WHEN THE MOUNTBATTENS WENT ON FROM THEIR JOYFUL reception at Peshawar up to the tribal territories, it was possible to believe that their attempts to woo the Muslims of India were going well. The day after Peshawar, they flew to the Khyber Pass, that famous corridor between the dangerous peaks of the Hindu Kush through which Alexander, Timur and Babur had marched on India, now guarded by Muslim Afridi tribesmen who were generally reckoned to be among the ablest fighting forces in the world. Seated on fine carpets in the dappled shade of tamarisk trees, the elders greeted Mountbatten in Pashtun and invited him to join their loya jirga, or tribal council. They told him that, when the British left, they wanted control of the Khyber Pass. He replied that it would be up to the tribes to negotiate with the new authorities, which seemed to satisfy them, though they did mention that they might prefer to negotiate with Afghanistan than with a Congress-run India.

The elders proceeded to hold forth against Nehru. Mountbatten avoided responding and instead told a nice story about his days in the Navy and a brave ship called HMS Afridi that had fought valiantly in the North Sea. This went down well, and the Afridis presented him with a rifle. Edwina got a pair of slippers. According to The Times, ‘The Jirga dispersed in high good humour.’1

Back in Delhi, things did not seem so agreeable after Mountbatten returned to begin what his political adviser, Sir Conrad Corfield, referred to as his ‘Dutch auction’ of British India.2 Mountbatten asked Sir Frederick Burrows, Governor of Bengal, whether he still felt that he was sitting on a barrel of gunpowder. ‘Good Lord no,’ replied Burrows, ‘we got off that a long time ago and are now sitting on a complete magazine which is going to blow up at any time.’3 As if to prove the point, Jinnah made a statement on 30 April demanding that Pakistan consist of all the Muslim-majority provinces: Sind, the Punjab, the North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan in the west, and Bengal and Assam in the east. Such a Pakistan would certainly have included Calcutta, for though that city’s population was mainly Hindu it was crucial to the economy of the surrounding Muslim-majority lands of east Bengal. It could have included the historically Muslim cultural and business centres of Delhi, Lucknow, Aligarh, Agra and Cawnpore.4 Anything less, particularly any subpartition of Bengal or the Punjab, would result in a ‘truncated or mutilated, moth-eaten Pakistan’, Jinnah told the press.5 Visitors to Jinnah’s elegant Delhi villa had their attention drawn to a silver map of India he had put up on his mantelpiece, with his claims for Pakistan picked out in vivid green.6 But Bengal and the Punjab were hotly disputed. Each had large areas of non-Muslim-majority populations, and, owing to centuries of intermingling, more areas yet where there was no clear majority at all.

The obvious answer was to divide the provinces up. But partitioning Bengal and the Punjab was not an option that readily appealed to anyone. Bengal had been split in two, most contentiously, by the Viceroy Lord Curzon back in 1905, and that had gone so badly that the King had revoked it at the Delhi Durbar in 1911. When Mountbatten raised the possibility of partitioning the provinces with Jinnah, the latter blanched, and argued that those provinces had strong internal identities: that Hindus identified themselves more strongly as Bengalis or Punjabis than as Hindus or Congress supporters, and that the integrity of their provinces ought be preserved above all. But Mountbatten pointed out that such arguments would also apply to India as a whole, and if they were accepted there could be no Pakistan. ‘I am afraid I drove the old gentleman quite mad,’ reported Mountbatten jovially, ‘because whichever way his argument went I always pursued it to a stage beyond which he did not wish it to go.’7

While her husband returned to Delhi, Lady Mountbatten extended her tour for two days. At the suggestion of Vallabhbhai Patel, she had decided to travel around the hostile region on her own.8 On 30 April she was in Rawalpindi, and from there she visited the Wah Relief Camp for victims of recent rioting. Photographs in the press showed her crouching down to talk face to face with refugee women, establishing an informality that was a departure from the style of previous vicereines.9 Even to Edwina, who had served in London during the war, the scene at Wah was shocking – ‘like the Blitz at its worst’, she wrote.10 The wards were filled with dust and bereft of drinking water. Very few of the beds had sheets. Visitors and children were allowed in and out of the infectious diseases wards freely: as a result, measles had spread everywhere, including the maternity ward, and both dysentery and pneumonia were rife. Most upsetting of all, though, were the injuries which had been inflicted by human hands. People had been carried in from the villages with horrific burns. ‘They seem to be very fond of tying whole families together, pouring oil on them and then lighting them as a single torch,’ Lord Mountbatten remarked.11 Among the survivors were young children whose hands had been hacked off.12

