We are grateful to Zareer Masani and to the online magazine Open for permission to republish this article.
WALTER REID IS THE VERY MODEL OF a successful, non-academic gentleman-historian, with a string of historical books to his name. His last was a reassessment of Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister traditionally denigrated for appeasing Hitler. This latest venture from the Reid pen (Fighting Retreat: Winston Churchill and India) is very much the converse of his Chamberlain book, a vitriolic attack on the reputation of Chamberlain’s political nemesis, Winston Churchill, based mostly on his alleged hatred of India in general, and its Hindu community in particular.
Unlike traditional Indian demonology, Reid refrains from blaming Churchill for the Bengal Famine. He quite sensibly dismisses Madhusree Mukerjee’s diatribe (Churchill’s Secret War) and points instead to Amartya Sen’s more judicious assessments. Nor does he belittle Churchill’s major role in resisting the Nazi menace and leading Britain’s war effort. But he ferociously singles out Churchill’s India policies, holding him responsible for everything from failed constitutional progress to the cataclysm of Partition.
This is a line of argument that plays well in chauvinist Indian discourse. But does it offer original insights into either Churchill’s politics or his impact on Indian affairs? And does the evidence really support this book’s extreme conclusions?
Churchill’s particular brand of racism, the product of his Victorian youth, was undoubtedly widely shared by his contemporaries, both British and Indian. This was a time when few upper-caste Hindus would have dined with a Dalit, and many would even have shunned a passing ‘Untouchable’ shadow. Though far less extreme, most Britons of Churchill’s generation regarded British parliamentary democracy as the acme of political evolution and Britain’s gift to both continental Europe and its own empire.
In addition to such cultural assumptions, Churchill, Reid acknowledges, had both a deeply mischievous desire to shock and a preference for extreme, dialectical argumentation. The result was frequent outbursts, designed to provoke a response, rather than be taken seriously. These were often targeted at his pompous childhood friend, Leo Amery, later his Secretary of State for India, whom Churchill had delighted in teasing since their Harrow school days. Reid mostly excuses such behaviour. But he does not allow Churchill the same latitude when it comes to his less savoury comments on India.
A particular example, often cited, is his remark that India’s Hindus were a “beastly people with a beastly religion”. What Reid, like other likeminded critics, doesn’t tell you is that such exclamations were made at the height of World War II, when Churchill was furious with Gandhi’s Congress for stabbing Britain in the back (as he saw it) with the Quit India agitation.
Politics aside, Churchill, like most Britons of his generation, instinctively preferred the monotheistic religion of Indian Muslims, with its shared Biblical roots. Unlike earlier Orientalists fascinated by the Hindu classical heritage, the new, Victorian tone had been set by that hugely influential imperial policymaker, Lord Macaulay. It condemned noisy, garish, unscientific Hindu idolatry and the casteism that relegated Hindu masses to permanent poverty and oppression.
Churchill certainly shared these sentiments, and they were amplified by his belief in the loyalty of the so-called martial races, mainly Muslim and Sikh, who had come to the rescue of British rule during the 1857 Mutiny, led by Brahmin Hindus from the Bengal Army. By 1929, troops from the Punjab made up as much as 62 per cent of the British Indian Army.
What this book fails to explain is how Churchill’s faith in these so-called martial races fused with his equally deep-rooted sympathy for the underdog to create a very genuine concern for India’s Muslim minority. Was this so different from his unquestioned sympathy for Nazi Germany’s persecuted Jews? As opposed to what he considered an upper-caste, Hindu-dominated Congress claiming to represent all India, Churchill numbered what he considered the true majority of Indians, made up of Muslims, Dalits and the autonomous populations of the princely states.
This is all well-travelled ground. What’s new are the sweeping claims that Churchill nursed an active hatred of India, unlike other British colonies to whom he was more sympathetic. Such hatred, we are told here, tainted all his India policies, poisoned all efforts at constitutional advance and thereby indirectly caused even the trauma of Partition. These are very sweeping charges that this book conspicuously fails to substantiate. Its evidence relies mostly on Churchill-hating, secondary sources.
