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5.0 out of 5 stars The genesis of partition and the wages of playing the fear game., July 16, 2008
This review is from: The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India's Partition (Hardcover)
This book by Narendra Singh Sarila is a true eyeopener. Many commonly held beliefs about the history of the Indian subcontinent are disputed and in some cases heartily debunked. The author was the ADC to Mountbatten and thus comes with the imprimatur of "being on the scene".

I remember reading various sources like Wolpert wherein it was emphatically stated that Gandhi was always against partition. Well here Sarila reliably infers that at the end Gandhi thought partition was a necessary evil. Jinnah AND certain Hindu hotheads played the religion card to the hilt appealing to the lower angels of human nature via the fear route. Arguing that muslims would never get a fair shake in a Hindu Congress and nation Jinnah shrewdly played the fear card. The Congress on the other hand made no credible effort to include Jinnah early on (1929-30?) in a viable leadership position thus breeding distrust. Of course thirty million muslims who were not in the demarcated areas as proposed by Jinnah were left high and dry.

In talking to some of my Pakistani friends I am told that Nehru's "affair" with Edwina Mountbatten predisposed the memsahib to lobby her husband for a decision favoring India. I personally think that partition was the result of the lack of true STATESMEN in the situation. The whole concept was predicated on the belief that Hindus and Muslims could not co-exist. There was not sufficient give and take. Yes, Gandhi made the effort but his ideas were so impractical as to be dead on arrival. The partition need not have taken place. A great tragedy for both sides.

What is truly sad is the low opinion that Churchill had about Indians in general and Hindus in particular. Yes in those days it was quite common to view Indians as a cacaphony of peoples incapable of governing themselves, but Churchill's animosity seems to have been beyond the bounds of reason. Too bad because Churchill truly was the man of the hour during WW2 and helped save Western civilization. In my eyes the greatness of Churchill is tangibly abased by the vile alloy of racism.

Sarila recounts, in detail, the behind the scenes machinations of various players mostly to the detriment of a united India.

A sad commentary on a lamentable period of the Indian subcontinent. Highly recommended.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 5, 2011 2:35:44 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 7, 2011 12:12:50 PM PDT
Strategos says:
Helpful review and insightful opinions. As a student of the subject for several decades, and with British, Indian, and Pakistani friends and colleagues I add the following thoughts.

With regard to Churchill and India:

In 1943, despite intense lobbying by the Viceroy (Wavell), Churchill was adamantly opposed to providing relief supplies or releasing shipping for the purpose when Bengal went through its great famine. (See "Famine: A Short History" by Cormac O'Grada, 2009 for a useful up-to-date account). About 3 million are estimated to have died - in part because the British confiscated water transport (to prevent the Japanese, who had reached Burma, penetrating farther west); in part because the central and Bengal governments refused to recognize the gravity of the situation and censored news to bolster morale; and in part because food stocks were allotted to the military preferentially and even taken out of India. Lord Chertwell, Churchill's scientific adviser, recommended no additional effort to provide food on the (Malthusian) grounds that Indians would only breed more rapidly, leading to greater catastrophes. It was at this time that Churchill is reported to have called Indians a beastly people with a beastly religion.

Churchill and other imperialists made much of the "civilizing"/modernizing British role in India. But it's difficult to grant the British Empire any legitimacy when it was marked by the most terrible human calamities which could have been mitigated. The first massive effect of Company rule in Bengal (the most prosperous province of the Moghul Empire until 1765: the East India Company took over the tax revenues of Bengal after the Battle of Buxar) was the famine of 1769-70, in which a third of the population, or 10 million, are estimated to have died. The extortionate land revenues were not commuted, but actually raised during this time, while the British "nabobs" made their fortunes from monopolies and by granting licenses to trade in basic commodities.

Major famines stalked India again in the 1870s, coincident with the proclamation of Victoria as Empress of India, and in the 1890s - rations in government "relief" camps were lower than in Buchenwald in calories, and the deat rates were horrific. (See "Late Victorial Holocausts" by Mike Davis, 2002). Official (British Indian) statistics, available publicly (e.g. on the internet), show that at the height of the British Empire in India, between 1871 and 1920, the population of India fell by almost 20 percent. What kind of beneficent rule would guarantee a 5 percent rate of return to British investors in Indian railways (paid from peasant taxes) even when these were never profitable, as the people starved and the Viceroy (Lord Lytton, certifiably manic) called for more fiscal stringency? This was Churchill's India - where in the 1890s, as a young man in the cavalry, he played polo, enjoyed the hospitality of princes, and fought on the north-west frontier - a set of memories which froze the country forever in his mind.

