Comments on the BBC series on the 70th anniversary of Indian independence
The year 2017 marked the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and the release of the film Viceroy’s House. There will invariably be renewed discussion on controversial issues relating to Indian independence such as: "Was it necessary to partition India?", "Did Britain do so for its own strategic interests?", "Could more have been done to contain the violence?", "Was Lord Mountbatten a hero or a villain?"
I watched and listened to the BBC programmes on Indian independence on TV and radio with great interest. The programmes I watched were Seven Days in Summer, My Family Partition and Me, Dangerous Borders and India’s Partition – The Forgotten Story. The programmes I heard were The Man Who Drew the Line and Partition Voices. I also read the Partition Timeline on the web and the web posting on the Radcliffe line. It was a laudable enterprise by the BBC to broadcast a series on the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and to interview those who witnessed the events of the times personally. But the narrow focus of the programmes and the restricted range of interviewees meant the viewers and listeners were presented with a distorted version of the events, designed to show the British authorities in the worst possible light.
The title of the series was Partition. The word independence was hardly used. The vast majority of people interviewed were civilians in the Punjab and Bengal who were caught up the violence. Though their testimonies were deeply moving, they had no idea why decisions were taken in the way they were. The impression was created that Indian independence was a disaster and that all Indians and Pakistanis suffered terribly. It was not made clear that the horrific violence only affected 10-15% of India. In the rest of India, the violence was low to moderate, easily contained, and 350 million Indians were able to celebrate their independence.
No one celebrating in the rest of India was interviewed. There were no interviews with the British and Indian officers and the Indian troops who helped to end the violence. No one, either British or Indian, who helped out in the refugee camps was interviewed. The many interviews Lord Mountbatten gave explaining his decisions were not shown. The books written both by British and Indian officials of the period giving their account of the period, why these decisions were taken and their opinions on these decisions, were not quoted. There was no one giving the British case.
The historians interviewed, with the exception of some in India’s Partition – The Forgotten Story, were also unsatisfactory. The BBC clearly does not realise that British historians of today, with the possible exception of Dan Snow and Niall Ferguson are highly critical of the British Empire. They are clearly unaware of its many achievements. They also vilify the British as much as possible as only by doing so, that they get access to libraries and museums in India and elsewhere. Indian historians always blame the British for everything. By quoting this menagerie and not senior Indian officials of the period, such as VP Menon and H M Patel, the programmes gave the viewers and listeners a distorted view of events.
V P Menon was Mountbatten’s Constitutional Adviser. H M Patel was a senior Indian civil servant. These individuals were able to observe everything from the inside. They were far more aware of the context of the period, the issues that had to be decided and the pressures than everyone was under than anyone appearing of your programmes. I have written a paper on the controversial issues relating to Indian independence, based largely on their writings, which I am enclosing in Part 2, which I hope you will read in conjunction with this letter. You will see their opinions of what took place are very different from what the viewers heard in your series.
I can see that the BBC spent considerable time and effort on this series but due to the factors mentioned above, what the audience saw and heard was an infusion high on emotion and low on facts. I will consider all the allegations made against the British and Lord Mountbatten, in particular, made in the Partition series.
Allegation 1 - The British took all the decisions at independence and did not transfer power beforehand.
These allegations were made in Seven Days in Summer and My Family Partition and Me. These claims are utterly unfounded. In 1917, Sir Edwin Montagu, Secretary Sate for India, declared that the goal of British policy was Indian independence. In 1919, the Government of India Act transferred significant power in areas such as health, education and agriculture to elected Indian Provincial Ministers. Under the 1935 Act, the entire internal governance of India, including law and order, was transferred to the Indians, with the Viceroy retaining defence, foreign affairs and communications. Congress and its allies effectively governed nine provinces. There was relative harmony between the British and Congress between 1936 and 1939. At the outbreak of the War disagreement arose between the two sides on further constitutional changes. The Viceroy promised the Indians independence after the war with a plan agreed by all Indians. Congress wanted virtual independence straightaway. These disagreements led to the Quit India Movement and destroyed British authority in India. Contrary to what was said in your series, the British did not suddenly leave India after independence because they were broke. Indian independence in 1947 was a culmination of a 30-year, gradual process. I might add that this was the first time in history that a colonial power granted independence to a colony. Furthermore, as was promised at the outbreak of the war, all the decisions Lord Mountbatten took were with the agreement or consent of the Indian leaders. Your viewers and listeners were given a wholly inaccurate version of the facts.
Allegation 2 – Mountbatten decided on the partition plan, himself, and the partition plan led to all the problems.