From Wah, Edwina flew to the towns of Dera Ismael Khan and Tank, where she spent five hours walking in the burning heat among heaps of rubble left by communal riots. She asked people directly what they needed, and when the answer came – clothing – she took the matter to local officials, and was able to promise that some would be provided within a few days. The next day, she flew to Amritsar to visit more areas devastated by rioting. In the afternoon, Jawahar’s cousin, Rameshwari Nehru, showed her around similar locations in Lahore.13 On 2 May she was supposed to fly to Multan for more of the same, but a dust storm prevented the aircraft from landing. With the greatest difficulty, her aides persuaded her that she would have to return to Delhi.14 She had nonetheless visited nine hospitals, seven refugee centres, and four riot areas. She had been seen to speak to Hindu, Sikh and Muslim victims alike.

This first tour made a great impact on Edwina herself as well as on the Indian public – and on Jawaharlal Nehru who, as a result of her efforts, began to view her with an ‘undying admiration’, according to his friend Marie Seton.15 After it, she made a serious effort to involve herself in improving the public health situation. She corresponded with high officials who, by etiquette if not by inclination, were unable to ignore her, and forwarded notes to Dickie with advice for the setting up of health clinics in refugee camps. It was obvious from the tone of her letters that she was not content to observe events, but meant to direct them. She questioned the government’s policy on refugees, and recommended a range of practical interventions. She suggested setting up a full-time clinic in each refugee centre. Within two weeks, it was done.16

Having been prevented from visiting Multan on the first trip, Edwina returned a fortnight later. She visited a camp of 2000 refugees in the middle of the city, and met separate delegations of Hindu and Muslim women to assure them that her husband was doing everything he could to help them. Whether he was or not, Lady Mountbatten’s attention was fully engaged. During the visit, she noticed that the civil hospital needed lamps for its operating theatre. On her return to Delhi, she wrote to the brigadier in charge of the medical directorate in New Delhi and, after a struggle, obtained one.17

The deprivation Edwina saw on her tours, and its contrast with her cosseted life in Delhi, shamed her deeply. Previous vicereines had done their share of opening hospitals and presenting cups to schoolchildren; but any small discomfort could be assuaged by the many and fabulous luxuries of the Viceroy’s House. ‘Lady Mountbatten remarked to me that she always suspected, and now knew, just how easy it is to get engulfed in this labyrinthine palace and live self-contained and cut off from the outside world,’ Alan Campbell-Johnson had recorded after only two days in India.18Yet Edwina was unwilling to abandon her charity at the forbidding iron gates. Delhi was on strict food rationing by the spring of 1947, but those in official circles had rarely felt the gnaw of hunger until she arrived.19 So strict were her prescriptions that many of the officials who dwelt in the house attempted to secure luncheon and dinner invitations elsewhere every day.

Edwina also insisted on rewording the court circular so that she and the Viceroy ‘received’ every guest; formerly, they had ‘received’ top dignitaries, ‘seen’ middling ones, and ‘interviewed’ the minor sort. People were no longer ‘honoured’ with the viceregal invitation or presence, but simply ‘invited’, their parties ‘attended’. ‘In the changed circumstances in India when dealing so largely with Indians this means a very great deal,’ Edwina wrote to Lady Reading, ‘and I have been amazed at the number of very favourable comments which have been made on this decision. After all, it is surely example and behaviour which keeps up the prestige of the Crown and one’s country – not mere words.’20 Under Edwina’s new rules, at least half of the guests at any of their frequent entertainments were Indian. ‘It makes me absolutely sick to see this house full of dirty Indians,’ remarked one English lady to another within earshot of the Mountbattens’ daughter, Pamela. The Viceroy was so horrified that he asked the provincial governors to send anyone expressing such sentiments back to Britain.21

