India 1947: Partition in Colour review – a heartbreaking, rage-inspiring history of Britain’s colonial legacy

How many documentaries about the brutal partition of India have opened with an RP-accent uttering a variation of the nostalgia-scented sentiment: “India was the jewel in the crown …”? India 1947: Partition in Colour (Channel 4) begins with these words, too. But the tone of this taut and enraging two-parter is different, and not just because the archive footage has been colourised for the first time. More than colour, it’s saturated with clear-eyed truth – particularly the dignified rage born out of 75 years of seeing one’s painful history co-opted, misrepresented and silenced.

Using film, photos, oral testimony that will break your heart, private documents that will fill it with anger, and stellar contributors – as well as some unnecessary reconstructions – India 1947: Partition in Colour tears through the year leading up to one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century. On 20 February 1947, six months before partition, we see Britain appoint Lord Mountbatten as last viceroy of India. On 6 May 1947, with three months to go, Mountbatten’s Plan Balkan is approved in London, despite not being discussed with any Indian leaders (namely Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah). The on-screen countdown is claustrophobic and stressful. Rightly so. We are talking about a tiny band of men who carved up one of the most diverse parts of the world in weeks – a roll of the dice that unleashed a tragedy in which a million Indians were killed, and about 15 million were uprooted (although many estimates are closer to 17, even 20 million).

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Refreshingly, most of the talking heads are Indians and Pakistanis: professors, historians and authors, as well as Lakshman Menon, the silver-tongued grandson of VP Menon, Mountbatten’s chief aide. All are unsparing in their assessment. Take the Stanford professor Priya Satia on the fact that it took the British governor in Bengal five days to deploy troops to quell the surge of violence sweeping through Calcutta, now Kolkata, in August 1946. “It shows the lack of value for Indian life,” she says. “It’s racist.” Or Shruti Kapila, professor of Indian history at Cambridge, who points out that the bloodbath that ensued between Hindu and Muslim neighbours originated in the British colonial policy of divide and rule. “Literally, the Indians are set free to kill each other,” she says, “without the British taking any responsibility for the civil war unleashed by their policies.” As for Mountbatten’s snap decision to create two new countries with different identities in just 10 weeks, broadcaster Anita Anand says: “It sounds insane, because it is insane.”

There are revelations. What came to be known as the Mountbatten Plan wasn’t his at all. It was VP Menon who hastily came up with the idea to transfer power to two countries rather than a dozen or more provincial governments. “In point of fact,” Lakshman Menon says: “Mountbatten had absolutely nothing to do with it at all.” VP Menon was offered the highest level of knighthood in Mountbatten’s last honours list. “My grandfather very politely declined it,” Lakshman says, his eyes glistening. “He later on told his daughter-in-law, my mother: ‘How can I accept a knighthood for being the man who caused the partition of my country?’” In a tragedy this vast, as one contributor puts it, there is plenty of blame – and trauma – to go round.

Then there is the messy, politically expedient relationship between Mountbatten, his wife, Edwina, and Nehru, the charismatic Indian National Congress leader with whom she was rumoured to be having an affair. Andrew Lownie, author of The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves, presents it as fact, backed up by Nehru’s diaries. He also says they may have been a “throuple”: “Mountbatten and Nehru were attracted to each other on a romantic level.”

In any case, it was wildly inappropriate considering Mountbatten’s impartial role. While it took him two weeks to meet with Nehru’s great rival, Jinnah, the head of the Muslim League, he met with Nehru immediately. They got on famously. After all, Nehru, who was steeped in English education, is ironically regarded as “the last Englishman to have ruled over India”. And both men sought a united India, whereas Jinnah, in the aftermath of the second world war, demanded a homeland for the Indian Muslim minority to protect their lives. In a top-secret memo, Mountbatten admits to taking “advantage of my friendship with Nehru, to ask his personal opinion of the new draft”. A draft he showed to Nehru, but not to Jinnah, whom he described as “a psychopathic case”. The historian Adeel Hussain says he has never seen a historical figure called a madman so frequently, though “when you look at [Jinnah’s] demands, they are rational and sober”.

The second part of India 1947: Partition in Colour, which covers the border line drawn by Cyril Radcliffe – a man who had never visited India – uses details from the unpublished memoirs of his private secretary Christopher Beaumont. This first part includes excerpts from Mountbatten’s diaries and letters, which were “saved for the nation” in 2010. Yet there are further documents, the publication of which was blocked last year by the Cabinet Office. This is how sensitive partition remains 75 years on. Sometimes a documentary’s greatest power is to remind us of how much we still do not know.