Open Essay

Viceroy’s House: Ghost House of History

Roderick Matthews specialises in Indian history. He is the author of Jinnah vs Gandhi and Mountbatten and the Partition of British India
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What’s Wrong with Gurinder Chadha’s Middlebrow Partition Thriller?

SEVENTY YEARS ON and the wounds of 1947 still sting for so many, including director Gurinder Chadha. Her personal history, as a descendant of a family caught up in the horrendous events of that year, has driven her to tackle the epic subject of India’s Partition in her latest film, Viceroy’s House. But how she was persuaded to make the film is perhaps even more interesting than the film itself.

In a radio interview with the BBC, she revealed that her grandmother, who lost a child to starvation while trekking across Punjab, had brought her up to believe that “somehow Partition was our shameful fault” and that “the mischievous English did some kind of black magic on us”. This view was different from the history she learned at school, which featured the British battling to get an agreement out of Indians and failing. Her confusion was finally resolved when she read a book that purported to reveal secret layers of deviousness among British politicians, notably Churchill, who, the book claimed, had planned the division of India well in advance, for geo-strategic reasons.

That book was The Shadow of the Great Game (2009) by Narendra Singh Sarila, which promised an ‘untold story of Partition’ based on ‘certain documents’ which had been kept secret.

There are many ways to criticise this book. It creates long chains of suggestion and assumption to build its conclusions, it uses selective quotations, and it is almost perverse in its misreading of the documents it reproduces. But most of all, it is excessively dominated by the need to prove one central thesis—namely that Partition was planned, long before the event, by Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee and Lord Wavell, Mountbatten’s predecessor as viceroy.

Put briefly, the book maintains that the British feared that after Independence, a Congress-led India would not cooperate in matters of global imperial defence. This meant not only keeping the Russians out of India, but also defending sea-lanes to the Persian Gulf, with its oil, and to other far-flung dominions and British possessions. The solution was to keep an amenable comer of the subcontinent—‘a bit of India’—where airbases could cover Central Asia, and the perfect patsy to do this was Muhammad Ali Jinnah, whose demand for a Muslim homeland conveniently overlapped with Britain’s strategic needs. Jinnah therefore had to be supported in whatever way possible, and plans had to be made to prepare the military details, including the areas to be included in the new client state—Pakistan.

The Shadow of the Great Game has had many fans in India, and at least one very high-profile admirer in Britain. Prince Charles is said to have pointed Chadha in its direction, which might seem odd for such an anti-British book, but the oddity is explained by one unusual characteristic of Sarila’s work. Uniquely among Partition conspiracy literature, it is very kind to Mountbatten; HRH, we must remember, was very fond of Mountbatten, and saw him as a hero, mentor and surrogate grandfather. Following the book, the film Viceroy’s House also shows him in a favourable light—vain perhaps, but a lover of India and its people. Sarila knew Mountbatten well, having worked for him as aide-de-camp after Partition, and this personal acquaintance seems to have softened the author’s view of Dickie’s responsibility for the carnage—an amnesty granted by few other observers.

Kind as it might be to the last viceroy, Sarila’s book is seriously flawed. It persists with its thesis and pursues its villains in the face of common logic, its own printed content, and events as they actually transpired. Sarila seems wilfully blind to the fact that senior British officers were unanimous in their opposition to Partition for two very credible reasons. First, they believed that to divide the Indian Army on religious lines would risk starting a civil war which they would then have no way of controlling. Second, even without bloodshed, the dismantling of the Army would render it ineffective for up to a decade, leaving India defenceless in the interim. Partition to them seemed the best way to invite the Russians in, not keep them out.

Several senior generals were more specific. Alanbrooke, in London, contradicts one of Sarila’s main assumptions—that Pakistan would be a military asset—by describing Pakistan to Attlee in April 1946 as “militarily unsound”, though Sarila insists, bizarrely, that he was “supporting” the Pakistan scheme. In May 1946, General Claude Auchinleck, who was Commander-in-Chief for India, concurred. He wrote that Pakistan would ‘most certainly not be adequate as a base for operations on a grand scale’, and would be quite useless against a Russo-Indian alliance. The book carries detailed reasoning on this: Pakistan was too small, too poor, its borders too long and too sensitive.