May began, and with it came the first crippling outbreak of the inevitable ‘Delhi belly’, which felled both Mountbatten and Ismay. It did nothing for the Viceroy’s mood. As he admitted to Edwina, it had become depressingly apparent to him that there was no chance of transferring power to a united India.22 ‘The more I look at the problem in India the more I realise that all this partition business is sheer madness and is going to reduce the economic efficiency of the whole country immeasurably,’ he reported to London. ‘No-one would ever induce me to agree to it were it not for this fantastic communal madness that has seized everybody and leaves no other course open.’ He was beginning to suspect that both sides were deliberately avoiding a settlement. ‘The most we can hope to do, as I have said before, is to put the responsibility for any of these mad decisions fairly and squarely on the Indian shoulders in the eyes of the world, for one day they will bitterly regret the decision they are about to make.’23

On 2 May, he sent his draft plan back to London for the government’s consideration. Two days later, the Hindustan Times, a newspaper edited by Gandhi’s son Devadas and owned by his patron, G.D. Birla, launched the first Congress attack on Mountbatten. ‘For the first time since Mountbatten assumed the Viceroyalty the feeling that he may not be playing fair has come among the Congressmen and Sikh leaders’, it read.24 Gandhi told Mountbatten that, since signing the joint declaration, Jinnah would no longer be able to resort to violence and would have to accept whatever plan was put before him. Mountbatten had had time to come up with a response to this familiar ruse. ‘I told him Jinnah signed in good faith when he thought I was going to give a fair decision and that I did not for one moment suppose the Muslims would not immediately go to war if I attempted to betray them in this manner,’ he remembered.25 But Gandhi was not persuaded. ‘The communal feuds you see here are, in my opinion, partly due to the presence of the British,’ he told a Reuters correspondent. ‘If the British were not here, we would still go through the fire no doubt, but that fire would purify us.’26

‘He knows quite well that the things he may suggest are difficult,’ explained one of Gandhi’s followers, Agatha Harrison, to Edwina. ‘My long and close touch with this man convinces me that only sustained contact will yield any result … I have seen Mr Gandhi used spasmodically, and then – because people find him baffling – they give up and feel what he suggests for action is impossible.’27 The Viceroy was beginning to feel very much baffled, and increasingly disposed to give up. It was left to Edwina to charm the Mahatma, which she did; and he charmed her back. His ‘dear sister’, as he called her, would claim for the rest of her life that Gandhi was the most wonderful man she had ever met. From this point on, cordial relations between the Viceroy’s House and Gandhi were almost exclusively maintained by Edwina, who regularly visited Gandhi’s hut in the insalubrious Bhangi Colony, home to many of Delhi’s Untouchables. Dickie never went.

Mountbatten deliberately allowed a meeting with Gandhi to run late on 2 May, for he had an eye on his next interviewee: Mohammad Ali Jinnah. He was convinced that progress might be made if these two estranged leaders could be induced to speak. ‘I managed to be a bit unpunctual,’ he remembered, ‘and their interviews overlapped.’

The seating in the Viceroy’s study consisted of large, imposing leather armchairs, too heavy to move. Gandhi and Jinnah each settled into one as far away from the other man as possible. They proceeded to speak in hushed mutters, with Mountbatten trotting back and forth as an interlocutor. If either had hoped to avoid speaking directly to his rival, he would not escape so easily. Mountbatten took advantage of the quiet to put it to them that they should meet again at Jinnah’s house. There was no excuse not to agree, and so they did.28 That evening, Gandhi came close to endorsing Mountbatten publicly at his prayer meeting. ‘We have no right to question the Viceroy’s honesty until he betrays our trust,’ Gandhi concluded. It was ‘until’, rather than ‘unless’, but still close enough to encouragement to yield press enthusiasm the next day.29 The public gap between Mahatma and Mountbatten had been closed. Edwina’s friendship with Gandhi would ensure that it stayed closed forever after.

As they had agreed, Gandhi and Jinnah met on 6 May. The meeting went on for three hours, and achieved nothing much. It was established, again, that the two disagreed over partition, and agreed that violence should cease. It would soon be established again, too, that neither man’s call for such a cessation would be heard.

