Oxford University Press
The final decade of British rule is one of the best documented and exhaustively researched chapters of modern Indian history.
From the encyclopaedic 12-volume The Transfer of Power documents to Patrick French’s delightful bestseller Liberty or Death, there are few aspects of the bloody Partition of India that have not been written about.
With most of the official and private papers in the public domain there is precious little by way of original findings that a historian can hope for.
Indeed, most of the recent publications on the subject have either tapped the hidden reservoirs of public memory—basically survivors’ tales—or fallen back on interpretation.
As a biographer of the three towering personalities who played key roles—Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammed Ali Jinnah—Stanley Wolpert has examined the Partition saga from the perspective of the Congress, the Muslim League and the maverick loner.
This slim chronological study of the events from the fall of Singapore in 1942 to the Kashmir war of 1948 is an offshoot of his biographies—but laced with an intriguing thesis.
Wolpert cannot be lumped with the Tory “revisionist” historians such as Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson who have done so much to rescue the British Empire from the gratuitous derision of post-War historiography.
Yet, his central argument mirrors the misgivings of the relics of the pre-War Conservative Party to the management of decolonisation.
Wolpert takes the title of the book from Sir Winston Churchill’s characteristically declamatory intervention in a House of Commons debate on March 6, 1947. Describing the decision to leave India by mid-1948 as “Operation Scuttle”, Churchill thundered: “The Government by their 14-month time limit have put an end to all prospect of Indian unity… How can one suppose that the thousand-year gulf which yawns between Muslim and Hindu will be bridged in 14 months? … How can we walk out of India in 14 months and leave behind us a war between 90 million Muslims and 200 million caste Hindus? …We must do our best in all circumstances… But, at least, let us not add—by shameful flight, by a premature, hurried scuttle—to the pangs of sorrow so many of us feel, the taint and smear of shame.”
For Wolpert, the villain of the piece was “Dickie” Mountbatten, the show-off who bulldozed the Raj out of India, overlooking all complexities and turning a blind eye to the terrible human suffering.
The last Viceroy capped a tearing hurry to get back to his fleet with his profound disdain for Jinnah—he described him as “psychopathic”—and exasperation with the woolly-headed Mahatma.
The problem is that Wolpert’s own narrative doesn’t justify singling out Mountbatten for all the opprobrium. By 1942, it was painfully apparent that Britain’s will to run an Empire was fast evaporating.
Churchill, otherwise Empire-minded in outlook, was too busy trying to ward off the Nazi onslaught to bother about revolting natives in India.
The vital problems of India, Lord Wavell complained to Leo Amery, the diminutive Secretary of State for India, had been treated by Churchill with “neglect… hostility and contempt”.
The criminal mismanagement of the Bengal famine was just one example. Secondly, the British had no clear exit strategy.
There were profound disagreements over whether to leave a united India or protect Muslims from the perceived tyranny of Hindu-majority rule.
Till 1940 these tensions were still manageable but after the Muslim League’s Pakistan resolution, the scope for compromise shrank with each passing day.
The near-confederal arrangement proposed by the Cabinet Mission in 1946 could have been a way out but Nehru couldn’t countenance the idea of provinces being all-important—he was too starry-eyed about Soviet-style centralised planning.
Finally, after the Direct Action bloodbath of 1946, there was such a trust deficit between Hindus and Muslims that no united arrangement seemed worthwhile. Wolpert’s suggestion that a united, independent Bengal would have prevented the tragedy in the east ignores cruel ground realities.
To blame Mountbatten for the denouement is a self-comforting way of evading the harsh fact that Partition was the only realistic alternative to a united India being engulfed in permanent civil war. Let’s face it, India hasn’t done too badly after surgery.
Source From: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/rssfeeds/1076365.cms