In this week’s post PhD student Rakesh Ankit looks back over his time researching the Mountbatten Papers among “the jewels in the crown of the University of Southampton.”
“When, in the winter of 2010, I was gathering information and collecting material to make a successful application to start a PhD in the United Kingdom, Southampton was among the 3-4 universities I applied to. It quickly emerged as my first choice for three reasons: an opportunity to work under Prof Ian Talbot, the possibility of a fully-funded bursary and archival studentship and the presence of the Mountbatten and related papers at the Hartley Library. I was, therefore, delighted when, in the spring of 2011, I was informed of the successful outcome of my application. Today, in the autumn of 2014 as I await my viva – having submitted my thesis – I look back on three very pleasant and productive academic years.
A key reason for this lies on the shelves of the strong room and the desks of the reading room of the Special Collections on Level 4 of the Hartley Library, where I have probably spent maximum time when in campus. My PhD thesis is on the international dimensions of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan from 1947 to 1966. This was also roughly the period during which Louis Mountbatten (along with his wife Edwina) was at his most involved and most influential, with diminishing returns as the years went, in Indian affairs. To state the obvious, therefore, his papers, those of his wife and his Press Officer, Alan Campbell-Johnson, have been the foundational source for my enquiry. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that it was Mountbatten who was responsible for any international dimensions accruing to the Kashmir dispute by his successful suggestion to his close friend and the first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to take the matter to the United Nations in December 1947. Otherwise, it might well have remained a subcontinental or a Commonwealth affair.
As befits a rich and enduringly relevant set of papers, MB files have been used by scholars ever since they were first put together in their present form almost two decades ago. Thus far, the chief focus has been Mountbatten’s role in the end of Britain’s India Empire with increasingly a look at his anomalous position as independent India’s first Governor-General from August 1947 to June 1948. Of course, as a contentious historical figure, Mountbatten has been subject to laudatory or condemnatory accounts from as early as early-1950s with the high water marks of biographical history-writing on him being reached in the mid-1980s and subsequently.
From the start, therefore, I was conscious to avoid the trodden tracks and while I sifted through the material for my prime purpose – the international dimensions of the Kashmir dispute that simmered on Mountbatten’s watch as the last Viceory and boiled over during his tenure as Governor-General – I was perhaps keener to move away from the academic battles of 1947-48 involving Mountbatten. In this endeavour, I was encouraged by Prof Chris Woolgar. I can do no more than join the many researchers, who have benefitted from their interactions with the always generous, indeed indulgent, Head of Special Collections (1990-2013), in expressing my gratitude. And so, instead of starting with the MB1/D series as most if not all South Asia students do, I did everything else first: MB1/C, E, F, G, H, I, J, K et al. This research provided the basis for an article I wrote on Mountbatten and India, 1948-1964, which was published in The International History Review earlier this year in April.
When, after this detour, I turned to Mountbatten’s Viceroyalty, my attention was caught by the very first file, a rather thick one, in the MB1/D series, which contained the fortnightly personal letters that each of the last 11 provincial governors in British India wrote to the last Viceroy between March and August 1947. While the months leading up to the partition of British India has been looked at in perhaps every single detail now, at the national, provincial and local levels, one missing link in this story had been the provincial governors. One glance through the file made me embark upon a detailed plumbing of the letters, aimed at bringing these men to light. My supervisor, Prof Ian Talbot, gave me crucial confidence and support for this old-fashioned foray into personality politics of a period rather populated with personalities. It bore fruit recently (issue dated 2 August 2014) as an article in the journal Economic & Political Weekly titled The Last Sahibs: Governors in British India, March-August 1947.
While on the subject of provinces, yet another fruitful avenue of research that the Mountbatten files present is the situation in the non-partitioned seven provinces of British India at the cusp of independence and what that tells us about the continuities and linkages between the colonial and post-colonial state across the divide of 1947. Naturally, the historiography on Mountbatten and India in 1947 has been dominated by the plight of Punjab and Bengal, their partition and its aftermath. By shifting one’s gaze besides them to those other, sometimes bigger in size and population, provinces that escaped territorial division and communal calculations but wrestled with their own problems no less important for their imprint on the new dominions of India and Pakistan, aided by the files on them in the Mountbatten collection, one gets much food for thought.
Apart from the provinces, the other rich subject of enquiry for Mountbatten’s time in India is his treatment of the princely states – a much-written about subject. One princely state among the 550-odd that has escaped attention is the tiny western state of Junagadh, which was the first crisis of accession between India and Pakistan. As I worked on the biggest crisis – Kashmir – my attention came to the smallest – Junagadh. Once again, a set of four files in the MB1/D series made me realise the continuing potential of the Mountbatten collection to throw new light on many episodes of early independent Indian history, where there are still more assumptions than answers. Here, the Alan Campbell-Johnson files too registered a prominent presence.
These last two topics – the non-partitioned provinces and Junagadh – remain works in progress but how can one adequately express gratitude for the congenial research base provided for the PhD as well as the research possibilities pointed for a post-doc by this seemingly inexhaustible collection? Mountbatten was uniquely involved in the war and diplomacy around Kashmir in 1947-48 and then retained his influence to be brought out to India in the summer of 1963 to prevail upon his old friend Nehru to settle the dispute. Naturally, his papers have a range of material – from the official to the strictly personal. Among the galaxy of Britons who chose to stay back in India and Pakistan post-August 1947, none found himself in a more peculiar position than Mountbatten whose reputation as the imperial Crown Representative would give way to charges of partisanship in favour of India, not only in Pakistan but in the establishment circles in London too.
But before partition and charges of partisanship came, Mountbatten had gone to India to head a coalition government of the Congress and the Muslim League in March 1947 and, for the next two months, ran British India as the head of this council whose political and ideological incompatibility has overshadowed the complex collaborational governance exercise it was engaged in. Once again, those files in the Mountbatten collection, which contain the minutes of these Cabinet meetings, flag an interesting research topic, an enquiry into the nature and working of the last central government of British India that existed between September 1946 and August 1947.
There are many merits of the Mountbatten and related papers; first and foremost of which is that here one can find material that is still under lock and key in India (and Pakistan). Equally there are pitfalls in relying exclusively on this collection, like any other but especially so here given the personality and career of Mountbatten himself; the chief being the need to be wary of Mountbatten’s and his staff’s propensity to exaggerate his importance and centrality in the scheme of things as well as their production of contemporary records always keeping an eye on history-writing thereby at times taking liberty with facts and figures and sequences and sentiments.
It would be remiss to conclude without a mention of the very kind and helpful staff in the reading room. I have always felt at home and would rather be there than at any other place when on campus in Southampton. I will also remember fondly the behind-the-scenes view of the strong room that the Senior Archivist, Karen Robson personally handled for me and my parents. I write not only with a sense of attachment and affection, but also in praise of the personal touch and the professionalism with which the Special Collections are handled at the Hartley Library. Add the Wellington, Palmerston and the Anglo-Jewish Archives, and it is no exaggeration to say that the Special Collections are the jewels in the crown of the University of Southampton.”