A Tryst with Destiny
On a warm summer night in 1947, the largest empire the world has ever seen did something no empire had done before. It gave up. The British Empire did not decline, it simply fell; and it fell proudly and majestically onto its own sword. It was not forced out by revolution, nor defeated by a greater rival in battle. Its leaders did not tire or weaken. Its culture was strong and vibrant. Recently it had been victorious in the century's definitive war.
When midnight struck in Delhi on the night of 14 August 1947, a new, free Indian nation was born. In London, the time was 8:30 p.m.1 The world's capital could enjoy another hour or two of a warm summer evening before the sun literally and finally set on the British Empire.
The Constituent Assembly of India was convened at that moment in New Delhi, a monument to the self-confidence of the British government, which had built its eastern capital on the site of seven fallen cities. Each of the seven had been built to last forever. And so was New Delhi, a colossal arrangement of sandstone neoclassicism and wide boulevards lined with banyan trees. Seen from the sky, the interlocking series of avenues and roundabouts formed a pattern like the marble trellises of geometric stars that ventilated Mogul palaces. New Delhi was India, but constructed—and, they thought, improved upon—by the British. The French prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, had laughed when he saw the new city half built in 1920, and observed: "Ça sera la plus magnifique de toutes ces ruines."2
Inside the chamber of the Constituent Assembly on the night of 14 August 1947, two thousand princes and politicians from across the one and a quarter million square miles that remained of India sat together on parliamentary benches. Yet amid all the power and finery, two persons were conspicuous by their absence. One was Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, who was in one of those parts of the empire that had just become Pakistan. His absence signified the partition of the subcontinent, the split which had ripped two wings off the body of India and called them West and East Pakistan (later Pakistan and Bangladesh), creating Muslim homelands separate from the predominantly Hindu mass of the territory. The other truant was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who was sound asleep in a smashed-up mansion in a riot-torn suburb of Calcutta.
Gandhi's absence was a worrying omen. The seventy-seven-year-old Mahatma, or "great soul," was the most famous and the most popular Indian since Buddha. Regarded as little short of a saint among Christians as well as Hindus, he had been a staunch defender of the British Empire until the 1920s. Since then, he had campaigned for Indian self-rule. Many times it had been almost within his grasp: in 1922, 1931, 1942, 1946. Each time he had let it go. Now, finally, India was free, but that had nothing to do with Gandhi—and Gandhi would have nothing to do with it.
In the chamber the dignitaries fell silent as the foremost among them, Jawaharlal Nehru, stepped up to make one of the most famous speeches in history. At fifty-seven years old, Nehru had grown into his role as India's leading statesman. His last prison term had finished exactly twenty-six months before. The fair skin and fine bone structure of an aristocratic Kashmiri Brahmin was rendered approachable by a ready smile and warm laugh. Dark, sleepy, soulful eyes belied a quick wit and quicker temper. In him were all the virtues of the ancient nation, filtered through the best aspects of the British Empire: confidence, sophistication and charisma. "Long years ago," he began, "we made a tryst with destiny. And now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge; not wholly or in full measure, but substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, while the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom." The clock struck, and, in that instant, he became the new country's first prime minister. The reverential mood in the hall was broken abruptly by an unexpected honk from the back. The dignitaries jerked their heads around to the source of the sound, and a look of relief passed over their faces as they saw a devout Hindu member of the assembly blowing into a conch shell—an invocation of the gods. Mildred Talbot, a journalist who was present, noticed that the interruption had not daunted the new prime minister. "When I happened to spot Nehru just as he was turning away, he was trying to hide a smile by covering his mouth with his hand."3
It was the culmination of a lifetime's struggle; and yet, as Nehru later confided to his sister, his mind had not been on the splendid words. A few hours before, he had received a telephone call from Lahore in what was about to become West Pakistan. It was his mother's hometown and a place where he had spent much of his childhood.4 Now it was being torn apart. Gangs of Muslims and Sikhs had clashed in the streets. The main gurdwara—the Sikh temple—was ablaze. One hundred thousand people were trapped inside the city walls without water or medical assistance. Violence was a much-predicted consequence of the handover, but preparations for dealing with it had been catastrophically inadequate. The only help available in Lahore was from two hundred Gurkhas, stationed nearby, under the command of an inexperienced British captain who was only twenty years old. They had little chance of stopping the carnage. The horror of that night in Lahore set the tone for weeks of bloodshed and destruction. Perhaps the Hindu astrologers had been right when they had declared 14 August to be an inauspicious date. Or perhaps the viceroy's curious decision to rush independence through ten months ahead of the British government's schedule was to blame.
