“Do you know why the English are leaving? The war has brought them to their knees, they can no longer deal with us.”
These were the whispers in the corridors of the majestic palace of the British governor in New Delhi, where a multitude of servants were preparing to receive the new British Viceroy of His Royal Majesty. The last. VICEROY’S HOUSE by Gurinder Chandha presented and screened out of competition at the last Berlinale recounts the last six months of British Imperial raj in India.
The film, even though not of an historical genre, aspires to represent, in a fictional style, a Bollywood soap opera concerning the most tragic incidents of the eventful history of the Indian sub-continent. However, this ambition fails as the film is flawed with superficiality and a certain leaning to tack in the plot. Which, nevertheless, it must be said, involves the viewer.
There is the very banal love story between two of the palace servants, Jeet and Aalia, she, Muslim, and he, Hindu, and in the background the plastic images of emaciated refugees, victims of the sudden division of India into three areas. Only a few images at the end provide us with a sense of the History and its unexpected cruelty.
1947 New Delhi. It fell on Lord Louis Mountbatten, the wish of King George VI and the Labor Prime Minister Clement Atlee, the honor to restore freedom to 300 million Indians, to oversee Independence from the British Raj. The dream of Gandhi and of many Indian nationalists was about to become a reality. The responsibility to withdraw the English from India in the shortest time possible, and honorably, was, instead, to become more difficult than foreseen.
“Do you know that 94% of the population is illiterate? Is this what we are leaving to the Indians after three centuries?”, asks Lady Edwina Mountbatten, the true “political creature” of the family, as her husband does not fail to recognize.
In August 1947, when the statue of Queen Victoria will be removed from the buildings of Indian power, the British legacy will become a much heavier burden than that of the illiteracy and poverty. A million deaths, the collapse of the entire community, the dissolution of complicated identities, brutal waves of ethnic cleansing, epidemics, mass rape (about 70,000 women victims of violence), the largest human migration in history with 14 million displaced persons.
The destiny of 14 million Indian citizens become crossed with the mass movement in two directions of entire communities – Muslims towards the new nation of Pakistan, and Sikhs and Hindus towards the rest of the country. Both, Indians and Muslims, fleeing from inter-crossing pogroms.
As happened to Gurinder Chandha’s grandmother, to whom the film is dedicated. A woman forced to make the long journey from her home to the new Muslim Republic of Pakistan to find and reach her husband in a refugee camp. There were more than 600 in the country. Many die in the camps of dysentery, cholera and other diseases.
In 1947, obviously clear they have lost con“trol of the country, the British speed up their exit strategy. Lord Mountbatten’s mission is to do the impossible –to set into motion, in less than six months, and a year in advance (from June 1948 to August 1947), a solution that will save the face of the British and the integrity of the Indian territory as was promised in the India Independence Act voted on by the British Parliament on 20 February 1947.
“300 million Indians want a united India, 100 want their own nation. Both want to be free from us.” (Lord Mountbatten)
Excellent summing up of the situation. Among Winston Churchill’s favorites, Admiral of His Majesty’s Fleet, grand-nephew of Queen Victoria, Supreme Commander of the South-East Asian Armed Forces during the war, Louis Mountbatten, “Dickie” to his friends, is the man who pushed back the Japanese offensive towards India, retaking Burma up to the surrender of Japan in Singapore.
For English diplomacy, he is the right man to guarantee the respect for British interests in India, able to remedy the impossible, to dissuade whoever and convince all. But not this time.
“[…] You English have a debt with us, two million Indians fought as volunteers against the Nazis. And now it’s time to return the favor, the free and united India you promised us.” (Jawaharlal Nehru, leader of the Indian National Congress)
“The English divided Ireland for peace, they are dividing Palestine, they’ll do the same here.” (Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League)
The Indian cause and the Muslim one had found their political voice in 1885 with the founding of the Indian National Congress, the party fighting for independence from the British, and the Muslim League founded in 1906, initially only with the aim to protect the rights of Muslims in India. During the Second World War the British continued to ferment conflict between the Hindus and the Muslims institutionalizing it into an unhealthy logic of divide et impera based on the identity differences of religious background. The politicization of religion in the Indian colony was, in all truth, a British creation.
The Hindu India and the Muslim community for opposite reasons, but sharing a common driver of belonging to the same ethnic group, reject the proposal for a federal India.
“It would change us into the negroes of America.” (Muhammad Ali Jinnah)
The Indian National Congress, on the other hand, is almost unanimous in rejecting any idea regarding a sharing of power.
