Patrick French's fascination with the Indian subcontinent began when he was 12 years old. In those days General Zia-ul-Haq was harbouring plans to assassinate Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Intrigued by the situation, Patrick French wrote letters to newspapers in London arguing that one shouldn’t execute a political opponent. Of course, none of them were printed. The current book itself was sparked off by a quote by Andre Malraux that the British decision to quit India was "the most significant fact of the century" and reduced Britain to a ‘third-rate power’.
You mix first-person narratives with the telling of history. Many people feel it hasn’t jelled.
I do not believe that it is possible to write scientific history. All historians have subjective views, and it is better to be open about that, which is why I have included my personal journeys. I decided to mix other people’s first-person narratives with pure factual history in order to give some sense of the human impact of the events of 1947. In my opinion, the personal consequences of those events, even today, on individuals and their families are extremely significant and lasting. Take, for instance, the plight of Biharis or stranded Pakistanis in Bangladesh, the rise of Hindu nationalism in Indian politics, or the civil war in Karachi between the MQM and the state—not to mention those people in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh who are still suffering the loss of their friends and families in the violence of 1947 and 1948.
You seem to have overplayed the importance of intelligence documentation, given the disproportionate space you have devoted to it?
The newly-released documentation of Indian Political Intelligence (IPI) is crucial to understanding why the British lost control over India during the period 1944-1946. It is probably the most significant historical archive ever released by the British intelligence or security agencies, and therefore I have made full use of it. I have not, however, made a full examination of the entire archive, and there is enough material there—especially from the 1920s— to keep ambitious graduate students occupied for a number of years.
You have been very kind to Lord Mountbatten, who many feel was instrumental in the misery of Partition? Was it because his family gave you access to his papers?
I am amazed that you think I have been ‘very kind’ to Lord Mountbatten. Have you read what I have written about him? I may have been fair to him, but that is all. The point I make about him is that although he made mistakes, and was biased against the Muslim League, he did a reasonably good job in very difficult circumstances. However, he was a minor figure—a bit-part player—in the story of Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan. He was Viceroy of India for fewer than five months, and all the crucial decisions relating to the settlement of 1947 were taken by other people before he even reached India.
He does bear some of the responsibility for the misery of 1947 and 1948, but it is a responsibility that has to be shared with the leadership of Congress and the Muslim League, and with the politicians back in London who made so many foolish mistakes during the 1930s and ’40s.
Mountbatten’s family did not provide me with any access to his papers, I used the papers that are already publicly available in the India Office Library in London.
There’s a whole Freudian interpretation of Gandhi, linking his personal fads to his public conduct and strategy. A little farfetched?
I do not provide a Freudian interpretation of Gandhi in my book. I do believe, however, that you cannot detach Gandhi’s personal psychological peculiarities from his conduct as a politician.
Did you take a revisionist view of Gandhi and Jinnah just to draw attention to your book?
Mahatma Gandhi was always one of my greatest heroes. It was, therefore, a profound personal disappointment to me when I began to research his life and activities in more detail, and to discover that the popular version of Gandhi is very far from the truth. If you believe that Gandhi was a blameless saint, try reading what he actually said and did at crucial points in the freedom movement—such as 1921, 1942 or 1946—and you will soon change your mind. He was an extremely wily politician, who failed to listen to the opinions of his opponents.
As for Jinnah, again I should say that my personal opinions on him changed significantly while researching Liberty or Death. Like most people in Britain and in India, I originally saw Jinnah as a bitter fanatic who had broken up the subcontinent. On closer study I came to see that he was a far more complex figure, who remained an Indian nationalist and secularist until his death. Jinnah and the Muslim League were pushed into an extreme political position during the 1930s and ’40s, largely through the intransigence of the Congress in meeting justifiable demands by Muslims and by the refusal of Nehru, Gandhi and Patel in particular to accept that Jinnah had the democratic support of a substantial minority of the Indian people. If my book is revisionist, that is as a direct result of my research in the archives—nothing else.
How did your opinions change?
I had the safe view of Gandhi as the father of the nation, etc. That changed. My new view came essentially from the archives of the IPI and the Transfer of Power documents. You see, British policy was based on complete ignorance and was chaotic. The effect you got was that Pakistan was not inevitable till 1945.
You say Jinnah was pushed into a corner and had no choice but to demand Pakistan?
There was so little accommodation of Muslim demands that Partition was inevitable. After the 1940 Lahore resolution Jinnah didn’t really give a vision for Pakistan. Right till 1946 he accepted a position put forward by Cripps, of Pakistan not being an autonomous nation. It’s quite clear that Jinnah was flexible. The Calcutta killings hardened stands on both sides. There’s no book that argues what I have argued here.
You have obviously disappointed the older generation.
Yes. But not the younger one, which says that even Gandhi and Nehru were human and had to make mistakes.
You might also have cleared once and for all the doubts about Subhas Bose’s death.
Yes, the book proves the matter conclusively. The IPI investigated the matter and a Captain Turner in Formosa was put on the case. He managed to locate a Captain Taneyashi Yoshimi who was the last person to have seen Bose alive. His statement should resolve the matter.
What documents still remain with the India office?
The papers released were screened by the foreign office and the MI 5. They held back details about intelligence methods, for some of them are apparently still in use.