Nov 14, 2008

India - Nehru & the Mountbattens

K.Natwar Singh

Jawaharlal Nehru had a soft corner for the Mountbattens. This at times clouded his judgment on vitally important national issues.

While Lord Mountbatten was still Governor-General of India, Prime Minister Nehru sent the following communication to King George VI. The language of the Nehru epistle was out of character and the Raj phraseology stands out:

New Delhi

21st May, 1948

Shri. Jawaharlal Nehru presents his humble duty to His Majesty and invites attention to the relinquishment by His Excellency Earl Mountbatten of Burma of the office of Governor-General of India with effect from June, 1948. As India’s last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten made an outstanding contribution to the early and peaceful realisation of Indian Independence; as her first Governor-General, his advice and aid to his Ministers have been equally notable for their wisdom, sympathy and understanding.

In her own sphere, the Countess Mountbatten has been equally active and the men, women and children of India, especially those whom partition uprooted from their established homes under the most cruel circumstances, owe her a great debt of gratitude.

For the services, perhaps unique in the history of Indo-British association, rendered by Lord and Lady Mountbatten to the Government and people of India and to the cause of friendship between India and the United Kingdom, it is earnestly suggested that His Majesty be graciously pleased to confer upon the retiring Governor-General and his lady, some mark of recognition commensurate with those services.

Sd/- Jawaharlal Nehru,

Prime Minister & Minister for External Affairs and Commonwealth Relations.’

On June 17, 1948, the Private Secretary of the King writes to the Prime Minister of India from Windsor Castle:

My dear Prime Minister,

The King commands me to thank you sincerely for your letter of May 21st.

His Majesty read it with pleasure, and with high appreciation of the tribute that you pay to the services which both Lord and Lady Mountbatten have rendered to India, and to Indo-British relations.

The King will certainly bear in mind the suggestion contained in the last paragraph of your letter, and I expect to receive His majesty’s instructions to write to you further on this matter.

On July 21, 1948, the Secretary General of the Ministry of External Affairs sent a message to Krishna Menon, High Commissioner of India in the U.K., in which he asks him to convey to the King’s Private Secretary the following:

The Prime Minister of India presents his compliments to Sir Alan Lascelles and, referring to his letter of 17th June, would be glad to know when he may expect a further expression of His Majesty’s wishes with regard to the subject matter of his minute dated 21st May, 1948.

The Secretary General, Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, gave the following information to Krishna Menon:

Prime Minister suspects that a campaign of public vilification of Lord Mountbatten, which began with Ghulam Mohammed’s press conference in London and has since been continued in India by some Pakistani Ministers and, in particular, newspaper Dawn which, in its issue of yesterday, has an unfriendly article on his share in the negotiations on our behalf with Hyderabad, is designed (a) to prevent any public recognition by His Majesty of his services to India and (b) to discredit his pronouncements of Indo-Pak relations and on India generally as biased. P.M. is therefore, particularly anxious that action on the recommendation which he made to the King should not be delayed.

On July 29, 1948, the King’s Private Secretary, Lascelles, wrote to Prime Minister Nehru as follows:

My dear Prime Minister,

The King has given careful consideration to the suggestion put forward in your letter of May 21st.

While His Majesty is fully sensible of the distinguished service given to the crown and to India by Lord and Lady Mountbatten throughout the former’s tenure of the Viceroyalty and Governor-Generalship, he is of the opinion that adequate recognition of that service has already be given, and that any further recognition of it now would not be justified.

What else could the King have done? He could not possibly disregard the Pakistani views in the matter. I am a genuine admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru but this correspondence does him no good. He made an entirely unnecessary, emotional, subjective recommendation, which the King rightly turned down. That the Prime Minister of independent India — a great hero of the freedom struggle and a vastly popular leader — should have placed himself in such an awkward position is, even after 60 years, incomprehensible.

Jawaharlal Nehru throughout the freedom movement was vigorously opposed to independent India having anything to do with the British Commonwealth. There is little doubt that the Mountbattens talked him into changing his mind. Similarly, Mountbatten influenced Nehru to take Kashmir to the United Nations.

Edwina Mountbatten was a free spirit. She fell head over heels for the refinement of intellect, sensitivity, and heroic personality of the exceptionally handsome 56-year-old Prime Minister. For him, Edwina was very special. When she died in 1960, he paid tribute to her in Parliament.

The Nehru-Edwina correspondence is vast. They wrote to each other with rapturous frequency but the most intimate letters will never be available to scholars and historians. Nehru was a lonely man and Lady Mountbatten filled a void in his life.

Enough has been written on this titillating subject in a number of books, particularly in Janet Morgan’s biography of Edwina Mountbatten. M.J. Akbar too has not skirted the romance. Philip Zeigler, in his magisterial book on Mountbatten, is careful but not dismissive. The French writer, Catherine Clement, has written a novel about this relationship and it sold nearly a million copies.

I once asked Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Nehru’s sister, if the rumours about her brother having an affair with Edwina Mountbatten were true. She was herself a diva and uninhibited in her conversation. She said to me: “Of course he did. And good for him.”

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