Viceroy’s House

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What a negative film this was. It wasn’t about independence: it was about partition, and the problems that that caused. It was horrific. As many as two million people died, many were forced into refugee camps, and there was horrendous violence – something which was repeated during Bangladesh’s war of independence against 1971 – against women. But there was nothing positive in the film. Next to nothing was said about the joy of “Freedom at midnight”, independence from imperial rule, or even the campaign for independence in the years leading up to 1947. It was very, very negative.

The name of the film comes from – just to state the obvious! – the opulent house in which Lord Mountbatten and his family lived, described in the film as making “Buckingham Palace look like a bungalow”. Amongst the staff were two fictional characters, a young Hindu man and a young Muslim woman, involved in a rather soapy romance through which many of the issues were explored.   The film only covered a very short period – and that’s the whole thing: Mountbatten was only viceroy for a short period. By the time he became viceroy, it was already too late to prevent the violence. Things had already spiralled out of control. Partition was almost certainly the lesser of two evils – refusing the Muslims a separate state would probably have made things worse.

The film does rather tie itself in knots with this. I believe that it’s been criticised in some quarters for being anti-Muslim, but it really isn’t anti-Muslim: it’s anti-partition. It does, to be fair, show clearly that the vast majority of Muslims were in favour of partition, and that Jinnah and Nehru couldn’t agree on an alternative plan. Jinnah’s shown as being rather conniving, but practically all the Muslim characters in the film speak out in favour of partition. That presumably gave the film makers a problem, how to try to show partition as a negative thing when it was what those involved wanted, and so they blame the British Raj for fostering tensions between different religious communities. In addition to being rather insulting to the people of what became Pakistan, as if they couldn’t make up their own minds about wanting a separate state that really isn’t very helpful. The film’s supposed to be about what happened in 1947. What was Mountbatten supposed to do – get in a time machine and go back and do things differently? Maybe there wouldn’t be a war in Syria now if things had been done differently when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, but saying that isn’t going to help, is it?

Mountbatten does usually get a very bad press, which I don’t think is deserved. By the time he took over as viceroy, the situation was already so bad that I doubt anyone could have done any better. He’s often criticised for rushing independence and the British withdrawal, but, as is explained in the film, it wasn’t a case of cut and run: it was genuinely believed that delaying would only make things worse. He’s actually portrayed very favourably in the film: he, Edwina and Pamela are all shown to be genuinely interested in India and trying to do everything they could do help alleviate the sufferings of those affected by the violence.

I was wondering what, if anything, the film would say about the relationship between Edwina Mountbatten and Nehru … it doesn’t actually say anything, but we do see a significant glance between the two characters, which we are left to make of what we will! As for Mountbatten himself, I’m glad to see him get a good press for once, but the character in the film didn’t actually seem anything like Lord Mountbatten! He actually seemed exactly like Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey, and not just because he was played by Hugh Bonneville. Think genial and well-meaning but rather bumbling aristocrat. Like Lord Grantham. But is that really the impression anyone has of Lord Mountbatten?

But, all right, everyone interprets events and people in their own ways. And it was all reasonable enough until just before the end, when, according to the film, poor old Dickie found out that he’d been made a mug of. Apparently it had already been decided, by Winston Churchill, that India was going to be partitioned … to prevent the Soviet Union from getting its hands on the oilfields in the Gulf! The idea was that the left-leaning Indian Congress Party would get pally with Stalin’s Soviet Union, which would then use Karachi to gain access to the Gulf and grab all the oil. This is the idea put forward in The Shadow of the Great Game, a book published in 2006 by the late Narendra Singh Sarila a former aide de camp to Mountbatten.

