Churchill And India: Manipulation Or Betrayal?
This book is a study in historical reasoning based on Teutonic thoroughness of research, but lucid in style. Once started, it is difficult not to continue.
The author, Ambassador Kishan S Rana of the 1960 batch of the Indian Foreign Service, needs no introduction to the reading public. He retired in 1995 when he was Ambassador to Germany.
He has continued working at an incredibly fast pace, if not at a faster pace, after retirement. Starting with ‘Inside Diplomacy’ (2000), our author has been prolific but retaining high quality.
Winston S Churchill is regarded by most Britishers as one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century, even though they threw him out of power in 1945. This book focuses on how he dealt with India.
The Introduction argues correctly that Churchill was a racist. The reasoning offered is compelling.
Chapter 1 ‘Agent Of Empire, In Pursuit Of Glory’ (1896-20) narrates Churchill’s military career. He landed in Bombay in September 1896 and joined the 4th Hussars in Bangalore where he did a lot of reading to compensate for his lack of academic studies as he had a lot of free time. Incidentally, the readers from Bangalore might recall that the Bangalore Club proudly displays an unpaid bill of Churchill.
Churchill fell in love with Pamela, daughter of John Plowden, ICS, Resident in Hyderabad, and later, Governor of Bengal. It was unrequited love, and she married Earl of Lytton in 1902, but they kept writing to each other. 38 letters were sold by Christies for £ 270, 000 in 2002. Our author is good at digging up such interesting facts.
The first meeting between Churchill and the future Mahatma Gandhi was in 1906 in London. Gandhi was leading a delegation from South Africa against the law requiring fingerprinting and repatriation of all Indians.
Churchill was Under Secretary of State in the Colonial Office. Gandhi correctly assessed his interlocutor, “despite his outward show of friendliness”, as anti-Indian.
When the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh atrocity occurred, Churchill as War Minister defended brilliantly the decision to suspend Brigadier General Reginald Dyer on half-pay and to revert him to his permanent rank of Lt. Colonel. This speech is regarded by Churchill’s biographers as one of his best.
The author raises the question about Churchill’s motivation. Was it motivated only by the need to defend the government? Or was the speaker morally outraged by the atrocity?
In 1921 Churchill as Secretary of State for Colonies wrote to Montague, Secretary of State for India, vehemently opposing any plan to grant Dominion status to India. In the same letter he referred to Indians in South Africa as ‘coolies.
Churchill read Katherine Mayo’s book ‘Mother India’ and admired it. It went into 40 reprints in three-and-half years. It reinforced his views on India. The book was promoted by British officialdom in London and India. Churchill and Mayo kept up correspondence about a sequel to her book that Gandhi had said was a ‘a drain-inspector’s report’.
The author gives us an excellent account of Churchill’s ‘finest hour’ as Prime Minister from 1939 to 1945. However, his animus towards India remained. He told the cabinet that Hindu-Muslim feud was “the bulwark of British rule in India”.
We get a good account of exchanges between President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill over the situation in India. Roosevelt urged Churchill to grant Dominion status to India.
The author points out that apart from “altruism”, the U.S. wanted India to make “an active” contribution to the war effort. “A deeper American objective was to break the de facto British monopoly control over India, especially on trade.”
Japan’s rapid advance in Southeast Asia, with the British military in equally rapid retreat, made Churchill even consider a lightning visit to India. His doctor advised against flying out to India. He considered making a radio broadcast to India but didn’t do that.
Churchill conveyed to Roosevelt that “75% of Indian troops and volunteers are Moslems.” How did Churchill get his “75%”? The author points out that Jinnah too had exaggerated the proportion of Muslims in the Indian army. He said publicly that it was 65%. Churchill might have got his “75%” from Jinnah as the two were in touch.
Churchill advised Chiang Kai-Shek who visited India in February 1942 not to meet Gandhi. The advice was not heeded.
We get a historically sound account of the 1942 Cripps Mission, and the author concludes correctly that it was a “political charade”.
Churchill sent to Roosevelt an analysis by an unnamed military adviser arguing that any move to grant Dominion status to India was likely to bring down the morale of the Indian soldier. The reader will be compelled to conclude that for Churchill facts and logic did not matter when it came to India.
Coming to the Bengal Famine, after a detailed account, the author convincingly concludes that it was a “monumental crime committed by the government headed by Churchill”.
The last chapter ‘If And Perhaps, A Conclusion’, starts with a quotation from Churchill from a letter to his daughter about a year before his death. He had achieved a great deal, but this amounted to ‘nothing in the end… The Empire in which he had believed no longer existed.’
Churchill stuck to his views on India formed in 1896. He was convinced or he claimed that the Western educated political leaders in India had no real links with the vast illiterate population divided over religion and much else. He wanted to trisect India: Hindustan, Pakistan, and Princistan.
Churchill threatened resignation over policy towards India thrice. In July 1940 he said that he would rather give up politics and fight to maintain the Empire in India.
The second occasion was in May 1942 in a ‘draft not sent’ addressed to Roosevelt. Finally in July 1942 in a dispute with Secretary of State for India Leo Amery over the constitutional status of India.
The author raises a question, ethical and pertinent, but rather unfashionable, about the Nobel Prize for literature awarded to Churchill in 1953. Did those who took the decision to award the prize “reflect in passing on the moral standing of the recipient?”
Keeping in mind the younger readers, this reviewer wants to add that Mahatma Gandhi was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 1937, 1938, 1039, 1948, and 1949. Obviously, the decision-makers have been Eurocentric, by and large, to put it mildly.
The author has dealt in depth with the rather clandestine exchanges between Churchill and Jinnah. This reviewer wishes to add that Churchill had asked Jinnah to write to him regularly but address it to his (Churchill’s) secretary “Miss E.A. Gilliatt, 6 Westminster Gardens, London”.
Churchill had a strong weakness for secrecy. As the author has pointed out, he sent a message to the Viceroy through the office of the Secretary of State and ordered that it should not be seen by him.
As one puts down the book, the reader might be reminded of Friedrich Schiller’s dictum that world history is the world court of justice.
Routledge India has brought out an elegant hardcover book. Perhaps a cheaper paperback edition will sell even better. Translations into Hindi and other languages can be considered as the book is a significant contribution to the existing literature on India’s history.
Churchill And India Manipulation Or Betrayal?
Kishan S Rana
Routledge, South Asia Edition 2023
Ambassador K. P. Fabian served in IFS from 1964 to 2000. His latest book is ‘The Arab Spring That Was And Wasn’t’ commissioned by Indian Council Of World Affairs. Views expressed here are the writer's own.