Around six in the evening on January 12, 1948, Alan Campbell-Johnson, the Press Secretary to the Governor-General of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten, was returning to his bungalow in New Delhi’s Government House estate after a hard game of squash when, passing the French windows of Mountbatten’s study, he saw His Excellency in earnest talk with Mahatma Gandhi. Campbell-Johnson knew that the meeting had been arranged at short notice and at Gandhi’s instance, but did not at the time attach any special importance to it.

The Raj had pulled out five months earlier in a ceremonial lowering of the Union Jack from public buildings, and India was now an independent country. But Mountbatten, who in his person represented Britannia’s rule far more palpably than any flag could have done, had stayed on.

He had come to India almost straight from his glittering triumphs as the Supreme Allied Commander in South-East Asia, to be Britain’s last Viceroy, charged by His Majesty’s Government with the task of winding up the Empire as quickly and as cleanly as possible. A noble birth, theatrical good looks, a personality nurtured on strong doses of the Royal Navy’s “Destroyer Spirit” and crackling with charisma, a reputation for efficiency combined with dynamic physical energy and abounding self confidence – all these “superman” attributes were now, at the age of forty-six, backed up by a row of resounding military victories. No man could have more fittingly been appointed to fill this epoch-making role or have assumed it with so overpowering a conviction of his fitness for it. Even as Viceroy, Mountbatten still remained very much the Supreme Commander, the man in absolute control, the final authority.

He was both a dazzling success and a colossal failure. The leaders of the Indian National Congress, notably Gandhi, Nehru and (to a lesser extent) Patel, immediately fell victim to his ebullience, sincerity and, above all, charm, which Nehru described as being “dangerous.” But before the flinty obduracy of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who headed the only other major political party, the Muslim League, it was Mountbatten who capitulated.

Unable to get the two leading parties to agree upon a common formula for taking over power, he proceeded to impose on them his own formula, which was, virtually, Jinnah’s formula: Partition. He agreed to the creation of a new country, Pakistan, by hacking away from India the areas which contained predominantly Muslim populations, and thus left for the Congress a truncated India that was mainly a Hindu land. As it happened, the Congress had never hankered for a purely, or even mainly, Hindu land. On the contrary, its declared creed and proud boast was that it was a wholly secular organisation, embracing within its fold all the diverse religions of India: Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism as well as Islam and Hinduism.

Mountbatten’s success lay in persuading the Congress leaders to accept the inevitability of a truncated India to accommodate the intransigence of a minority group who wanted to secede, for something like this same offer had been made earlier by the British and had been flatly rejected by the Congress. It was as though the Congress now realised that, if Mountbatten could not make Jinnah give up his insistence on secession, no one else could, and that it was futile to hold out for an undivided India. So this time they consented, as Nehru expressed it, “to the cutting off of the head to get rid of the headache.”

What was more, even though they had every right to feel dissatisfied with the verdict, they were so convinced about the uprightness of the judge that they continued to look upon him as a friend and well-wisher. As the talks progressed, a close friendship sprang up between Mountbatten and Nehru which continued to rile Jinnah even after he had got what he wanted, and provoked him to maintain towards Mountbatten a stance that varied between icy formality and insufferable waspishness. He seldom passed up an opportunity to demonstrate a cavalier disregard for Government House protocol, and once sent Mountbatten a letter so offensively worded that, upon reading it, Mountbatten’s Chief of Staff, Lord Ismay, remarked to Campbell-Johnson: “It was a letter which I would not take from my King, or send to a coolie.”

Gandhi, Nehru and Patel, on the other hand, even though they were on terms of easy familiarity with Mountbatten; were scrupulous about observing the proprieties. They would meticulously cede precedence to him on all official occasions and never went to see him without making an appointment in advance.

Having, perhaps to his own surprise, got the Congress leaders to swallow his plan, Mountbatten had proceeded to administer a further shock: he announced that he had advanced the expected date of
transferring power into Indian (and Pakistani) hands from some time in June 1948 to August 15, 1947; from a whole year, to 75 days.

It was a shrewd move, calculated to throw the Congress leaders off balance and, at the same time, to bring home to those who so far had been no more than agitators for freedom the hard realities of the consequences of that freedom. They could no longer sit back and criticise whatever was done or not done by the British, but had to prepare for taking over the running of the government into their own hands.

Some of those who had been clamouring for years for the British to “quit India” were now not so sure that the quitting should be got over quite so precipitately, particularly when they could see that freedom now not only meant that they would have to take over the business of the government which had, for the past century and a half, been run for them by others, but also meant facing the aftermath of their decision to accept Partition. One of the startled members of the Constituent Assembly asked His Excellency whether this desperate hurry to dismantle the framework that had held the country together, even if in subjugation, might not weaken the government’s power to control the spreading violence in the country. This fear was altogether real for, while the proposal of dividing India between Muslims and the rest of the population was being discussed with the country’s leaders, the northern and eastern parts of the country were experiencing a spate of race riots such as the Raj had never been called upon to tackle. Mountbatten had grandly waved away such qualms. He told his questioner that, on this particular point, he could give him complete assurance: there would be no bloodshed. “I speak as a soldier, and not a civilian,” His Excellency pointedly added.

How futile this pledge proved to be is a matter of history. There was bloodshed; carnage on a scale that even primitive conquerors had seldom indulged in. The Partition displaced vast populations, causing a two-way tide of migration that involved 12 million people.

Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan and Muslims from India poured out to become parts of refugee columns that resembled great rivers of humanity. They took with them tales of unimaginable horrors; things that had happened to themselves or they had seen and heard. Their sufferings generated a wave of hatred that left few among the subcontinent’s millions untouched. Everyone talked of retaliation, of getting their own back. In India, there were nearly 40 million Muslims who had decided to stay on. In the towns and villages in which they lived, they became the natural, almost legitimate targets for the mob fury of the Hindus and the Sikhs.

And yet, at the time that Mountbatten gave his assurance that there would be no bloodshed, it was the one thing that the Congress leaders must have longed to hear. Brought up on a diet of non-violence, and unused to wielding authority, they were altogether overwhelmed by what was happening all around them. Clearly, this was a job for a professional; and if Mountbatten, speaking “as a soldier,” was telling them that there would be no bloodshed, why, they had nothing whatsoever to fear. Provided, of course, that Mountbatten was on hand to make good his promise.

To ensure that he would remain, they had “unconditionally” requested him to stay on in India even after the country became independent, “ to see the interim phase through.”

So Mountbatten had stayed on.

Excerpted with permission from The Men Who Killed Gandhi, Manohar Malgonkar, Roli Books.