Image of last Viceroy fades under new order

A sub-continent tries to erase Mountbatten from its memory, writes Jan McGirk
New Delhi - Even the rooftop Mountbatten Suite, which looks down on the Indian capital's formerly imperial skyline, has no portrait of the last Viceroy - just a few old etchings of colonial pomp. There are very few traces of Lord Louis Mountbatten left in New Delhi, except for this one executive dining room at a five-star hotel which uses his name to evoke the privilege and glamour of the last days of the British Raj.

Barely 50 years since the British war hero flew his revamped Lancaster bomber to New Delhi - assigned to close shop in the sub-continent for the British Empire - celebrations of India's half-century of independence are pointedly leaving him out. Remarkably, Prince Edward failed to mention the late Lord Mountbatten, his "Uncle Dickie", during a recent visit to New Delhi which coincided with the golden anniversary of the day the Admiral introduced himself to India's leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, as "the first [Viceroy] to lead the way to a new India".

These days, politically correct British visitors to India tend to play down the past, instead preferring to promote trade and education. Acharya Kishore, the secretary-general of the World Hindu Council, bridles at the thought that anyone would glorify the "high priest of partition" who was "responsible for our vivisected independence". As laughing crowds romped in Delhi's gardens and alleys, hurling paint and daubing colour on each other in the spring revelry of Holi, Mr Kishore's committee recalled the bloody scenes that followed Mountbatten's plan to grant freedom one August midnight, some 14 months sooner than expected.

"In a shrewd and sophisticated manner, Mountbatten served the Muslim cause at the cost of the Hindus," Mr Kishore said. "When he saw the bloody retaliation from the Hindu side, he fixed up 15 August 1947 for giving independence. In a very polished manner he also managed Mr Nehru in his favour so he could carry out the British mission of dividing Bharat [the Indian nation]."

Sectarian differences still simmer in India. But while Mountbatten was still adjusting his viceregal sash and his wife, Lady Edwina, was drawing up the final guest list for his inauguration, the country came perilously close to civil war. The British solution led to the relocation of at least 20 million people, which counts as the largest migration in recorded history, plus unknown loss of life.

India and Pakistan have drawn out their differences. Most clashes are clearly territorial, but some seempetty: India sets its clocks half an hour apart from its neighbour and thus celebrates its independence on a different day. Nevertheless, expectations for a rapprochement are running high - despite the lack of charismatic leaders.

"What worked for Mountbatten was charisma," Dr Ravinder Kumar, a historian who heads the prestigious Nehru Library, observed. "He used his royal bluff to shut things down and enact the political decision of the Labour Party. With the colossal self-confidence of the ruling class, he forced the pace of partition and set off an unpredictable unwinding process when he dismantled a most delicate system of checks, balances and counter mechanisms."

When the Mountbattens first launched what he calls their "devastating charm offensive" in New Delhi, Dr Kumar was 12 years old. Now a socialist and a self-confessed Anglophile, he ranks the Mountbattens as the most popular British personalities ever to rule the former colonies, but shrugs off the last Viceroy's historic contribution.

"Mountbatten regarded his time in India as just a stint, and he was eager to return to his great naval career," Dr Kumar said. "Mountbatten's greatest skill was in public relations. He established mutual respect, warmth, and confidence ... though less so with the Muslim League. The Indian perception is that the liberation of our country was the direct result of the massive mobilisation brought about by Mohandas [Mahatma] Gandhi." He added that Britain, after the Blitz, could no longer bear the cost of the Empire.

He smiled apologetically. "Not to sound rude, but the sheer scale of India must have overwhelmed the British. I often wondered how men from such a shabby little island could even begin to preside over us."