Spinning the Destiny of India

The Route to Independence

During the years after the massacre at Amritsar, India’s struggle was dominated by Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi—sometimes termed Father, Son and Holy Ghost. In this nationalist trinity the last was unquestionably first. Gandhi’s god-like moral stature, which transfigured his wispy frame, gave him unique authority both inside and outside Congress. Noting the calm depth of his eyes, the limpid clarity of his voice and the beguiling charm of his manner, Jawaharlal said that Gandhi had “a kingliness in him which compelled a willing obeisance.” Motilal Nehru himself became a disciple, despite his worldly success as a lawyer under the Raj and a masterful character that was visibly etched upon his countenance. “With a broad forehead, tight lips and a determined chin,” wrote his son, “he had a marked resemblance to the busts of the Roman Emperors in the museums of Italy.”1 Motilal’s similarity to the Caesars became still more pronounced, others observed, when he gave up his velvet smoking jackets and gold-embroidered shoes for white, home spun, toga-like chadders and sandals. Jawaharlal, sophisticated, secular, progressive and so westernised that he spoke Hindi with an English accent, was still more of an antithesis to Gandhi.

Indeed, this fastidious aesthete puzzled over the affinity he felt for the loin-clothed ascetic who sat cross-legged on the ground and ate with his fingers. The rationalist could not comprehend the thought processes of the sadhu, who was directed by an Inner Voice, sometimes heard in the lavatory. The young philanderer had no sympathy with the sage who aspired to be “God’s Eunuch.”2 But he concluded that personality has “a strange power over the souls of men.”3 Despite their differences, Gandhi appealed to the smouldering idealism in Jawaharlal, who for years gave him “humble, unquestioning allegiance.”4 His loyalty burned most brightly when he and Motilal joined the Mahatma in the non-cooperation campaign of 1920–22. Intended as a reasoned response to the bloodshed of the Jallianwala Bagh, this was Gandhi’s endeavour to liberate the nation through the greatest manifestation of soul force hitherto seen in India. It turned out that he could not defeat the Raj through boycotts, hartals and peaceful protests. But the satyagraha did sap its claims to legitimacy and undermine its moral foundations. Those who took part offered themselves as a willing sacrifice and endured much suffering. None bore it with such redemptive zeal as Motilal Nehru’s beloved son.

Jawaharlal’s devotion to the national cause was unexpected, since he had long seemed little more than a dilettante. Born in 1889, he was brought up in the Anand Bhavan, or Abode of Bliss, the most palatial mansion in Allahabad. It was set in ten acres of luxuriant gardens complete with tennis courts, riding ring, indoor swimming pool and a courtyard fountain filled with ice and flowers that cooled and scented the whole house during the hot weather. He was surrounded by nurses, servants, governesses and tutors. His doting mother indulged him while his fiercely possessive father intimidated him. A Kashmiri Brahmin by origin, Motilal was determined that “the boy”5 should be educated like an English gentleman and should enter that nirvana of respectability, the Indian Civil Service. So in 1905 Jawaharlal went to Harrow, where he was pursued by paternal exhortations to excel, not least in the matter of growing a moustache. He looked a fool without one, said Motilal, who himself sported a Kitcheneresque appendage at the time. But Jawaharlal had no more success in this respect than did his fellow Harrovian, Winston Churchill, and he soon shaved off the callow growth with the plea that it was “all awry and it spoils the whole look of the face.”

He made scarcely any other mark at school and proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge, where his career was also undistinguished. In fact, Jawaharlal lived the life of a young man of fashion, running up debts for Savile Row suits and Montmartre jaunts. There were signs of a political bent: he admired Sinn Féin, listened to Bernard Shaw and questioned his father’s faith in John Bull. But Jawaharlal was a study in aimlessness and he got such a poor degree that he was unable to enter the ICS. He toyed with other options, telling Motilal that he wanted to read law at “a decent Oxford College” because Cambridge was “too full of Indians.”6 Eventually, without enthusiasm, he qualified for the bar at the Inner Temple in London. He was equally lukewarm when practising as a lawyer on his return to Allahabad, deciding that his profession aimed to “exploit others.”7Nor did he seem keen on the marriage that Motilal arranged for him in 1916, an extravagant ceremony in which his seventeen-year-old bride, Kamala, was almost borne to the ground under the weight of her jewellery. Jawaharlal remained cool and detached. Although hot-tempered he cultivated cold-bloodedness, according to a later confession, because he feared being swept away by passion. That emotional avalanche occurred after the war, when Gandhi converted him to become “an ardent believer in non-cooperation.” Only this form of protest would end India’s slavery and bring victory over its oppressors, Jawaharlal declared. “That victory may not come in a day or a year, but come it must, ruat coelum”—though the heavens fall.8

