Alex von Tunzelmann has written a lovely book on the last days of the British Raj, lovely because it is a moving account of the people, their characters, foibles, and passions who presided over the birth of modernIndia. But it is also a great book because the author leaves the reader to make up their own mind.
The author sets the tone in the opening pages. The British empire, she writes, did not decline; it was not defeated or forced out by revolution. It chose to go on its own terms, or as near to them as possible under the circumstances. Those terms were spelled out by Prime Minister Attlee to preserve the unity of British India, which in the mind of Archibald Wavell, Earl Mountbatten’s predecessor as Viceroy, was Britain’s greatest achievement. But that is not what happened. Indian independence was accompanied by civil war, the displacement of millions, massacres numbering perhaps millions of dead and wounded, partition, the creation of two separate nations and war between India and Pakistan. The scars of partition remain with us today, notably in the running sore that isKashmir.
Could the violence have been avoided, historians have always asked, and could the unity of British India have been preserved? If blame there was, it has been ascribed to Mountbatten’s decision to bring forwardIndia’s independence ten months ahead of the schedule initially proposed byLondon.
By 1948, hostility to a continued British presence inIndiawas widespread. British civil and military service men and women knew this only too well, and were desperate to leave. The imperial power had only 11,400 servicemen in India, and British public opinion would not have tolerated an attempt to re-assert power by force. By this time, too, the United Stateswas concerned about the advance of communism into the sub-continent, while theUK — in hock to the U.S., toIndia and to the Commonwealth for the debt incurred in the prosecution of the war againstGermanyand Japan—was bankrupt. TheUK’s finally paid off paid off its debt to the U.S.only in December 2006—just in time for the 2008 financial crash in Wall Street.
The events of 1947 and 1948 though cannot be judged just in the light of contemporary affairs. The tragedy of partition has to be seen in the light of what Ms Tunzelmann aptly terms the hardening of imperial arteries, the missed opportunities for reaching a more satisfactory outcome, and the personality differences which ruled out an early solution to the satisfactory question ofIndia’s governance. It is in her portrayal of the personalities that the book’s originality lies.
Hardening imperial arteries.
There can be little doubt that the hardening of imperial arteries was greatly accelerated by the calamity of the first world war. When The Queen Empress died in January 1901, there was an outpouring of grief acrossIndia; yet eighteen years later, Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali polymath and poet—grandson of the deeply loyal Dwarkanath—returned the knighthood he had received in 1915 from the King Emperor, George V. The occasion was the Amritsar massacre. Brigadier General Dyer ordered his Gurkha, Pathan and Baluchi troops to open fire on a crowd of 5000 men, women and children, leading to the death of 379 and the wounding of 1200. A similar event, the 1916 Easter Rising of Irish Nationalists in Dublin, and the subsequent crackdown, convinced many previous home rulers that outright independence for Ireland was the only option. The same pattern recurred inIndia. TheAmritsar massacre radicalised the Nehru family, brought the Congress party round to a policy of independence, and prompted Ghandi-tardily-to send in the decorations he had earned in the service of the Empire during the Boer war and the war of 1914-18.
During the war,India provided 800,000 troops to the allied cause, prompting Londonto offer India dominion status, comparable to that of Australia and Canada. In 1919, the Government of India Act duly provided for a parliament with two houses, a restricted suffrage, access of Indian nationals to provincial government office, and a commitment in 1929 to review the situation pending further reforms. It took another three decades before India achieved independence: the Simon Commission of 1928 investigated further changes to the Indian constitution; in 1929, the incoming Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald stated unequivocally that dominion status was the objective; in 1930, a Round Table conference was held in London, where all the main Indian leaders were present; the 1935 Government of India Act was followed by general elections two years later, won with a massive majority for Congress on an expanded electorate of 35 million. Lord Linlithgow, the Viceroy, sought to implement the Act’s terms to create an Indian federation, but the Princes rejected the idea overwhelmingly in September 1939, and backed Linlithgow’s unilateral declaration thatIndiawas at war with Germany. Congress’ provincial ministries resigned.
Divide and rule.
It has often been maintained that Great Britain clung to imperial power through a strategem of “divide and rule”: the Princes against Congress; Muslim against Hindu. Tunzelman paints a less clear-cut picture. Sometimes she states that the British exploited Indian divisions, and on others she berates the pigheadedness of British officialdom. But the evidence she supplies does not support these assertions. As she writes “whether the British caused division by carving up politics on the basis of religion, or whether they were simply responding to a trend in Indian society for Hindu nationalism and the beginning of a Hindu resurgence, is an endlessly debatable question”(p.231).