Throughout the programmes the narrator referred to the British plan and that the British were responsible for partition. This is not so. The main British plan was the Cabinet Mission Plan. This would have resulted in a united India with substantial devolution. Two Viceroys over a two year period attempted to get all the Indian parties to accept it and only when this proved impossible that other plans were considered. The final plan had nothing to do with the British. It was proposed by V P Menon, who was Mountbatten’s Constitutional Adviser. Menon was not even mentioned in any of your programmes. More information on him is available in the article ‘V P Menon – the Forgotten Architect of Modern India’ which is available on the website www.forgotten-raj.org.
The British did not actually divide India. Under the Mountbatten/Menon Plan, elected assemblymen in each of the Provinces decided whether their province should join India or Pakistan. What Britain did was to give the Indians the right to chose. The assemblymen in Bengal and Punjab voted on whether they wanted their respective provinces partitioned. Everything was done with the maximum of democratic consent so that there would be an orderly handover of power to the new governments. It was also hoped that the population would back a plan agreed by their own leaders. In 90% of India, this policy worked. Your viewers were not informed about any of these facts.
A few days after the Mountbatten Plan was announced, Mahatma Gandhi told his supporters; ‘The British Government is not responsible for partition. The Viceroy had no hand in it. In fact, he is as opposed to division as Congress itself but if both of us – Hindus and Moslems – cannot agree on anything else, then the Viceroy is left with no choice. The Viceroy had worked very hard and tried his utmost to bring about a compromise. This plan was the only basis on which agreement could be reached’. This is the sort of opinion your viewers should have heard but did not.
Allegation 3 – Mountbatten decided to bring forward the date of independence himself and the short timescale led to the horrific violence.
These allegations were made in The Man who Draw the Line, Seven Days in Summer and My Family Partition and Me and are unfounded. As I mentioned earlier, at the time these decisions were taken, Congress had destroyed British authority in India and in the Interim Government, the Hindu and Muslim leaders were barely on speaking terms. There was already serious violence, such as the Calcutta killings, hence all parties agreed that a rapid transfer of power to the Indians was essential if total anarchy was to be prevented. Indeed, this was one of Congress’s core demands. The June 3, Mountbatten Plan, with agreement of everyone, specifically states that the transfer would take place in 1947and not 48. The likely date was also discussed with the Indian leaders. Mountbatten told them he would do it as soon as possible after the passage of the India Independence Act and that was likely to be in late July or early August. The leaders were informed of the exact date the day before the public announcement and no one raised any concerns. Your viewers and listeners were not made aware of any of this. Hence, bringing the date forward was taken with the consent of all the Indian leaders. H M Patel’s and V P Menon’s views on the necessity of bringing the day forward are given in Part 2. These are the sort of views that the viewers and listeners should have heard but did not.
Allegation 4 – The British decided to appoint Radcliffe. He was totally unsuited. He chose the borders and the flawed borders led to the horrific violence.
These allegations were made in The Man who Drew the Line, Seven Days in Summer and My Family Partition and Me and are unfounded. Several options were considered to draw the border. These are discussed in Part 2. All parties agreed that Sir Cyril Radcliffe should chair the Commissions. He was a High Court judge who had sat on many cases dealing with land disputes in India. The Commissions included four local judges and though they could not agree about the borders, they informed him on the issues that had to be addressed. Public hearings were also held for concerned individuals to give their evidence. These were not mentioned in any of the programmes. He also had a notional border drawn up earlier by Indian civil servants based on population data. This was not mentioned in any of the programmes. Much of his border, especially in the Punjab follows the notional border. This notional border was needed for the voting in the Punjab and Bengal and was publicly published in June. One of the programmes accused Sir Cyril of not explaining his borders. This accusation is unjustified as Radcliffe produced a report with each of his awards.
It was not explained to the viewers that in the Punjab, Muslims were the majority in the west of the province and Hindus/Sikhs in the east. Any fair border had to be where the Muslim majority districts began to become Hindu/Sikh majority districts. The way the populations were distributed, it was impossible to have a border where there was no one on the wrong side. Even if they had spent 5 years determining the border some people would have been on the wrong side. Radcliffe, with a few exceptions, gave Muslim majority areas to Pakistan and Hindu/Sikh districts in India. The number of people on the wrong side was about the same. This was the best that anyone could have done and his border was reasonable.
Both sides agreed beforehand that there were bound to be anomalies in the borders and they would make the necessary adjustments after independence. This did take place in Bengal a few years later with another Commission of judges. One point that was evident from what was said by the victims was that none of the killers committed their horrific acts because they disliked Radcliffe’s border. They all killed because they heard others of their religion were being killed on the other side. It was not the precise location of the border that led to the killings but hate in people’s hearts. This was not pointed out to the viewers.