I haven’t read the book so I can’t comment on it, but the idea is certainly not generally accepted. I gather that the author of the book does cite original documents in support of his idea, and it’s not hard to believe that there are some aspects of truth to it. Churchill and many other politicians of the time weren’t that far removed from the days of “the Great Game”, with tensions between the British Empire and Imperial Russia over Central Asia and the Indian sub-continent. We’re all only too well aware that the Soviet Union did later end up getting involved in Afghanistan. Jeffrey Archer even had it invading Pakistan towards the end of The Prodigal Daughter … er, obviously that’s fictional, but it shows that that sort of idea lingered on right into the 1980s. And Churchill does seem to have been more than a bit paranoid about the Soviet Union, and there are suggestions that there may have been American involvement, or at least pressure, as well.

But Churchill wasn’t even in power in 1947!   Even if he did feel like this, would Clement Attlee’s Labour government really have shared all this paranoia? And could anyone seriously have thought that the Indian Congress Party was going to ally itself with a genocidal tyrant like Stalin? And how exactly is this somehow supposed to have made Mountbatten a pawn? He argued in favour of early independence and partition because of the violence that had already erupted. Is that supposed to have been staged by the people who supposedly wanted partition because they were worried about Soviet influence? I just don’t get this argument, and I’m not very impressed that it was put forward in this film as undisputed fact.

Partition doesn’t have to be a tragedy. It can be the best possible solution. Look at the Czech Republic and Slovakia. If the government of Belgrade had agreed to partition in 1990, how much suffering might have been prevented?   More often, it’s a case of the lesser of two evils.  But it can still be an evil, because it’s so often accompanied by horrific violence.

You can’t draw a nice, neat line, so that everyone ends up in the new state in which they want to be. Yugoslavia consisted of six defined states, but there were large numbers of Serbs in Croatia, and a mix of ethnic groups in Bosnia-Herzegovina. There were, and still are, large numbers of Nationalists in the six counties of Ulster which remain part of the United Kingdom. It’s not just about individuals – there are families, friendship groups and communities which end up being torn apart.

What happened in 1947 was horrific. I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the extent of the violence. It’s thought that around 14 million people were displaced, over three-quarters of them from the Punjab – the area from which the Hindu character involved in the romantic plot in the film came. The number of deaths could have been as high as 2 million. Up to 100,000 women were raped, with many more committing suicide to avoid being raped.

The grandmother of the film’s director spent over a year in a refugee camp, before being reunited with her husband. Her baby daughter had died of dehydration. This came up on the screen after the film had finished. No-one moved. Several people in the cinema, me included, were quite tearful. And this was just in 1947. Gandhi was assassinated the following year. There’ve been four official wars between India and Pakistan since independence, notably in 1971 when East Pakistan became independent as Bangladesh, and numerous smaller conflicts. The issue of Kashmir remains unresolved.

But what could have been done to prevent it, in 1947? Everyone’s always very quick to criticise those in positions of political power, but, as with Syria today, sometimes situations get so far out of control that those with any sort of power can only try to do their best, and their best usually isn’t good enough. And what happened in India wasn’t about British interests in the Gulf, or the beginnings of the Cold War. And could no room have been found in this film for celebrating the independence of two proud states, including the biggest democracy in the world? Oh, we got the fireworks and the cheering crowds at the end, but it was only shown at a distance, not as part of the main plot, and the only conversation we saw taking place during the independence celebrations was Mountbatten moaning to Jinnah that partition had been a foregone conclusion.

This is an interesting, thought-provoking and well-acted film, but a definitive version of Mountbatten’s viceroyalty and Indian independence it assuredly is not.

4 thoughts on “Viceroy’s House

  1. mrsredboots

    I worked for Alan Campbell-Johnson, Mountbatten’s Press Secretary, for many years; he always said that Partition was not the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do; it was the only thing to do. Rather like Ireland, I have always though – Partition hasn’t been the world’s greatest success there, either. Have you read MISSION WITH MOUTBATTEN, Campbell-Johnson’s account of the whole thing. It can be a bit dull (but his account of Gandhi’s assassination is incredibly moving, and worth reading for that alone).

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