew it. He picked an unrealistically fast timetable because he wanted to get Great Britain out – pure and simple. Many British Raj officials were conflicted on the matter; things were happening dangerously fast, but they didn’t want to stay either. As one writer put: “Most raj officials were burned-out and cynical, and they had no interest in refereeing a civil war.”
Meanwhile, the cities in Northwestern India, places like Lahore and Amritsar, were already turning into open battlegrounds. As the deadline got closer and closer, anxiety and fear gripped large swathes of the country. Hindus and Muslims fled or dug in, packed up or armed up, and prepared for coming violence. Neighborhoods became fortresses. The militias and extremist paramilitary groups had graduated from marching in the streets to murder in the streets.
As Yasmin Khan writes: “The boundary had become a live wire.”
The police had no control. Most had either quit the force entirely, or just declared an allegiance to one side or the other. The British Indian Army, which was in the process of being re-organized and split between the Indian and Pakistani governments, was unable or unwilling to maintain order. In that vacuum, the violence began to spiral. The Great Calcutta Killings of the previous summer looked quaint by comparison. Homemade bombs exploded in vegetable markets, tearing apart crowds of shoppers. Insurgents on motorbikes zipped through the streets, shooting, stabbing or clubbing members of the opposite religion.
Order was breaking down. And no one knew what to do. As Yasmin Khan writes:
Terrified by their loss of control and shocked by the chaos and the mess which they would inherit on Independence Day, national leaders pleaded for order. ‘Amritsar is already a city of ruins, and Lahore is likely to be in a much worse state very soon,’ Nehru told Mountbatten in the last week of June. ‘You gave an assurance even before 3rd June and subsequently that any kind of disorder will be put down with vigor. I am afraid we are not honoring that assurance in some places at least, notably Lahore and Amritsar.’ Jinnah, more bluntly, begged, ‘I don’t care whether you shoot Moslems or not, it has got to be stopped.”
In Lahore, a large, ancient city in the Punjab, the violence was taking on genocidal contours. As Hajari Nisid vividly describes:
“Each night, those few foolish enough to venture outside their Hindu or Sikh or Muslim bastions simply ended up dead. Police would find limp corpses scattered about the next day, blood pooling around their bony limbs. After dark, arsonists skittered across rooftops in Lahore’s walled city, flinging kerosene-soaked balls of rags and shooting flaming arrows into Hindu homes or shops.
One young Muslim boy named Jatt remembered a night where he fell into a sneezing fit, because so many shops that sold chilis were burning across the city. He could see “huge tongues of fire” all over the city. The local fire departments, who were affiliated with local gangs, refused to help certain neighborhoods based on their religious identity.
Even the fabric of basic commerce was unraveling as the middle and upper classes scrambled to protect their assets. According to Nisid:
the flight of capital was even more striking: some 3 billion rupees, or $912,547,528.51 in 1947 dollars, had been transferred out of the Punjab by 8 July.37 Hindu-controlled banks and insurance companies shifted their offices to Delhi. Trains and planes to the Indian capital were reportedly filled with gold bullion, jewelry, and banknotes. Houses went on the market for a third of the price they would have commanded six months earlier.”
Back in Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru was coming apart at the seams. For decades he had been fighting for independence, and it was all crumbling in front of him. Nehru was so distraught over the violence that even Dickie commented on his friend’s condition: “Nehru is over-working himself to such a degree that he practically is not sleeping at night and is having real difficulty in controlling himself at meetings,”
One of Nehru’s aides thought the future Prime Minister was “heading for a nervous breakdown”. Finally Nehru “could not restrain myself” and he wrote a panicked note to Mountbatten:
“At this rate the city of Lahore will be just a heap of ashes in a few days’ time. The human aspect of this is appalling to contemplate. . . . I do not know if it can be said that what is happening in Lahore is beyond human control. It is certainly beyond the control of those who ought to control it. I do not know who is to blame and I do not want to blame anybody for it. But the fact remains that horror succeeds horror and we cannot put a stop to it. . . . Are we to be passive spectators while a great city ceases to exist and hundreds of thousands of its inhabitants are reduced to becoming homeless wanderers, or else to die in their narrow lanes?
The Viceroy was not apathetic to his friend’s distress, or the human suffering on the ground. Dickie Mountbatten was a far cry from the cold colonialists who had subjugated India for centuries, but he could offer little except tepid excuses and half-hearted half-measures. As he told a press conference:
“I am not a magician. I believe that it is the Indians who have got to find out a solution. You cannot expect the British to solve all your problems.”