Emerging into the streets of Delhi, Nehru was greeted by the ringing of temple bells, the bangs and squeals of fireworks and the happy shouting of crowds. Guns were fired, in celebration rather than in anger; an effigy of British imperialism was burned, in both.5 Soon afterward, Nehru arrived at the Viceroy's House, a gated citadel at the end of Kingsway, New Delhi's two-mile processional avenue. He and Rajendra Prasad, the leader of the Constituent Assembly, were to see the last of the viceroys, Earl Mountbatten of Burma.6
At forty-seven, Mountbatten was young for a viceroy but no less assured for it. Tall, broad-shouldered and handsome, he had a brilliant Hollywood smile, easy wit and immediate charm; it might never have been guessed that he had been born a prince were it not for his ability to switch to a regal demeanor. The new earl and his countess, Edwina, had kept an appropriate distance from the festivities. While freedom was declared, the couple had spent the night at home, pottering around their palace and helping the servants tidy away anything marked with an imperial emblem. They had taken a brief break to watch the latest Bob Hope movie, My Favorite Brunette. It was a pastiche of the fashionable noir genre: the story of a wayward but irresistible baroness, played by the sultry Dorothy Lamour, whose feminine wiles drag a number of men into a dangerous conspiracy. No more than a handful of those in the Viceroy's House that evening could have realized what a very apposite choice of film it was.
While Nehru had been declaring his nation's independence and worrying about the emerging crisis in Lahore, Mountbatten had been sitting in his study alone, thinking to himself, as he later recollected, "For still a few minutes I am the most powerful man on earth."7 At 11:58 p.m., he settled on a last act of showmanship, creating the Australian wife of the Nawab of Palanpur a highness, in defiance of Indian caste customs and British policy. It was an act epitomizing Mountbatten's character. Kingmaking was his favorite sport. Two minutes later, and the power had vanished.
Nehru and Prasad were greeted by the viceroy's wife, Edwina Mountbatten, in lively form despite the lateness of the hour. Vivacious, chic and slim, at forty-five Edwina was still in her prime. Her position as one of the world's richest women had never made her happy. But, over the course of the previous few years, she had finally found a role for herself, leading health and welfare campaigns for the Red Cross and St. John Ambulance Brigade. The heiress to millions had never been happier than when she was working in the hot, rough and filthy refugee camps that had been set up across the riot-scarred Punjab. In India, Edwina had blossomed, both in the revelation of her own work and in her close friendships with the Indian leaders, particularly Gandhi and Nehru. It was the second of these friendships that was already the subject of gossip in Delhi society.
