Earlier this year Viceroy’s House – about Mountbatten and the partition of India – played to packed cinemas.
The climax of the film comes when, with only three days to go, the judge who has been drawing up a boundary line between India and the new state of Pakistan, tells Ismay, the British chief of staff, that he needs more time. Ismay, played by Michael Gambon, gives him a conspiratorial smile. He opens his desk drawer and hands him a report together with a map of the Punjab showing a boundary line.“ This may be everything you need. It is a policy document drawn up by Churchill two years ago. Mountbatten knows nothing about it.“
In other words the British had decided on the partition of India two years before and had even drawn up the boundary lines. All the judge had to do was adopt their map.This he reluctantly does.
When Mountbatten finds out he confronts Ismay. “So Jinnah was promised Pakistan two years ago ! Why did you not tell me it was all a foregone conclusion.” Ismay explains that Jinnah would be a more reliable ally than Nehru and that we needed the naval base at Karachi to protect our Middle East interests. “So we divided India for oil.” exclaims the Viceroy. “We have blood on our hands.”
Scenes of the terrible intercommunal violence conclude the film. The audience go out of the cinema shocked at this latest example of British perfidy.
This is all high drama, brilliantly acted.
There is only one flaw: none of it actually happened.
The judge , Sir Cyril Radcliffe, drew up the boundary, assisted by his commissioners, without any influence from Ismay or anyone else in the British government – with one exception :Mountbatten, egged on by of Nehru tried to persuade him to change an award that he had made of a district to Pakistan .
Partition had been urged on the Labour government by Mountbatten after talks in India had broken down.
The story in the film existed only in the imagination of Gurinder Chadha, the film’s director. It turns out that she got the idea from a book called ‘The Shadow of the Great Game‘ by Narendra Singh Serila. It refers to the 1945 plan marked “War Cabinet – Post Hostilities Planning.” This looked at the strategical implications for Britain of an independent India and examines – as civil service memos always do – a number of options; one of these is keeping the naval base of Karachi. The book also contains letters from Wavell, the previous viceroy, to HMG setting out what would happen if there was to be partition and included a map of a likely boundary. The book’s author infers that Wavell is actually advocating partition in this letter but there is no evidence for this.
While the book suggests (wrongly) that Britain welcomed partition it provides no evidence at all for the episodes in the film. The hapless Pug Ismay, the film’s villain, is not even mentioned .
The film is fake history – but sadly more influential in shaping our attitudes than any number of authoritative books or documentaries.