Comments on the Historical Accuracy of the film Viceroy’s House and matters related to Indian Independence


This year marks 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 will endeavour to address some of these issues in this paper, below; comments relating to the film are shown in red. 

1    Sources of information

When making an assessment of such a controversial period in history, it is best to rely on the version of events given by the various protagonists who were intimately involved in the decision making and who were aware of the context of the time. Unfortunately Jinnah, Gandhi and Sardar Patel (a very senior Congress politician) died soon afterwards. Nehru became Prime Minister of India and died on the job and did not write an autobiography. Lord Mountbatten gave countless interviews to journalists. His Press Attache, Alan Campbell-Johnson, published his diaries of the period and his views would be expected to reflect those of Mountbatten. Mountbatten’s own regular reports to London have been published and all the correspondence, minutes of meetings and papers relating to Indian independence have been published in twelve volumes covering the period 1942 – 1947, The Transfer of Power, each volume containing about 1000 pages.    

There is a common misconception that the British ruled their colonies entirely by themselves and abruptly left their colonies at independence transferring power to local leaders. In reality, Britain transferred power gradually to elected local politicians. In India this process started in 1919. Furthermore, the Indian Civil Service was gradually Indianised. By the 1940’s very senior positions in the Civil Service were occupied by Indians who played a central role in the process of Indian independence. Fortunately, these officials have written their accounts of the period. Perhaps the most important of these was V P Menon. He was the Constitutional Adviser to the last three Viceroys. He was the only Indian in Mountbatten’s inner team. His plan for independence was the one which was eventually adopted. It is tragic that he is now virtually forgotten. There is a paper on his role, V P Menon – The Forgotten Architect of Modern India, available on this website which gives a detailed account of the events that took place leading to Indian independence and the vital part played by Menon. He wrote two books, The Transfer of Power in India, and, The Integration of Indian States, which are probably the most detailed and reliable accounts of the period.

 H M Patel and M Chaudhri Ali were also very senior Indian civil servants. They divided India’s assets with a remarkable degree of harmony. Patel later became Finance Minister of India and Chaudhri became Prime Minister of Pakistan. They both wrote accounts of the period – Rites of Passage and The Emergence of Pakistan. H V Hodson was another civil servant who served in India. He was the Viceroy’s Constitutional Adviser before Menon. He later became Editor of The Sunday Times. He held extensive interviews with Mountbatten and had access to all his papers. His book, The Great Divide, could be regarded as a British account of the period.

It is regrettable that the producers of Viceroy’s House have relied so heavily on the account given by N Singh Sarila, who was Mountbatten’s ADC. He would have made arrangements for Mountbatten but would not have been involved with any of the decision making. He would have overheard conversations and been aware of gossip but would not have had the detailed knowledge of the civil servants mentioned above. In any case, he was only appointed to his post in 1948 and the events portrayed in the film took place in 1947.

2    Evolution of the Plan

After the end of the War, the Labour Government seriously addressed the issue of Indian independence.  From March to May 1946, three Cabinet Ministers came to India to talk to all the Indian leaders and propose a plan to give India independence. The plan they came up with was known as the Cabinet Mission Plan and it was made public on 16 May 1946. This proposed a united India with a considerable level of devolution to the Provinces. The Muslim League initially accepted the plan but Congress rejected it. The Viceroy, Lord Wavell, tried manfully to get Congress to change their mind without success. To solve the impasse, Attlee decided to change Viceroys and Lord Mountbatten came to India as Viceroy in March 1947 and the British Government also announced that transfer of power would take place by June 1948. Mountbatten’s instructions were to hand over responsibility to authorities established by a constitution approved by all parties in India in accordance with the Cabinet Mission Plan but if that was not possible, other options would have to be considered.  Mountbatten was very empathetic to Congress and restored relations with them and persuaded them to accept the Cabinet Mission Plan. However, by then Jinnah had lost all trust with Congress and insisted on a separate Pakistan. Mountbatten, in spite of all his efforts, was unable to change his mind. Mountbatten and his staff decided to formulate their own plan based on the second option given by Attlee.  This plan involved transferring power to the Provinces or groups of Provinces for an interim period. These would then decide whether to join India, Pakistan or be independent. There would be some kind of central authority to deal with overall defence. Mountbatten was so confident that all parties would accept the plan that he sent Lord Ismay to London with the plan.