That same day, the Mountbattens made the long journey up to the hill station of Simla, 7200 feet up in the Himalayan foothills. The British had adopted Simla in 1832, when the Governor General started coming every summer for its fresh Alpine climate, days away from the heat, humidity and filth of Calcutta. It became the official summer capital of India. Here, among thick forests of deodar trees, meadows blossoming with wild flowers and spectacular views to the snow-capped high Himalayas, the British built a fantastical vision of home. Soon the crags were dotted with precariously situated Scottish baronial castles and half-timbered Tudor cottages. ‘It looks like a place of which a child might dream after seeing a pantornirne’, wrote the Viceroy, Lord Dufferin, in 1885. ‘That the capital of the Indian empire should thus be hanging on by its eyelids to the side of a hill is too absurd.’ He was smitten.30

The British continued to come to Simla, sometimes for eight months of each year, with the European ladies and gentlemen carried up in the local jhampan sedan chairs. They were followed by hundreds of coolies, who had been press-ganged from their surrounding farms into the service of Her Majesty’s Government, lugging dispatch-boxes, carefully packed crockery, musical instruments, trunks full of theatrical costumes for amateur dramatics at the Gaiety Theatre, crates of tea and dried provisions, faithful spaniels in travelling-boxes, rolled-up rugs, aspidistras, card tables, favourite armchairs, baskets of linen, and tons upon tons of files; all the paraphernalia of the raj literally borne on the shoulders of one long caravan of miserable, sweating Indian peasants. Eventually, in 1891, a narrow-gauge railway was opened, weaving in and out of 103 tunnels up from the plains at Kalka – a journey which still took at least six hours. The British never questioned whether all this was worth it. Gandhi may have criticized the administration’s annual repair to Simla for being ‘government working from the 500th floor’, but that was exactly the point.31

Mountbatten had originally planned to invite Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru, Liaquat, Patel and the Nawab of Bhopal to Simla for an informal weekend.32 After it became apparent that the Sikhs were a pressing concern, and the Mahatma started to get on Mountbatten’s nerves, the list changed to exclude Gandhi and include Baldev Singh.33 It was eventually decided that Simla had ‘unfortunate associations’ – Lord Wavell’s attempt to stage a conference there had ended in disappointment.34 But the plan did not expire. When Krishna Menon suggested that Dickie take Nehru away for a couple of days to Kashmir, Mountbatten approved of the idea, though not the location. He thought, rightly, that such a trip would cause problems with the Maharaja of Kashmir, who had welcomed Nehru the year before by arresting him as soon as he set foot in the state. To Menon’s disappointment, he settled on Simla again.35

Nehru had endured a viceroy’s hospitality in Simla before. Two years previously, shortly after being released from a long imprisonment, he had stayed at a government-owned house called Armsdell. ‘Red-liveried chaprasis are in evidence, and both the soap and the notepaper are embossed “Viceregal Lodge”!’ he had written to his daughter, Indira. ‘I find it quite impossible to use this Viceregal notepaper, though I have succumbed to the soap. Rather odd this atmosphere for me. I do not feel too happy about it.’36 The contrast two years later was profound. Jawahar joined Dickie and Edwina for a cosy house-party in the morose splendour of the Viceroy’s Lodge, perched atop the high peak at the far end of Simla’s razorback ridge. ‘House hideous’, wrote Edwina with characteristic brevity. ‘Bogus English Baronial, Hollywood’s idea of Viceregal Lodge.’37

Initially, Nehru was tense. He did not enjoy bogus baronial, nor the sight of jhampan coolies, finding the idea of a poor man carrying a rich one distasteful. Yet soon he relaxed when the Mountbattens took him for tea at the Viceroy’s Retreat. This charming, secluded cottage, hidden among dense forests near the village of Mashobra, was about half an hour’s drive from Simla along precipitous roads. It was set among some of the most captivating scenery in the whole of India. Lush gorges plunged dramatically down thousands of feet to glittering sapphire tributaries of the mighty Sutlej River, and colossal mountains rose up thousands of feet behind them. Wild cacti and delicate orchids sprouted forth from the roots of conifers; families of monkeys swung through the pines and picked keenly at strawberry bushes; above the treetops, eagles circled.