One is hard pressed to understand why Churchill as prime minister presided over a serious attempt in 1942 to secure the return of Congress provincial governments, with a broadly based national coalition government at the Centre. Called the Cripps offer, it was a charm offensive led by Sir Stafford Cripps
Covering as he does Churchill’s earlier, youthful role as Secretary for War at the time of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919, Reid warmly applauds Churchill’s historic speech condemning Butcher Dyer and the “un-British monstrosity” of the massacre. But this book fails to explain how this very genuine sympathy turned into what it later labels Churchill’s “malign, deceitful and hypocritical attempts… to thwart India’s entirely reasonable political aspirations”.
Reid agrees that this was certainly not the result of political opportunism. Quite the contrary, since Churchill’s hostility to constitutional change in India consigned him to the Tory backbenches throughout the crucial 1930s and made him, this book gleefully claims, “an object of derision” for the majority of British MPs. What this fails to address is the conundrum of how Churchill, stuck in the political wilderness, was able to poison India’s progress.
Churchill vociferously opposed the important Government of India Act of 1935 from the Tory backbenches. But he failed to prevent the passage of the Act by large majorities through the British parliament or to secure even a single, minor amendment to it. And yet this book claims, again with no evidence, that Churchill, in league with the nefarious Manchester cotton industry, somehow delayed the Act and thwarted its application.
Reid largely ignores the 1935 Act’s hugely enlightened and lasting constitutional strides, which made it the basis of the Constitution independent India adopted in 1950. The Act established a democracy very similar to that of Britain’s in the 1860s. It enfranchised 30 million Indian men and women, including all taxpayers and matriculates, a huge electorate numbering one-sixth of British India’s adult population. It introduced full provincial autonomy, with elected ministries responsible to elected legislatures. Elections held in 1937 resulted in Congress ministries taking office in six provinces. This was envisaged as a stepping-stone to a responsible federal government at the Centre, once Congress, Muslim League and the princes agreed on its makeup.
This federal Centre came with the promise of Dominion Status, which attracted much Indian public support. Reid is disingenuous in suggesting that “no one really knew” what Dominion Status meant. The Statute of Westminster of 1931 had just defined it very clearly as, in effect, full independence, with responsible government and even the right to secede from the British Empire. And it was this very promise of independence to which Churchill was so allergic.
Churchill’s remark that India’s Hindus were a ‘beastly people with a beastly religion’ is often cited. Such exclamations were made at the height of World War II, when Churchill was furious with Gandhi’s Congress for stabbing Britain in the back (as he saw it) with the Quit India agitation
CHURCHILL’S LASTING AVERSION to independence for India was based partly on his emotional attachment to the British Empire, but also on his more hard-headed assessment that India was the jewel in the imperial crown and that its departure would reduce Britain to the status of a second-rate power. He equally strongly believed that a majoritarian democracy for India, unlike the other ‘white’ dominions, would inevitably threaten minority rights. For Churchill, Congress, led by upper-caste Hindu politicians like Gandhi and the Nehrus, would ride roughshod over 80 million Muslims plus some 70 million Dalits. The result, he believed, with some prophetic foresight, would be virtual civil war, Partition and major discrimination against India’s remaining Muslim minority, today numbering some 18 per cent of its population but confined to a mere 2 per cent of its Parliament.
Arguably, what had stymied constitutional advance in India, unlike the ‘white’ dominions, was not the reluctance of British governments, eager to exit since the turn of the century, but the real dilemma of whom to hand over to in a subcontinent even more varied and diverse than Europe. Fears in London of upper-caste Hindu domination of independent India were shared not only by Jinnah and the Muslim League, but also by Babasaheb Ambedkar, now appropriated by Hindu communalists and ignored by this book.
Ambedkar was active at the Round Table Conferences of 1930-31 and his demand for separate electorates for Dalits echoed that of the Muslim League. The result was British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald’s Communal Award, granting such separate representation to both Muslims and Dalits. That in turn provoked Gandhi’s ‘fast unto death’ against the Award. Threatened by the backlash the Mahatma’s death would have produced, Ambedkar capitulated and gave up separate electorates, in return for reserved quotas.