Motilal dreaded such a cataclysm and tried to restrain Jawaharlal. But Amritsar worked a revolution in Motilal’s views and he too “felt an irresistible call to follow the Mahatma.”9 What is more, the father knew that he must follow the son or lose him to Gandhi, whom Jawaharlal often addressed as Bapu, little father. So in 1920 Motilal threw in his lot with the swarajist non-cooperators. A pillar of the law, he supported a campaign of civil disobedience that led to some thirty thousand arrests, braving gaol himself. He was even to be seen, a refined, white-haired patrician, hawking khadi cloth in the grimy streets of Allahabad. But Motilal did not altogether renounce luxury. His Gandhi cap was fashioned in silk by Lock of St. James’s in London. He drank alcohol when he felt like it, telling the Mahatma that he would not “yield to the puritanism affected in Congress circles.” And he staggered the Governor of Yeravda Prison in Poona, who was used to feeding Gandhi on goat’s milk, a few dates and the occasional orange, by requesting a “simple” menu such as only the Ritz could have supplied. Meanwhile, Jawaharlal experienced a fresh revelation in the countryside, learning to address peasants and discovering a depth of poverty that made him ashamed of his own affluence. “A new picture of India seemed to rise before me,” he wrote, “naked, starving, crushed and utterly miserable.”10 He attributed the people’s degradation to the Raj and took the lead in encouraging further strikes and protests. The crusade, as he called it, consumed and thrilled him. Congress now had two million members. Convinced that it was shaking the fabric of British rule, he succumbed to the bliss, or moksha, of martyrdom. When imprisoned, Jawaharlal wrote: “Jail has indeed become a heaven for us, a holy place of pilgrimage since our saintly and beloved leader was sentenced.”11 To serve under Mahatma Gandhi doubled the honour of fighting for India’s freedom.

Jawaharlal was therefore bitterly disappointed when Gandhi called off the satyagraha early in 1922 because it was leading to bloodshed. This, at least, was the official reason but really the campaign was running out of steam. Although successful in some regions, particularly where stimulated by local grievances, it could not mobilise the whole of India. Inconceivably vast and variegated, cleft by deep social and religious fissures, riven by political divisions, freighted with an impermeable peasantry, the subcontinent resisted unification. In particular, the alliance that Gandhi had forged with Muslims, who were concerned about the fate of the Islamic holy places and their protector the Caliph, began to collapse. Jinnah, howled down at one Congress meeting for addressing Gandhi as Mr. instead of Mahatma, had opposed the alliance. Now his supporters took alarm at adoring pictures of Gandhi as Krishna under a Muslim flag. Communal violence flared and when Mustapha Kemal abolished the caliphate in 1924 Muslims no longer needed Hindu help. The Muslim League, that year meeting separately from Congress, began to plan for a federal India containing provinces which it could dominate. At the same time Congress was waning and dyarchy was working—after a fashion. In 1923 five million Indians elected representatives to expanded provincial councils and to the national Legislative Assembly. The power of these bodies was limited and they had almost no scope, as Subhas Bose said, “to undertake nation-building work.”12 But they wore away British control at the edges and they taught Indian politicians valuable lessons, particularly in the arts of negotiation and obstruction. However, the issue of participation in constitutional bodies divided Congress. Gandhi went his own way, concentrating on the championship of Untouchables and the khadi campaign, in the “conviction that with every thread that I draw, I am spinning the destiny of India.”13 Motilal believed that Congress should exploit the councils, telling Gandhi that rather than resume a programme of boycott he would retire to a thatched hut (kutiya) by the banks of the Ganges. Jawaharlal opposed his father, wanting to adopt Sinn Féin tactics towards the institutions of the Raj. Thwarted, he went to Europe with his tubercular wife (who died in 1936) and their young daughter, Indira, where he acquired new reasons for disagreement with his conservative elders.

Like many other nationalist leaders, Jawaharlal had continued his education in prison. Inside the grim, square barrack at Lucknow Gaol he had devoured books, finishing, for example, six out of seven volumes of Gibbon. (His literary marathon irritated the British colonel in charge of the prison, who said that he had practically completed his own reading at the age of twelve, which no doubt helped him, Jawaharlal reflected sardonically, “in avoiding troublesome thoughts.”)14 Now, particularly when attending the Brussels Congress against Colonial Oppression, Jawaharlal imbibed the gospel of socialism. He associated with Leninist intellectuals who thought that the Indian proletariat had “grown up sufficiently to wage a class-conscious and political mass struggle” against the lackeys of the British Empire.15 He concluded that western capitalism, engaged in an increasingly vicious effort to plunder colonies, was digging its own grave. A global revolution against imperial tyranny was in train, quickened by the Soviet Union. Jawaharlal even forecast that, in order to save itself from extinction, Britain would “become a satellite of the United States,” helping to form “a powerful Anglo-Saxon bloc to dominate the world.”16 Fearing Bolshevik Russia and mistrusting the British Labour Party, Nehru was never as Red as he was painted. He was certainly gullible about Stalin’s purge trials and naïve in assuming that the Soviet Union was a new civilisation. He adopted a few Communist mantras, often saying that religion was the opium of the people. But he was less wedded to Karl Marx than to Kingsley Martin, volatile editor of London’s left-wing New Statesman. Above all he was devoted to Gandhi, whose Utopian schemes for uplifting the masses he tried to combine with Fabian plans for state control of land and industry. The endeavour involved a long “mental tussle”17 and occasional crises of allegiance which almost reduced him to despair.

