Reading Mountbatten & the Partition of India in postcolonial times

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Reading Mountbatten & the Partition of India in postcolonial times

An essay by Sukriti Deswal.

Unlike other theoretical debates, postcolonial debate is made more complex by even its name. While postcolonial literally refers to something that has happened or is happening after colonialism, historically, Edward Said “started” this discourse in 1978 and thus refers to a movement in academia, which starts after the end of colonialism and intends to counter its effects and stereotyping around the world. Yet later scholars argued that resistance to colonialism began with the genesis of colonialism itself, thereby postcolonial discourse started not after the end of colonialism but with colonialism itself. The paper attempts to thus “read” Lord Mountbatten, the Last Viceroy of India through the interviews he gave to Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre as published forth in the book Mountbatten & the Partition of India, in these postcolonialist contexts.

One of the most popular British officials, Mountbatten was asked to be the Governor General of India upon independence until the powers were completely transferred and later given a farewell befitting a family member. In his own words,

“I can’t explain the thing. Nobody could ever possibly recapture the absolutely astonishing emotion. The whole thing was emotion. The whole of the farewell…the whole crowd when we drove away in state, and one of the six horses jibbed, it was the nearside leader I think, and he had to be unhitched and another horse taken out so that we would go on. The whole crowd rushed up and said, ‘Even the horse won’t take you-stop-this is a sign from God, you must remain!” (Mountbatten, 94).

The interview presented in the book discusses at length his involvement representing the involvement of Britain at large in the independence of the “jewel in the crown”, a colony which they had forcibly captured and the aftermath. Edward Said in his work Orientalism talks about the relationship that the colonisers shared with the colonies and how it began in the first place. The representation that Said talks about when he says that the Occident represented the Orient in a particular light wherein the Orient was never an equal but always a mysterious land of various possibilities, peculiar people, etc. can also be found in Mountbatten’s vision when he says that the Indians are a funny people. They will know if you really love them or not. Yet in his own way Mountbatten was as much a victim of representation and misrepresentation as he did to the Orient whether it was India or Singapore or the Japanese. Using Said’s terminology, the Occident did to him what he did to the Orient:

“Here is an informed newspaper reporter reporting events at the time-who’s live on his experiences, and given lectures and interviews and talks. He actually thinks that I arrived at the right answers by intuitions! I couldn’t possibly understand what was going on: being a member of the Royal Family, that automatically rules you from having any sort of brain at all-but God, came to the intuitive answer!” (6).

Mountbatten’s decision to take a press attaché with him to India had shocked everyone initially and later turned out to be one of the most successful decisions taken by the Viceroys of India. However, this decision had an underlying politics behind it. The very fact that there would be a press attaché meant that he could control what information to send out and the manner in which information was to be sent to the public. The Viceroy could now give “his version” of events taking place. Though Mountbatten proclaims that he was very concerned with “what should be done for India”, yet the question arises as to who gave him the authority to decide for a nation which was not his? The colonisers used this presumption to rule the colonies. The “white man’s burden” that they felt was merely an excuse to exploit a nation economically. This condescending attitude of a typical coloniser can be seen even in Mountbatten when asked about his becoming the Viceroy he says that Indians do not know how to govern themselves. The fact that they used their version of Indian history of being comprised of bloody wars being fought between various kingdoms to rule India is hypocritical since even Britain’s history in this sense remains the same with wars being fought since the times of Anglo-Saxons, to the War of the Roses, to the Spanish Armada to later time periods as well when they were fighting other countries for colonies. Mountbatten says that the history of India has been one of conquests and thus implies though implicitly that the British conquest was justified and thereby the conquering of any country by another is. Thus Dipesh Chakravarty’s argument about rewriting our own history becomes very important since one needs to look closely as to how have they presented the “facts”.

The way Mountbatten governed India was a typical coloniser’s way- of sweet-talking the “naïve natives”, making them believe that he genuinely cared for them and then doing what suits the coloniser best. This is seen in the way he handled Jinnah, Nehru, Patel and Gandhi. Instead of coming straight to business, Mountbatten first coaxed them into talking about their life in general and then “getting the information out”. The very fact that he along with other officials do not want to take any responsibility for the riots and the massacre that took place in the wake of independence shows the attitude of the colonisers towards the colonies. How he blames only Jinnah and Patel for partition and not the British rule whose policy has always been to divide and rule as could be witnessed from Lord Curzon’s decision to part Bengal in 1905 into Hindu and Muslim region; only point towards the attitude of the colonisers towards the colonial subjects; for he says that he did not want the spot of partition on Britain’s rule in India.

An important aspect of the postcolonial discourse has been Homi Bhabha and Robert Young’s theory about the existence of ambiguity in the whole encounter of the “West” and the “East”. Bhabha theorises in his essay, The Location of Culture, that this encounter wasn’t static and rigid the way Said has made it out to be, rather, whenever two cultures meet, they collide, intermingle with each and none remains the way it was before. Thus in a way when the British came to rule, they did not remain British they way they used to be and neither did the Indians remain the kind if Indians they used to be. This ambiguity results in the creation of another space that is a mixture of the two binarial spaces- the third space. Example of this space is seen in the figures of Jinnah and Lord and Lady Mountbatten. Mountbatten says that Jinnah was a British in his clothes, food, and demeanour. The Mountbattens themselves would say repeatedly that they loved India and had a special connection, an emotional bond with this country. Thus, there exists an ambiguity even in the fact that it is always the coloniser who re-presents and represents the colony but here was a Viceroy who was given the same treatment by his homeland.

Mountbatten seems to assume himself the voice of the country when he says he knew that ninety-nine per cent of the people were happy with the British rule and did not want them to go and it is only the one per cent of the intelligentsia who wants the British rule to end. Thus Spivak’s argument about the silence of the subaltern throws an altogether a different light on the subject. The fact that he makes such a statement points towards the fact that the colonisers had simply assumed themselves the “voice” of the colony, which was not even correct, but one that suited their own needs.

Thus, Mountbatten represents the typical result of the colonial encounter of the British and India wherein he assumes his authority and works towards making his homeland more prosperous by manipulating events and his using his position as a Viceroy. Yet he also points towards the existence of the third space wherein he falls in love with the colony and some of its inhabitants and the love is reciprocated by the people of the country as well who even after years remember him as one of the most popular British administrator and a friend.


Works Consulted:

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. Routledge. 2004.

Collins, Larry, and Dominique Lapierre. Mountbatten & The Partition of India. Wide Canvas, 2015.

Young, Robert J.C. Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race. Routledge, 1995.


Sukriti Deswal is a research scholar in the department of English, University School of Humanities and Social Sciences in the Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi. Her primary area of research is to study the dynamics of violence and literature in contemporary society.

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