Mountbatten decided to have a break in Simla and asked V P Menon and Nehru to accompany him.  At Simla he unofficially showed the final draft of the plan to Nehru and he was shocked when Nehru turned it down vociferously. Nehru did not like the idea that some of the Provinces might be independent as this might lead to the Balkanisation of India. At this moment of crisis, V P Menon brought to Mountbatten’s attention a plan that he had formulated earlier which would create two states, both dominions, within the orbit of the present constitution – the 1935 Government of India Act. Mountbatten asked Menon to explain the plan to Nehru and he and Menon then persuaded Nehru to accept it. Mountbatten’s staff later put the plan to Jinnah who was reasonably positive about it. This plan involved assemblymen in each province deciding whether they wanted to remain in India or join Pakistan. Assemblymen in the Punjab and Bengal voted on whether they wanted their province partitioned. There were referenda held in some areas. The hope was that by having maximum democratic consent, the plan would be accepted by the bulk of the people and violence would be minimised. Mountbatten and Menon then flew to London to put the plan to the British Government. The plan was tidied up in London and on their return to Delhi, this was the plan that was put to all the Indian leaders in Viceroy’s House in early June.

The central contention in the film and  Sarila’s book, The Shadow of the Great Game, is that the British were determined to create Pakistan for their own strategic interests is nonsense. It is true that during Wavell’s viceroyalty, when it appeared that the Indian parties could not agree to the Cabinet Mission Plan, other options were considered including Wavell’s Breakdown Plan. Some of these envisaged a Pakistan-type entity. Meetings were held in London and papers produced how this eventuality would affect Britain’s strategic interests. The suggestion that, for these considerations, the British wanted to create Pakistan is ridiculous. The greatest achievement of the British Empire was to create a united India. The fact that the country was divided at independence was as much a tragedy for Britain as for India. Three cabinet ministers spent two months in India and two Viceroys spent two years trying to persuade the Indians to accept this plan, The Cabinet Mission Plan, for a united India. Mountbatten’s instructions were to try to get the Indians to accept this plan and he managed to get Congress to change their minds and accept it. These are not the actions of people who want to divide India. In any case, neither the British Government nor Ismay had any involvement in the final plan. It was the work of an Indian civil servant – V P Menon. No one in London, neither Ismay, Attlee nor Churchill knew of the details of the final plan until Menon and Mountbatten flew back to London to inform them. This final plan is known as the Mountbatten plan.

Sarila claims that the documents he found in 1997 were secret and showed that for strategic reasons, the British deliberately partitioned India to create Pakistan. This is not so. Several of his references in that Chapter 1 (17,18,19,20,21 and 25) had been published in the ‘The Transfer of Power 1942 -47’ volumes 15 years earlier. These show that, in these documents, Sarlila only mentions the sections referring to British interests in Pakistan and not to those in India.  He also misquoted one of the references (25) which totally changed its meaning. He gives the misleading impression that Britain was only interested in Pakistan. Indeed in reference 17 Auchinleck concludes that for the defence of the Indian Ocean it is best to have a united India. Several of these documents do say that if Pakistan were formed, it should be encouraged to join the Commonwealth as that would assist Britain. But that is a long way from saying that India must be divided for Britain’s strategic interests.  Britain never formed a military alliance with Pakistan after independence.  As Britain had considerable interests in the oil supplies in the Middle East, it formed the Baghdad Pact but Pakistan was not a member of it.

