Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

January Books 27) Indian Summer, by Alex von Tunzelmann

A very readable account of the British withdrawal from India, largely from the point of view of Dickie and Edwina Mountbatten, whose papers are used extensively, though with some effort also made to include the roles of the other key political players. On Lord Mountbatten's responsibility for the horrors of partition, I found it was a useful alternative viewpoint to the hatchet-job by Andrew Roberts which I read several years ago. I think that von Tunzelmann has become slightly beguiled by her source and gives him more benefit of the doubt than is really justifiable by her own account, though I will agree that mitigating factors include the criminally obstructive attitude of Winston Churchill to Indian independence and Mountbatten's success at persuading almost all the princely states to join the new Indian or Pakistani states - Kashmir and Hyderabad are notorious exceptions but there could have been many more. Her account of the love affair between Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten manages to be both entertaining and respectful.

Since I work more or less in the field of international conflict resolution, I am struck by how far the level of understanding of these problems has advanced since 1947. In those days the debate was shaped partly by legal rights established by history (or myth) and partly by the rather one-dimensional discourse of anti-colonialism, with very little reference to the actual wishes and needs of people on the ground. The independence of Montenegro from Serbia was achieved with no bloodshed at all, and while Kosovo and South Sudan may have their problems, they have been handled rather better than India/Pakistan (or indeed Israel/Palestine) sixty years before. The mistake that is more often made these days is wishful thinking, where international officials kid themselves that genocidal leaders like Milošević and Bashir don't really mean it, and then discover that they do; the Indian partition case was a much more straightforward mismanagement of expectations by the political leaders, particularly Mountbatten, to the point that violence became an effective and preferred mode of discourse for many actors.

One should not perhaps blame Mountbatten for failing to implement best practices which had not yet been worked out. And yet... what comes across over and over again is how Mountbatten consistently rated his own political and managerial abilities much higher than did anyone who had actually had to work with him. In the end the misjudgements which made the partition of India so much worse than it needed to have been were his misjudgements and nobody else's. So von Tunzelmann did not quite convince me, but she did entertain me.
Tags: bookblog 2012, world: india
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