Last month the library began a series of blog posts about some of the most notable years of India’s history during the British occupation; the Battle of Plassey in 1757 and the Rebellion of 1857. Here the last instalment will highlight some works from the library’s collection which give some understanding of the events surrounding the independence of India in 1947 and the subsequent partition.
A particular strength of the collection is its range of official sources which give the viewpoint of the out-going British. The transfer of power, 1942-7, a multi-volume collection of sources published by the H.M.S.O. conveys this view. As one would expect, this work puts the process of independence in the broader context of the 1940s as well as having four volumes (of a twelve volume work) devoted to developments from November 1946 to the 15th August 1947. Also found in our collection are Louis Mountbatten’s report of events during the spring and summer of 1947, as well as the diary of Pamela Mountbatten (1929– ), Lord Mountbatten’s youngest daughter. Although varying in formality, from the official documents issued from the British government to the views of a teenager, all were entrenched in the centre of the British political establishment in India at the time.
Moving away from the direct centre of the British administration, however, a number of works in the library offer differing glimpses into developments during 1947 and 1948. A civil servant since 1935 and appointed partition secretary in 1947, the memoirs of Hiralal Muljibhai Patel (1903–1993) convey the impressions of someone not only from within the workings of Britain’s imperial administration but also someone who would have a major role to play in the new Indian administration.
Away from the government buildings and bureaucracies the course of independence and partition can be gleaned from two further works from our collection. One is the account of the American journalist (and later ambassador) William Phillips Talbot (1915–2010) who at the time was working for the Institute of Current World Affairs. He was not only a keen observer of political events but also of the social and humanitarian ramifications of the partition. The second work is the memoirs of Sir Fulque Agnew (1900–1975). Although he was a member of the British nobility, his career was at times far from typical; running away from school at 17 to join the British army and later air-force during the First World War, he would later become a conscientious objector working for the Friends Ambulance Unit during World War Two and would be briefly be in India in 1947–48, undertaking humanitarian work where he witnessed, although briefly, some of the horrors that took place during the partition.
Understandably these sources only give the briefest of impressions of events that would affect millions. The library, however, remains committed to add to all its collections and acquire works that will offer a broader spectrum of narratives, from the national to the local. Moreover the area around the Institute of Historical Research is lucky to be rich in other collections, notably the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies which offer many more voices from the years 1947 and 1948.