Tales from the dressing-up box

Downton Abbey moves into the Viceroy's House in Gurinder Chadha's new film. It's nothing like history, says Catriona Luke

Tales from the dressing-up box
It is difficult to think of two more worthless people than the Mountbattens. “Dickie” was a minor impoverished royal of the Germanic house of Battenberg and Hesse: one of many great-grandchildren of Victoria, adrift in society with no steady income. Edwina was the daughter of a Conservative member of Parliament and on her mother’s side was related to Edward VII’s financier - the reason why Edwina inherited a fortune at the age of 20 of around £2 million (around £80 million in today’s money). She could have done something worthwhile with that, like giving it away or founding hospitals and schools, but instead she joined the cocaine-fuelled London party scene and married Dickie, the impoverished royal.

Dickie wasn’t interested in women, finding the world of naval ratings so much more interesting. So Edwina began to have affairs. Before Nehru came the West Indian cabaret entertainer Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson. The London papers got hold of the scandal in 1932 but not the name of the correspondent, whom they took to be singer Paul Robeson. The Mountbattens sued The People newspaper but then tactically let them go without paying damages.

And so in March 1947, these two shabby, ignorant specimens of human beings turned up at the Viceregal Lodge to decide the future of the Subcontinent.

Gurinder Chadha
Gurinder Chadha

Mountbatten loved using "Top Secret" on documents

Of her new film to premier at the Berlin Film Festival in February, Chadha has said recently “the story is partly about a marriage”. She has admitted that she lets Mountbatten (played by Hugh Bonneville from Downton) off fairly lightly, while Edwina is portrayed as a moderniser with a social conscience. Instead the villains in Chadha’s piece are the faceless British men of the Colonial Office (and Churchill) who have plans to divide the subcontinent for strategic reasons - that Pakistan and the port of Karachi might be useful in geopolitical terms to the British in the years to come. This is a year after Churchill makes his speech about the fall of the Iron Curtain and the danger from the Soviets. Chadha based this geopolitical side-plot in the film on a document labelled “Top Secret: only for circulation among chiefs of staff,” that she found in the British Library.

But Mountbatten loved using “Top Secret” on documents. There are any number of them in Volume 10 of the Transfer of Power (12 volumes). It is equally apparent that in the confusion after the Second World War he in fact had carte blanche to decide the future of India, apparent from his remark in 1965 to BBC correspondent John Osman at a dinner: “I f***ed up.”

Mountbatten’s agenda for Partition along religious lines is also clear from the earliest documentation in April in 1947. Jinnah is apparently asked by Mountbatten as to what he will do if he has to face both Russia and Hindustan (document 64). Barely a week after arriving in Delhi, Mountbatten meets callously with Gandhi in the morning of 1 April (April Fool’s Day), and with Nehru when that time was safely passed in the afternoon of 1 April (document 47 and 48). After four long tiring decades of negotiating with the British for independence, Gandhi tries yet again to present to the newly arrived Viceroy how and why the country should be kept united, only effectively to be mocked. Gandhi’s friend, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan or “Badshah Khan”, is present at later meetings.

Chadha says she lets Mountbatten off lightly, while depicting Edwina as a moderniser
Chadha says she lets Mountbatten off lightly, while depicting Edwina as a moderniser

Mountbatten had met in London with the left-wing Indian nationalist V.K. Krishna Menon twice before leaving for India (document 79). Equally striking - the phrasing of the document is so British, as if the draft had originated elsewhere -  is the pro-Partition letter signed by leading Sikhs and Hindus, including Sir Sobha Singh, Khushwant Singh’s father (document 57) of the Indian Central Legislature from the Punjab to Pandit Nehru. By contrast correspondence in favour of a united India has been airbrushed out and does not form part of this official record.

Despite what the history books say, tension was not rising in Punjab or NWFP to war-like levels. Sir Evan Meredith Jenkins, governor of Punjab from April 1947, previously private secretary to the Viceroy from 1943-5, gives a report in April about Punjab (document 160): “On 4 March rioting broke out in Lahore…. On 5 and 6 March rioting broke out in Multan, Rawalpindi, Amritsar and Jullundur. The non-Muslims were not specially armed at any of these places, with the possible exception of Rawalpindi, though they undoubtedly gave considerable provocation. At Multan the trouble started with a procession of students, and within three hours the Muslims killed about 120 Hindus… There is rioting at Rawalpindi and Attock… The total number of dead is not yet known [for the whole area]. The latest figure is just under 3,000 and I believe that the final figure may be 3,500… We are dealing with the aftermath of very serious disturbances… in one police station alone of the Rawalpindi district the Police tell me that they are investigating 500 murders.”

In NWFP, despite the street disturbances, the situation was more stable. Olaf Caroe reports (document 162) that there are processions and the jails are full in NWFP but that “outside the cities there had not been much trouble except in Hazara district where there was longstanding communal antagonism which had lasted for the past 100 years.”

Before Partition the north-west of the Indian Subcontinent was not cracking. While the flare-up of violence in Punjab had recently cost 3,000 lives, it was tiny in comparison to the estimated one million lives that would be lost from August 1947 as a result of 14 million crossing the new borders.

Moving Downton Abbey to the lawns of the Viceregal Lodge is not the best way to illustrate the catastrophe of Partition.

Catriona Luke is an editor and writer based in London