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AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER

- Gossip will cease only with the release of Nehru’s private papers

Jawaharlal Nehru didn’t have sex with Edwina Mountbatten, according to her daughter, Pamela Hicks. They were surrounded by too many people, says Louis Mountbatten’s ADC, Freddie Burnaby-Atkins. One wonders whether it would have made any difference to anyone if the affair had been consummated. The true story is locked up in the Nehru papers. But supplementary evidence draws attention to two aspects of Mountbatten’s conduct. First, he accommodated his wife’s serial infidelities. Second, his attitude to Nehru was marked by the utmost calculation.

Mountbatten and his wife made an extraordinarily dazzling couple whom their biographers have treated very gently. She was immensely rich from her Jewish grandfather. He was a royal prince, handsome, charming and extremely ambitious. Their sexual exploits were at one time the talk of London’s Mayfair society. Mountbatten is believed to have said once, “Edwina and I spent all our married lives getting into other people’s beds.” There were persistent rumours that the beds did not necessarily belong to people of the opposite sex. Even within their family, the phrase “to do a Dickie” was used for some spectacular piece of showmanship. Perhaps “doing a Dickie” had a wider connotation, reflecting the virtuosity of both husband and wife.

Although Nehru’s biographer says Mountbatten “bewitched” him, the courtship was entirely on Mountbatten’s side — at least to start with. Long before Nehru became prime minister, Mountbatten recognized him as “one of the most important political figures in the world” whom he ought to get to know in his own personal interest. Nehru may not even have been aware of Mountbatten’s existence except in very general terms in January 1944 when he was writing The Discovery of India in Ahmadnagar Fort. But Mountbatten, who was visiting Bombay at the time, was acutely aware of the prisoner’s importance and proximity, and wanted to meet him. It didn’t happen only because the viceroy’s permission was necessary, and Mountbatten’s powerful instinct for survival told him that an application might not go down too well with Lord Wavell.

When they did meet for the first time — in Singapore — it was entirely Mountbatten’s doing. Nehru wanted to visit Singapore as soon as World War II ended to see how the disbanded Indian National Army troops were faring under the British military administration Mountbatten headed and arrange their legal defence. Burma’s British governor refused to allow Nehru to set foot in his province; even the BMA’s director of intelligence, Air Vice Marshal L.F. Pendred, thought Nehru’s request “should be refused”. Determined to make things as uncomfortable as possible for the Congress leader if he insisted on coming, Mountbatten’s own staff decided to deny him official transport which would have immobilized him in the post-war colony and refuse to let him meet Indian soldiers by confining them to barracks.

The supremo was “extremely displeased” when he heard this. Not only did he regard his staff’s action “disloyal” to him “personally” but warned that if Nehru cancelled the trip it “would invite worldwide criticism which Nehru would not fail to exploit”. That last bit revealed he had no illusions about the politician he was wooing and claimed to admire. But his letter to S.K. Chettur, India’s official representative in Singapore, gave no hint of this low opinion. “I am not as foolish as to imagine that there will be no political significance attached to the visit,” he wrote, “but I know that (Nehru) is a man of honour and that he will not place me in an embarrassing position by carrying out any agitational activities during the period I am responsible for the administration of this country.”

Instead of just providing facilities, he formally invited Nehru “as an official representative of the All-India Congress”, apologized for the rudeness of his officers, and laid on almost head of government honours. Two British staff officers and Brigadier J.N. (Muchu) Chaudhuri, later chief of army staff, were attached to him. As the Tamil Murasu reported, Mountbatten and Nehru “rode in state” in an open car to the welfare centre where Edwina was waiting. The story of that tumultuous first encounter between the beleaguered Englishwoman and her gallant Indian rescuer need not be repeated.

What matters is the deviousness Mountbatten displayed throughout the visit. He asked Nehru not to lay a wreath at the site of the INA memorial which he had had demolished but looked the other way when Nehru did exactly what he had promised not to. More, a wooden replica of the demolished monument could not have been built so quickly for Nehru’s wreath-laying ceremony and dismantled immediately afterwards without the BMA’s full cooperation.

Several carefully planned objectives are obvious from Mountbatten’s behaviour. He was anxious to insinuate himself into the good graces of the future leader of the world’s largest democracy. He was determined to win the approbation of Indians, Chinese and Malays as the friend and patron of Asia’s then greatest statesman. The belief that “he could lose nothing by sharing the crowd’s enthusiasm and taking half the wind destined for Nehru’s sails” indicated a purpose that was both less friendly and less honest. The “Lord Louis Mountbatten ki jai!” slogans of lustily cheering INA soldiers amply fulfilled that calculation and must have been music to his ears.

Mountbatten also hoped his warm hospitality would persuade Nehru not to show too much enthusiasm for the INA, a hope that possibly chimed with the Indian leader’s own inclinations. British intelligence reports reveal gratification as the crowd of more than 100,000 people that had gathered in Singapore’s Jalan Besar Stadium drifted away as Nehru rebuked them for raising the old INA slogan of “Blood! Blood! Blood!” Speaking in generalities about discipline and constructive action instead of hurling defiance at imperialism, Nehru said the time for “provocative and unwise” actions was over. The British were delighted he didn’t give the audience, which included Chinese communists and Indonesian nationalists, the fiery rhetoric it had come to hear.

Nor was Mountbatten above practising a little duplicity to belittle Nehru in Asian eyes. He reckoned his public display of friendship would diminish Nehru in the estimation of ardent nationalists and encourage them to suspect “that one who fraternized openly with representatives of the British Raj was a bit of a Quisling”. Hence the ceremonial honours, the ride together in an open car and an intimate dinner party at Government House. The complacent comment, “Altogether we must have stolen part of the old boy’s thunder, besides publicly linking him up with us …” suggests a trap neatly laid by a canny adversary (definitely not a friend) into which the victim walked guilelessly.

In her first book, India Remembered, Pamela Hicks indicated Mountbatten used his wife as a political bridge to Nehru. The question is how far he went to serve that purpose and how much he put up with. Earlier, he put up with her “Bunny”, Lt. Col. Harold Phillips, just as she put up with his Yola Letellier. They even closed ranks to sue the People for salacious stories about an unnamed society woman’s unnamed coloured lover. The Mountbattens swore in court they didn’t know Paul Robeson; actually, the gossip was about a West Indian entertainer, Leslie (Hutch) Hutchinson, whom they did know. But luck favoured them.

These situations are all well documented. It’s only Nehru’s relationship with Lady Mountbatten that is debased by sniggering personal assistants, aborted films and stories of a ménage a trois on that most resonant of whispering galleries, the internet. And all because the relevant papers are so jealously guarded that people are encouraged to assume the worst. It’s in the public interest, as well as in the interest of reputations that are sacred, that Nehru’s private papers should be brought into the light of day.