Although the Mahatma disliked, and Motilal sometimes damned, Jawaharlal’s new radicalism, the three of them united in opposing the Simon Commission. This was set up late in 1927 to reform the system of dyarchy. The bibulous Conservative Secretary of State, Lord Birkenhead, who could not take “Indian politicians very seriously” and found it “inconceivable that India will ever be fit for Dominion self-government,”18 wanted to devise a constitutional framework that would preserve British supremacy. That, too, was the aim of the Viceroy, Lord Irwin. Believing that Indian psychology was “composed in equal parts of vanity, inferiority complex and fear of responsibility,” he sought “some façade which will leave the essential mechanism of power still in our hands.”19 So, at Irwin’s behest, Birkenhead appointed a Commission which included not a single Indian. This guaranteed Sir John Simon, the cold, serpentine lawyer who led it, the kind of reception that Milner had faced in Egypt. He and his “seven dwarfs” were duly met with black flags and cries of “Simon Go Back!”20 The cries seemed to go on all night outside the Western Hotel in Delhi where the commissioners were staying, but they actually came from the jackals which still infested the waste places of the capital. Irwin compared the Indian response to a child’s refusing to eat its supper but he had served up such a racist dish that Muslims joined Hindus in spurning it. “Jallianwala Bagh was physical butchery. The Simon Commission is butchery of the soul.”21 Not since the Ilbert Bill had there been such outrage. Furious demonstrations took place, notably in Lahore and Lucknow, where Jawaharlal experienced a police lathi charge. The European sergeants, he noted, were the most brutal of all, their faces suffused with “hate and blood-lust.”22 But according to Lajpat Rai, a nationalist who was killed in the disturbances, every lathi blow was “a nail in the coffin of the British Empire.”23 Clement Attlee, one of two Labour members on the Commission, was vouchsafed another insight into the nature of the imperial relationship. His “excellent bearer” insisted on dressing him although, Attlee said, “I rather bar not tucking in my own shirt.”24 Nobody at the time could have envisaged that this modest man, who had (as Churchill unforgettably remarked) much to be modest about, would become Prime Minister and give India its independence.

Simon’s Report, which recommended further provincial devolution (favoured by Muslims) but the retention of British power at the centre, was a dead letter before it appeared. This was because Irwin tried to allay Indian hostility by declaring in 1929, on behalf of the new Labour government, that the natural outcome of India’s constitutional progress was dominion status. Congress was divided between those, led by Motilal, who accepted this as the next step towards swaraj and those, led by Jawaharlal, who demanded full national independence. Gandhi found a compromise and reined in the Nehru son, calling him a young hooligan. Inspired by his socialist creed, Jawaharlal had become (as he himself acknowledged, with considerable understatement) “a little bit autocratic in my ways, just a shade dictatorial.” Writing an ironical but anonymous criticism of himself in the Modern Review, he said that his conceit, inflated by people who hailed him as “Jewel of India” and “Embodiment of Sacrifice,”25 should be checked. “We want no Caesars!”26 Jawaharlal’s state was summed up in Byron’s lines, which he transcribed in prison, saying that total dedication must be the lot of “those who are called to high destinies/Which purify corrupted commonwealths.”27 Yet Jawaharlal’s vaunting ambitions and violent inclinations, expressed in rages to match those of Motilal, sometimes ending in blows, were curbed by a spirit of self-denial. Recognising this, the Mahatma ensured that he was chosen to follow his father as President of Congress in 1929. “He is pure as crystal, he is truthful beyond suspicion,” said Gandhi. “The nation is safe in his hands.”28

The nation was divided over the Viceroy’s promise of dominion status which, according to one British report, had given “moral leadership in Indian politics to Lord Irwin.”29 In an attempt to safeguard their position if and when the promise was kept, representative Muslims, maharajahs and others accepted his invitation to attend a Round Table Conference in London. Congress boycotted it. But Gandhi needed a more positive and dramatic strategy both to unite his movement and to challenge Irwin, whose prestige was enhanced by a bomb attack on his train near Delhi. The patrician Viceroy responded to the explosion with his usual sang-froid, telling a friend that he was “inured to that kind of thing by the Cona Coffee machine which was always blowing up.”30So Gandhi, who chided Irwin for accepting a salary five thousand times larger than the average Indian income, advocated a return to peaceful non-cooperation in pursuit of freedom from foreign rule. In Lahore, where Congress adopted this policy, Jawaharlal declared independence from an Empire that was “undergoing a process of political dissolution.”31 At midnight on 31 December 1929 he headed a large crowd which raised the saffron, white and green flag of freedom in the Lajpatnagar. Then, in the teeth of a chill wind blowing across the Ravi River, he led them on a wild dance round the flagpole to cries of “Inquilab Zindabad”—“Long Live Revolution.” Nehru’s revolution, with its talk of the inalienable rights of the Indian people, smacked more of Jefferson than of Lenin. Gandhi’s revolution was the very antithesis of terrorism, which Nirad Chaudhuri defined as “political rabies.”32 It took the form of a non-violent pilgrimage to the sea in order to gather salt without paying the tax levied on “the only condiment of the poor.”33 It was a march that was compared to Rama’s epic odyssey to Lanka and Moses’ biblical journey to Canaan.

In the grey dawn haze of 12 March 1930 Gandhi set off from his ashram, a cluster of whitewashed huts amid a grove of trees on the sandy banks of the River Sabarmati, just within sight of the cotton-mill smokestacks of Ahmedabad. His goal was the remote coastal hamlet of Dandi, 240 miles to the south. Wearing his dhoti and holding a lacquered, iron-tipped bamboo staff, he was accompanied by seventy-eight khadi-clad disciples. Around him was a “vast sea of humanity”34 including journalists, film crews and a brass band which struck up “God Save the King” before realising its inappropriateness and subsiding in confusion. Some people climbed trees to get a better view. Others waved flags and cracked coconuts to ensure good fortune. Still others, some in tears, strewed the Mahatma’s path with water and green leaves. He set a fast pace in searing heat and soon left the first spectators behind. But thousands more lined the route, showering the marchers with flowers, coins, currency notes and kum kum (red powder, signifying reverence). And at each village fresh crowds assembled to greet him with garlands, banners, pipes and drums. So many people tried to wipe the dust from his feet that they had to be massaged with vaseline. At night, by the flickering glow of kerosene lamps, he preached the duty of disloyalty to the satanic government. He urged the inhabitants of all India’s 700,000 villages to break the “inhuman monopoly”35 on salt—which he himself, ironically, had for years banished from his diet.