The row over the Communal Award epitomised Congress’ insistence on its right to speak for all Indians. But for Churchill it was an alarming exercise in the emotional blackmail so characteristic of Gandhi and of the resulting majoritarian politics that would fracture India’s fragile unity, for Churchill the greatest achievement of British rule.
This book adopts the usual anti-imperial tropes about how Britain looted the subcontinent of its wealth, which it then poured into an evil, triangular nexus that financed both the slave trade and the Industrial Revolution. No sign here of more nuanced assessments by serious economic historians like Tirthankar Roy about how huge inward flows of British capital, technology and skills modernised the Indian economy, while British naval and military power gave India unprecedented internal peace, external security and major trading advantages.
Fears in London of upper-caste Hindu domination of independent India were shared not only by Jinnah and the Muslim League, but also by Ambedkar. He was active at the Round Table Conferences and his demand for separate electorates for Dalits echoed that of the Muslim League
Whether one takes Reid’s view or Roy’s, there is little doubt about Churchill’s strongly held belief in the benevolence of the British Empire. What remains hugely implausible is the idea that Churchill, consigned to ineffective opposition, somehow managed to poison India’s future. Reid contends that Churchill cynically fuelled Muslim separatism by a Machiavellian rhetoric of divide and rule. But such accusations greatly underestimate the agency of Indian politicians. After all, it was Nehru’s arrogance in refusing a coalition with the Muslim League in the United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh) in 1937 that triggered the Pakistan demand. It was not Churchill but the outbreak of World War II that triggered the resignation of Congress ministries two years later, in futile protest at not being consulted about India’s entry.
Based on this book, one is hard pressed to understand why Churchill as prime minister presided over a serious attempt in 1942 to secure the return of Congress provincial governments, with a broadly based national coalition government at the Centre. Called the Cripps Offer, it was a charm offensive famously led by the Labour politician Sir Stafford Cripps, a personal friend of Nehru’s and best calculated to appeal to Gandhi too as a fellow vegetarian.
ALTHOUGH THIS BOOK ACCUSES CHURCHILL OF SOMEHOW “frustrating” the Cripps mission, sent by his own government, it offers no evidence of this. Churchill was clearly humouring American demands, echoed by his Labour coalition colleagues, to make concessions to Indian nationalism. So he may well have been relieved when Congress leaders rejected the Cripps offer, but he did nothing to engineer this.
Churchill as prime minister represented unanimity on India in his War Cabinet. Including even its Labour members and the pro-reform Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery, they all agreed that the height of a world war was not an appropriate moment to make major constitutional changes in India. The promise of Dominion Status, meaning effective independence after the war, remained on the table, as soon as Congress, Muslim League and the Princes agreed on power-sharing at a federal Centre.
To blame Churchill for the internal divisions that obstructed such a coalition is not only to exaggerate hugely his very remote impact, but to miss that of the Indian politicians directly involved. A power-sharing deal between Nehru and Jinnah would have made nonsense of Churchill’s fears. Instead, he had the dubious distinction of being proved right when India’s fragile imperial unity fell apart under majoritarian strains.
What Walter Reid fails to explain is how Churchill’s faith in the so-called martial races fused with his equally deep-rooted sympathy for the underdog to create a very genuine concern for India’s Muslim minority. Was this so different from his unquestioned sympathy for Nazi Germany’s persecuted Jews?
That final fracture took place, not on Churchill’s watch, but under the Labour government that took over in 1945. Even Prime Minister Attlee’s much closer ties with Nehru failed to overcome Congress insistence on centralised, majority rule. The Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946, which this book completely ignores, was crafted to create a loose federation of strong, unpartitioned, autonomous provinces, with some minority weightage and a power-sharing, federal Centre. Churchill, then leader of the opposition, was in no way responsible for the failure of the Plan. Though accepted by Jinnah and the Muslim League, it was torpedoed by Nehru, driven by his desire for a socialist, unitary state.
Apart from its occasional insights, this book sadly fails to convey Churchill’s romantic fascination with India, his genuine admiration for what he saw as the civilising benefits of British rule or his deep pessimism about it all falling apart under democratic pressures. Andrew Roberts’s monumental biography remains the most scholarly and balanced guide to this and other Churchillian paradoxes.