The alleged Churchill-Wavell conspiracy is a subplot too far, and the film would have worked just as well without it

Wavell, admittedly, did not take this line, and was more sanguine about Pakistan as a military asset. But if he was really the architect of Partition—in agreement with Churchill about its necessity, and a key part of Attlee’s ‘smoke screen’ to disguise imperial intentions—then we need to ask two pertinent questions. First, why did Churchill want to get rid of him in 1945? Churchill was keen to relieve Wavell; he felt he was too soft on Indians, and would be unsuitable as an overseer of the post-war demission process. And Wavell would have been replaced, but for the upcoming general election. Secondly, why did Attlee sack Wavell in 1947?

Sarila also makes another central erroneous assumption— that Congress leaders were not amenable to defence cooperation with the British after Independence. Either Sarila made no attempt to research this, or he was wilfully blind. The British made great efforts to canvass opinion on this subject. The armed forces were not fully Indianised in 1947, so all the highest-ranking officers were still British, and if they all left at once, India would be crippled. Accepting membership of the Commonwealth— which was not Congress policy at the time— would mean that they could stay on, and Mountbatten hammered this into Indian leaders, including Krishna Menon. He also spoke to Baldev Singh, the Defence Minister in the interim Government, and Singh fully acknowledged India’s potential weakness, especially if Pakistan stayed in the Commonwealth and thus came to enjoy such privileges as supplies, training and leadership from British officers. Singh sought assurances that the British would stay on.

Mountbatten also spoke to several high-ranking Indian officers in the Army and Air Force, including Brigadier KM Cariappa, Brigadier Nazir Ahmed and group Captain S Mukherjee. They all told him that they wanted Britain to stay on in some way for at least five years, if not more. Sarila makes no mention of any of this.

The Congress High Command had always been conflicted about military affairs. Such things were not to the taste of Gandhi, and Nehru detested the idea of supporting imperialists, or allowing India to be anything less than completely free of subordinate obligations to Britain or the King-Emperor. Sarila himself accuses them of naivete in such matters, but Gandhi had always been rather more pragmatic about foreign forces than is generally appreciated. He had a long correspondence from jail with Wavell after the Quit India agitation, in which he was at pains to spell out that he did not want to undermine the war effort against Japan, but that an independent India would have to be consulted about the presence of foreign troops, and shouldn’t be expected to pay for imperial defence.

The embarrassing truth was that in 1947 Nehru was not talking to his military, whereas the British were. And the proof of the truth of India’s weakness was that, despite all the public pronouncements he had made, Nehru duly assented to Commonwealth membership, thus guaranteeing defence cooperation with Britain, the sure absence of which, according to Sarila, drove the whole Partition process.

This just leaves two loose ends.

First, Wavell’s ‘plan for partition’, which turns out to be yet another misunderstanding. In late January 1946, Wavell was asked by the India Secretary in London to make ‘recommendations as regards definition of genuinely Muslim areas’. A list was duly sent a week later. This exchange was part of the initiative spearheaded in India by the Richards Parliamentary Delegation, which had arrived in India on January 5th, 1946, and was the first body to make Jinnah specify exactly what he meant by Pakistan. When Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the Boundary Commissioner, also looked for Muslim-majority areas 18 months later, it should hardly be a surprise that he reached very similar conclusions. The same criteria and the same data produced the same conclusions. Why is this sinister? The two men would have been working with the same census details. So the maps that we see Mountbatten slam onto the snooker table to confront Ismay, about two-thirds of the way through the film, were the result of a perfectly normal planning exercise, intended to let London know what the demand for Pakistan might actually look like on the ground.

Following the book The Shadow of the Great Game (2009), the film also shows Mountbatten in a favourable light—vain perhaps, but a lover of India and its people

Lastly, what about Attlee the villain, with his ‘secret hand’ that he refused to reveal to anyone, and is not recorded in any document provided by Sarila? We are expected to believe that Attlee wanted Partition for military reasons against all the military advice he was given, except from Wavell, whom he repeatedly thwarted, then fired. This doesn’t really add up.

At a meeting on April 12th, 1946, the Chiefs of Staff agreed that ‘a loose all-India federation is far better’ than Pakistan. On May 30th, 1946, Wavell wrote: ‘we should endeavour to bring about union on the best terms possible, and then withdraw altogether’. In March 1947, Attlee sent out Mountbatten with orders to press upon Indian leaders the ‘importance of maintaining the organisation of defence on an all-India basis’. All this is in the archive. All ignored by Sarila. In the end, Partition was driven by politics, so it should hardly be a surprise that trying to understand it by looking at the military advice—which was overwhelmingly against it—produces incomprehension.