His disciples, who carried their own bedding, slept in grass bivouacs and ate almost as sparingly as their guru, maintained a strict routine of praying, spinning and keeping a daily diary. A few fell out and had to be carried in bullock carts. But Gandhi, at the age of sixty-one the oldest of them, seemed imbued with superhuman energy. Having spent a day crossing the coastal plain, ten miles of dirt roads, paddy fields, marshes and rivers, he could sometimes be seen writing letters by moonlight at four o’clock in the morning. One of the newspaper correspondents charting his progress claimed that he was in a dangerously hyper-active “state of nerves.”36 On 5 April the Mahatma reached Dandi. “Never was there a more forlorn setting for a drama than the tiny, straggling village, perched on hummocks above the beach and the long rollers of the Arabian Sea,” reported the New York Times.37 The next morning Gandhi stepped from his hut and walked over the black sand, littered with jellyfish, towards the ribbon of surf. Watched by a huge crowd, many of them women, their saris making splashes of scarlet, pink and purple on the grey mud flats and the parched, dun-coloured shore, he picked up a handful of natural salt. It crystallised opposition to the British Raj. Beside him, the poet Sarojini Naidu, the first female President of Congress, cried out: “Hail, Thee, Deliverer!”38

The British themselves tried to play down the whole campaign, taking their line from the Viceroy, who had refused to arrest the Mahatma because he judged that the march would be a fiasco. The London Times, edited by Irwin’s friend Geoffrey Dawson, ridiculed Gandhi’s Dandi performance. It was a farce that “fell flat” and a melodrama deprived of vital members of the cast, the police. The Times further scorned the “Babu eloquence” of the pro-Mahatma press, which “would make intensely amusing reading were it not so tragic.” And it sneered at Gandhi’s “puppet-President” of Congress, Jawaharlal Nehru, a “quaint product of pre-war Harrow and post-war Moscow,” who had “made a pathetic attempt to steal a little limelight” by manufacturing some of his own salt. Yet even the most partisan journalists acknowledged that to the peasants Gandhi was “more than a leader. He is a legend.”39 His satyagraha fired the imagination of Indians, who regarded salt as a gift of God. Equally inflammatory was Gandhi’s appeal that every woman should clutch her lump of illicit salt as she would a fond child being wrenched from her by evil-doers. All over the subcontinent millions of Hindus (and some Muslims) collected salt illegally, relishing the savour of defiance. Packets of contraband salt were sold openly and a pinch of Gandhi’s own lump was auctioned for 525 rupees. In Bombay, the cockpit of disaffection, a party of salt-gatherers processed up the steps of the “Gateway of India” and sang “Bande Mataram” (“Hail Mother,” the Hindustan anthem) and other nationalist songs on the Apollo Bundur quay. Their protest encouraged a party of young Americans in a nearby hotel to don Gandhi caps. And it spread ripples of alarm across the peninsula, from the Yacht Club to the Breach Candy Swimming Club, where members protected their privacy with a sign saying “No Dogs or Indians Allowed.”40

The government responded forcefully to the demonstrations, producing a vicious cycle of aggression. Riots in Calcutta and Karachi were quelled by rifle fire. Garhwali troops mutinied after similar disturbances on the North-West Frontier, which were eventually put down with bombs, tanks and machine guns. Crowds stoned the police in Poona. Terrorists raided an arsenal in Chittagong. Gandhi condemned the violence that he involuntarily provoked. On the Bombay maidan a pack of white Cub Scouts witnessed the effect of his presence:

In the distance, across the brown grass, we saw a vast crowd of natives with white Congress caps on their heads, listening to a bespectacled figure on a soap-box. In the further distance there were rows of Indian policemen, in blue and yellow uniforms with flat round frisbee-like caps, holding lathees. Little puffs of white dust where the mounted English police, wearing white topees, kept watch. We looked on in silence, not understanding the speaker’s words or the chanting cries of the crowd. Suddenly the lines of Indian police advanced, lathees turning like propellers through seaweed. Soon the shrieks and cries from the panic-stricken mob and clouds of dust curdled our blood. The mounted police charged in. There was chaos as the crowds broke up and hordes of rioters streamed…past us.41

In May Gandhi was arrested.

This prompted a fresh outburst of civil disobedience, which took the form of hartals, strikes, boycotts and picketing. Sometimes the agitation got out of hand, notably in Bombay where for a time the mob ruled. But often the authorities encountered no resistance. When Sarojini Naidu’s marchers advanced on the salt works at Dharasana, 150 miles north of Bombay, they did not even raise a hand to ward off the blows that the police rained “on their heads with their steel-shod lathis.42 In a single morning an American reporter counted 2 dead and 320 wounded satyagrahis, while another witness said that by 10:30 a.m. “nearly seven hundred men had been injured.”43 And the struggle went on for days. Writing to the King-Emperor, the Viceroy said that he could “hardly fail to have read with amusement the accounts of the several battles” at Dharasana, but assured him that “those who suffered injuries were as nothing compared with those who wished to sustain an honourable contusion or bruise.” Irwin had a curious sense of humour: he found the suggestion that Afghans lived in trees “delicious.”44 However, the Viceroy was a kindly man (going so far as to give the constipated Congress strongman Vallabhbhai Patel his own bottle of Petrolagar) and he appreciated the limits of force. By the summer of 1930 the government had outlawed Congress. It had locked up well over sixty thousand of the staunchest nationalists, among them both Nehru men and several hundred women, whose emergence from seclusion marked a revolution. And it quickly regained possession of the streets. But Gandhi had won hearts and minds. Irwin recognised his moral victory, admitting that the authority of the Raj had suffered. Jawaharlal sensed that Congress was emerging as a shadow authority. It was a regime in waiting, just as India was a nation in waiting.