Consider for instance, Congress’ crushing electoral victory in 1937. It was not a British, but a Congress decision not to offer Muslim League delegates seats in the new government. As a result of this decision, Mohammad Ali Jinnah became overnight a hero of a revived Islam freed from the shackles of Hindu tyranny. Understandably enough, Congress ministers resigned office in response to Linlithgow’s unilateral statement that India was at war, but this empty chair policy provided an opportunity for Jinnah to later make a deal with Churchill to join the Princes in backing the war, in return for dominion status forPakistan.
Then there is the argument that had proper procedures been followed, and had Congress leaders been consulted, they would have agreed to declare war. The evidence produced by Ms Tunzelmann does not support such a conclusion. Ghandi rather admired Hitler, and made parallels between Indian national claims for “swaraj”, and Hitler’s absorption of Alsace and Lorraine to the Reich in 1940. After the war, he delivered himself of the opinion that Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife, rather than promote hostility to Germany—an almost exact replica of Hitler’s justification for the Final Solution. True, Nehru not Ghandi, was Congress leading light at the time, was not favourably disposed to Japan, and may have opted to work with London. But this was not to be.
On December 8th 1941,Japan entered the war with the attack onPearl Harbour. The situation forBritain in Asia turned critical with the rapid Japanese conquest of Malaya and the military bastion of Singapore, followed by theDutch East Indies. With Burma andIndia itself under threat of invasion, the British government sought the cooperation and support of Indian political leaders in order to recruit more Indians into the British Indian Army, which was fighting in the Middle East theatre, and which expanded to over 2½ million men, the largest volunteer army in history.
In March 1942, Sir Stafford Cripps visited India on a mandate from the war cabinet in London to patch up agreement between the various Indian factions. What he offered was full dominion status in return for Congress support for the war. But Cripps also offered the Princes the right to secede from India, and proposed a voting system predicated on caste and creed. Rightly, Congress rejected Cripps’ offer, but also launched the Quit India campaign. Once again, the Muslim League seized the opportunity, condemned Quit India, participated in the provincial governments as well as the legislative councils of the British Raj, and encouraged Muslims to contribute to the war. When in 1946 the Attlee government offered to grant a united India independence, distrust between Congress and the Muslim League ran too deep to mend.
The charm of this book lies in its portrayal of the personalities who wrote the final story of India’s independence. Interestingly, the line up of those who Tunzelmann fingers as responsible for delays in granting India its freedom include Churchill, Jinnah and Ghandi, while those who most contributed to the final, hectic stage are Nehru, Dickie Mountbatten and his remarkable wife Edwina.
In the inter-war years, Churchill, under the shadow of the military and naval heroic failure at Gallipoli, is portrayed here, and elsewhere, as the dogged opponent of Indian independence. What he anticipated from an India without the British was a hell on earth. If India was to achieve independence under Congress rule, India’s Muslim population—he argued– would be at the mercy of the Hindu majority; the Untouchables would be at the mercy of the Brahmins; and the Princes would be sacrificed to a bunch of Bengali lawyers. India, he argued, was a geographic concept, not a political reality without the British Raj to unify it. If Great Britain withdrew,India would descend into incessant warfare.
Then came Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Jinnah had been a major figure in Congress during and after the first world war, but Tunzelmann argues that he was eclipsed in Congress by the advent of Ghandi, whose “pseudo-religious approach to politics” he disdained, and whose Hinduism, he fundamentally distrusted. As Tunzelman points out, he also disdained Nehru’s atheism. No doubt, personal differences account for much to the split in Congress in the 1920s. But other factors should be weighed in the balance. In this reviewer’s opinion, Ataturk’s abolition of the Caliphate in March 1924 does not receive adequate attention in the historiography of Pakistan’s creation: the argument would run along the lines that without a religious authority, a minority Islam in India would be subject to either Hindu injunctions or to a secular power. Jinnah brought the country into being on religious lines. As Tunzelmann observes “If Jinnah is regarded as the father of Pakistan, Churchill must qualify as its uncle, and therefore as a pivotal figure in the resurgence of Islam”(p.148).
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is the third leading figure who worked to delay India’s freedom. Having served the Empire loyally, what he wanted was for Indian people to be recognised and treated as full subjects. At least that is what Timmerman claims. I am not so sure. Reading Ghandi is no easy matter, since he spoke at so many different levels of meaning. Two questions come to mind: Did he consider initially, that is before the outbreak of war in 1914, that British attitudes were capable of developing in such a direction? or was he convinced that British racism was far too deeply embedded for his request to be other than a ploy to get on the inside track of British political culture, and to illustrate its hollowness when it came to treating other peoples within the Empire as equals?