Jawahar walked with Dickie and Edwina around the orchard terraces and up mountain paths, which wound up the hill from which Lord Kitchener’s former mansion, Wildflower Hall, could be glimpsed atop the next peak.38 Though once a flamboyant youth, Nehru had become a man of simpler tastes. Yet there were two pleasures he could never resist: the vitality of mountain scenery, and the company of an interesting woman. At Mashobra, he had both. Soon he was happily teaching Dickie and Edwina to walk backwards up slopes to rest their muscles; the Mountbattens, too, ‘fell in love with the place,’ noted Campbell-Johnson, ‘and are quite determined to come back again.’39

There was plenty of hard work to be done, but the atmosphere remained convivial. Nehru had brought his daughter, Indira, and the Mountbattens one of theirs, Pamela. Pamela opened a door and found the acting Prime Minister standing on his head, a daily yoga ritual. She was taken aback when he cheerfully carried on a conversation from that position.40 Even the steady stream of depressing telegrams from 500 floors below could not dampen the mood. News of an Indian Mutiny Day in Bengal, and threats of an accompanying ‘holocaust’, came to nothing. For once, that province was quiet, even after Gandhi used a prayer meeting in Calcutta to blame Muslims for its partition.41 There were riots in Amritsar and Hyderabad, but these places were far away, and seemed like another world entirely. Nehru was at his most cooperative, expressing the hope that Mountbatten might stay on after the transfer of power as Governor General of both India and Pakistan. When it came to the drawing of the new borders, he agreed with Mountbatten that the British ought to take no responsibility. ‘The less H.M.G. did in this direction the better for all concerned,’ Nehru was reported as saying. He was equally amenable to another pressing aspect of Mountbatten’s personal concerns. ‘Pandit Nehru stressed that the psychological effect of power being transferred earlier than 1948 would be an invaluable factor in the long-term view of Indo-British relationship.’42

After two days, Mountbatten received the exciting news he had been awaiting. Back in London, the cabinet had authorized his plan for the transfer of power. Only six weeks into his viceroyalty, it seemed that he had already solved the insoluble problem. Immediately he issued a statement saying that he was ready to present the Indian leaders with the plan, and invited Nehru, Jinnah, Patel, Liaquat and Baldev Singh to attend a meeting at the Viceroy’s House in Delhi on 17 May at 10.30 a.m.43

So well had things been going with Jawahar that, on a whim, Dickie broke protocol and ignored the advice of his staff to show his new chum a copy of the secret plan in the study after dinner that very night. But when Jawahar read through the top secret papers his disposition turned from affable to shocked, and from shocked to furious. At two o’clock the next morning he stormed into Krishna Menon’s bedroom. The draft proposals, he wrote to Dickie that night, ‘produced a devastating effect upon me.’ They presented, he said, ‘a picture of fragmentation and conflict and disorder, and, unhappily also, of a worsening of relations between India and Britain.’44

The plan from which Nehru recoiled was known as ‘Plan Balkan’, a name hardly more inspiring than ‘Operation Madhouse’, and indeed approximately synonymous.45 Having for centuries enforced rule by unelected men from London, the British government had recently developed an unprecedented enthusiasm for the will of the people – preferably, for the will of as many people as possible. There would be an India, there would be a Pakistan, and each province could choose which one to join. But the principle of self-determination would be extended further yet. Should Bengal or the Punjab be divided in their wishes, each state could be split; or it could choose to become an independent nation. Should the troublesome North-West Frontier Province wish to become independent, it could do so too. As for the 565 princely states, each of those could also determine its own future in or out of the two dominions, ‘presumably as feudatories or allies of Britain’, Nehru commented sharply.46 What Nehru had foreseen was the prospect of Balkanization, but on the colossal scale of the subcontinent: the proliferation of dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of small and potentially antagonistic nation-states. Too small to survive alone, these would inevitably end up serving the interests of peripheral giants: not just Britain, but the United States, Russia, China, and Afghanistan. It would stir up civil conflict, undermine the central authority, and split the army, police and services.47

Jawahar was ‘white with rage’, Dickie remembered. ‘You know, he used to get these tantrums, having been in prison. He took a long while to control himself.’48 Dickie was upset, but quickly realized that the situation might have been worse yet. Had his plan been rejected publicly a week later by Nehru, he told his staff, ‘Dickie Mountbatten would have been finished and could have packed his bag. We would have looked complete fools with the Government at home, having led them up the garden to believe that Nehru would accept the Plan.’49 He immediately cancelled the announcement he had been due to make that morning, and delayed the meeting with the leaders from 17 May to 2 June – prompting the press to report incorrectly that this was either because of the British parliamentary recess, or because Gandhi had rejected Pakistan. High up in the Himalayan foothills, Mountbatten, Nehru, the Reforms Commissioner V.P. Menon, and the Governor of the Punjab, Evan Jenkins, attempted to smooth the plan into an acceptable shape. Suddenly, even the helpful psychological effect of an early transfer of power had dissipated: ‘The Viceroy said that Pandit Nehru had also stressed to him that the present proposed timetable was too much of a rush.’50 In just three hours, Menon and Nehru drew up a new plan, with the consent but not the direct involvement of Mountbatten. Telephone calls were made to Congress potentates, and it was confirmed that the revised plan would be accepted.51 Neither the Muslim League, the princes, nor any other body in India would be given the chance to review the plan before its announcement.52

