A discovery of India

Book cover of The Lost Homestead: My Mother, Partition and the Punjab
Marina Wheeler is a British barrister who has risen to being a Queen’s Counsel. Her father was Sir Charles Wheeler, a BBC correspondent in South Asia in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Her mother was Dip Singh, whose story and that of the subcontinent before and after Partition as explored by Ms Wheeler, are enmeshed into an engaging The Lost Homestead.

Ms Wheeler and her elder sister Shirin were born in Berlin, where Charles was dispatched after Delhi. From there the family moved to Washington and Brussels, before settling in rural Sussex. Until her sunset days, Dip resolutely refused to expand on her years in Sargodha, now in Pakistan, where she was born, and India. Indeed, she discouraged her daughters from building a close connection with India in order to spare them a “confused identity”. She stopped visiting India soon after her mother, who had stood by her after her divorce from the celebrated writer Khushwant Singh’s brother, died. “My father,” she felt, “never forgave me.”

Not every view elicited from her many conversations is engrossing. 

Ms Wheeler’s voyage of discovery took her to where her grandparents Harbans and Ranjit’s “homestead” — bigger than a bungalow, but smaller than a palace — once stood; but where she now encountered scrubland. The grandfather, a doctor, was presented a silver watch by the British for conscripting Indians to fight in the First World War. The grand-daughter reacts: “Recruiting troops to fight in a conflict in which scores of young soldiers (62,000 to be precise) were slaughtered. Hmm. I am not sure what I think of this.” The Sikh didn’t turn against the Raj even after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Crestfallen at being uprooted from Sargodha, where he was president of the municipal committee, he is said to have lamented: “We lived in peace under British rule; why can’t we live the same under Muslim rule?” Ms Wheeler concludes this was “a minority view among Sikhs”.

Dip was free-spirited. Notwithstanding being displaced, she was euphoric about India becoming an independent country at last. She told Marina: “We trusted and loved leaders like (Jawaharlal) Nehru and (Mahatma) Gandhi. They were our ‘pin-ups’.”  

Ms Wheeler writes Lord Louis Mountbatten as governor-general of India proposed Jammu and Kashmir’s “temporary” merger with India, with a plebiscite to “either confirm or reject the accession”. There is no such clause, though, in the Instrument of Accession he signed with the Maharaja of Kashmir. She also contends that India and Pakistan “failed to agree terms to demilitarise the area as a precondition to voting, so no plebiscite has ever been held”. United Nations Security Council Resolution 47 of April 21, 1948, stipulated Pakistan should withdraw all its tribesmen and nationals from the state. India was asked to reduce its forces to a “minimum strength” only after the UN was satisfied Pakistani tribesmen had withdrawn and “arrangements for the cessation of the fighting have become effective”. These conditions were never complied with.  

Being a human rights advocate, Ms Wheeler is predictably critical of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in J&K — she compares this to the Raj’s Rowlatt Act — which detains accused without trial.   

The Lost Homestead: My Mother, Partition and the Punjab
Author: Marina Wheeler
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 336; Price: Rs 699

Dip was “married off”, “dowry-less” to Daljit Singh. “I don’t remember feeling anything, really. I was a very young seventeen-year-old who knew nothing about the world. I wasn’t filled with dread. I just thought this is what you do.” Family members mentioned to Marina, her husband “was keen to marry Dip because she was a beauty, but after the ceremony he ignored her”. After a few years, Dip walked out of the arrangement, which, she told her daughter, was “never consummated”, although she was willing. She combined a job as social secretary to the Canadian High Commissioner with tennis at the Delhi Gymkhana. Ms Wheeler, “Dip was seriously good at tennis and her skirts were seriously short!” Among her partners was diplomat Kunwar Natwar Singh, later to become India’s external affairs minister.

Turning to the present, Ms Wheeler asserts: “Despite the gulf between the BJP and Gandhi’s worldviews, when expedient, the government will milk the affection and respect that most Indians still feel for the Mahatma.” She adds: “Hindutva is alive and kicking in India today.”

Ms Wheeler notes Mohammed Ali Jinnah “did not practice religion himself”, but “reached out for it as a political tool.” But she also surmises the mass resignation of 11 Congress provincial governments in protest against not being consulted by the British before their declaration of war in 1939, was a mistake. “By removing itself from the political fray, Congress opened the way for a massive resurgence of the Muslim League.” Besides, she condemns the partition line hastily drawn by British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe as “a parting gift of Empire”, which left “the Indian people to an awful fate”.      

The trigger for her treatise was Gurinder Chadha’s 2017 film  Viceroy’s House,  which left her wondering if Britain indeed had a secret plan (attributed to Sir Winston Churchill by an erstwhile Indian diplomat Narendra Singh Sarila) to divide India to advance its geopolitical interests in the oil-rich Gulf given the brewing Cold War with the Soviet Union. Ms Wheeler doesn’t quite answer this question, although she describes the wartime British prime minister as “a hard-line imperialist”.

Boris Johnson, the UK’s current head of government, to whom she was married for 25 years before splitting midway through her writing assignment, in contrast is an adoring biographer of Churchill. He's completely shut out of the book in what could be interpreted as an intentional snub!

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