In any event, the failure of the British authorities to make adequate amends over Amritsar led Ghandi to declare in favour of swaraj. But his admixture of religion and politics—the language that he used to speak to the peoples of India- inevitably made him suspect to Jinnah. His own past in South Africa, it has recently been revealed, indicates that he held racist views against “kaffirs”. Definitely, he considered the caste system as the natural order of things. He was therefore highly suspect to the untouchables. Given that India is majority Hindu, his favouring majority rule was suspect among India’s many minorities. Not least, when communal strife broke out, as it regularly did, Ghandi often declared that the bloodshed was a sure sign that Indians were not ready for independence. Paradoxically, Ghandi had more in common with Churchill than posterity has allowed.
Then there is Jawaharlal Nehru, the real hero of the story. His father, Motilal, was an extremely successful lawyer, lived in grand style, and sent his son to Harrow, and then toCambridge. Motilal led Congress, until its leadership passed into other, more populist hands. Without Ghandi’s ability to commune with the people ofIndia, it is doubtful that Congress would ever have moved far from being composed of a coterie of wealthy lawyers in Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi. But Jawaharlal Nehru, for all his differences, struck up a deep friendship with Ghandi, became a master at popular speaking, went to prison for his beliefs, and stuck courageously to his one true belief: a modern India had to be a secular and democratic state. He never wavered on this central matter, as did Ghandi, who was far from convinced that western democracy was right forIndia.
Dickie Mountbatten is another central character in the drama. Son of Prince Louis of Battenburg, First Sea Lord in 1914, and dismissed from his position during the wave of anti-German sentiment that broke across Great Britain in the last months of 1914, young Dickie grew up with this family humiliation over him. Everything he strove for, Ms Tunzelmann suggests, was done to make good on the family’s setback. The path was not easy. In the Admiralty, he was known as the “Master of Disaster”. He is portrayed here, probably correctly, as an incompetent military strategist, charming, adept at the grand gesture, endlessly concerned with medals of which he sported a chestful, and expert at seating arrangements at grand dinners. Joe ‘Vinegar’ Stilwell, the Irish American and deeply anti-British commander of U.S.forces in theChina theatre, characterised Mountbatten in his role as head of South East Asia Command as: “enormous staff, endless walla walla, but damned little fighting”.
Dickie, though, was liberal charming, and shared the vague left sentiments of his very rich wife, Edwina. Edwina’s maternal grandmother was Jewish. Unlike her father, Lord Temple Mount, who warmed to Hitler’s anti-Bolshevic rantings, Edwina helped her Jewish relatives in Germany to escape, and had the moolah to put them up in the Ritz. By the 1940s, her politics had taken an anti-colonial and anti-capitalist turn, as she flung herself into sundry good causes, and became Super-Intendant of the St John Ambulance Nursing Division. In many ways, the Mountbattens opened the way to the modern monarchy.
This was the couple that Attlee sent out to negotiate an end to the British Raj. In private Attlee considered Mountbatten “ a rather Ruritanian figure”. Jinnah despised him, and considered him as Nehru’s plaything. So did Vallabhai Patel, the formidable unifier of India, and the dismantler of the Indian Princes’ priveleges. During the momentous months leading up to, and following on independence, Nehru engaged in a passionate love affair with Edwina. Dickie played along, on the grounds that he only wanted the best for the wife he adored. While in India, Mountbatten’s protegé and nephew, Philip Mountbatten, became engaged to the future Queen Of England. The Mountbatten’s flew to London for the wedding, as the full implications ofIndia’s independence and division unfolded before them.
Tunzelmann argues forcefully that Mountbatten, aided by the wife, was a major success. He was right to ignore the demands of the Sikhs for Kalistan. He was right not to use British troops to stop the troubles; Nehru wanted their early departure. And as she argues, a slow transfer would not have prevented bloodshed. Ultimately, Mountbatten was sent toIndiato serve British interests and to quit as fast as possible. This he did with panache, and in a way which won the Mountbattens the heart of India’s new leaders. That, probably, was their greatest service.
This is an excellent read. Not least, it casts interesting light on the monarchy, with some suggestions on how it managed to survive and prosper under the adverse world conditions of the century of “democratisation”. With his experience of India, Mountbatten was opposed to Eden’s Suez policy. The Queen also advised against. The book is not least about how savvy the monarchy was about the post-1945 world.