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Mystery and misinformation still cloud the most pivotal decision in the partitioning of the Indian subcontinent: to rush forward the date of the British withdrawal by ten months, from June 1948 to August 15, 1947. The United Kingdom’s last viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten, is typically accused of accelerating the transfer of power so that the British would not be held responsible for the bloodbath that many expected to ensue once the new states of India and Pakistan were born.
And it is true that Mountbatten was legendarily heedless: “I’ve never met anyone more in need of front-wheel brakes,” his chief of staff, Hastings Lionel “Pug” Ismay, once wrote. The viceroy did himself no favors by boasting in later years that he’d plucked the date out of thin air at a press conference, choosing the anniversary of the Japanese surrender simply because it sprang to mind. If that were true, hundreds of thousands of dead and millions of displaced Pakistanis and Indians would indeed have been victims of one man’s whimsical diktat.
Yet Indian leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru also wanted the British out as soon as possible. Nehru, who would become independent India’s first prime minister, had agreed the country would remain a member of the British Commonwealth, as a dominion like Canada or Australia. But he’d done so only as a means to gain power faster. The longer the transition dragged on, the greater the chances became that he’d change his mind.
By early May 1947, Mountbatten had already begun talking about transferring power later that year rather than in June 1948, as the British had originally envisioned. At the end of the month, the viceroy cabled provincial governors to say that the British government was now contemplating a handover “not later than October 1st this year.”
What’s little understood, however, is that the British don’t seem to have intended this date to be a hard-and-fast deadline for both India and Pakistan.
What’s little understood, however, is that the British don’t seem to have intended this date to be a hard-and-fast deadline for both India and Pakistan. With a military and administrative structure already in place—including everything from ration cards to currency—a new Indian government could take power almost immediately, perhaps even “sometime in August,” as British Prime Minister Clement Attlee told the U.S. ambassador in London on June 2. On the other hand, “Pakistan being without administrative machinery, power transfer to it might be delayed until this is available.”
Another British official estimated this might not happen until the end of 1947, “but this was just a guess—it might take longer.” In theory, some sort of joint body or “superstructure” could meanwhile be set up to oversee defense and foreign affairs for both countries, while they gradually and amicably worked out the terms of their separation. “Thinking in this connection,” the U.S. ambassador reported to Washington skeptically, “has not gone very far.”
When Mountbatten gathered the Indian leaders around a cramped conference table at Viceroy’s House on June 2, he emphasized this point: the transfer of power did not mean an abrupt end to the British connection. Far from trying to abandon their obligations, he declared, the British “would stay at the disposal of the Indians as long as the latter wished.”
To the viceroy’s right, Nehru looked drawn and tense. To his left, Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, sat sphinxlike, precisely attired in a pale, double-breasted suit with matching pocket square. For now, Mountbatten asked only that the Indian leaders accept the plan in its entirety—and that they signal their assent in writing by that evening. Jinnah chose this moment to grandstand. He piously insisted he could not accept on behalf of his Muslim League party, which was, after all, “a democratic organisation.” The question would have to be put to a vote of the party’s leadership, which would take a few days to organize.
Jinnah's Malabar Hill mansion was on the market for two million rupees, and he was negotiating to buy a vacation houseboat (the Mayflower) on fabled Dal Lake in the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar.This was precisely the sort of negotiating tactic that had always infuriated Nehru. “During the past few years it has been our repeated experience that Mr. Jinnah does not commit himself to anything,” Nehru had written to one of Mountbatten’s aides just a few days earlier. “He accepts what he gets and goes on asking for more.” The Indian leaders had had enough: “We have arrived at a stage where this kind of thing will do good to nobody.” Without a clear-cut acceptance from the Muslim League, they would reject partition, too, and go back to demanding power over all of India.
Jinnah’s caginess is puzzling. Five days earlier, he had boasted to a U.S. diplomat in Delhi, “I tell you we are going to have Pakistan—there is no question about it.” His Malabar Hill mansion was on the market for two million rupees, and he was negotiating to buy a vacation houseboat (the Mayflower) on fabled Dal Lake in the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar. Yet when Mountbatten summoned him back to Viceroy’s House near midnight, Jinnah continued to equivocate. The next morning, he gave only the briefest of nods when Mountbatten told the reassembled Indian leaders that he trusted the Muslim League would ultimately approve the partition plan.
Clearly, whatever well-meaning timetables had been imagined in London would not survive the partisan furnace in Delhi. At his staff meeting the previous afternoon, Mountbatten had suggested moving up the handover date to July 31, less than 60 days away. Horrified aides had persuaded the viceroy that “this would be impracticable, if not absurd,” according to a source in the meeting. Yet Mountbatten now presented the Indian leaders with a sobering, 33-page paper laying out the “Administrative Consequences of Partition”—all the complex and divisive tasks involved with dismantling the century-old raj. The document’s preamble stated “that the work should be sufficiently advanced to allow transfer of power by August 15th.”
Mountbatten was pleased to see that the Indian leaders “were dumbfounded and displayed some alarm” at the tight schedule. Naively, he hoped they would be too busy over the next two and a half months to quarrel much.
Instead, Nehru “reacted very badly” after studying the paper, one of Mountbatten’s aides reported, not because of the August deadline but because the plan did not involve immediately booting Muslim League ministers out of the interim government he was leading. At a cabinet meeting just days later, Nehru exploded when Jinnah’s deputy, Liaquat Ali Khan, tried to stop him from appointing an ambassador to Moscow, saying Pakistan had no wish to establish an embassy in the Soviet Union. “The ensuing scene was babel, with everyone talking furiously at once,” one of Mountbatten’s aides recorded. “Nehru asserted . . . that if the Government was to be turned over to the League he would immediately resign.” It did not help that the envoy Nehru intended to nominate was his eldest sister.
With enough goodwill between the parties, a speeded-up partition might yet have worked. The most important issues—whether Pakistan would continue to use the Indian rupee, say—could have been dealt with over the course of several more months, if not years. But after all the tension and distrust and spilled blood of the preceding months, every decision, no matter how petty—from how many fighter jets each country would be allocated to who would get the subcontinent’s single tide predictor—was fraught. Each became one more opportunity to add to the store of suspicions and resentments dividing the Muslim League from Nehru’s Indian National Congress party, Muslims from non-Muslims. Mountbatten famously had wall calendars made up for raj officials, each page announcing in bold numerals exactly how many days remained until the transfer of power. The numbers would dwindle all too quickly—yet not nearly fast enough.
This essay is adapted from Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India's Partition, recently released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.