Allegation 5 – Britain cut and run and did little to help India and Pakistan after independence.
This allegation was made in Seven Days in Summer and in My Family Partition and Me. One of the most disgraceful allegations made was that British troops were deliberately not used to help Indian victims of the violence. The programmes did not mention that this was because Congress vociferously objected to their use. Nehru said that he would prefer every village in India to burn after independence than to deploy British troops. You failed to mention that Mountbatten remained after independence as well as eight British Governors, Generals and 1000 British officers. These officers with their Indian troops ended the violence within three months, helped out at refugee camps and saved countless lives. I hope you read my letter in The Times on the subject.
In Seven Days in Summer, it was stated that the Punjab Boundary Force was the only force in the Punjab and consisted of 15,000 men. It was not mentioned that this was in addition to the forces already there. When the violence started, the forces in the Punjab were rapidly reinforced, especially from the rest of India which was relatively peaceful. The viewers were not informed that within a short time, the trains and the caravans of refugees and refugee camps had armed troops guarding them.
You also did not mention that Lord Mountbatten took charge when the violence got out of control. He set up a Joint Defence Council, headed by him, so that, throughout the period of communal violence, the Defence Ministers and the senior generals of the two countries could work co-operatively to restore order. This meant that the two armies did not fight each other and the two governments did not blame each other for inciting the violence. This had other extraordinary benefits which were missed by your reporters and experts. In several of your programmes it was stated that the post independence holocaust is the cause of the present fraught state of relations between India and Pakistan. This is not so. After order was restored, the two governments reached agreements on railway and postal communications, customs, banking arrangements and share of debt. Dominion conferences were held in December 1948 and April 1949. Bodies were established for the detailed demarcation of the borders in Punjab and Bengal. Provision was made for frequent meetings between the Premiers and Chief Secretaries of East and West Bengal and the Inspectors-General of East and West Punjab. What has bedevilled relations between the two countries was the subsequent, largely unconnected and on-going dispute over Kashmir.
On a separate point, it was stated several times that all the division of the assets had to be done by August 15 1947. This is not so. The Partition Council met till November of that year. Lord Mountbatten also realised that after independence there would be issues connected with partition that had be addressed. Hence he set up a Arbitration Tribunal, headed by another British Judge, Sir Patrick Spens, which sat till April 1948. Lord Mountbatten, himself, remained till June 1948. Needless to say, none of this help Britain gave these countries after independence was mentioned in any of your programmes.
Allegation 6 Bengal and Punjab were both horrifically affected by the partition violence
This allegation was made many times by Ms Rani in the programme My Family Partition and Me. Clearly the violence in the Punjab but was horrific before and especially after independence. In Bengal violence was before independence in 1946 and called the Great Calcutta Killings. It was caused by disagreements between Congress and the Muslim League on how the Muslim ministers should be chosen in the Interim Government. It had nothing whatsoever to do with partition. In fact, partition violence after independence in Bengal was very modest, probably 1/10,000th of that in Bengal and it was easily contained by the security forces. There wasn’t an immediate mass migration after independence. People moved over many years and there still is a reasonable Hindu population in Bangladesh. As the programme said this was due to the efforts of Mahatma Gandhi, the Chief Minister of Bengal, Mr Surawardhy and other Bengali communal leaders who urged everyone to be peaceful. By wrongly calling the violence in Bengal partition violence, Ms Rani gave the erroneous impression that violence after partition was inevitable. Ms Rani failed to see that the experiences in Bengal showed that partition, by the Mountbatten Plan, in the short timescale, using the Radcliffe border does not necessarily lead to horrific violence. This immediately raises the question ‘why was there so much violence in Punjab?’. The answer is simple. The Punjabi leaders, especially the Sikh leader, Tara Singh, fomented discord and incited hatred. The blame for the holocaust should be directed at these individuals and not at Britain, Lord Mountbatten, Sir Cyril Radcliffe or the national Indian leaders. Ms Rani, the BBC and your many, so-called, experts failed to realise this and communicate it to your viewers and listeners.
Allegation 7 Those contained in India’s Partition – Forgotten Story
I will address the allegations made in this programme separately. Some of these have already been made by Gurinder Chadha in the film Viceroy’s House and are dealt with in the enclosed Part 2. This programme was far better than the rest in the series. Most of the narrative was reasonably accurate and the commentators in India, with the exception of Shashi Tharoor were very informative. But there were several inaccuracies and unfounded allegations which I will address.