It's impossible not to ask how Churchill could so blind himself to reality as to argue that the British Empire was the greatest boon to Indians and the only protection the common people had against both frontier raiders and Brahman oppression (the two greatest dangers as far as he was concerned). Of course, India not only provided the soldiers for Britain's earlier colonial wars (in Afghanistan, Abyssinia, Burma) but in both World Wars - in the Second, as many as 2-1/2 million troops. To that extent, Britain's imperial might reflected India's subordinate position, and the moment Nehru's interim government (1946) put a stop to the use of Indian troops in colonial ventures, British interventions as in Indo-China and the Dutch East Indies had to come to a stop. (See "Forgotten Wars" by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, 2010). Perhaps the most charitable view of Churchill's blindness on India is that he could not, by his basic personality, see any other role for Indians than as colonial soldiers in the service of the greater good (for him, the greatest good of the world as a whole): to keep the British Empire a going concern.

Naturally, Gandhi (at least from 1919 and the boycott of the visit of the Prince of Wales, British goods, and non-cooperation), the Congress (which from 1930 asked for complete independence), and "Hindustan" as Churchill preferred to think of independent India (by contrast with Pakistan) were all the antithesis of his imperial vision. As Alex von Tunzelmann comments in her personality-focused history of independence, if Jinnah was the father of Pakistan, Churchill was at least its uncle. Churchill (and Lord Linlithgow as viceroy) attempted to put back the clock on Indian independence, and Gandhi and Nehru helped, as the Congress decided to leave office in 1939 and launched the Quit India movement in 1942 , leaving the Muslim League to gain popularity and strength.

A book well worth reading on the subject of the events leading to India's independence is "The Transfer of Power" by V.P. Menon, Constitutional Secretary to the Viceroy, Reforms Secretary, Secretary to the 1946 Cabinet Mission, etc., and Patel's right-hand man in integrating the princely states. It's quite amazing how many times he comments that Congress (and Gandhi's) decisions were not based on reality and could not be understood (e.g. on the 1940 Ramgarh resolution or launching the agitation for the British to quit India with the Japanese at the gates). Depite the official (Indian) propaganda idealizing Gandhi and the cult around him as a quasi-saint, it's impossible to avoid the conclusion that perhaps he was the worst possible leader for the Indian independence movement between 1920 and 1947 - detached from the world of practical deal-making, totally dismissive of the consequences of unconsidered positions, preoccupied by his own guilt-ridden struggles for personal and collective release from sin, projecting religiosity offensive to secular or Muslim sensibilities, and intolerant of dissent. Nehru was not much better with his idealism, impatience, and sweeping faith that everything would be for the best in the best of all possible worlds if only the British would leave and atavistic attachment to his family's original home: Kashmir, with all the consequences this would bring.

Poor India (and what was to become Pakistan) with such mediocre leadership all around in Congress, the Muslim League, and among the British. If only those who made decisions had been sufficiently grounded, pragmatic, and far-sighted for (undivided) India to have reached dominion status by around 1925, perhaps the later tragic course of history in the sub-continent could have been changed. Interestingly, Churchill in the early 1920s was very much a proponent of the agreements which ended the conflict in Ireland and founded the Irish Free State. Perhaps there was no way he could see Indians as with the same legitimate aspirations or capabilities given the premise of imperial rule in superior and inferior races.

The million slaughtered in Partition and the ten million torn from their homes at the time, the four wars between the successor states, and the decline of Pakistan into fundamentalist anarchy are mute tribute to the monstrous incapacity of the generation of Indian independence for foresight, compromise, and tactical decency. All the praise for non-violence as a tactic perfected by Gandhi which was uniquely powerful in the Indian independence struggle, and for Gandhi's own peace-making between Hindus and Muslims hardly weakens the judgment that he and other Indian leaders as well as the British were blind, misguided, and criminally incompetent in important respects. Surely, no one should expect perfection from political leaders - but was it too much to rise beyond manipulative racists, half-baked cranks, visionaries blind to reality in potential inter-religious strife, and self-seeking founders of nations willing to clamber to power and their place in history over corpses?

A sophisticated analysis is provided in ""The Partition of India" by Ian Talbot and Gurharpal Singh, 2009. It also examines the continuing legacy in both India and Pakistan of the founding trauma of Partition which truly became inevitable from the great Calcutta killing of August 1946 and the pattern of state-sponsored/allowed organized political violence it established which spiraled upwards and then continued into the 1950s.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 15, 2011 1:45:46 PM PDT
Excellent comments. Thank you for your valuable input. I am going to read Talbot and Singh's book that you recommend.
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