The traditional British strategy was to keep the Indian nation at bay by emphasising the variety of the Indian peoples. Conservatives such as Lord Birkenhead and Winston Churchill continued to play up the schisms within the subcontinent in order to demonstrate the perennial need for the high-minded and even-handed Raj. Birkenhead publicly exaggerated and privately welcomed sectarian antagonisms because they indicated that “we, and we alone, can play the part of composers.”45 Churchill later confessed that he “regarded the Hindu-Moslem feud as a bulwark of British rule in India.”46 No one exploited splits in the Indian ranks more forcefully than Churchill, but his efforts to challenge Congress’s claim to speak for the nation were assisted by the prospect of independence itself. As it loomed larger, different segments of Indian society tried harder to protect their position in the coming democracy. After all, as Jawaharlal Nehru freely admitted, democracy “means the coercion of the minority by the majority.”47 So the six hundred princes, who had acquired an advisory Chamber in 1921, struggled to safeguard their feudal privileges. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar demanded a separate electorate for the fifty million Untouchables he represented, a demand rejected by Gandhi on the grounds that it would destroy the unity of India’s 250 million Hindus. Nearly eighty million Muslims and five million Sikhs had already got a reserved franchise and both communities sought further advantage. Thus Jinnah attempted to entrench the power of Muslims in the provinces and in the future parliament, wanting a third of the seats plus a veto on laws harmful to their interests. When Congress spurned this proposal Jinnah announced a parting of ways and set off on a journey that would lead to Pakistan.

It was marked by an upsurge of communal violence. This was partly a reaction to Hindu revivalism, partly an expression of Muslim militancy, partly a response to local provocations—the din of gongs in front of mosques, the ritual sacrifice of cows, the clash of religious processions. Such a divide actually threatened to subvert British rule, which would culminate, Irwin hoped, in the establishment of India as the greatest dominion of all. He himself pleaded for a combined effort to stop the strife in order to build “the Indian nation.” Although an old-fashioned Tory, Irwin agreed with the Liberal Simon that the subcontinent possessed an “essential unity in diversity.”48 If anyone embodied that unity it was Gandhi, whose spiritual sway transcended factional differences. He alone offered a way out of the Indian impasse. So the Viceroy sought to conciliate the Mahatma, releasing him unconditionally at the end of January 1931. Meanwhile, Motilal Nehru was dying in characteristic style. Since his relations with the Almighty were cordial he expected to be ferried across the Vaitarmi River, the Hindu Styx, in “a motor launch with a high-powered Rolls-Royce engine.”49 His last words to Gandhi were: “I shall not be here to see swaraj. But I know you have won it and will soon have it.”50

As Churchill would bitterly observe, first Irwin grovelled to Gandhi and then (as Lord Halifax) he grovelled to Hitler. “Irwin?” he expostulated privately. “Lord worming and squirming is a better name.”51 Wrong though Churchill was about India, he was partially right about Irwin. For the Viceroy was not only one of nature’s appeasers, he was so out of touch with reality that he later likened the Mahatma to the Führer—even though Hitler told him that the way to control India was to shoot Gandhi first and then his supporters in batches. Socially remote and intellectually detached as well as (at six foot five) physically aloof, this aristocratic High Churchman had almost no conception of either man. It was said that he established a rapport with Gandhi because both had such strict religious principles, the one taking his chaplain on his honeymoon, the other asserting that sexual intercourse without the desire for children was a crime. But at their first meeting Irwin felt as if he were “talking to someone who had stepped off another planet.”52 He had expected to woo Gandhi as he would woo a vain and capricious woman. Instead he faced a man whom Nehru likened to Socrates, a moral paragon and a dialectical virtuoso.

To give Irwin his due, he persevered despite flouts and doubts from home. Churchill, of course, condemned his nauseating negotiation with the half-naked fakir, convinced that making concessions to Gandhi was like feeding cat’s meat to a tiger. But the King also expressed concern that the rebel fakir, in his very abbreviated clothing, should enter the Viceroy’s beautiful new house. Nevertheless, Irwin invited Gandhi to eight meetings there and, on 5 March 1931, they signed an agreement. The Mahatma would discontinue non-cooperation and attend the second Round Table Conference. The Viceroy would release non-violent prisoners, relax repression and permit the collection of salt in coastal districts. Accused of drinking tea with treason, Irwin suggested that they should toast the accord in that beverage. Gandhi produced a pinch of illegal salt from the folds of his dhoti and said that he would put it in his tea “to remind us of the famous Boston Tea Party.”53 Indian radicals, like British reactionaries, denounced the pact as a betrayal. Jawaharlal Nehru deplored an ignoble compromise which took pressure off the government; yet he helped to persuade Congress to ratify it out of loyalty to Gandhi. This was, indeed, another moral victory for the Mahatma. His prestige had never been greater for, as Churchill said, he had treated on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor. One of Gandhi’s early biographers noted the essential irony of their confrontation. Almost the first official act to take place in the Viceroy’s House, symbol of British power, marked “the beginning of the end of that power.”54

