FOURTH DAY OF LENT:
MARCH 4th 2017
DIVIDE AND RULE
Just returned from seeing the new film Viceroy House, a telling of the story of the bloody partition which gave birth to Pakistan and India from the perspective, principally, of Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India. In broad brushstrokes, it is Downton Abbey meets the last days of the Raj. It is a sympathetic telling of the role Mountbatten had in trying to find unity and prevent a split between Muslim and Hindu and Sikh leaders in the last months of British rule.
But as the film unfolds in the spring and sultry summer of 1947, it becomes clear the die had already been cast. Despite the Viceroy's naive best efforts to find a solution that would have kept an independent India in one piece, there were higher forces at work of which he was unaware. He was sent to put a charming gloss on the last days of British rule, the film seems to infer (a film whose principal consultant was his daughter, Pamela). For Churchill had drawn up secret plans, in the last months of the Second World War, for India to be divided in order to stop the Soviet Union from (somehow) expanding into the sub-continent (it is not clear to me how the creation of Pakistan stopped this - other than it is well known that post-independence India's PM Nehru favoured alliances with Moscow and Pakistan's Jinnah preferred Beijing).
Mohammed Ali Jinnah, known as the father of Pakistan, supported the plan. Jawaharlal Nehru, the leader of the Indian National Congress party eventually could see no other option. Hindu mystic and political force Gandhi alone urged unity - even suggesting that Jinnah should be the first Prime Minister of India - a move neither Jinnah nor Nehru could support. But with inter-communal violence escalating out of control, Mountbatten comes to the conclusion that only partition will save lives. The film tells how just three weeks before the date had been set for Independence for India, a British barrister was flown in to head a commission to agree where to draw the two lines on a map that would separate West and East Pakistan from India - thereby leading to the biggest migration crisis the world had ever witnesses, as 14 million people fled violence (one million of them dying in inter-communal killings, neighbours turning on neighbours). Three weeks!
There is a line in the film, when Mountbatten (played by Hugh Bonneville) discovers the truth: that the division of India and Pakistan in the end is 'all about oil'. British policy to support partition, the argument goes, was all about a strategic move to prevent the Soviet Union from getting a warm water port (Karachi) and, thereby, gain influence in the nearby oil-rich Arabian Gulf.
Have you ever felt used - a pawn in someone else's plan?
That's how Mountbatten is portrayed... a used pawn rather than last Viceroy of India, but a pawn with stiff-upper-lip dignity.
There is a subplot to the film - that of love between a Hindu man and Muslim woman. Gandhi told Nehru and Mountbatten that only love would solve India's problems, but it was not a word politicians found easy to talk about or demonstrate. And it seemed impossible to imagine in the hatred that set neighbour against neighbour.
In the film, the subplot becomes the main focus and climax; as at the end, despite insuperable obstacles, in the misery of a refugee camp in the shadow of the Viceroy's House, a woman and a man, stripped of their religious identities, find each other. And love - tenuous, fragile, weak and almost insignificant - blooms anonymously in the midst of millions on the march.