Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre was recommended to me by zackq and KO (who has his own thoughts here). It is a highly readable book with a great writing style.
The major fault of the book lies with the authors’ reliance on Mountbatten. One of their major sources is a personal interview with Mountbatten. In addition, they got some of Mountbattens personal papers about the events of his viceroyalty in India. In my opinion, the authors seem to be smitten with Mountbatten. Every mention of him has something really nice to say. His charm, persuasiveness, greatness, administrative and military genius are praised over and over again. No skepticism is applied to Mountbatten’s account. Since I am not a Mountbatten fan, this turned me off quite a bit.
Freedom at Midnight starts when Mountbatten was appointed Viceroy of India in March 1947 and ends with Gandhi’s assassination in January 1948. Thus it is an account of the last year of British India. If you don’t know anything about the Indian independence movement, you might be better off reading a more comprehensive account. There is, however, a lot that happened in 1947 and “Freedom at Midnight” covers it in good detail, taking almost 500 pages to do so.
One of the side-effects of the authors’ Mountbatten-worship is that most of the major figures, like Gandhi, Nehru, and Jinnah, are seen mostly through Mountbatten’s eyes. One result of this is the extremely negative portrayal of Jinnah. I don’t usually have much of a problem with his negative portrayal since that is quite common in history books not written by Pakistanis. But “Freedom at Midnight” tries a negative adjective for Jinnah every time he’s mentioned. I know Jinnah was a determined fellow who was arrogant and vain as well, but still the authors lost me there. I do agree with this statement though:
Jinnah himself celebrated the day [of independence] by assuming full powers for his supposedly ceremonial office. In the year of life remaining to him, the London-trained lawyer who for years had not ceased to proclaim his faith in the constitutional process would govern his new nation as a dictator.
This, in my view, was one of the problems with Pakistani democracy since its founding. Contrast Jinnah’s behavior with Nehru. Nehru became Prime Minister of India and set up a parliamentary government. In the end, Nehru probably had as much dictatorial power as Jinnah but the foundation of parliamentary democracy had been set up in India while Pakistan became a land of dictators.
The authors also do not seem well-versed in Indian history before the British. For example, they mention that Islam came to India “after the cohorts of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane had battered their way down the Khyber Pass to weaken the Hindus’ hold on the Gangetic plain.” I guess they are confusing Muslims and Mughals. It was during the slave dynasty and then the Khaljis that the battles with the Mongols took place. Oh and Tamerlane himself was Muslim (not that it matters) and defeated Mahmud Tughluq in 1398.
The imperialist attitude of the British is captured well by the authors.
Their rule was paternalistic, that of the old public-school master disciplining an unruly band of boys, forcing on them the education that he was sure was good for them. With an occasional exception they were able and incorruptible, determined to administer India in its own best interests —- but it was always they who decided what those interests were.
This description of the Viceroy’s travel reminded me of Pakistan’s President-General.
Whenever the viceroy’s white-and-gold train moved across the vast spaces of India, guards were posted every one hundred yards along its route twenty-four hours in advance of its arrival.
Mountbatten impulsively decided the date of partition (Aug 15, 1947) at a press conference. No prior thought or discussions on this. And this is a guy who, according to the authors, had provided the Congress and Muslim League leaders with a 34-page document titled “The Administrative Consequences of Partition when partition had been agreed on because
He [Mountbatten] had forced these seven men to come to grips with a problem so imposing that it would leave them neither the time nor the energy for recrimination in the few weeks of coexistence left to them.
He had chosen the date because it was the anniversary of Japanese surrender. To top that impulsive decision, he decided not to reveal the Boundary Commission awards until a couple of days after independence. This created a lot of confusion in the provinces of Punjab and Bengal which were being partitioned.
I talked about dual loyalties in a previous post. Two instances in this book provide some food for thought.
- When the tribal irregular forces from Pakistan invaded the state of Kashmir (which was sort of independent at the time) on Ocober 24, 1947, this news was relayed to the British commander-in-chief of the Indian army, Lt. Gen. Sir Rob Lockhart, by the British general commanding the Pakistani army, Maj. Gen. Douglas Gracey. Do you think Gracey was being disloyal to the country he served, Pakistan? Why? Or why not?
- Sahibzada Yaqub Khan, then a major in the army (later foreign minister of Pakistan), opted to leave for Pakistan from his home in Rampur. He led a battalion of the Pakistani army in the war in Kashmir in 1947-8. His younger brother, Younis Khan, had decided to remain in his ancestral Rampur. He too was an army officer. And he too fought in Kashmir. But on the Indian side. What did these two guys think of loyalty? What do you think?
Any thoughts on the matter?