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The Mountbattens: an Indian's tribute

WATCHING the premier installment of ``Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy'' brought vivid memories. During the last few minutes of Aug. 14, 1947, I remember sitting with some of my students in silent prayer as the words of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru came over All India Radio: ``At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.'' We were all devoted to Mohandas Gandhi, who had led us from bondage to freedom through the power of nonviolence. Many years earlier I had heard him say, ``We are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of nonviolence.'' I could not believe it then, but that midnight I believed it with all my heart.

Such a transfer of power had never taken place in the history of the world. There disappeared from our minds almost overnight the anger and animosity which had been seething for more than two centuries against our foreign rulers. Through nonviolence, Gandhiji had harnessed these destructive forces into love in action.

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Mountbatten responded immediately to Gandhi. ``At our first meeting,'' he said, ``we didn't talk any business at all. We just chatted. I told him how the Prince of Wales and I had tried to meet him when we were here in 1921, and how we were not allowed to -- he was really interested in that. Then I got him to tell me about his early life, his political beginnings in South Africa, and how he built up the nonviolent independence movement. We spent two hours talking in this way, and the press could hardly believe that we had not been deciding the fate of India. Well, perhaps we had -- indirectly.''

It is this personal touch that we Indians liked so much about Mountbatten, because it had been conspicuous by its absence in our British rulers. The people of India respond deeply to personal relationships, and Lord Mountbatten seems to have understood this instinctively. He needed relationships on which to build, and he sought goodwill by giving it freely. From the beginning, he said later, he felt that ``everything, absolutely everything, was going to depend upon personal relationships. If I could build up an atmosphere of trust and understanding with the key figures, I might succeed. If I could not do that, I knew I hadn't got a hope.''

A personal touch in Indian affairs was rare enough, but what made Mountbatten unique was that he combined it with absolute power. Mountbatten's predecessor, Lord Wavell, had not even been able to meet Gandhi without the prime minister's approval. Mountbatten refused to take the job without full power to make decisions on the spot without consulting London. No wonder Nehru asked him within a week of his arrival whether he had secured special powers. ``Yes, as a matter of fact, I did,'' Mountbatten replied. ``Why do you ask?''

``Because you act very differently than any other viceroy. You talk as if you are making the decisions.''

Edwina Mountbatten brought the same genuine warmth and honesty. She facilitated the transfer of power immeasurably by building a bridge between the British and the Indian people. During the six months when the face of India was disfigured by famine and violence, she brought consolation and confidence to myriad victims with what Nehru called ``the healing touch,'' working long hours in refugee camps and hospitals right up to the day of their return to England on June 20, 1948.

Prime Minister Nehru spoke for all of us on that occasion, when after expressing his appreciation for Lord Mountbatten's services to India, he turned to Lady Mountbatten and said: ``To you, madam, I should like to address myself also. The gods or some good fairy gave you beauty and high intelligence, and grace and charm and vitality -- great gifts, and she who possesses them is a great lady wherever she goes. But unto those that have, even more shall be given, and they gave you something which was even rarer than those gifts, the human touch, the love of humanity, the urge to serve those who suffer and who are in distress. . . .'' This was Edwina's great romance in India: with the Indian people.

Almost alone among their countrymen in India, the Mountbattens removed the barriers between ruler and ruled. Their mission was not ``Operation Scuttle,'' as Winston Churchill called it, but ``segregation scuttle.'' From their arrival they made it clear that in their eyes, as in Gandhi's, they and we were not in opposing camps. All were on the same side, facing the same problems, sharing the same goal. They were willing to talk with anyone, make any fair concession, take any personal risk, that would bring this goal within reach, and for this willingness and humanity they won India's heart. When Lord Mountbatten was assassinated on Aug. 27, 1979, Britain observed an official day of mourning. India declared not one day but two weeks, and her last viceroy was mourned in villages he could not have seen even on a map.

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These last few months have seen promising developments when power has been combined with the personal touch. President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President Muhammad Zia, have brought hope to situations that seemed hopeless. Last summer Bishop Desmond Tutu observed with surprise how much goodwill for whites he still found among black South Africans. Give blacks an honest promise and a reasonable timetable for sharing power, he said, and even today most of the enmity would evaporate. That is what the Mountbattens did in India.

I see no reason it cannot work in equally tense situations today.

Eknath Easwaran is the author of ``Gandhi the Man'' and ``A Man to Match His Mountains: Badshah Khan, Nonviolent Soldier of Islam.''

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