This was precisely what caused Churchill and his right-wing allies such anguish. They saw India as the essence of the Empire and they were haunted by the spectre of international impotence. Lord Lloyd’s distress was palpable. “You see, if India goes, everything goes: our honour, our wealth, our strategic security and our prestige.”55 Churchill himself was still more apocalyptic. He described British policy towards India as “a hideous act of self-mutilation”56 and declared that “Irwinism has rotted the soul of the Tory party.”57 He wanted Conservatives to identify themselves with “the majesty of Britain as under Lord Salisbury and Lord Beaconsfield”58 and to crush “Gandhi-ism.”59

Our continued existence as a great power is at stake. The loss of India would mark and consummate the downfall of the British Empire. That great organism would pass at a stroke out of life into history. From such a catastrophe there could be no recovery.60

Churchill left the shadow cabinet over this question and stirred the Tory rank and file with many a “thrilling peroration about the Empire.”61 In parliament he recalled Gibbon’s account of how the Senator Didius Julianus had bought the Roman Empire at auction, paying the Praetorian Guard £200 per head—cheap beside the terms on which Gandhi was acquiring the British Empire.

To his wife Clementine, Winston deplored the fact that the Conservative leader, Stanley Baldwin, “felt that the times were too far gone for any robust assertion of imperial greatness.”62 Baldwin said that Churchill had reverted to being the subaltern of hussars of 1896. On the Indian issue, Baldwin further remarked, he was like George III “endowed with the tongue of Edmund Burke.”63 Employing a more contemporary comparison, Sir Samuel Hoare, the new Secretary of State for India, reckoned that Churchill wanted to rule India as Mussolini ruled North Africa. Birkenhead might dismiss the prissy Hoare as “the last of a long line of maiden aunts,”64 but it was a fair point. For at this time Churchill admired the Duce and shared his old-fashioned view that colonial possessions were the measure of national greatness. He decried the Indian policy of liberal Tories such as Irwin, Baldwin and Hoare as feeble and defeatist, correctly regarding it as a further step (after Ireland and Egypt) in a long imperial retreat. They thought, also correctly, that the day had gone “when Winston’s possessive instinct can be applied to Empires and the like.” As Irwin wrote, “That conception of Empire is finished.”65

It was finished for a variety of reasons. India was changing in ways that Churchill could not grasp—he had not been there since the Victorian age and he refused to have the beautiful clarity of his thought muddied by talking to “any bloody Indian,” including Gandhi. Unprecedented population growth, from 306 million in 1921 to 400 million in 1947, increased social tensions and eroded British control, especially in the teeming cities of the subcontinent. By the end of the 1930s, 15 per cent of the people, mostly men, were literate, which gave them access to nationalist propaganda. Britain still had large financial interests in India, which were particularly valuable during the Depression. So was the influx of gold from the subcontinent. Peasants sold the precious metal to compensate for the low price of their crops—to the joy of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As Neville Chamberlain wrote to his sister in February 1932, “The astonishing gold mine we have discovered in India’s hoards has put us in clover.”66 At the same time, however, economic ties between the two countries were unravelling. Indian business was developing independently of Britain and commercial captains increasingly gave money to Congress. Between the wars it became clear to the British that, despite fluctuations in benefits conferred and costs incurred, India was a “declining asset.”67 In particular, the subcontinent was manufacturing its own cotton goods as well as importing cheap fabrics from Japan and it no longer provided a huge captive market for the products of Lancashire.

Moreover, threatened with resignations from the Viceroy’s Executive Council, Britain could not even prevent India from imposing a protective tariff on English textiles. By the same token the Delhi Legislature prevented the British from exploiting the Indian army as they had done in the past and London had to pay for its re-equipment before the Second World War. Furthermore, the promotion of Indian officers caused resentment on both sides of the colour line: one Sandhurst-trained Indian said, “I was called a wog in my own mess.”68 The export of indentured workers had been prohibited in 1917 so the subcontinent no longer provided a reservoir of imperial labour. Nor was it such a rich field of employment for whites, since administrative posts increasingly went to Indians. By 1940 they constituted a majority in the ICS, applications from the United Kingdom being discouraged by fears about the imminent demise of the Raj. There was an undeniable slackening of Britain’s grip on its prize possession. Nehru employed a different image: the alien government was a tooth still strongly embedded but in an advanced state of decay.

Lord Willingdon, who succeeded Irwin as Viceroy in April 1931, intended to stop the rot. An old India hand, he believed in the smack of firm government. He would take no “damn nonsense” from the nationalists, treating them to “a blitz of lathis” in the streets and floggings with “knotted ropes”69 in the cells. Nor would he negotiate with Gandhi, reckoning that the saint in him was eclipsed by the bania (trader) and saying that he was “the most Machiavellian bargaining little political humbug I have ever come across.” Thus, when the Mahatma returned empty-handed from the second Round Table Conference in London, where the East End had welcomed him though in Buckingham Palace King George had glared at his bare knees, he was once again arrested. So were eighty thousand of his adherents: Congressmen had been helping the wretchedly impoverished tenants of the United Provinces to resist the exactions of their landlords. Willingdon not only introduced internment but tighter censorship, identity cards, heavy fines, curbs on assembly, restrictions on movement (such as bicycle bans) and even dress decrees (a prohibition on Gandhi caps). According to Jawaharlal Nehru, the authorities had turned the subcontinent into a vast prison of the human spirit. The Viceroy himself confessed that he was “becoming a sort of Mussolini of India.”70