Let us move out of the shadows now and back into the light. What really happened?

The story of Partition is the story of three weak political forces that were unable to establish their own legitimacy, primarily because they all discounted each other’s. The British were an invading military power; the Congress declared that it represented all Indians, but it didn’t; and the Muslim League claimed it represented all India’s Muslims, but it didn’t. These three bodies continued to argue about fine details in a country that was starving, bankrupt and sliding into civil disorder. The decisive factor was when the Congress leadership, in late April 1947, reconciled itself to Partition, and saw an opportunity to give Jinnah the worst deal possible. They then speeded up while Jinnah tried to slow down, but the momentum was unstoppable. The British had tried for years to reach a negotiated, all-India settlement, which was still Mountbatten’s brief as he flew out in March 1947, but circumstances foreclosed all options.

THIS WAS THE political background to Partition, but not the massacres, which are a different matter. The British did not kill many people around this time, but that does not absolve them of responsibility. The real killer was the power vacuum in partitioned provinces, and the British as the governing power have to take their share of blame for allowing a situation where nobody knew what to do, who was their enemy, and where safety lay. Under such conditions, pre-emption is the best policy, and this effectively means killing other people before they get the idea of killing you. This is not some special fault in Indians; other killing sprees in other parts of the world since 1947 have shown the same human universal. Matthew White, in his book Atrocitology, has ably demonstrated that of all the murderous regime types in the world, the deadliest is not any form of tyranny, it is anarchy.

Indian leaders too must take some share of responsibility. They all agreed that Partition was likely to quell disorder rather than inflame it. They all agreed that the presence of hostage populations was a good thing—a guarantee of good behaviour on all sides. And they all agreed that it was better to talk down the perils of Partition than to talk them up, in order not to spread panic. And the bulk of the violence happened after the British had no legitimate power in either successor state—exactly the situation that all the parties had intended to bring about. No one thought it would be that bad, and no one had taken precautions to avoid the worst possible consequences.

Here we can detect the root cause of the considerable corpus of conspiracy literature on Partition. Conspiracy theories explain well-known events in an unorthodox—even rebellious— way, providing new interpretations based on assessments of motivation rather than of evidence. Indeed, evidence is the least important element in a conspiracy theory. Much more important is the basic methodology of it, which starts with the observation that bad people do bad things, and proceeds to an extension of that idea—that bad things must have been done by bad people. Once this is established, we only have to look for villains to explain any disaster. In the case of Partition, it is all too easy to line up potential miscreants. The main objective is to make sure that they aren’t Indian patriots, which means Nehru, Jinnah and any Brit can be included, whereas Sardar Patel cannot. This is Chadha’s point, and probably the reason she was attracted to the Sarila thesis, which is only the most sophisticated and best written of the various theories floating around.

‘History is written by the victors,’ we see as the film’s opening caption. So what? Does that automatically make it worse than history written by the vanquished? Having read a lot of both, I think they can be equally bad. Bias is the enemy of good history, and it can take hold in the bitterness of defeat as easily as in the thrill of triumph. Detachment is the thing, and there can be shrewd winners as well as deluded losers.

Viceroy’s House is a very enjoyable middlebrow film: lavish, lively, funny, touching, awash with humanity. I would happily see it again just for its score, supplied by the incomparable AR Rahman, a musician of sublime gifts who blends East and West in a uniquely ravishing way. The script even manages to treat all its major historical characters pretty fairly, and generally represents their positions accurately. This perhaps betrays the influence of the other book Chadha used to construct the film, Freedom At Midnight by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, which is based on extensive interviews with Mountbatten, and contains many of the best known phrases in the script.

The one person who is much less than fairly treated is Churchill, who does not actually appear. The British prime minister had not ‘already granted’ Jinnah his Pakistan in 1945, as Mountbatten suddenly discovers in Chadha’s telling of the tale; at that time no one even knew what Jinnah wanted.

The alleged Churchill-Wavell conspiracy is a subplot too far, and the film would have worked just as well without it. Perhaps it was included to spice up the narrative—to give us the extra layer that a good thriller should have, the sudden twist that reveals more about the characters. Or perhaps it is a muted tribute to the fallen, an attempt to explain to the ghosts of the victims that they carry no stain and no fault, that there were larger forces at work beyond their control and their imagination.

Whatever it is, it isn’t true history.