Instead, it was the Vicereine, Edwina Mountbatten, who stepped in to help alleviate the human suffering. She had plenty of experience organizing hospital wards and mobilizing relief workers during World War 2, and she put those skills into action. Edwina spent most of June and July patching together relief organizations for the coming onslaught of refugees. It was only a matter of time, and when shit hit the fan – REALLY hit the fan, she wanted to do what she could ease the pain and save as many lives as possible.
Meanwhile, Lord Cyril Radcliffe, our cartographic surgeon, was wrapping up his work with the Boundary Commission. After weeks of toil and stress and summer heat so taxing he called India “the mouth of hell”….Lord Radcliffe was finally done. He presented his work to his boss, Lord Dickie Mountbatten and promptly left India immediately, never to return.
“They wanted a line before or on August 15th, he said, “So I drew them a line”
When he arrived back in England, Cyril Radcliffe burned his papers and notes related to India and refused to accept the fee he’d been offered for his services. He had no desire to ever discuss India again:
‘There will be roughly eighty million people with a grievance who will begin looking for me. ‘I do not want them to find me. I suspect they’d shoot me out of hand, both sides.”
Radcliffe later admitted that it would’ve taken him two years to do the job correctly. He received a knighthood for his efforts all the same.
On August 14th, 1947 – the tear-off calendar in the Viceroy’s office ran out of pages. Independence Day had finally arrived for India and Pakistan.
But even amidst all the killing and destruction in the Northern reaches of the country, there was a feeling of electricity and joy in the air in many parts of the subcontinent. After 300 long years, after all the degradation, humiliation and exploitation at the hands of the British -first under the East India Company and later under the Raj – India was free.
Broken and burning, but free.
It was the ending of an age. As Alex Von Tunzelmann beautifully puts it:
ON A WARM SUMMER NIGHT IN 1947, THE LARGEST EMPIRE the world has ever seen did something no empire had done before. It gave up. The British Empire did not decline, it simply fell; and it fell proudly and majestically onto its own sword. It was not forced out by revolution, nor defeated by a greater rival in battle. Its leaders did not tire or weaken. Its culture was strong and vibrant. Recently it had been victorious in the century’s definitive war. When midnight struck in Delhi on the night of 14 August 1947, a new, free Indian nation was born. In London, the time was 8:30 p.m.1 The world’s capital could enjoy another hour or two of a warm summer evening before the sun literally and finally set on the British Empire.
Late that evening, the last Viceroy of India, Dickie Mountbatten sat alone in his study. He remembered thinking to himself: “For still a few minutes, I am the most powerful man on earth.”
Just before midnight, 57-year-old, Jawaharlal Nehru rose in front of the Constituent Assembly in Delhi as India’s new Prime Minister, and delivered one of the most famous speeches in history. This moment was the culmination of his entire life – something he had dreamed for longer than he could remember. And yet as he looked out on the crowd of princes and politicians, one face was conspicuously absent.
Mohandas Gandhi, his great mentor, was not here.
The father of the nation would not be present at its birth. The Mahatma was far away, in the riot-torn slums of Calcutta, trying to ease the raging violence there and reconcile the feuding communities. Even at the age of 77, at a moment when many would’ve rested on their laurels, Gandhi could not stop working for a better world. Maybe he just couldn’t help himself.
But as the room fell silent, and the microphones whined with feedback, Jawaharlal Nehru turned his mind back to the moment, and broke the hush with a speech he had been wanting to give for most of his adult life [ Here is that speech]:
“Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake 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.”
Nehru’s speech then turned to acknowledge the Mahatma, who had done so much to make this moment possible, and yet even now, was still working for a better India.
..The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but so long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over. And so we have to labour and to work, and work hard, to give reality to our dreams. Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world."
The appointed day has come -the day appointed by destiny- and India stands forth again, after long slumber and struggle, awake, vital, free and independent. The past clings on to us still in some measure and we have to do much before we redeem the pledges we have so often taken.
Yet the turning-point is past, and history begins anew for us, the history which we shall live and act and others will write about.
Well guys, that is all the time we have for today.
In this episode, we examined the road to Partition, the political decisions and machinations that brought the momentous occasion about. Next time, we will examine the consequences of Partition.
Because even as Nehru gave that speech, even as the Indian tri-color flag rose above government buildings and fluttered in the dawn of August 15th, 1947 – the subcontinent was eating itself alive.
Next time we will turn our focus away from the movers and shakers and spend time with the real, everyday people who experienced the fallout of Partition. The triumph that Nehru felt in Delhi, that Jinnah felt in Karachi, that Mountbatten felt in the Viceroy’s House, would be soured and tainted by Kavita Puri called:
“The largest single movement of people outside war and famine in human history.”
We still have a lot of story left to get through. And I’m excited to share it with you.
And so, until next time, this has been Conflicted.
Thanks for listening.
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