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Censoring history

I am a British historian who has been campaigning for an historically important collection of private papers which could shed fresh light on the creation of Pakistan. Unfortunately, it is being withheld by the British government and the University of Southampton.

For the last four years, I have been engaged in a legal battle to secure the release of the private diaries and letters of the last viceroy of India, Earl Mountbatten of Burma.

The collection was bought by Southampton University with public monies from the Mountbatten family for £2.8 million in 2011 on the basis that it would be made public, but was then closed by Southampton after the British government claimed the material included sensitive material on the royal family and Pakistan.

The British information commissioner, the regulator on freedom of information, ruled in 2019 that the diaries and letters should be released but Southampton and the British Cabinet Office appealed the decision notice and a hearing was finally held in November 2021 to decide the matter.

Why would revealing Edwina Mountbatten’s reference to Jinnah harm Pak-UK ties?

By then, Southampton had quietly put 99 per cent of the material online. The 30,000 pages of new information includes the Mountbattens’ diaries during their time in India, March 1947-June 1948, providing new insights into their attitudes, contacts and activities and will be an invaluable source for future historians.

Only some 100 redactions were left in the previously closed material to be resolved at the hearing. Most could not be challenged because discussions were held in a secret session, but those which could be identified give cause for concern that history is being censored for no apparent reason. For example, Edwina’s views of Mohammad Ali Jinnah are well known, and have been quoted extensively in many books, but the tribunal chose to close a single-word reference to him in her private diary.

The British Foreign Office argued in the closed session that revealing the comment would jeopardise Anglo-Pakistan relations, and the tribunal agreed. “The claimed prejudice is the exposure to a risk of damage to UK’s relationship with Pakistan and India at a critical time for the UK. On the basis of the evidence of Mr Casey and Ms Craig we conclude that disclosure would be likely to cause the claimed prejudice, that the prejudice is real, actual and of substance and that there is a causative link, based on the experience and expertise of those witnesses.”

Particularly in this 75th anniversary year of independence, it is important that not just historians but the citizens of Pakistan understand the full background to the creation of their nation. Such redactions make no sense. What is so critical in relations now that an entry in a private diary cannot be made public and could still damage “UK’s relationship with Pakistan”?

More importantly, the tribunal failed to address the correspondence between Edwina and Nehru, which was bought at the same time as the diaries and letters a decade ago. It only requires Southampton to pay £100 to exercise an option for them to be released, but they have chosen not to do so.

The extensive collection of intimate letters — they wrote to each other sometimes three times a day over a period of 13 years — would be a treasure trove and answer many questions not only about the exact nature of their emotional and sexual relationship but also their confidential views on important British, Indian and Pakistani officials and the events surrounding independence. Mountbatten has long been accused of favouritism towards India and the correspondence would provide evidence one way or another whether that was true.

I have spent £350,000 of my own money with another £50,000 still owing to my lawyers to unlock the diaries and letters because, though no longer of use to me — my book came out in 2019 — they are an im­­portant sou­rce for historians. I also felt that it was wrong that an academic institution is censoring private diaries and letters, which were freely sold, ostensibly on behalf of the British government for which there is no legal justification in what seems an unquestioning relationship between an academic institution and the state.

I will continue to campaign for these important historical documents to be made public, as was always intentioned, but I need support — both financially and in terms of lobbying politicians. Pressure needs to be put on the vice chancellor of the University of Southampton, the British Foreign Office and Cabinet Office to explain why a well-known opinion, in a private diary, by someone who has been dead for over 60 years, can harm relations between Britain and Pakistan and why the Nehru correspondence remains closed. 



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