On 14 May, Mountbatten descended from Simla in his open-top Buick, describing himself as ‘feeling fighting fit’. As for his relations with Nehru, they had apparently been improved, rather than damaged, by the trouble in the hills. ‘We have made real friends with him and whatever else happens I feel this friendship is sincere and will last.’53

Mountbatten’s optimism was not shared by leaders back in London, who felt they had indeed been ‘led up the garden’ and were seriously considering having the Viceroy supplanted. Patience with faraway India was at a low ebb, for the domestic situation was in turmoil. On 8 May, the Chancellor had announced that Britain would freeze further payments on all its war debts until the creditors agreed to reductions. The exchequer was more than £3 billion in the red, thanks to the war: it owed Egypt £450 million, Ireland £250 million, Australia and New Zealand £200 million each, and further enormous sums to Argentina, Norway and Brazil. But the largest creditor of all, with £1250 million owed, was India.

Attlee drafted, but did not send, a stern telegram to Mountbatten on 13 May. He pointed out that the cabinet had been under the impression that Nehru would definitely accept Mountbatten’s plan, and that consequently they had made no substantial alterations to it. Any mistakes in it were Mountbatten’s, not theirs.54 The following day, Attlee’s private secretary wrote him a note about ‘the plan … for a Minister to go out to India to settle matters there with full powers and the minimum of reference home’. The secretary strongly recommended that Attlee himself went to Delhi: ‘This gesture would, I feel, fire the imagination of the world.’55 But Attlee recoiled from such a prospect, and no other minister could be found: they were all too ill, too busy or too inexperienced. In the end, Mountbatten was summoned back to London to explain himself.

It was a reprimand, and Mountbatten took it very badly. Without hesitation, he threatened to resign. Edwina, together with V.P. Menon, calmed him down.56 It was Edwina, too, Menon’s daughter remembered, who extracted a concession from Nehru to offset the revisions to the plan. She persuaded him that India should accept an initial phase of dominion status.57 This was no mean feat. Dominion status had been seen as an unacceptable halfway house by Congress since its declaration of ‘purna swaraj’ (complete self-rule) in 1930, and by Nehru, who had been behind that declaration, for longer still. It is a clear demonstration of Edwina’s extraordinary intimacy with Jawaharlal Nehru and her influence over policy. Menon’s daughter was not the only one to express such a view. ‘I have often wondered how Jawaharlal was won over by Lord Mountbatten’, wrote Nehru’s close friend Abul Kalam Azad, the highest-ranking Muslim in Congress. ‘Jawaharlal is a man of principle, but he is also impulsive and amenable to personal influence … perhaps even greater was the influence of Lady Mountbatten.’58 Where several viceroys and Sir Stafford Cripps had failed, Edwina Mountbatten succeeded – saving her husband’s political career as well as the entire process of the transfer of power.

It was announced that Mountbatten would be returning to London for an unscheduled visit, the press apparently swallowing the cover story that the government had decided it must have ‘final discussions’ with him ‘in view of the importance of these arrangements’.59 On 18 May, the Mountbattens and V.P. Menon left for London by air. They emerged drawn and unsmiling at Northolt Airfield the following afternoon. ‘He has met the Indian leaders and heard their views, but fires still rage in Lahore, and disorders are at their height in the Punjab!’ exclaimed the Pathé Newsannouncer, as if pitching a new adventure comic. ‘Only twelve months now remain in which to complete the transfer of power to the Indians!’60

Mountbatten met with the opposition, in the forms of Churchill, Anthony Eden, John Anderson and Lord Salisbury, and reassured them off the record that it might be worth their while to take up Nehru’s concession. If they were prepared to offer India a very early transfer of power, they could expect it to accept dominion status rather than full independence.61 The next day, Churchill wrote to Attlee that ‘if those terms are made good, so that there is an effective acceptance of dominion status for the several parts of a divided India, the Conservative Party will agree to facilitate the passage of this session of the legislation necessary to confer dominion status upon such several parts of India.’62 There was no ambiguity in his words. It was the phase of dominion status, as secured by Edwina, that persuaded him to support the bill.

