One of Mahatma Gandhi’s prominent followers, C. Rajagopalachari or “Rajaji”—who was also known as CR and who later fell out with Gandhiji—had “sold” Partition to Lord Louis Mountbatten, as, according to “Rajaji”, “Partition was the only answer”. This, among several other revelations, is what emerges from K. Natwar Singh’s book Treasured Epistles published by Rupa Publications. In fact, Congress leaders, including Jawaharlal Nehru, very much backed Partition and were “all for Partition”, according to the book.
This particular revelation in the book assumes significance in the context of the fact that in the past, the Congress responded to criticism that the party allowed Partition by saying that it was only after Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel became “amenable” to the idea of Partition that Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, “turned his attention” to Nehru, and that Nehru was not at first willing.
A collection of letters from those who regularly wrote to Natwar Singh—including friends, contemporaries and colleagues, from the days of his Foreign Service to ambassadorship, to his days as Minister of External Affairs—Treasured Epistles is a remarkable volume and a striking testimony of Singh’s ability to relate to a variety of distinguished individuals, including Indira Gandhi, “Rajaji”, Lord Mountbatten, Jawaharlal Nehru’s two sisters Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and Krishna Hutheesing, and Han Suyin, also known as Elizabeth, the Chinese-born physician and author who penned the best-selling autobiographical novel A Many-Splendoured Thing (1952), which was made into the 1955 film Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.
Notably, in 1927, it was Rajaji whom Mahatma Gandhi had first designated as his successor, changing his mind a decade later in favour of Nehru. After Independence, Rajaji was Home Minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet, Governor of West Bengal and finally succeeded Lord Mountbatten as the last Governor General of India. In 1942, Rajaji had fallen out with Gandhiji as he was not in favour of the Quit India Movement, but the fact about Rajaji claiming to have “sold” Partition to Lord Mountbatten emerged much later in 1962, during a conversation Natwar Singh had with Rajaji whom, Singh says, he met accidentally.
Rajagopalachari, then 85, arrived in New York in October 1962. He was leading the Gandhi Peace Foundation delegation. The purpose of the visit was to persuade the United States to stop testing nuclear weapons. He met President John F. Kennedy, who, according to B.K. Nehru—then India’s Ambassador to the US—was impressed by Rajaji’s plea.
At the time, Natwar Singh was posted to a permanent mission to the United Nations in New York. Normally, Rajaji would have been a guest of B.N. Chakravarthy, who was heading the mission at the UN. However, his house was under repairs and Natwar Singh was asked to put up Rajaji in his apartment. This gave Natwar Singh the opportunity to have several conversations with Rajagopalachari. One of the discussions, according to Natwar Singh in Treasured Epistles, went like this: ‘One day, I said to him, “Sir, Lord Mountbatten sold Partition to Panditji and Sardar Patel.” He replied, “Now, let me tell you, I sold Partition to Mountbatten. I told him that Partition was the only answer.”
‘I persisted by saying that Gandhiji was against Partition. “Gandhi was a very great man but he saw what was going on. He was a very disillusioned man. When he realised that we were all for Partition, he said, ‘If you all agree, I will go along with you,’ and left Delhi the next day.”’
About Lord Mountbatten, Natwar Singh says: “A close friend of Jawaharlal Nehru, Lord Mountbatten was diplomatically shrewd enough to be reverential to Mahatma Gandhi. For nearly four decades, Mountbatten’s India record was looked upon as dazzling and more than stirring. He had mastered the art of self-promotion.”
In talking about Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Natwar Singh says in Treasured Epistles that “Jawaharlal Nehru avoided getting involved in the constant bickering of his sisters (Pandit and Krishna Hutheesing, who was seven years younger than Pandit)”. Pandit, 11 years younger than Nehru, was also the aunt of Indira Gandhi. As is common knowledge, Pandit was way ahead of her times, in an era when a political career was practically non-existent for women. Natwar Singh acknowledges as much in his book, saying: “Her career was glittering by my standards: She was the first woman minister in India (in Uttar Pradesh, during 1937-39); Indian Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1947-49) and the United States (1949-51); first woman to be President of the United Nations General Assembly (1953-54); High Commissioner to the United Kingdom (1954-61); Governor of Maharashtra (1962-64); and member of the Lok Sabha (1966-68).”
Natwar Singh says he got to know Krishna Hutheesing in 1944. Singh says that “she was charming, amusing and a fairly competent writer, but lacked the charisma of her brother and sister”. Her sons, Harsh and Ajit, were in the Scindia School, Gwalior, with Singh. “My proximity to her was known to Vijaya Lakshmi and was not a recommendation: If you were friendly with one, you had to be against the other,” says Singh.
However, if the two sisters Pandit and Hutheesing were, according to Natwar Singh, “constantly bickering”, Pandit’s relations with her niece Indira Gandhi were also strained. In a letter dated 21 January 1964, Pandit, writing to Natwar Singh about her worries regarding taking care of her ailing brother Nehru, describes herself as “somewhat of a persona non-grata”. Pandit writes: “The problem now is going to be how to restrain Bhai. You know his sense of responsibility and the way in which he wants to take everybody’s mistakes on himself—this obviously, must stop. He is required for a long time and must be made to understand it…Indira is swayed in all sorts of directions and gives in. I do not quite know who is to take care of this precious life. As you know I am somewhat of a persona non-grata. One can but pray.”
Much later, as is well known, when Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister declared the Emergency in 1975, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit strongly criticised it, despite the former being her niece, and even campaigned against Indira Gandhi in 1977. Natwar Singh admits in his book that Indira Gandhi “made two serious mistakes—declaring the Emergency in 1975 and allowing Operation Blue Star to happen”. But, otherwise, Singh is all praise for Indira Gandhi, saying: “And yet, regardless of these (mistakes), she was a great and powerful prime minister.” Singh gives a glimpse into Indira Gandhi’s persona, saying: “Ever so often, Indira Gandhi is depicted as solemn, severe, prickly and ruthless. Seldom is it mentioned that this beautiful, caring, charming, graceful and sparkling human being was a considerate humanist and a voracious reader, that she was endowed with charm, elegance, style, good taste and, above all, gravitas.” Natwar Singh’s use of a trail of adjectives singing Indira Gandhi’s paeans is understandable as he explains: “From 1966 to 1971, I worked in her office. I saw her almost every other day, travelled the globe with her and witnessed life of the high and mighty. We gossiped, exchanged books and cracked jokes.” So when Gandhi’s end came, Singh says: “Her assassination on 31 October 1984 devastated me. The spring went out of my life.”
Natwar Singh, in Treasured Epistles, says that his friendship with Han Suyin, the Chinese-born physician and author, lasted five decades. They met in different parts of the globe. The last time was in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 2004. Singh recalls: “Dementia had set in. It was heartbreaking to see her so helpless.” Han Suyin died in 2012, at the age of 85, but Singh says he keeps reading her immortal novel A Many-Splendoured Thing, an autobiographical work “covering her passionate love affair with an English correspondent who died covering the Korean War in 1950”. About the 1955 flick made from the book, Singh says it was “far too gooey for my taste”.