The Indian public in general, and the Indian press in particular, has shown a keen and perhaps excessive interest in the relationship between Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten. That they were intimates is not to be doubted–but did the bonds ever move from the merely emotional to the tellingly physical? That one was the Prime Minister of India and the other the wife of the Governor-General of India we know—but was Nehru ever influenced in his policies by the desires and preferences of his friend Edwina?
Despite the column inches devoted to these matters in the press, and the interrogations and speculations on radio and television, we still don’t really know. I do not propose here to provide definitive answers to those questions. But I do wish to supply an interesting and possibly telling sidelight on the Nehru-Edwina friendship. The material comes from the diaries of Walter Crocker, who served two long terms as High Commisssioner of Australia in New Delhi, and later published an incisive political biography of Nehru.
On the 21st of February 1960, Edwina Mountbatten died in her sleep while on a visit to Borneo. Shortly after midday, the news was communicated to Walter Crocker by his friend Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, the veteran Gandhian and high-ranking Minister in the Union Government. That evening the Australian diplomat was due to attend a dinner at Hyderabad House in honour of the historian Arnold Toynbee. Toynbee had already published several volumes of his best-selling survey of the rise and fall of civilizations. He was in Delhi at the invitation of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, who had asked him to deliver the first of what was to become an annual lecture in memory of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.
As Crocker wrote in his diary that night, by the time he reached Hyderabad House, ‘Nehru was there. He must have had strong feelings about the utterly sudden death of Lady M[ountbatten] but he showed no sign of it. He sat next to Toynbee at dinner and for a while was silent, but for the rest of the meal was plunged into a lively conversation with him. As usual everyone around looked by comparison, strained, inhibited, dim. There was not a hint of self-consciousness or fear or hesitation about him. His physical handsomeness in itself was dominating—the eyes, the golden-light brown and healthy skin, the healthy hair… What a man, whatever his policies’.
As a first-hand account of how Jawaharlal Nehru felt and acted the day Edwina Mountbatten died, this is striking indeed. With an almost magisterial self-will, Nehru appears to have kept his thoughts (and we may presume, his grief) hidden within himself. A honoured guest had come to town, and the Prime Minister’s duty was to entertain and amuse him. At the time, Toynbee had a colossal popular following. Never since (and rarely before) has a mere historian been treated with such deference around the globe or so readily acknowledged as an oracle. That evening at Hyderabad House, the others around the table, whether Indian or Western, were inhibited, even tongue-tied. It was only the Prime Minister who could engage Toynbee in a conversation of intellectual equals. His dearest friend had just died: but his office, and his country, demanded of Nehru that he set aside his personal grief and act as was expected of him.
There is some talk that Nehru mortgaged Indian interests in Kashmir at the behest of his English friend (and possibly lover). Such speculation has not yet been backed by concrete evidence. On the other hand, reading Crocker ’s account of his conduct in public on 21st September 1960, it is hard to believe that while Edwina was alive, Nehru would have abandoned principle and patriotism in deference to her whims and charms.
We now know, courtesy the unpublished diaries of an Australian diplomat, how Nehru behaved the day Edwina died. How Edwina might have behaved had her dearest friend predeceased her can never be known. Let me supply, as a wholly inadequate substitute, the reactions of the aforementioned diarist. In May 1964 Walter Crocker was serving as Australian Ambassador to the Netherlands. On the morning of the 27th, he got a call telling him that Nehru had passed away in New Delhi. Late that night he made the following entry in his diary:
‘Not much else in my mind for the rest of the day. My Indian friends and associates, who meant so much to me for the last 12 years, are struck down, one by one. Last week it was [the diplomat] Harish[war] Dayal. Not long before that it was [the civil servant] Sir V. T. [Krishnamachari] and then [the historian K. M.] Panikkar. And a couple of months ago it was [Rajkumari] Amrit [Kaur]. Now the beacon light itself has gone out’.
It only remains for me to repeat the (well deserved) accolades—what a man (whatever his policies), the beacon light itself.
Published in The Hindu, 30/9/2007