No one knows how many people died in the sectarian violence that accompanied the coming of independence to India and Pakistan in 1947. Maybe 200,000, maybe 400,000, maybe 1 million. In a sense, the exact number scarcely matters. It was a horrific tragedy that defies any adequate emotional response. How could it have happened? The classic popular narrative was provided by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre's Freedom at Midnight (1975). First-time author Alex von Tunzelmann now gives us a fresh, perhaps more dispassionate, assessment in Indian Summer, timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of Britain's departure from the jewel of its imperial crown.
Von Tunzelmann tells the still-compelling story largely through the lives and interactions of the odd mÅ½nage ˆ trois at the center of the action: Louis, Earl Mountbatten, Britain's last viceroy; his vivid wife Edwina; and Jawaharlal Nehru, the independence leader who became India's first prime minister. Mohandas Gandhi, the Mahatma, and Mohammad Ali Jinnah of the Muslim League, the founder of Pakistan, play important supporting roles.
It has long been known that Edwina Mountbatten and Nehru had a passionate romantic relationship, almost certainly sexual, that started during her husband's service as viceroy. Edwina devoted her previously frustrated talent to important relief work; Nehru did as much as humanly possible to mold a secular, democratic nation out of volatile contradictory elements. Louis, nicknamed Dickie, accepted his wife's affairs as the price of keeping her, and he and Nehru formed a strong friendship, partly on the basis of their mutual love of Edwina. Von Tunzelmann argues convincingly that Mountbatten tilted his policy in Nehru's favor in at least a couple of partition decisions. Jinnah saw what was going on, and reacted as one might expect.
But von Tunzelmann is not so simplistic as to blame Mountbatten for the subsequent disasters. Indeed, she concludes that Mountbatten carried out his primary mission of serving his country with as much success as possible. Britain retreated from India with dignity. What followed was beyond the control of any one person.
Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.