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Presenting the Narrator to History


Sabyasachi Bhattacharya

EARL MOUNTBATTEN: REPORT ON THE LAST VICEROYALTY: 22 MARCH-12 AUGUST, 1947
Edited by Lionel Carter
Manohar Publishers, Delhi, 2003, pp. 397, Rs. 850.00

VOLUME XXVIII NUMBER 2 February 2004

Here is a man who seems to be sure what memoirs are about. Memoirs are to preserve some memories—and to erase some. It is all about presenting the narrator to history. That is one of the reasons this work is of absorbing interest and also why one should read it with caution.      From the title onwards the picture one gets in this book is that of a glittering star in the dark evening of the empire. No doubt there are very many people who care a good deal about their image. But Mountbatten has a flair for self-presentation which is greater than what falls to the lot of the vast majority. It was customary for the Viceroys to write a weekly letter to the Secretary of State; Mountbatten wrote to London likewise but he took it upon himself the additional task of writing a weekly report which was read by the Prime Minister, some members of the Cabinet and, it now seems, the King as well, Mountbatten writes that the intention was to “show fully on what grounds the various decisions which had to be made, almost invariably with great speed, were based” (p. 17). These reports collected together by the author with a long introduction, notes on personalities mentioned in the text, and a set of documents in the Appendix, constitute the present volume. In this edition an excellent editorial introduction has been added. It is written by Lionel Carter who was associated with Nicholas Mansergh’s project of editing the ‘Transfer of Power’ documents and served as the Librarian of the Centre for South Asian Studies at Cambridge for many years.      These reports by Mountbatten were the result of a self-imposed obligation to explain what he did. He went further and began, as soon as these reports were printed in 1949, to distribute copies. Since the reports were official records and contained references to persons still in office, Prime Minister Attlee raised an objection and eventually wrote to Mountbatten requesting him to refrain from distributing copies of these reports. Later Mountbatten offered help to and possibly influenced the writings of Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre on ‘freedom at midnight’ and the Partition of India. What drove Mountbatten to act in this way, composing reports which were not necessarily required of him, circulating the reports which was a breach of official convention, manipulating historical enquiries after the event?      There may ...


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