A film concerning the partition of India is based on a conspiracy theory

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von Hans Dembowski

Fake history – why an otherwise excellent movie disappoints

Gurinder Chadha’s film the “Viceroy’s house” deals with the negotiations that led to the partition of India. Most of the movie is historically accurate. It gives a good account of the atrocious ethnic cleansing that was going on in some parts of the country. In one important aspect, however, the plot relies on a less than well-documented conspiracy theory. The film could have been a highly entertaining history lesson. It isn’t.

Gurinder Chadha is a British film director. Her most famous work so far is “Bend it like Beckham”, which told the story of two football-playing girls in a London suburb, where a large share of the South Asian population lives. Chadha’s parents migrated to Britain from India.

The “Viceroy’s house” is a costume drama. It seems to be a mixture of a fictional love story and a historical documentary. It does a good job of showing that the birth of independent India – and Pakistan – were soiled by a traumatic bloodbath. Hindus and Muslims turned against one another, millions had to flee from their homes, and an estimated 1 million to 2 million people were killed.  

The film has one serious flaw, however. It claims that, as early as 1945, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill promised Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s independence leader, to split India into a Hindu and a Muslim country and then grant both countries independence after World War II. The driving idea is that Churchill wanted to make sure that the Soviet Union would not have access to Karachi, the major port city, so he wanted Pakistan to become a separate state, fearing that the Congress party, which wanted a united India to become independent. The Congress had socialist leanings.   

This idea is interesting. However, it is “fake history”, as Ian Jack, the Guardian’s former South-Asia correspondent, argues. Jack points out that historians generally do not endorse this conspiracy theory. It was spelled out a decade ago in a book by Narendra Singh Sarila, a former aide to Louis Mountbatten. The book whitewashes Mountbatten of responsibility for the partition massacres and blames Churchill instead. According to Singh Sarila, these insights resulted from recently found secret documents.

Roderick Matthews, a British historian, offers a detailed refutation of this conspiracy theory in Open, an Indian weekly magazine. Among other things, he points out that the British military did not believe in 1947 that Pakistan could become a viable state. It was considered too poor, and it had to build all institutions from scratch, so it seemed unprepared to defend itself against a Soviet invasions.  Moreover, India agreed to join the Commonwealth which meant the country would cooperate with the United Kingdom on military matters.

Film director Chada, however, found the conspiracy convincing and useful for her dramatic purposes. In her screenplay, Mountbatten is an unwitting agent of sinister forces. She counters criticism by pointing to “documents in the British Library”.

This approach is not convincing, however. Yes, it is plausible that the Churchill government did draft scenarios concerning Indian independence. After all, it had become obvious during World War II that Britain would not be able to keep control of the colony. However, Churchill lost the general elections of 1945. Conducting the independence negotiations, Mountbatten was not serving him at all. He was serving Prime Minister Clement Attlee, who belonged to the Labour Party. Attlee was a socialist and wanted to build a new world order. He was ideologically close to Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, who had studied in Cambridge was strongly influenced by the Fabian strand of British socialism. There is no reason to believe that the Atlee government would have carried out Churchill’s policies in order to weaken Nehru.

It is true that the British empire relied on divide-and-rule policies, but of course the idea was to keep control of the colonies, not to partition them once British rule became untenable. By 1947, India’s colonial government was no longer in control of the country. It is bizarre to claim that its long-term intention had been to instigate riots it would no longer be able to stop in order to thwart the Soviet Union’s access to the Arabian Sea.

It must also be said that it is a counter factual claim to say that everything would have been fine had only the exhausted British imperial power not agreed to a two-country solution in the end. The truth is that communal violence, as South-Asians call clashes between religious communities, were already rocking parts of the country before the final decision was taken. Indeed, those riots were one reason why all parties, including Nehru’s Congress, agreed on partition. It is one thing to point out that Britain’s divide-and-rule policies were destructive, and quite another, to say that they were still serving Churchill’s intentions when Britain was obviously losing control.

Chada’s movie is entertaining, but it does not serve its educational purpose well.


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