The film contains three climactic incidents at the end which purport to show British duplicity. One of these is when Ismay shows an earlier plan which also contains a similar Pakistan. This is meant to indicate that, under Churchill’s malign influence, there was a plot to create Pakistan all along. Before Mountbatten left for India he spent several weeks being advised of earlier negotiations. He was told of all the previous plans including the Cripps plan which was rejected by the Indians and several of Wavell’s plans in 1946 which were rejected by HMG. Ismay did not need to show any of these earlier plans to Mountbatten. He was well aware of all of them. The claim in the film that the Attlee government were using subterfuge to impose a plan that they themselves had rejected, is ludicrous. This incident simply did not happen and is not contained in Sarila’s book. Indeed, Sarila on page 290 of his book acknowledges that: ’It was V P Menon who put forward the formula used as the basis for India’s constitutional independence’. Churchill had nothing to do with it.               

Mountbatten succeeded in facilitating, what had eluded all his predecessors, namely a plan for the governance of India which had the agreement of all their democratic leadership. He had the flexibility of mind to utilise Menon’s plan. He used his diplomatic skills to persuade all Indian leaders to accept it as well as the government and opposition in London. It was a remarkable achievement but there are several criticisms of Mountbatten which I will now consider.  

3    Was power transferred too quickly?

One on the major criticisms of Lord Mountbatten is that instead was waiting till June ’48 as Attlee specified in his statement, Mountbatten transferred power in August ’47 and this haste exacerbated the violence.  Before addressing this some background information must be given. Under the terms of the 1935 Government of India Act the all the internal governance of India was transferred to elected Indian Ministers in the provinces with the Viceroy retaining foreign affairs, defence and communications at the centre. The period between 1936 and the outbreak of the war was one of remarkable harmony between the British and Congress. Serious problems arose when the war broke out. The British view was that they couldn’t deal with the complex issues of Indian independence during the war and the present arrangements should continue with a few more Indians in the Viceroy’s Executive Council and that they would address Indian independence after the war. Congress said that they wanted an immediate transfer of power. This led to the Quit India Movement and effectively a second mutiny and British authority was virtually destroyed. At the end of the war, there was an interim government headed by the Viceroy with Congress and Muslim League Ministers.  Unfortunately, the Congress and League Ministers disagreed on everything and there was no effective government. Even before independence there was serious violence. In the Great Calcutta killings in 1946 thousands of people died. Hence, Mountbatten inherited a situation of increasing violence, British authority destroyed and the local leaders unable to govern together. If he hadn’t transferred power quickly, the whole country would have fallen into a state of anarchy.

  Hence all parties felt that there must be an accelerated transfer of power. The June 3 Plan, to which all parties gave their consent specifically stated that power would be transferred in 1947. V P Menon’s view on this is unequivocal; ‘There are critics who argue that if the transfer of power had taken place in June 1948, as originally planned, instead of August 1947, the bloodshed that followed immediately after partition could have been avoided. It is easy to be wise after the effect. When in July 1947 the communal situation looked like getting out of hand, Lord Mountbatten took the precaution of getting assurances from Congress, as well as the Muslim League, that the minorities would be protected in their respective Dominions. These assurances were repeated by Nehru, as well as by Jinnah, on the day their respective Dominions were established. Had both the Dominions stood firmly by their pledges, would it have made any difference whether the transfer of power took place in August 1947 or in June 1948; and if it were not the purpose or the policy of one or other of the Dominions to adhere to its pledge, could not the catastrophe that occurred immediately after August have happened equally in June 1948?’.

He makes a similar point elsewhere: ‘There are critics who argue that the acceleration of the transfer of power was responsible for the partition disturbances and that Mountbatten should have waited for the original date June 1948. They are entirely ignorant of the situation especially in North India as it was then. If he had waited ten months more, what guarantee was there that a bloody revolution would not have taken place and there would have been no power left to be transferred. In the course of the last twelve years, since retirement, I have consulted both official and non-official friends of mine, some of whom were in the Punjab at the time. They all agree that, in the situation as it was, delay would have been more dangerous than the early transfer of power’.