Badgered by Churchill’s legion of Blimps and battered by the economic blizzard, Ramsay MacDonald’s new National Government backed Willingdon. After all, his methods were effective. He had clamped the lid on dissent. Gandhi, who was keener to convert than to confront the British, first limited and then (in April 1934) suspended civil disobedience. This angered Nehru, who noted the British knack of accommodating their moral values to their material interests and wanted to increase resistance. He threatened to break with the Mahatma, who resigned from the Congress Party (though he continued to dominate it). So Willingdon managed to weaken and divide the nationalists. Yet he himself resembled nothing as much as a Bourbon monarch in the last days of the ancien régime. Dim, idle and arrogant, he was also suave, affable and elegant, a Grand Ornamental who staged pageants worthy of Versailles—at one fancy-dress ball he even appeared as Louis XVI accompanied by his wife as Marie Antoinette. Willingdon performed with particular grace in the new Durbar Hall with its white marble walls, its red porphyry floor and its yellow jasper columns. His gold lace, diamond-studded insignia and jewelled sword were matched by Lady Willingdon’s glittering tiaras, lustrous pearls and lilac brocade dresses. She was, indeed, addicted to lilac and redecorated many rooms in the Viceroy’s House—to the distress of Lutyens, who called her “a mauvey sujet71 and said that she would put bay windows on the Parthenon. The Vicereine even got the Maharajah of Patiala to supply her with lilac lavatory paper—but the colour ran. Combining ostentation with repression, Willingdon’s regime aroused bitter enmity among nationalists. One described it as “Masked Balls and Black Terror.”72

As usual, though, the British tried to temper coercion with conciliation, notably through the 1935 Government of India Act. This separated Burma from India and gave the eleven Indian provinces self-rule, though in extreme circumstances Governors could still frustrate the will of the thirty-six million electors. At the centre two all-India federal assemblies, seats allocated to princes, Muslims, Sikhs, Untouchables, women and others, would control everything except finance, defence and foreign policy. Actually the scheme of national federation foundered because the princes, intent on retaining their privileges, refused to participate. But even if it had worked the Viceroy retained ultimate control: he could veto laws, dismiss ministers and suspend the constitution. The Act was thus intended to divide and outflank Indian nationalism, not to be a stage in a “slow unending retreat”73 from the Raj. It was designed, in the words of Willingdon’s successor, Lord Linlithgow, “to hold India to the Empire.”74 However, die-hards at home thought it a fatal surrender and Churchill famously pronounced it “a monstrous monument of sham built by pygmies.”75 He prayed that in the crashing cheers for the India Bill “there may not mingle the knell of the British Empire in the East.”76 Many Britons in India shared these views, no one more fiercely than Churchill’s former private secretary Sir James Grigg, now Finance Member of the Viceroy’s Council. He said that independence was now inevitable and that “if England wants to keep India it will have to be at the point of a sword. A reconquest followed by autocracy.”77

The Act was unpopular in India precisely because it seemed to invent new means of perpetuating British rule. Nehru called it a charter of slavery. Apprehensive that the British were undermining Indian unity by entrenching minority and reactionary interests, he urged his fellow Congressmen to refuse to participate in government. But Gandhi disagreed and Nehru was outvoted. The lure of power, even shared power, proved irresistible. So, all too often, did the spoils of office. In the local elections of 1937 Congress took control of six provinces at once, gaining two more within a couple of years. But although Nehru was buoyed up by victories at the polls his anxiety about national fragmentation proved justified. Jinnah had returned to the fray and he now asserted that Congress represented Hindu fascism. He abandoned his monocle, symbol of white sahibdom. He doffed his Savile Row suits (two hundred of them), silk ties (a fresh one every day) and sola topee for the Muslim sherwani (long black coat), shalwar (baggy trousers) and black karakuli sheepskin cap. He raised the green crescent-and-star flag and rallied his co-religionists with the cry “Islam in danger”—though privately he scorned sectarian zealotry and indulged a taste for whisky and ham sandwiches. Tall, gaunt, aquiline, lucid and implacable, with an ominous cough from the fifty Craven A cigarettes he smoked each day, Jinnah faced the facts. He told the Viceroy that if Britain “really had it in mind to abandon control of this country then it was quite obvious that Muslims must bestir themselves and be ready to fight.”78 Those who hailed Jinnah as their Quaid-i-Azam, or Great Leader, began to conjure with the punning acronym Pakistan. It stood for Punjab, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Sind and the last letters of Baluchistan, and in Urdu it meant “Land of the Pure.” Critics called it Jinnistan.

