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What Mountbatten really did for India


In books written under his, or his family's supervision, a considerably glorified picture was presented of what Lord Mountbatten was said to have done in and for India. Are these claims right?


ON February 13, 1947, Lord Wavell, then Viceroy of India, received a telegram from the Prime Minister of England telling him that he had lost his job. The Labour Government in London had chosen Lord Mountbatten as his successor. That evening, Wavell wrote in his diary that Mountbatten was "an unexpected but a clever one from their (the Government's) point of view; and Dickie's personality may perhaps accomplish what I failed to do".

This was a comment that was as perceptive as it was generous. The Field Marshal and the Rear-Admiral were indeed very different kinds of men; one withdrawn, a connoisseur of poetry, choosing to keep his own counsel and his own company; the other flamboyant and dashing, a bon vivant and socialite who would much rather be seen with a glass of wine than a book in hand.

The journalist Pothan Joseph once remarked that Mountbatten tended to act as his "own Public Relations Officer". He was a pioneer in what we now call "spin" and "image management". Few men have taken so much interest in how history would judge them. In books written under his or his family's supervision, a considerably glorified picture was presented of what he was said to have done in and for India. It was claimed that without Mountbatten, freedom would not have come so soon; and that it would have come at a much higher cost. It was claimed that only Mountbatten could have got the Congress and the Muslim League to come to terms; and that only he could have got Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel to work together.

Some of these claims are highly exaggerated; others downright false. By the latter stages of the War the British knew that the time had come to leave India. As for the costs of freedom, a strong case can be made that by hastening the transfer of power, Mountbatten in fact made it less manageable; there weren't enough troops in place when the rioting escalated. As for the final concession to the Muslim League, after their success in the 1946 election (which Wavell called and supervised), it was clear to the Congress that they would have to accept some form of Partition. And as for the reconciliation between Nehru and Patel, it had all to do with the death of Mahatma Gandhi, and nothing to do with the intervention of the Viceroy.

Lord Mountbatten and his biographers have been so keen to give him credit where it is not due that they have tended to overlook what was his real contribution to India — the part he played in the integration of the princely states. The "Partition Plan" of June 3, 1947, which set out the principles of freedom and division, left unclear the position of the 500 odd princely states. These states had all recognised the British as the "paramount power". But now the British were leaving. Thus the more ambitious among the princes began, in the words of one respected scholar, "to luxuriate in wild dreams of independent power in an India of many partitions".

On July 9, 1947, Patel and Nehru both met the Viceroy, and asked him "what he was going to do to help India in connection with her most pressing problem — relations with the (Princely) States". Mountbatten agreed to make this matter "his primary consideration". Later the same day Gandhi came to meet Mountbatten. As the Viceroy recorded, the Mahatma "asked me to do everything in my power to ensure that the British did not leave a legacy of Balkanisation and disruption on August 15 by encouraging the States to declare their independence... ".

Mountbatten was being urged by the Congress Trinity to go out and bat for them against the princes. This he did most effectively, notably in a speech to the Chamber of Princes delivered on July 25, for which the Viceroy had decked out in all his finery, rows of military medals pinned upon his chest. He was, recalled an adoring assistant, "in full uniform, with an array of orders and decorations calculated to astonish even these parishioners in Princely pomp".

Mountbatten began by telling the princes that the Indian Independence Act had released "the States from all their obligations to the Crown". They were now technically independent, or, put another way, rudderless, on their own. The old links were broken, but "if nothing can be put in its place, only chaos can result — a chaos that "will hit the States first". He advised them therefore to forge relations with the new nation closest to them. As he brutally put it, "you cannot run away from the Dominion Government which is your neighbour any more than you can run away from the subjects for whose welfare you are responsible".

He told the princess that in the circumstances it was best they make peace with the Congress, and signed the Instrument of Accession. This would cede away Defence — but in any case the States would, by themselves, "be cut off from any source of supplies of up-to-date arms or weapons". It would cede away External Affairs, but the princes could "hardly want to go to the expense of having ambassadors or ministers or consuls in all these foreign countries". And it would also cede away Communications, but this was "really a means of maintaining the life-blood of the whole-sub-continent". The Congress offer, said the Viceroy, left the rulers "with great internal authority" while divesting them of subjects they could not deal with on their own.

Mountbatten's talk to the Chamber of Princes was a tour de force. It finally persuaded the princes that the British would no longer protect or patronise them, and that independence was a mirage. And this word was carried not by a rabble-rousing Congressman but by the Representative of the King-Emperor, who was a highly decorated military man, and of royal blood besides.

His speech prepared the way for the actual mechanics of the merging of the princely states with India. This process was supervised by Sardar Patel, and superbly executed by his Secretary at the Ministry of States, V.P. Menon. Some States proved to be more recalcitrant than others. Thus the ambitious Dewan of Travancore declared Independence; the impulsive young Maharaja of Jodhpur set about negotiating with Jinnah; and the wilful Nizam of Hyderabad demanded direct relations with the British Crown. Getting these States to join India involved a judicious mixture of the carrot and the stick: the first provided naturally by Mountbatten, the second, just as naturally, by Patel.

In 1950, the Government of India issued a booklet celebrating how 500 "centres of feudal autocracy" had, with little loss of life, been "converted into free and democratic unit of the Indian Union". Now, "for the first time, millions of people, accustomed to living in narrow, secluded groups in the States, became part of the larger life of India. They could now breathe the air of freedom and democracy pervading the whole nation".

As this booklet pointed out, the position of the princes in the Indian polity "afforded no parallel to or analogy with any institution known in history". Given the odds, and the opposition, the integration of these numerous and disparate States was indeed a staggering achievement.

Much of the work was done by Indians: by Patel, Menon, and others. But these Indians had as their indispensable ally that British PR man par excellence, Lord Mountbatten of Burma.

Ramachandra Guha is a historian and writer based in Bangalore.

E-mail him at

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