Vol. 1 No. 2 2007


Indian Summer—The Secret History of the End of an Empire

by Alex von Tunzelman

Review by Jane M. McCabe

indian summer cover

Indian Summer, Alex von Tunzelman, recalls “Only ninety years separated the British victory at the gates of Delhi in 1857 from the British eviction from South Asia through the Gateway of India in 1947.

But while memories of British atrocities in 1857 may have assisted in the birth of Indian nationalism, as did the growing separation and mutual suspicion of rulers and ruled that followed the Uprising, it was not the few surviving descendants of the Mughals, nor any of the old princely and feudal rulers, who were responsible for Indians’ march to independence. Instead, the Indian freedom movement was led by the newly anglicized and educated colonial service class who emerged from English-language schools after 1857, and who by and large used modern Western democratic structures and methods – political parties, strikes and protest marches – to gain their freedom.”

From the book’s jacket is this quote: “At the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, one of the twentieth century’s defining moments came as the sovereign nations of India and Pakistan were born, and 400 million people gained independence. With the loss of India, its greatest colony, the British empire gave up its centerpiece.”

There are significant contrasts from what had occurred in 1857, the most marked being that the relinquishing of power on the part of England, however delayed, was voluntary and peaceable. Now the British involved were as benevolent parents helping birth two new nations, India and Pakistan, and guide them toward successful governments. Sad to say, their joy was short lived, as newly born nations no sooner received their slaps on the butt to accelerate their breathing than they exploded into violence reminiscent of the Uprising. Only this time, it was Indian against Indian, as Muslims, Sikhs and Hindu engaged in clashing waves of slaughter, rape, and carnage, and Delhi and the Punjab to the northwest were turned into wastelands.

A few enlightened individuals, if they could not stem the violence, nevertheless were shining lights through the darkness of a second Indian holocaust. The key players in the drama that unfolded were both Indian and British—Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Dickie Mountbattan, and his wife, Edwina.

Gandhi remains the spiritual father of modern India, even as eccentric and sometimes impossible as he was, given to the practice of satyagraha or “truth force.” This was his term for passive resistance or militant non-violence (a practice adopted by followers of Martin Luther King, Jr. during the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s) and to fasting to influence public opinion. Nehru was greatly influenced by him.

Nehru was the only child of a privileged family. Sophisticated and Cambridge- educated in law, when he returned to India in 1912 he developed an interest in politics. He became the guiding light in bringing independence to India and establishing governing policies for the newly formed nation.

The austere and determined Jinnah was the Muslim leader responsible for the Partition and formation of Pakistan. He is described as cadaverous. He was an elegant and austere man whose clear-sighted vision of a Muslim nation apart from India brought it into being. Yet he was not a fundamentalist. His Islam was liberal, moderate and tolerant.

Dickie Mountbatten, the man who oversaw the transfer of power to the Indians and who helped in the early days of the new nations, was England’s last Indian viceroy. A cousin to the king, a handsome and elegant gentleman, with intelligence and forbearance he saved India from splintering into diverse entities. He was a far cry from the British officials who had acted so brutally during the Uprising. His wife, Edwina, was one of England’s richest and most glamorous women. At the heart of Indian Summer is a love story. Before coming to India, Edwina was a seemingly frivolous and bored wealthy woman. She had affairs, to which her dashing husband had cast a blind eye, rather than to lose the woman he adored. When she came to India with Dickie, she fell in love with Nehru, and he with her. Their love was based on the kind of rapport that is as much spiritual as physical. After the death of Nehru’s wife, Kamala, (mother of Indira Gandhi, who followed her father to power), he was essentially a lonely man. This was alleviated by Edwina, who, it is said, was the only person who could make him laugh or influence his politics. Their love caused this once heedless socialite to turn into a heroine who risked her life repeatedly to help the victims of the partition wars.

Mountbatten’s and Nehru’s bond was strengthened because of their love for the same woman. Edwina did not take care of herself, and at the relatively young age of 52 in 1960, she preceded both of them in death from heart failure. She had asked her husband to bury her at sea. To accommodate her wish, HMS Wakeful offered by the Admiralty sailed from Portsmouth. “Mountbatten, in tears, kissed a wreath of flowers before throwing it into the sea. The Wakeful was escorted by an Indian frigate, the Trishul. Jawaharlal Nehru had sent it all the way to the English Channel, just to cast a wreath of marigolds into the waves after Edwina’s coffin.” Romantic that I am, I cried when I read this.

Gandhi had been assassinated by a disaffected Hindu shortly after the formation of Indian and Pakistan on January 30, 1948. Dickie Moutbatten visited Nehru lying in state after he died in 1964, and himself was killed in a boating accident (he had wanted to die at sea) in 1979, the last of this core of enlightened people who had helped to birth two nations.

Nehru’s daughter, Indira, won a massive victory in the elections of 1971. That year, East Pakistan rebelled against West Pakistan and the following year East Pakistan seceded from Jinnah’s dream to become Bangladesh . . . .

With the Partition, Pakistan received the short end of the stick, as it lacked the abundance of India’s resources. Today India’s star seems to be rising. She has attracted multinational investors, allowing her to create growing middle and upper classes, while Pakistan struggles against poverty and stress caused by militant Muslim fundamentalists.

In recent times, several times the world has seen various areas break into bloodbaths of sectarian violence following the departure of a strong ruling force, notably in the Balkans and now in Iraq. The parallel between what happened after the Partition of India and what might happen when the United States troops finally leave Iraq is worth considering. Accumulated hatreds of people of different religious persuasions tore India/Pakistan asunder following Partition. Though it is hard to imagine the situation in Iraq getting any worse, without American forces to quell some of the sectarian violence, we may not have seen the worst of what might happen in Iraq.

I highly recommend both of these excellent histories of India.

Jane M. McCabe is a writer and painter. She has a master's degree in painting from the San Francisco Art Institute. Her interest in world affairs stems from the three years' study she had at Luther Seminary.

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