Mountbatten himself was deeply passionate about the idea of the Commonwealth, and retaining the Indian territories within it was a preoccupation of his and the opposition’s, not the government’s. ‘It is the definite objective of His Majesty’s Government to obtain a unitary Government for British India and the Indian States, if possible within the British Commonwealth’, Attlee had written in his commission to Mountbatten back in February.63 That last clause had been added at the specific request of Dickie himself.64 Mountbatten supported it out of a sense that international brotherhood was a splendid thing for world peace and understanding. The opposition’s reason was not dissimilar, though with a heavier emphasis on its advantages for Britain. As Leopold Amery wrote to Churchill shortly afterwards, ‘we can only hope that, somehow or other, the Britannic orbit will remain a reality in this parlous world even if, to assume the worst, Indian politicians are unwise enough to wish to break the formal link.’65 On the government side, the new India Secretary Lord Listowel, who had replaced Pethick-Lawrence just weeks before, was in strong accord with the Conservative view.

Mountbatten saw Churchill again on 22 May, finding him still in his bed – a sight well-known to the old man’s colleagues. Churchill habitually organized breakfast meetings over a cigar and a weak whisky and soda, often attended by his malodorous poodle, Rufus, and his budgerigar, Toby, the latter perching on a square sponge atop the Churchillian pate.66 On this occasion, Mountbatten remembered that Churchill was ‘extremely pleasant’ to him. ‘Winston Churchill said he wished to congratulate the Government on their perspicacity in appointing someone of my intelligence,’ he told historians Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre in the 1970s. ‘I do want that quoted.’ In a letter written to Attlee immediately after the meeting in question Churchill implied that, in fact, his feelings about Mountbatten were rather more ambivalent, and that he would like his Conservative colleagues to be allowed to question him further in secret.67 It is no easy feat to maintain one’s focus while being scolded by a man with a budgerigar on his head, and perhaps Mountbatten’s confusion is attributable to such a distraction. Certainly Mountbatten seemed ‘very anxious’ about the old man’s attitude when he spoke to Amery later that week. ‘Dominion status has done something to ease the position with Winston, but he still fears some explosion’, Amery noted.68 All accounts agree that Churchill gave Mountbatten a message to deliver to Jinnah. ‘This is a matter of life and death for Pakistan, if you do not accept this offer with both hands,’ the Conservative leader advised the Muslim. Mountbatten emphasized to his staff that Churchill’s opinion was the only one in the world likely to sway Jinnah.69

The signs of cooperation from the Muslim League were mixed. Jinnah used Mountbatten’s absence to voice a demand for a 1000-mile corridor through the Indian Union to connect East and West Pakistan – something which the British had already dismissed, and Nehru immediately denounced as ‘completely unrealistic’.70 On the other hand, the Jinnah made an uncharacteristically generous announcement about the Viceroy. ‘Lord Mountbatten’s efforts will secure full justice to the 100 millions of Mussalmans,’ he wrote. ‘I am not in the habit of flattering anyone, but I must say that throughout our discussions and examination of the various points, I was impressed by the high sense of integrity, fairplay and impartiality on his part and, therefore, I feel that Lord Mountbatten will succeed in his great mission.’71

Beyond the main parties, signs continued that the communal interests were gearing up to welcome Mountbatten back. A Hindu fundamentalist party, the All-India Dharma Sangh, issued a summons to its followers. Hindu holy men began to pour into New Delhi, opposing partition, cow slaughter, and the ban on Untouchability which the constituent assembly had passed on 29 April. At the same time, fundamentalist Muslims poured in from the United Provinces and the Punjab. Bands of Khaksars, a militant group known as the ‘Servants of the Dust’, were seen to be gathering in the city and wearing fascist-style uniforms; large numbers were arrested, and had their weapons confiscated, but still more came.72

The Mountbattens left Northolt airfield on the morning of 29 May. Two days later they were in Delhi, Dickie clutching the new version of his plan, as approved by the British cabinet; Edwina bearing placatory gifts for Fatima Jinnah.73 The plan had been sold to the British government. Now, it had to be sold to the Indians.

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