Ms Chadha frequently said the British decided to partition India and the British decided to partition Punjab. Both are inaccurate. As I have discussed in Allegation 1, all the decisions that were taken were with the agreement of the Indian parties or by the Indian politicians themselves.
The two main unfounded allegations were made by Shashi Tharoor. These were that the policy of communal electorates was to divide and rule and that the British cut and run and left the sinking ship after independence. I shall deal with these in turn. When the British introduced democracy in India after the 1919 Act, they realised as the Hindus were 75% of the population and the most advanced educationally, they would gain practically all the seats in the first past the post election. This would severely disadvantage other groups, such as Muslims, Dalits, women and Christians. To make sure the assemblies represented everyone, they introduced the system of communal electorates. This was not designed to divide and rule. It was to provide fair representation. Indeed, in the 20 years before the 1946 elections, Muslims in India voted for Congress Muslim candidates who all favoured a united India. In the UK parliament today, the poor, ethnic minorities and, till relatively recently, women are not sufficiently represented. In many ways, the British officials in India in the 1920s and 30s were socially more advanced that we are today. They also noted the religion and ethnic origin of people so that their cultural and religious needs would be met. This practice should be applauded. We do the same with ethnic monitoring in the UK today. India has carried on with special seats reserved for the Dalits but they do not do so for the Muslims. Hence Muslims in India today are discriminated in employment and housing.
At first, Congress agreed with this approach and the weightings of seats were agreed by Congress and the Muslim League in the Lucknow Pact in 1916. However, in the mid-1920s, Congress changed their mind and this is what started the rupture of relations between Jinnah and Congress. During the discussions leading to the 1935 Act, the disagreements between Congress and the Muslim League intensified leading to some small scale rioting. This is why Rahmat Ali proposed the creation of Pakistan in 1933. It is regrettable that this was not explained to the viewers. It is precisely the sort of views that Shashi Tharoor espouses of not catering for minority rights that led to the disagreements between Congress and the Muslim League and eventually to the partition of the country.
The allegation by Shashi Tharoor and Gurinder Chahda that the British cut and run after independence (rats leaving the sinking ship) was disgraceful and unfounded, as I have shown in the Allegation 5 section. It is deplorable that they were repeated in this programme.
Regarding Calcutta riots, British troops were not used initially as Law and Order had been transferred to the Bengal Provincial Ministry. The Chief Minister, Mr Surawardhy, declared that he was content for British policemen to be deployed but he ordered British troops to be confined to their bases. Hence, British troops were not used till he changed his mind. It was regrettable that this was not explained to the viewers.
Finally, I want to address Gurinder Chadha’s allegations that, for strategic reasons, Britain deliberately partitioned the country. I have dealt with this in detail in Part 2. It should be remembered that after the collapse of the Mughal empire, India fell apart and the British unified it. This was the greatest achievement of the British Empire and its partition was as much a disappointment to Britain and to India. Churchill may well have been plotting but all the decisions were taken by the Attlee government. There may have been few documents suggesting that it would be useful for Britain strategically to create a separate state but there many others advocating the advantages of a united India. Britain never had military bases in Pakistan. The notion that Britain would tear up its greatest creation so that America could have bases 13 years later, is risible.
Another glaring omission was that there was no mention of what the Indian leaders thought of Lord Mountbatten. In his radio broadcast on June 3 1947, Mr Jinnah said that he felt that the Viceroy was actuated by the highest sense of fairness and impartiality. On the eve of Mountbatten’s departure from India in June 1948, Nehru declared that Mountbatten’s period of office was memorable in the history of India and he would be remembered by the people of India with affection as one who cooperated in the great task of building a free India and who applied his great abilities and energies to this end. Sardar Patel wrote that Mountbatten’s sympathetic imagination and realistic approach to India’s problems enabled him to win popular support for one of the boldest plans that was ever conceived in history. Perhaps the most heartfelt tribute was paid by the hundreds of thousands of ordinary Indians who at his departure came out to cheer him. None of this was mentioned in your programmes. Clearly, the Indian leaders and people valued Lord Mountbatten’s services to India more that your commentators.
I hope having read this letter, the BBC realises that the Partition series was woefully inadequate. It contained a litany of misleading statements, misinformation, omissions and bias. Most of your commentators were intent of showing the British Authorities in the worst possible light. They were determined to impugn Britain’s integrity and sully Lord Mountbatten’s reputation. The British position was rarely explained. The viewers and listeners were not given all the relevant information. I hope you will make another documentary containing the information contained in my letter. Please consider the matters raised in this letter in detail.
If any points need clarification, please contact me on email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from you.