The warmth shared by India's new prime minister and Lady Mountbatten was obvious. It was equally obvious that Lord Mountbatten minded not at all. In contrast to the erupting turmoil across the subcontinent, the scene between imperial lord and victorious revolutionary that night was one of astonishing civility. For half a century Nehru had devoted his life to this single goal of throwing off the yoke of British Empire. Now it was done, and his first action as prime minister was to pay a call to the power he had just displaced—and to offer it a job. "When one thinks of the sad years that have led up to recent events," noted Lady Mountbatten, "I suppose this was the most surprising development of all."8
Nehru and Prasad were invited into Mountbatten's study, followed by an unruly gaggle of reporters. Photographers scrambled onto the furniture, standing on French-polished tables to get the best angles, firing off a blitz of flashbulbs which shattered noisily over the journalists who squeezed to the front. The exhausted Prasad began to stammer an invitation for Lord Mountbatten to become governor-general of the new Indian nation, but lost his words. Nehru stepped in to complete them, and Mountbatten graciously accepted. He then poured out glasses of port for those present. "To India," he proclaimed, holding his glass aloft. Nehru replied, "To King George VI." Few missed the significance of the moment. Some years before, Nehru had refused to attend a banquet in Ceylon on the grounds that toasts would be proposed to the king and the government.9
But while in Delhi the gentlemen toasted nations and kings, their new world was turning into a battlefield. As viceroy, Lord Mountbatten had wielded unprecedented power over the fates of two nations and 400 million people. He had transferred power in a way that, within the next couple of days, would trigger a state of civil war in both nations, followed by a war between the two of them. Millions of people would be displaced; millions would be wounded; hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions more, would die. During the next few days, riots would spread across the divided states of the Punjab and Bengal, and a holocaust would begin.
The following night, the Mountbattens held a grand reception for Nehru at their palace. In the gorgeous expanse of the Mughal Gardens, water flowed from fountains around terraces of pink stone from Jaipur; squirrels scampered up the trunks of bougainvillea trees; the heavy scent of roses hung around sunken beds. The party was a dazzling swan song for British India. Everyone had expected that such a day would be glorious in India's history; but, thanks to Mountbatten, it had somehow been made glorious in Britain's as well. Thanks to his impressive gift for public relations, the end of empire was presented as the purpose of empire: India was like a well-nurtured and fattened chick, raised to fly from the imperial nest, while Britain, the indulgent parent, looked on with pride. And so the British were able to celebrate their loss alongside the Indians, who celebrated their victory. Comforting fictions were established that happy night: that the British left India with dignity, having seen the errors of their ways through Gandhi's soft but compelling persuasion; that the Indian independence campaign won its prize by nonviolence and civil disobedience; that the departure of the British was completed with enough goodwill to pave the way for genuine friendship between India and the West, and separately between Pakistan and the West; that the end of the British Empire in India was a triumph for freedom.10
The world was redefined that night, but not in the way that most of those present thought. On either side of Old Europe, two new powers were rising to world superiority—and both took a close interest in the new dominions of India and Pakistan. In the East, Stalin's Russia was in the process of supporting Communist movements across Europe and Asia, bolstering the influence of Moscow and extending its borders. In the West, the president of the United States of America had announced the Truman Doctrine just five months before. He had stated his intent to promote democracy across the world and resist the tide of communism flowing forth from Russia. The Americans had become particularly concerned about its flow into India, and Russian agents were already suspected of funding Indian Communist parties in Bengal. That very night, Nehru's sister and close confidante, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, was in Moscow, preparing to present her credentials to Stalin as free India's first ambassador. Though its envoys were on good terms with Nehru, the U.S. government was alarmed by these developments and moved fast to create a new alliance with Pakistan. During the nineteenth century, Britain and Russia had played the "Great Game" for control of central Asia, centered in Afghanistan and the territory that would become West Pakistan. In 1947, the United States was gearing up to play a new Great Game against Russia, and the slow but significant rise of a fundamentalist Islamic movement would ensure that Afghanistan and Pakistan would remain at the center of international politics well into the next century.
As darkness fell on 15 August 1947, Delhi's Mughal Gardens glowed with thousands of tiny lights set among the jacaranda trees, and with hundreds of distinguished guests. Among the long avenues of gold mohur and flame-of-the-forest trees, princes chatted cordially to freedom fighters, and Hindu radicals to British soldiers. There was a sense of hope and magic, as two of the twentieth century's greatest men fulfilled their ultimate ambitions. Nehru became leader of a free India, and Mountbatten played the role of a king—with Edwina as his queen. Few of the guests watching this display would have suspected that the celebration was about to be blown apart.
Copyright © 2007 by Alex von Tunzelmann. All rights reserved.