04 August 2007

"Indian Summer" by Alex von Tunzelmann

Alex von Tunzelmann, student of history at Oxford and editor of OSU’s Cherwell newspaper in 1998, passes this book as “the secret history of the end of an empire”.

“Life and times of Mountbattens in India” would have been a more apt title. The book contains no secret and is not about the end of the empire in entirety.

The book places too much importance on the roles of three individuals: Mountbatten, his wife Edwina and Nehru. The long struggle, mostly non violent, to evict an alien rule by a wide and deep political leadership (some meriting reverence for decades after their death) has been trivialized to a vane member of British royal family sent to unwind the empire; his flirting wife and an equally flirting visionary who led India during and after the transition.

However, one must compliment Alex von Tunzelmann for the sheer objectivity she brings into describing the events in the last days of the Raj.

Alex starts with a funny perspective: There were two countries in 1577. One was a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swathe of the earth; and the other was an underdeveloped semi-feudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its masses. Guess what! The first is India and the second is England. In 1857 it was the other way about! Now you know what alien rule does to the ruler and the ruled!

However, a country divided by religion, divided by tribe, divided by caste; a society whose equilibrium derives from repulsion and exclusiveness is, as Karl Marx rightly observed, predestined to be a prey of conquest.

Did Britain rule India in discharge of “the white man’s burden”? Not really. The Prince of Wales, visiting India in 1921, found the princely states far better than British India! Quite a royal endorsement against the inept colonial rule that kept the GDP stagnating for over 70 years at the time of this observation!

Is the British attitude toward India patronizingly affectionate as reflected by Edwina’s kindly love for Nehru? Not really. Winston Churchill astonished everyone in a dinner party by suggesting that he would have “Gandhi bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi and let the Viceroy sit on the back of a giant elephant and trample the Mahatma into the dirt”! This reflects the kind of thinking that political leadership in India had to face! (Oh yes, I found one opinion I share with Churchill: Gandhi is a Mahatma!)

Did Mountbatten handle his role reasonably well? Mostly no; occasionally yes.

(a) In mid July 1947, while negotiations about partition, defence, finance, future of princely states and the future of 400 million people raged around him, Viceroy Mountbatten was “busy fussing about flags” seeking Union Jack in the upper canton of the flags of India and Pakistan!

(b) Ten days before independence, in the midst of the violence in Punjab, Mountbatten bothered Nehru with a list of dates upon which the Union Jack might continue to be flown in India after independence!

(c) However, he deserves some praise. In less than one year, Patel and Mountbatten achieved a larger and more closely integrated India than what had been achieved in 130 years of Mauryan rule, 180 years of Mughal empire or 90 years of British Raj.

Alex steers clear of bias in her book to an admirable extent.

One reason why, I would recommend a reading of her chapter on Kashmir.

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