19 November 2006

"Shameful Flight" by Stanley Wolpert

This book is about the last years of British rule of India – an unwise partition, an incompetent colonial government, and a botched up migration leaving bitter legacies. The author is UCLA’s Professor Emeritus teaching history with several other books about India to his credit.

The book is outstanding for many reasons: It is written in an easy style that would force you to read it one go, quite rarely seen in books covering history. Yet the book has sufficient background research that can only be expected from UCLA’s professor of history. It has a balanced presentation of facts by a scholar far removed by geography and time from the events.
Stanley Wolpert provides some interesting insights:

British rule of India is a tale of incompetence:

In 1943, India produced 50 million tons of food grains – enough to feed its population of 400 million. Yet 1.5 million people died of starvation in Bengal that year primarily due to mismanagement.

Bengal’s governor Herbert and Viceroy Lord Wavell pleaded for food grains. Britain’s war transport minister Baron Frederick James Leathers kept 6 million tons stored in ships in Indian Ocean but did not spare it for the starving. Wavell’s report to an uninterested Prime Minister Churchill says “the famine in Bengal was largely due to ministerial incompetence”.

The incompetence was acknowledged in London as well. Churchill’s Secretary of State for India Leopold Amery confesses in a private letter to the Viceroy Linlithgow “nothing has convinced me more than the Cabinet meetings…. of the fundamental incapacity of a British cabinet to try and govern India”.

Viceroy Wavell condemns Churchill four years later after sitting in one cabinet meeting: “He hates India and everything to do with it. Winston knows as much of the Indian problem as George III did of the American colonies!”

British rule of India is a tale of political insensitivity.

The best example of this insensitivity is Winston Churchill’s peevish telegram to his Viceroy asking “why Gandhi has not died yet?” after releasing the Mahatma from prison because of medical conditions. Not a class-act in international politics.

Partition could have been avoided with greater wisdom in Indian/British leadership.

In 1937 provincial elections the Congress won clear majority in six of the eleven provinces. Jinnah’s Muslim league failed to win a single province. Jinnah appealed to Nehru to agree to a coalition Congress-League ministries in the multicultural provinces. Nehru refused and retorted that there were only two parties left: “the British and the Congress”. Jinnah devoted the next ten years to create Pakistan. If Nehru had pursued an “inclusive style of politics” there would have been no opportunity to “divide and rule”.

1946 offered another opportunity to unite. British Secretary of State, Lord Pethick Lawrence advocated a coalition cabinet (made up of Congress and Muslim League) that decides by consensus (as coalitions normally do) and not by majority vote. Nehru declined to cede parity to Muslim league and share power. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad sadly reflected in his autobiography that “Jawaharlal’s mistake in 1937 had been bad enough. The mistake of 1946 proved even more costly”. This resolved Jinnah to insist on partition.

Britain played the “divide and rule” card to the long term detriment of India. Viceroys were quick to ignore good examples. Chief Ministers Sikandar Hayat Khan and Fazl-i-Husain governed Punjab province by using local patriotism and common language to unify the multi-religious Punjab society. It was the same Punjab that recorded the largest death triggered by inept governing.

British rule had no strategy to deal with partition.

Britain, as a colonial ruler, has a history of shameful behaviour. In 1942, when Britain exited Burma “the civil administration suddenly collapsed and those in charge sought their own safety. Private motor cars were commandeered for the evacuation of Europeans, leaving their owners stranded. …. The city of Rangoon was left at the mercy of …. hardened criminals”. There was no thought for life after British rule.

Months ahead of independence most of the British staff were evacuated to Britain leaving no credible law enforcement mechanism for the infant governments of India and Pakistan to deal with the migration induced violence and death.

Mountbatten was aware of the likely violence and the lack of a plan to deal with this. Though Cyril Radcliffe’s maps with the boundary lines of India and Pakistan were ready earlier, Mountbatten kept it under lock and key until the pageantry, splendor and photo opportunities of the Independence day were over and the British could no more be blamed for the violence or the ineptitude with which it was handled. His reasoning: “the earlier it was published, the more the British would have to bear the responsibility for the disturbances which would undoubtedly result”. Reasonable opportunity to manage the migration was denied for the sake of glory.

Says Bengal Secretary John Dawson Tyson, “Mountbatten’s focus was on withdrawal in fairly peaceful conditions….. the India after 15 August will not be the kind of country I should want to live in”

Rear Admiral Viscount Lord Louis Francis Albert Victor Mountbatten expressed what he thought about the way he had done his job in India to BBC’s John Osmon in 1965. Thirty nine years later Osman says that though he dislikes using vulgar slang, the only honest way of reporting accurately what the last Viceroy said was “I fu….d it up”.

Stanley Wolpert concludes that both India and Pakistan are still saddled with the bitter legacies of Great Britain’s hasty, shameful flight.

Excellent book.


Brian Thompson said...

This is an atrocious book, a complete abrogation of scholarship in favour of prejudiced argument. Even by the most generous interpretation of Wolpert's own arguments as laid out in the book, the only conclusion which can be drawn is that India, and Indians were poorly served by their political masters. Dare one say now that Ghandi himself is the most obvious candidate for censure? Nehru and Jinnah hardly come out of Wolpert's text smelling of roses either, but Ghandi struck me as the one most culpable for the subsequent debacle, and again, that is from a reading of Wolpert's own arguments in this book.

Had the obduracy and perfidiousness of Ghandi not got in the way during the 1942 and 1946 Cripps missions to India, it is plain (and even Wolpert writes this) that a settlement could have been reached which would have enabled a peaceful handover. No attempt at all is made to understand or censure Ghandi's behaviour. As far as Wolpert is concerned, effectively "it was all the fault of those damned Brits".

Yet had an agreement been reached in 1946, the entirety of what follows in Wolpert's book would have been irrelevant. There would likely have been no Mountbatten to "fuck things up" (Wolpert's use of language, not mine), as it is unlikely that the widely respected Wavell would have been in replaced. A peaceful handover of power was within the grasp of Indian politicians in 1946, but they fumbled and dropped the ball. There can be no doubt that the inter-communal violence of 1947 onwards had its roots in the failure of contemporary Indian political leadership, even accepting that India would have been a different place had it never been colonised.
It could easily be argued that, had an agreement been reached between Congress and the Muslim League, then Wavell's presence as a stabilising figure and soldier would have eased the subsequent transition.

Wolpert makes no mention at all of the quite improper relationship which took place between Lady Mountbatten and Nehru. None. How can a study of India 1942-1947 omit this? Are we to conclude that Wolpert either did not know of it (unlikely), or that he chose to omit is as irrelevant? If the latter, how we can read this book and treat its conclusions with any seriousness? Either way, the absence of any comment on it seriously undermines the books' credibility as an authoritative read.

No attempt was made by Wolpert to set the decision making of the British from 1945 onwards in any kind of context. No mention was made of the pressures on Attlee et al., or of British post-war weakness - military and financially. The fact that many of those pressures were coming directly from the United States seems to have passed Wolpert by. In focussing so narrowly on India, he loses sight of the bigger picture facing the UK, the USA and the world at that time, much of which is needed to understand and explain contemporary decision making.

I have no doubt mistakes were made on the British side, but I have never read any evidence of maliciousness on the part of anyone involved, either in London or the colonial administration in Simla and Delhi.

This book is quite simply an anti-colonial rant by a clearly Anglophobe American. If this is what passes for scholarship at the history faculty of UCLA, remind me never to employ anyone with a UCLA history degree!

T R Santhanakrishnan said...

I do not find either the substance of the style of Brian's comments agreeable. However, his views deserve a fair opportunity to be aired.