H M Patel also addresses this issue; ‘All these various steps, measures and arrangements and many more had to be accomplished within seventy-odd days. It would have been impossible to achieve this, but one has to accept it because all this was, in fact, accomplished. For this the credit must go to only one fact, the fixing of 15 August as the date of transfer of power. Mountbatten was clearly moved by one consideration, and that was that the transfer must take place as early as possible, if trouble was to be averted’.

4    Were enough steps taken to prevent the violence? 

About 500,000 Indian troops were deployed throughout India to cope with any possible post-independence violence. Punjab and Bengal were the provinces most likely to be affected. A Punjab Boundary Force containing 50,000 mixed troops from both communities headed by a British Brigadier was specially set up contain violence in the Punjab. It is likely, however, that all these troops were not in place at independence. The Punjab Governor Jenkins wrote to Mountbatten several times asking for more troops and additional forces were sent. The military reports to Mountbatten were that the troops were in place in time. Regarding whether sufficient precautions were taken, V P Menon gives the following explanation; ‘We had anticipated that there might be communal violence in the border districts directly affected by partition, but we felt that the Boundary Force under Major- General Rees, an enormous and carefully picked body, would be able to cope with the situation. As for the rest, we had no reason to believe that the Governments concerned would not themselves be able to control any sporadic outbursts that might occur in their respective Dominions. We had the guarantee of the political leaders as set out in their joint statement of 22 July, and also the specific assurances in regard to the protection of minorities given by Jinnah in his address to the Constituent Assembly and his broadcast to the people of Pakistan. It is true that situation was full of foreboding; but we had not expected to be so quickly and so thoroughly disillusioned’.

H  M Patel wrote: ‘Mountbatten, therefore, managed to ensure that practically everything necessary to be done to facilitate the transfer of power by the British was completed on time. Its consequences unfolded themselves within no time at all. Everyone anticipated trouble, but no one anticipated quite what actually took place. Every precaution for dealing with what was anticipated had been taken. Thus, there had been created a joint Boundary Force, and it helped for a while, but pretty soon situations developed, which were impossible for it to control.

There are those who have no hesitation in saying that this was all unnecessary. There was no need for partition. There was no need for panicking into envisaging civil war. Whatever this hindsight might make some people think, there is not the slightest doubt that that at the time these decisions were taken, all those who had to take the decisions were thoroughly convinced that a right decision had been taken, and saw in the holocaust, which ensued in the immediately following weeks, a confirmation of what could have happened on a far bigger scale’.

It is important to remember that in much of India following partition the violence was low to moderate. Even in Bengal, another province which was divided, the violence was moderate and contained by the police and army. The horrendous violence was mainly in the Punjab and then spread to neighbouring areas such as Delhi. Fortunately, Mountbatten had set up a Joint Defence Council prior to independence consisting of the senior generals of India and Pakistan and the Defence Ministers. When the violence reached Delhi, V P Menon asked Mountbatten to take charge and he chaired the Joint Defence Council. As process of independence was an agreed one, the two governments and the two armies co-operated to end the violence and, under Mountbatten’s direction, the situation was brought under control in three to four months. It should also be noted that British did not cut and run at independence. Mountbatten remained for a further nine months, all the senior British Generals in the Indian and Pakistani armies remained and one third of the officers in the Indian and Pakistan armies remained. All of them played a vital part in ending the violence. British troops were not used after independence as Congress vehemently objected to their deployment. Mountbatten did not stay on until 1948 because of the violence. He decided to do so when he was asked by Nehru to remain as Governor-General and was keen to do so.   

It is interesting to consider why the worst violence was focused in the Punjab and adjacent areas but nowhere else. It may be because in the rest of India the local politicians urged the populace to accept the plan for independence and refrain from violence. In Bengal, Mahatma Gandhi played a magnificent role and went on a hunger strike if the violence threatened to get out of hand. Muslim politicians, such as Mr Suhrawardy, also played their part. This cannot be said about the communal leaders in the Punjab.

