Viceroy's House & the Great Game

Viceroy’s House & the Great Game

Fans of Downton Abby will appreciate that Hugh Bonneville (i.e., Lord Grantham) portrays another aristocrat, Lord Mountbatten, in the new film Viceroy’s House, about the end of British rule in India. The film entertainingly lionizes Mountbatten while sadly demonizing Winston Churchill, who, in the film’s conspiracy subplot, contrives India’s tragic, blood-soaked partition to gain Pakistan as a strategic anti-Soviet ally to protect Persian Gulf oil.

Churchill was already out of power two years by the time of Indian independence. But the film has India’s hasty division based on a secret report Churchill crafted in 1945 at the end of his government, a report that the highminded Mountbatten never saw until angrily after the fact. The film’s conspiracy theory is largely based on a pseudo-history by a former Indian diplomat who worked for Mountbatten, whose claims are based on conjecture and not documentation. The secret report the film invents apparently doesn’t exist.

For detailed critique of the film’s fake history read here and here. Of course, all films are entertainment, not reliable history, but Viceroy’s House, while often charming, veers in a paranoid, malevolent Oliver Stone direction with its invented Churchill partition conspiracy. Like all conspiracy theories, this one assumes tragedy occurs only thanks to sinister planning by a mastermind. But India’s partition, like most human calamities, involved miscalculations by nearly all the involved major actors, British & Indian, including chiefly Mountbatten, Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah.

Each figure had his nobility. Mountbatten was an heroic WWII senior commander who foresaw the end of European colonialism in Asia. Gandhi was the often saintly independence leader who unrealistically insisted on a united India. Nehru was a brilliant and charismatic statesman who blithely assumed his Hindu-led Congress Party could dominate the unwilling Muslim minority. Jinnah imagined a Muslim dominated Pakistan could arise seamlessly from India even though the religious division ran through villages and neighborhoods. None foresaw the bloodbath of partition that would kill perhaps one million and dislocate 15 million in history’s biggest refugee crisis.

Indian conspiracists, resentful of the partition, ascribe to their former British overlords a calculating savoir-faire that the depleted post WWI colonialists largely lacked. They were mostly exhausted, financially drained, and anxious to depart with as much dignity as possible. Creating Pakistan on the go wasn’t a long term strategic plot so much as it was a quick fix to facilitate Britain’s escape from further responsibility.

Conspiracists and arch-critics of British imperialism also savor the irony that Pakistan, supposedly birthed as a strategic ally, ultimately hatched radical Islamism. And they fault British colonialism for creating or exacerbating nearly all of the subcontinent’s religious, cultural divisions. But it was British rule, whatever its failures, that created both modern India and Pakistan. Democracy and rule of law to the extent they exist in both countries are Britain’s legacy.

As to the film’s Churchill conspiracy, he would have been correctly concerned about India’s role in the impending Cold War. Nehru’s India, though democratic and officially nonaligned, often was cozy with the Soviets. Pakistan, whose democracy often acceded to military rule, hosted American and British bases during the Cold War. Imperial Britain always sought to deny czarist Russia access to warm water ports, and the policy, in collaboration with America, continued against czarism’s communist successors. There’s little to no evidence that Churchill farsightedly conceived Pakistan specifically for this purpose. But if he had, knowing Pakistan was almost inevitable anyway, his strategic conception would be sensible.

Films, of course, prefer Manichaean contrast to the complex nuance of most human activity, including in international statecraft. It would have required considerably more effort and sophistication, with no certainty of audience appreciation, to pursue more realism. But the film could have portrayed the Indian partition struggle not as saints versus sinners, with Churchill as chief sinner, but as a fascinating tragedy where nearly everyone sought political advantage, often laced with laudable purpose, without realizing horror would ensue.

If the film creators had set aside conventional obsessions with Western colonialism and instead read some Reinhold Niebuhr or maybe even parts of the Bible, its appreciation of frail human nature’s quixotic impact on global events would have produced a more deeply riveting performance. Sometimes real history is more compelling than fiction.

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