Magazine article The Spectator

If Not for Mountbatten, India Would Have Fallen Apart

Magazine article The Spectator

If Not for Mountbatten, India Would Have Fallen Apart

Article excerpt

Few men have been as concerned with how history would portray them as Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India. When he finally left his post, a veteran journalist wrote that during his time in the subcontinent Mountbatten appeared to act as 'his own Public Relations Officer'. In fact, he had a fully paid-up PRO, Alan CampbellJohnson, who chose to keep his job, albeit in a honorary capacity, even after his (and his boss's) return to England. In 1951 CampbellJohnson published a book with the meaningful title Mission with Mountbatten. The tenor and contents of the book suggest that even if no man is a hero to his valet, this Viceroy was certainly a hero to his PRO.

Mission with Mountbatten was the first of a series of propagandist tracts written on behalf of the last Englishman to rule India. These books project an impression of Mountbatten as a wise umpire, successfully mediating between squabbling schoolboys: whether India and Pakistan, the Congress and the Muslim League, or Mahatma Gandhi and M.A. Jinnah. His claims are taken at face value: sometimes absurdly so, as in the suggestion in the official biography that the first Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, would not have included the nationalist stalwart Vallabhbhai Patel in his Cabinet had it not been for Mountbatten's recommendation.

Curiously, Mountbatten's real contribution to India and Indians has been rather underplayed by his hagiographers. This was his part in solving a geopolitical problem the like of which no newly independent state had ever faced. For when the British departed the subcontinent, they left behind more than 500 distinct pieces of territory. Two of these were the newly created nations of India and Pakistan; the others, the assorted chiefdoms and states that made up what was known as 'Princely India'.

There were so many princely states that there was even disagreement as to how many. One historian puts their number at 521, another at 565. There were more than 500, at any rate, and they varied very widely in terms of size and status. At one end of the scale were the massive states of Kashmir and Hyderabad, each the size of a large European country; at the other end, tiny feudal fiefdoms of a dozen or fewer villages.

By the mid-1940s these chiefdoms found themselves facing a common problem: their future in a free India. In the first part of 1946 British India had a definitive series of elections; but these left untouched the princely states. The Cabinet Mission of 1946 focused on the Hindu-Muslim or United India-versus-Pakistan question; it barely spoke of the states at all. On 3 June 1947, both the date of the final British withdrawal and the creation of two Dominions was announced -- but this statement also did not make clear the position of the states. Some rulers now began, in the words of the political scientist W.H. Morris-Jones, 'to luxuriate in wild dreams of independent power in an India of many partitions'.

The work of bringing the Princes into line was the responsibility of the Indian home minister, Vallabhbhai Patel, and the energetic secretary to the Ministry of States, V.P.

Menon. Between them they worked on a draft Instrument of Accession, whereby the Princes would agree to transfer, to the new Indian government, control of defence, foreign affairs and communications. On 5 July 1947, Patel issued a statement appealing to the princes to accede to the Indian Union on these three subjects. As he put it, the 'alternative to co-operation in the general interest' was 'anarchy and chaos'. …

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