During the colonial era there were many periods when, due to breakdown of relationships between the British authorities and the Indians, there were attacks on British civilians. However, during the post-independence violence this did not happen. This was partly due to the goodwill generated by Lord and Lady Mountbatten. The Indian people were grateful that he had facilitated their independence. Most people realised that the plan that he and their own leaders was made in good faith and reasonable. They did not blame the British for the violence. Nehru’s sister, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, who was a senior Congress politician, wrote in her autobiography, The Scope of Happiness, : ‘During the aftermath of Independence, ..., the Mountbattens persevered no less than our own leaders to still the madness and, by their good faith, to calm passions and bring a sense of security to the threatened and displaced persons. ....The intolerance and bigotry of both Hindus and Muslims was responsible for this calamity, and terrible deeds were enacted by both groups’. The attack on the Scottish manager in Viceroy’s house and threatening behaviour towards Lord Mountbatten would not have happened.

 It is a shame that the film did not continue the narrative for a few more months. By the time Mountbatten left, the violence related to partition had long ended. None of the Indian leaders blamed him for the violence but praised him in the warmest terms and several hundred thousand ordinary Indians came out to cheer him when he left in June ‘48.


5    Should there have been an exchange of population?

Many have suggested that there should have been on orderly exchange of population. Menon has addressed this suggestion: ‘Then again, it has been suggested that if a planned exchange of population had been arranged before the transfer of power, the communal holocaust would have been avoided. But could there have been an exchange of population between two sides which had agreed and publicly announced that they would retain their respective minorities?  Indeed, Congress were definitely against any exchange of population. The Sikhs and the Hindus would never have entertained the idea of leaving their homes in the West Punjab. Nor, for obvious reasons, could the British Government have enforced it. The question of exchange of population could only have been raised, if at all, after the Dominions had come into being. But no sooner had the Dominions been established than the communal frenzy broke out, resulting in the disastrous consequences already described’. The exchange of population could only have taken place after the position of the border was known. If the situation afterwards was peaceful, no one would or should have moved. If there was moderate violence, it might have been possible to manage an orderly evacuation of minorities. Unfortunately, in the Punjab the violence was on such a scale that this was impossible. 

6    Should a British judge have determined the border?

Once the assemblymen in Punjab and Bengal decided to partition their state, it was necessary to decide how to implement this. Mountbatten discussed the matter with the party leaders. The British were tempted to ask the newly formed UN but Congress felt this would take too long. Jinnah, probably realising that Congress and the League could never agree on anything, wanted to appoint three judges from Britain, France and the US. Congress insisted on some local involvement hence it was decided to appoint two commissions, one for Punjab and one for Bengal, consisting of four local judges headed by a British judge. The local judges were two Muslim and two Hindu, one of whom was Sikh in the Punjab. They did not choose a British judge from India as he is bound to have had previous connections with Hindus or Muslims. Sir Cyril Radcliffe’s name was initially suggested by Jinnah, who having worked in London was aware of his fearsome intellect.

There have been many complaints that Radcliffe had never previously been to India. Though this is so, he had judged many cases in the High Court in London dealing with land disputes in India and had written about the country. The Indian judges provided the local information. Radcliffe provided the judicial fairness when the local judges could not agree. The Indian judges held public hearings and the transcripts of the evidence were relayed to Radcliffe. Radcliffe also had a small coterie of Indian civil servants to help him. He also had the notional border, based entirely on the composition of the population in each district, which had been drawn by the Indian Civil Service. Radcliffe came to India thinking he would have to stay a couple of years but the Indians did not want  British judge surveying for that length of time and it was decided that the two Commissions would make their awards at about the time of independence.