After being recalled to Downing Street, Lord Mountbatten returns to the palace with a plan for peace to be carried out at all costs because “India is a ship in flames” and no English soldier must die in the fire.
In vain, the Mountbatten couple try to extinguish the flames. There are no men to bring order to the country, where with surprising and unexpected (but not unpredictable) rapidity, atrocious sectarian violence begins to spread like an oil slick across the country.
Dividing up the Indian sub-continent seems to be the only possible solution to stop the massacres and open up a new course of action. But it wasn’t to be. Perhaps only Gandhi, uncompromising in his refusal, understands that the division would have sparked off even more violence than stopping it. This became evident after a few weeks.
“You cannot cut out a heart and hope that it will continue to beat.” (Mahatma Gandhi)
No, and not even divide its arteries. Grotesquely, VICEROY’S HOUSE turns into a microcosm of the tragic events that corrode the country. Objects, ornaments, books, cutlery, everything to be divided.
“80% to the Indians and 20% to the Muslims. The encyclopedia, no, that you can’t divide!! Jane Austen? … to the Indians.”
To Cyril Radcliffe, a lawyer, falls the responsibility to “carve up” the country establishing the new borders.
“I have never been to India in my life” (Cyril Radcliffe)
“You will use maps and censuses” (Lord Ismay, Head of Mountbatten’s Cabinet)
Another unfortunate English experiment in dividing and stitching up from afar.
The geographic map of Southern Asia was redrawn in 40 days.
“There are no straight lines in India […] It’s impossible to cut into the body of the people […] we need special commissions, of the United Nations.” (Cyril Radcliffe)
“Maybe I have something that can help you”, Lord Ismay reassures him, pulling out of a drawer a map prepared during Churchill’s government two years before – a demarcation line in the north-west of India. On the other side of the line, an English invention – a new state, Pakistan, ‘the place of the pure’.
Cyril Radcliffe now has his borders, all that remains is to make them a reality. Instead, for Lord Mountbatten, it falls on him to realize the deception of being used as a pawn in the hands of Downing Street. The Lord who was entrusted with the task of making the Indians believe that India would remain united.
“[…] Jinnah didn’t give up because of this, he knew he had the support of the English.” (Lord Mountbatten)
Above all, Churchill’s, who saw in Pakistan a buffer state between the USSR and an India with clear leanings towards Soviet socialism.
“[..] we have just liberated ourselves from an empire, we are not in a hurry to end up under another” thus, Nehru freezes the advances of the American Ambassador on the future geopolitical positioning of India. We are at the beginning of the first stirrings of the Cold War and the first round of decolonization where the champions for the Third World are lining up, and where for them anti-colonialism and anti-Westernism are the two sides of the same coin.
“We have not defeated the Nazis and the Japanese to please the Soviets. Churchill has envisaged for the new resources, the trade routes for petroleum passing through a state that is under the British umbrella to block access to the Arab Sea.” (Lord Ismay)
“Have you divided a population for petroleum?” (Lord Mountbatten)
On 17 August 1947, two days after the proclamation of independence (Pakistan celebrates it on the 14th, India on the 15th) the new borders were announced. The north-west and north-east of India, mainly Muslim areas, are amputated. The new-born Pakistan includes a part of the Punjab and Bengal (the future Bangladesh), the two separated by thousands of kilometers. The State of Jammu and Kashmir claimed by both countries becomes a part of India. From one day to the next, millions of people, Indians and Muslims, find themselves on “the wrong side”, suddenly a minority in another land, victims of an unprecedented ethnic violence. There were about one million victims, the epicenter was in the Punjab, but also in Bengal.
Was a different solution possible? Probably not, however, this does not cancel the blame of the British and the improvised way in which they prepared such a historical and long awaited event.
From 1947, India and Pakistan glower at each other, with repercussions going well beyond the geopolitical confines of southern Asia, the main victim being Afghanistan. Kashmir, with a Muslim majority, is still claimed as much by the Indians as by the Pakistanis. This prevents any type of normal relations developing between the two countries, trapped in a continual state of military mobilization, which on more than one occasion came close to a nuclear conflict.
Can we blame Lord Louis Mountbatten for this? Every peace plan bears the signature of someone, as Lord Ismay cynically reminds him and the dividing up of blame is the favorite battle field of historians. Just as in the case of the Partition of India.
Lord Mountbatten remained in New Delhi for ten months until June 1948, the first ad interim governor of the new Indian Republic. In the summer of 1979, he died in an explosion planted by the IRA, Irish Republican Army, in his boat at Warrenpoint, in Down County.
However, this is another story, just as troubled, in the annals of English history.