Take away India, and Britain would become a second-rate power.
As India and Pakistan prepare to clink glasses on the 60th anniversary of their respective independences, a little galling detail juts out. Although it won’t quite spoil the party, it intrigues me. What was the urgent need to fast-forward the partition of British India? Why was the country midwifed recklessly over lunch, like the newborns won’t survive another day? Why did Lord Louis Mountbatten – uncle of Queen Elizabeth II’s hubby, Prince Phillip – allow the partition in such supreme haste? Even if Nehru and Jinnah wanted it quick. Mountbatten’s daughter, Pamela Hicks says her dad thought partition was a crazy, unworkable idea. So! So he better make haste.
In the process, Mountbatten advanced independence by a good nine months from June 1948 to August 1947. Partition happened. Pakistan was created at the midnight of Aug 14 and India on Aug 15, 1947. In the ensuing confusion, more than ten million people were uprooted. A million others perished.
Christopher Beaumont is daintily called one of the few people who knew the real truth about partition. He was a key figure in the partition of India. Beaumont was private secretary to the senior British judge, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who was chairman of the Indo-Pakistan Boundary Commission. In short, the trusted inside-man in a team that was given a pencil – sharpened one – but no eraser and an assignment: Go out there in the plains of India and draw the consecrated line. The good Englishmen eventually drew the line, on a rather simple rag of map. The etchings, needless to add, still draw blood 60 years later. Some lines are too sharp to be blurred by time.
The viceroy, Mountbatten, must take the blame - though not the sole blame - for the massacres in the Punjab in which between 500,000 to a million -- men, women and children – perished, Beaumont says in his memoirs. Isn’t it strange that independence was declared prior to the actual partition and it was left to the new governments of India and Pakistan to keep public order! The infant governments clearly hadn’t anticipated the magnitude of mass-migration, mass-murders and the subsequent unrest. They flunked to control the mayhem. “The handover of power was done too quickly’’, Beaumont adds. The partition resulted in arguably the largest mass migration of peoples the world has ever seen. Mountbatten’s reactions to the bloody aftermath of partition were, according to his biographer, Philip Ziegler “at his most shallow”.
The British Military intelligence knew that the situation could take an ugly turn. Aware of this, Field Marshall Auchinlek -- Commander of Chief in India -- had wanted to keep British troops in India -- temporarily -- after Independence, but was over-ridden by Mountbatten. At any level, it was not a smooth transfer of power, as the Clement Atlee government in London wanted. With a royal megalomaniac at helm, who dismissed concerns from his own staff and other British experts far more knowledgeable than him about Indian communal tensions and politics, the bloodshed was inevitable.
So our guys who went out to draw those lines took some time. Exasperated, Mountbatten gave them a six-week deadline. “The trouble was that Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were an integrated population so that it was impossible to make a frontier without widespread dislocation,” Beaumont writes. While still at job – with no final boundaries, no clear demarcations of what belonged to whom – India was cut into two. The Indo-Pakistan Boundary Commission guys were so distraught that they refused compensation for their work.
The rest, they say, is history. Most historians agree that Mountbatten cajoled Radcliffe into making compromises in the border crafting. Beaumont remained an honest guy until his end in 2002, dubbing both Radcliffe and Mountbatten discredited. Mountbatten was blown up in an IRA bomb at his summer home in Mullaghmore, Ireland in 1979.
The British legacy remains -- despite the trains and roads they bequeathed us – that of a hasty retreat. An inexplicable haste that led to widespread misery, murder, marauding. The aftershocks still continue.
On the eve of India and Pakistan’s 60th annev. Cheers.