The film contains two further climactic incidents at the end involving Radcliffe which are meant to further demonstrate British duplicity. These are when Ismay shows a previous plan containing a border which Radcliffe adopts and later shows Mountbatten.

  It is true that one of Wavell’s plans in 1946 did contain a Pakistan-type entity and potential borders were drawn based on the populations of Muslims and non-Muslims in the various districts by V P Menon and Sir B Rau. This plan was rejected by HMG. In the Mountbatten (Menon) plan which was finally adopted, it was necessary for the assemblymen in the two halves of Punjab and Bengal to vote on whether they wanted their province partitioned. Hence the India Independence Act contains a notional border for this purpose and the earlier Wavell Line was used. This border was specified in the Act and published. No doubt Indian newspapers produced maps showing this border.

Radcliffe undoubtedly used these borders as a starting point. It was an entirely sensible decision. Both his borders for Punjab and Bengal contain some of the notional borders. It was entirely to be expected. There was no need for Ismay to secretly to show these borders to Radcliffe. They were openly published. The two incidents in the film of Ismay showing the earlier borders to Radcliffe and Radcliffe informing Mountbatten were pure fiction designed to tarnish the reputations of Ismay, Radcliffe and Mountbatten. These incidents are not mentioned in Sarila’s book nor anywhere else. It was not because he felt the whole process was a sham that Radcliffe did not take his fee. It was because he felt that the fee was derisory given the work involved. In passing it should be noted that Radcliffe was not a barrister. He was a senior High Court judge and had been knighted several years earlier.          

The Radcliffe border was never intended to be the final border. If the two sides agreed, it could subsequently be changed.  As Nehru wrote to Mountbatten on the 12 June 1947: ’The work of the Boundary Commissions is meant to be done fairly rapidly. If we complicate the issues at this stage, their work will be prolonged and final decisions delayed. I imagine if and when two States have been formed, those States will mutually consider modifications and variations of their frontiers so that a satisfactory arrangement might be arranged at’. When both sides condemned the Radcliffe border, when it was announced, Mountbatten asked the Indian leaders whether he should inform the populace that the border could be adjusted at a future date, the leaders said that they would stick with it. In Bengal in 1949, further adjustments did take place.


The Princely States

India at independence consisted of British India and over 500 Princely States. Britain announced that at independence, British paramountcy over the Princely States would lapse and that they, in effect, would become independent. Attlee’s instructions to Mountbatten were rather vague in that; ‘He should aid and assist the States in coming to fair and just arrangements with the leaders of British India’.  Under the provisions of the 1935 Government of India Act, these States were meant to join the Indian Federation but none had done so. V P Menon realised that this situation was unsatisfactory and asked Mountbatten to persuade as many of the States as possible to accede to India before independence . Mountbatten and Menon managed in a matter of weeks to persuade 562 of the 565 of the States to accede to India. This was a remarkable achievement.

One of the three States that did not accede was Kashmir.  India’s present position that Kashmir is an integral part of India is at variance with its position at the time of independence. In the period leading to independence the Indian States Department, which dealt with the Princely States did not even ask the Maharaja of Kashmir to accede to India. India, unlike Pakistan, did not sign a Standstill Agreement with Kashmir. Menon’s advice to Mountbatten on the 17th July was: ‘Kashmir presents some difficulty. It is claimed by both the Dominions, and at the present moment my feeling is that the issue should not be forced by either party. It is possible that a predominantly Muslim State like Kashmir cannot be kept away from Pakistan for long and we may leave this matter to find its natural solution’.  Even after the Radcliffe Award gave India road access to Kashmir, they did not make any overtures to the Maharaja.  Following the Pathan invasion of Kashmir, the correspondent of The Times reported (Oct 27 1947): ‘The States Department here profess to have no interest in the internal affairs of Kashmir, and an official recently stated that its accession to Pakistan would be accepted’.  It is clearly apparent that in the period shortly before and after independence, India expected Kashmir to accede to Pakistan and was amenable to this outcome.