Left to God and freelance butchery

Liberty or Death
August 15, 1997

Patrick French considers that the British left India because they lost control over crucial areas of the administration, and lacked the will and the financial or military ability to recover that control.

Undoubtedly that was the proximate cause of the British departure, but there is an alternative "long view" which French does not consider in Liberty or Death. It is that ultimate Indian self-government was the logical objective of the policy of liberal-minded British politicians through the first half of this century, that it was implicit in the Indian Councils Acts of 1892 and 1909 and the Government of India Acts of 1919 and 1935, and that it was explicitly stated in the House of Commons in 1917 and 1929. Congress agitations had a leading role to play in ensuring that Indian politics was always on the British agenda, but they were part of the momentum, they were not solely responsible for it.

This is a well-written work, although there are problems with French's portmanteau approach: to tell the story of British India this century; to provide a contemporary travelogue of India today; and to trawl through the transfer of power and intelligence documents. The most obvious is that French is severely deficient as a historian of the early history of the independence movement. For example: "As a counterblast to the Simon Commission, Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru had been deputed to form their own commission, and devise a constitution ...". In fact Jawaharlal Nehru was never a member of the committee chaired by his father which produced what came to be called the Nehru report (even though Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru was its other principal author).

This is not nit-picking: the Nehru report's recommendation of dominion status within the Commonwealth was the subject of the most important and enduring conflict in the independence movement, finding Jawaharlal and Motilal Nehru on opposite sides. Motilal thought dominion status was a reasonable and achievable objective, while young radicals like Jawaharlal argued that the Indian people could be called upon to make personal sacrifices only in a struggle for complete independence. Eventually, when the Indian flag was raised on August 15 1947 with Jawaharlal Nehru as prime minister, it was the flag of a dominion headed by a governor-general (Mountbatten) appointed by the king. Full independence came only in 1950 when India became a republic. As a concession to Indian pride, membership of the Commonwealth was accepted with the taking of an oath by which India's representatives did not have to pledge allegiance to the king.

French does well not to be taken in by "Gandolatry": he sees the Mahatma as "a crafty Gujarati lawyer" or a "prudish Victorian schoolmaster", but in his proper resistance to taking Gandhi wholesale, French loses sight of the very real genius of the man and his abilities (despite his crankiness over sex and food) to motivate others to achieve more than they ever thought possible. French's attempts to make a comparison between Gandhi and Jinnah fail utterly, however. Nehru and Jinnah were true foils for each other, both more English than Indian but willing to "Indianise" themselves to achieve their political ends. Nehru was rather better at this than Jinnah, eventually the leader of the world's most populous Muslim state, who could not resist ordering a beer in public, and was brought ham sandwiches when addressing a meeting of his coreligionists.

Still, while these two were statesmen, Gandhi was an agitator and a religious reformer. He had no concept of wielding power and certainly was not interested in the delicate negotiations over transfer of power. As he told the British in the 1940s: "Leave India to God. If that is too much, then leave her to anarchy." The events of 1947 were bad - but if Gandhi had had his way, they could have been much worse.

India was at that time ungovernable and remained ungovernable until the communal hatreds that had risen to the surface at the relaxation of imperial power had played themselves out. A kind of peace came at the end of 1947 because all the 11 million who were going to migrate had migrated; all those (perhaps half a million) who were going to be slaughtered had been slaughtered; there was no one in the wrong place at the wrong time anymore: no one left to kill.

The horrors of partition were underplayed at the time. For those outside India they came too soon after the second world war and the Holocaust; the collective mind could absorb no more. In India the outlook was different: the murderers cut across social and religious lines, so many were implicated that none was brought to trial. In the words of one of the witnesses interviewed by French concerning the abrupt disappearance of a Sikh who worked as an inspector in his government department: "We all thought he must have been killed or had migrated. Out of the blue he came back and told us that he had been away doing 'important work'. 'What was the work?' we asked. He replied: 'I have been killing Musalas (Muslims). I have killed 72 of them in 35 days.'" So, after a little freelance massacring, he went back to his day job, he and hundreds of thousands of others.

This book, aimed at a general readership, which is presumably why everything is explained as if the reader comes with no knowledge at all, has its principal claim to originality in French's reading of the previously unreleased intelligence reports of the British Indian government.

In fact the reports quoted here give extra information without altering the universally accepted view of the situation in India. Moreover, as soon as Sardar Patel assumed the home ministry in the interim government, he simply diverted the channels of Indian political intelligence away from Whitehall and the viceroy. Intelligence was still gathered after this decision of September 1946 covering the most interesting period, that of negotiation and partition, but the British records seen by French do not contain copies of it.

French's other main claim to originality is more dubious. It is his interspersing of his narrative with tales of his present-day travels in India and Pakistan. Sometimes this is unhelpful and semidigested, if entertaining enough as travellers' tales usually are. He is startling, however, when he takes us beyond partition and looks at the continuing divisions between the natives of the land now called Pakistan and the Mohajirs, the millions of Muslims who migrated to Pakistan and who are still not integrated into Pakistani society. They are still described as migrants, outsiders in their supposed religious "homeland", insulted and denied access to government jobs and official positions.

French found greater miseries in Bangladesh. There the Biharis, the Muslims from the rest of India who had fled to the place then called East Pakistan, had also found themselves rejected by their brother Muslims - a shared religion simply was not an adequate basis for an integrated society. When the inevitable war between East and West Pakistan came in 1971, the Biharis sided with the West. When the West lost the war the Biharis were put in camps and left there to rot, unwanted by either side. An aged Bihari woman sitting by a fetid water pump in a camp outside Dhaka told French: "I have been a refugee for 50 years and still not found a home." It seems the horrors of partition will never end.

Jad Adams has just published (with Phillip Whitehead) Dynasty: The Nehru-Gandhi Story.

Liberty or Death: India's Journey to Freedom and Division

Author - Patrick French
ISBN - 0 00 255771 1
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £20.00
Pages - 467

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