August 9, 2002


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Kuldip Nayar

The trial of Mountbatten

There is a serious proposal in some academic circles to hold a trial of Lord Mountbatten, inviting scholars from Pakistan and Great Britain to participate in it. The purpose is not to apportion blame to the last Viceroy for India’s division -- something which he could not help – but to delineate his role in the murder of more than 10 lakh people and the uprooting of another two crore.

The charge against him is that the Holocaust was due to Mountbatten’s decision to advance the date of Partition from June 3, 1948 to August 15, 1947, some 10 months earlier.

I recall how Mountbatten’s announcement came as a bombshell to us in Sialkot city, now part of Pakistan. There was suddenly a sense of fear and insecurity. The borders of India and Pakistan had yet to be demarcated, and the fate of the entire population of Punjab, Bengal and Assam hung in the balance. Both Hindus and Muslims began to pass anxious moments because they did not know through which are the dividing line would run.

Rumours were so strong that people were willing to believe the impossible. They were confused. That Partition was inevitable was beginning to seep into their minds, but they were not preparing to leave their homes or heart.

By advancing the date by 10 months, he unwittingly caused the murder of one million people. I mentioned this to Mountbatten when I interviewed him at his sprawling mansion in Broadlands near London in October 1971, for my book, Distant Neighbours.

As if I had touched a raw nerve, he felt uncomfortable and lapsed into silence. He admitted that at least one million people died during Partition. But his defence was strange: He had saved from starvation three times the number during the 1943 Bengal famine by giving 10 per cent of space in his ships for the transport of good grains. This, despite the opposition of Winston Churchill, then British prime minister. Mountbatten was then chief of the Allies' naval operations in South Asia.

“Well, before Providence, I can say the balance is in my favour,” said Mountbatten. And then he added: “Wherever colonial rule has ended, bloodshed has been there. This is the price you pay.”

Why did he advance the date? I asked Mountbatten. He said he could not hold the country together. “Things were slipping from my hands.” The great Calcutta Killing, one year before Partition, had taken place and communal tension prevailed all over. On top of it, there had been the announcement that the British were leaving. “Therefore, I myself decided to quit sooner,” said Mountbatten. “This was not to the liking of Lord Attlee (then British prime minister) but he had given me full powers.”

The comment by the first Indian Governor General, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, was: 'If you had not transferred power when you did, there would have been no power to transfer.' When I checked with Alan Campbell-Johnson, Mountbatten’s press secretary, the reason for advancing the date, he said August 15 was the date when Mountbatten heard for the first time news of the Japanese surrender, which ended the Second World War, in Churchill’s room. However, the impression of some British Foreign Office men was that Mountbatten was in a hurry to get back to a bigger position in the British navy.

What Mountbatten did not realise was that the pent-up feelings in the hearts of Hindus and Muslims in the wake of communal propaganda and riots were bound to find a vent. At least, government servants should not have been allowed to move from one country to another on the basis of their religion. Both Hindus and Muslims in the military, the police and other security forces had got contaminated over the years. To expect them to be impartial and punish the guilty from their own community was to hope for the impossible, particularly when they knew they would go scot-free in their 'own country.'

Looking back, one cannot but blame Mountbatten for doing so little to ensure protection for the minorities. He had assured Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, 'I shall not use merely the armed police, I will order the army and the air force to act and I will use tanks and aeroplanes to suppress anybody who wants to create trouble.' Not a fraction of that happened. It was a free for all.

When Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, begged Mountbatten to 'shoot Muslims' if necessary and when Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, suggested handing over the cities to the military, Mountbatten’s response was feeble. It may be an uncharitable remark to make, but he appeared more interested in becoming the common Governor General of India and Pakistan – an office Jinnah did not let him have -- than dousing the fire of communalism.

The Punjab Boundary Force, which Mountbatten formed on August 1, 1947, to quell the riots, did little to stop the killings of men, women and children. The force had a strength of 55,000 including Brigadier Mohammad Ayub Khan, later Pakistan’s first martial law administrator. The force had a high proportion of British officers. This proved to be its undoing. The officers were interested in repatriation to Britain, not in an operation that might tie them down to the subcontinent for some more time. The British commander of the force, General Rees, had reportedly issued instructions not to get involved and to protect only 'European lives.'

The reports of the Boundary Commission, appointed soon after Partition to delineate the borders between the Punjabs, Bengals and the Assam-Sylhet sector, added more fuel to the fire. Cyril Radcliffe, the British lawyer who chaired the Commission, earned the wrath of both the Congress and Muslim League.

After failing to get the United Nations to nominate the Boundary Commission’s members Jinnah suggested Radcliffe's name to Mountbatten. Jinnah had seen Radcliffe arguing intricate cases in London courts. Nehru also approved his name after consulting "that sneaky fellow Krishna Menon,” as Radcliffe put it during his talk with me at his flat in London in October 1971.

Hindus expected Lahore to be including in India and Muslims thought Calcutta would go to Pakistan. Both were disappointed. Radcliffe told me he never had the slightest doubt from the beginning that Calcutta (Jinnah had said earlier it was no use having East Bengal without Calcutta) should go to India and Lahore to Pakistan. "I had to given them Lahore because they had to have a big city in West Punjab." he said.

After deciding that the rest of the job was only to draw lines, he did what "came to that much." He was so "rushed" that he had "no time to go into the details," Radcliffe said. "Even accurate district maps were not there and what material there was, was also inadequate. What could I do in one-and-a-half months?"

True, but what a way to divide the subcontinent and decide the future of millions of people. The trial of Mountbatten may assuage the feelings of people in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. They still believe the blood of lakhs of people is on Mountbatten’s head.

Kuldip Nayar

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