On his 133rd birth anniversary, the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, remains among the most talked-about politicians in the country. While his policies and decisions as prime minister invoke constant scrutiny, his personal life, specially his relationship with Lady Edwina Mountbatten, continues to invite curiosity and comment.
The ties between Nehru and the Mountbatten couple, which their daughter Pamela described as a “happy three-some”, has been dealt with at great length in various books, including Alex von Tunzelmann’s ‘Indian Summer’ (2007). The picture that emerges is of a relationship of deep love and respect, and one that cast an indelible imprint on how independent India took shape.
How they came close
In May 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru was invited to Mashobra in Simla by Viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten and Lady Edwina Mountbatten for an ‘informal weekend’.
Tunzelmann writes that initially, Nehru was tense, but soon, he relaxed.
“Jawahar walked with Dickie and Edwina around the orchard terraces and up mountain paths, which wound up the hill from which Lord Kitchener’s former mansion, Wildflower Hall, could be glimpsed atop the next peak. Though once a flamboyant youth, Nehru had become a man of simpler tastes. Yet there were two pleasures he could never resist: the vitality of mountain scenery, and the company of an interesting woman. At Mashobra, he had both. Soon he was happily teaching Dickie and Edwina to walk backwards up slopes to rest their muscles…”
Yet, more happened at Mashobra than the first significant meeting between Nehru and Edwina. This was the visit where Mountbatten showed Nehru the transfer of power plan, and an enraged Nehru shot off a “bombshell letter”, rejecting many points of the plan.
The Mountbattens’ younger daughter, Lady Pamela Hicks, writes in her book ‘India Remembered: A Personal Account of the Mountbattens During the Transfer of Power’ (2007), “… my father began soul-searching and decided to show Nehru the Mountbatten Plan to get his feedback. Nehru was incandescent and kept Krishna Menon up till dawn the night that he arrived, dictating the bombshell letter dated the 11th May (1947) to my father which rejected many points of the plan which he saw as the Balkanisation of his country. My father rethought and with the incredible Menon, redrafted the whole plan…,”
About the same incident, Tunzelmann writes, “So well had things been going with Jawahar that, on a whim Dickie broke protocol and ignored the advice of his staff to show his new chum a copy of the secret plan in the study after dinner that very night. But when Jawahar read through the top secret papers his disposition turned from affable to shocked, and from shocked to furious.
At two o’clock the next morning he stormed into Krishna Menon’s bedroom. The draft proposals, he wrote to Dickie that night, ‘produced a devastating effect upon me.’ They presented, he said, ‘a picture of fragmentation and conflict and disorder, and, unhappily also, of a worsening of relations between India and Britain.'”
Mountbatten took note of Nehru’s objections, and the plan was smoothened into a “acceptable shape”, where Edwina “extracted a concession” from Nehru to offset some revisions to the plan.
The relationship and Jinnah
Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s knowledge or suspicion that Nehru was shown the draft plan would go on to influence his attitude to Lord Mountbatten and his proposals — Tunzelmann says Jinnah had strong reasons to suspect Mountbatten was “wrapped around Nehru’s finger”. However, according to Tunzelmann, Jinnah was once brought too close for comfort to the Edwina-Jawaharlal dynamic. She writes that according to SS Pirzada, later foreign minister of Pakistan, in June 1947, Jinnah was handed some letters purportedly written by Edwina to Nehru.
“ Pirzada claimed that Jinnah discussed what to do about these letters with Fatima [his sister] and his colleagues. In the end, Jinnah concluded Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion’, and had the letters returned.”
After Nehru’s political mentor and guru, Mahatma Gandhi, was assassinated, it was Edwina who sat next to a stricken Nehru at the funeral. Their relationship became closer.
“In those days of tension, and later when she [Edwina] came to stay with my brother after he became Prime Minister of the Republic of India, she was one of the few people left who could break his sombre moods, remembered Jawahar’s sister, Betty. “When she was there, Bhai’s laughter would ring through the house as it used to when we were young.”
Dickie [Lord Mountbatten] showed no sign of feeling excluded by the relationship. He pasted into his own private photograph album a selection of pictures from early February, when he and Edwina went to the Kumbh Mela at Allahabad with Jawahar… One snapshot of Dickie, Edwina, Jawahar and Pamela was captioned simply, in Dickie’s handwriting, ‘Family visit to Allahabad’,” Tunzelmann’s book says.
When Edwina was once taken dangerously ill, she entrusted letters Nehru wrote to her to her husband. She told Lord Mountbatten, “You will realise that they are a mixture of typical Jawaha (sic) letters, full of interest and facts and really historic documents. Some of them have no ‘personal’ remarks at all. Others are love letters in a sense, though you yourself will realise the strange relationship —most of it spiritual — which exists between us. J has obviously meant a very great deal in my life in these last years and I think I, in his. Our meetings have been rare and always fleeting but I think I understand him, and perhaps he me, as well as any human beings can ever understand each other.”
In her book, Pamela quotes a letter which Lord Mountbatten wrote to her elder sister Patricia in June 1948: “She [Edwina] and Jawaharlal (sic) are so sweet together, they really dote on each other in the nicest way and Pammy and I are doing everything we can to be tactful and help. Mummy has been incredibly sweet lately and we’ve been such a happy family.”
When Edwina, as Countess Mountbatten, died in 1960 in Indonesia, a pile of letters were found at her bedside table — they were all from Jawaharlal Nehru.