Provincial governments run by local Congress politicians were equally divisive, favouring the Hindu majority and antagonising the Muslim League. Some of those enjoying power for the first time were quite uncontrollable. In Bihar the authorities suppressed a radical peasant movement. Elsewhere they were quicker than the British to shoot down rioters. The Prime Minister of Madras, C. Rajagopalachari, arrested left-wing members of his own party. Indeed, he proved to be more of a Tory than the British Governor, who complained that Rajaji, as he was called, wanted to go back two thousand years and “to run India as it was run in the time of King Asoka.”79 Yet Nehru himself had to concede that the successful Congress ministries brought a “breath of fresh air into the turgid and authoritarian atmosphere of India.” Even the poorest stood up straighter, whereas under British rule they “had a hunted look about them and fear peeped out of their eyes.”80 Moreover, as Nehru’s Congress rival Subhas Bose acknowledged, the prestige of the party “went up by leaps and bounds.”81 So did its membership, which rose from 473,000 in 1935 to 4.5 million in 1939. The izzat of the Viceroy’s administration underwent a corresponding decline, while the London government was simultaneously discredited by Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing the fascist dictators. By the time war broke out in Europe, Congress had become an “alternative raj.82

Yet on 3 September 1939 Linlithgow provided a brutal reminder of British mastery by declaring that India was at war with Germany. The Viceroy consulted neither party leaders nor provincial governments. Six foot five inches tall, with a long horse face that could look “desperately unpleasant”83 on official occasions, bored, sulky and scowling, he was (because of an attack of polio in youth) literally as well as metaphorically stiff-necked. Gandhi was more flexible. He initially gave Britain moral support, moved to tears over the prospect that Westminster Abbey would be bombed. Nehru, who said that fascism and imperialism were twins, was unsympathetic. He had long warned that Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement encouraged “international blackmail and gangsterism of the worst type.”84 And he had said that his country would not back a war for democracy unless its people gained the right to rule themselves. It was absurd for a subject India to fight for the freedom of Poland. Slaves would not shed their blood to keep their chains. Britain, argued Nehru, must not be permitted to thrust India into a conflict in which victory would be as bad as defeat. Of course, many Indians did contribute to the war effort. The princes were all for it—autocracy on the side of liberty, Congress sneered—and they shed diamond-studded satin for red-tabbed khaki. Military officers were generally true to their oaths and the wartime army recruited 2.5 million men. Jinnah took an equivocal line, using the conflict to promote Muslim interests.

Even Congress was divided. Rajagopalachari complained that the scrupulous British were fighting the war according to High Court rules. Bose urged revolt, saying that “Britain’s difficulty was India’s opportunity.”85 Gandhi espoused non-violence. But Nehru dominated the argument. His prestige had been augmented by seven prison terms and he was Gandhi’s anointed successor. Tagore himself had extolled Jawaharlal’s “majestic character,” which gave him an “undoubted right to the throne of young India.”86 So Nehru, inspired by magnanimity towards imperial Britain and enmity towards Nazi Germany, made a personal appeal to Linlithgow. If the Viceroy would state that India could determine its own destiny after the war, he would help to mobilise all its forces on the side of the Empire. Linlithgow, who found it inconceivable that Britain would leave India “in any measurable period of time,”87 could only repeat vague promises about post-war constitutional reform and dominion status. Proud and inflexible, he had a rooted aversion to “running after Congress.”88 Angry and disappointed, Nehru stigmatised this old-fashioned British aristocrat as the least emotional of men. He was “heavy of body and slow of mind, solid as a rock and with almost a rock’s lack of awareness.”89 This hardly matched Grigg’s verdict on the Viceroy, a man of “Messianic conceit” modified by “feverish lapses into depressed lassitude.”90 But Nehru plausibly indicted Linlithgow for lack of vision. Only one so blind could imagine that “the present-day world of empires and colonies and dependencies will survive the holocaust of war.”91

For the time being, though, war augmented British power. This was because Congress resigned its ministerial offices in protest against Linlithgow’s intransigence. Many were reluctant to leave their posts, partly because of the rewards and partly because the provincial governments demonstrated that Indians were able to rule themselves. However, by mid-November 1939 British Governors had taken over in all but the Muslim-controlled provinces of Bengal, Sind and the Punjab. Jinnah was delighted. He decreed a Deliverance Day (22 December) to celebrate freedom from the “tyranny, oppression and injustice” which Muslims had suffered under the heel of Congress.92 Other minority groups, such as Untouchables, rejoiced with them. Nehru was furious. Just as Jinnah regarded him as a socialist atheist, he regarded Jinnah as the spokesman of feudal landlords and obscurantist mullahs. Nehru believed that the Muslim League was sacrificing Indian unity on the altar of sectarianism and helping the British to play the “same old game”93 of divide and rule. He refused to recognise the League as the voice of all Muslims since this would be to repudiate other Muslim organisations, to disown Muslims in his own party and to deny Congress its position as the national mouthpiece. Nehru could not appreciate that the League, which opposed the introduction of democracy to India, reflected genuine fears about the security of the Muslim community. Still less did Nehru accept Jinnah’s claim that the Muslims were a separate nation.

This Jinnah announced at the League Conference held in Lahore on 22 March 1940. The event was staged in the huge amphitheatre of Minto Park, in front of Aurangzeb’s Badshahi Mosque and amid poignant relics of Mughal glory—Akbar’s Gate in the Fort, the marble tomb of Jahangir, the three hundred fountains in Shah Jahan’s Shalimar Gardens. Delegates pitched their white tents around the park. At its centre stood a colossal marquee (pandal) holding sixty thousand people, who entered through an arch-way decorated with bunting and green flags. Another forty thousand waited outside—Punjabis, Sindhis, Bengalis, Pathans and Baluchis. Jinnah, clad in the local garb of black achkan and choridor pyjamas and flanked by guardsmen in green and khaki uniforms, spoke for a hundred minutes. But though loudspeakers amplified his voice, few could comprehend what he said since he talked mostly in English, not Urdu, for the sake of the press. Even so the audience, hypnotised by his personality and electrified by his delivery, understood his message. Jinnah proclaimed that India was an artificial unit maintained by British bayonets. It was a dream that its disparate peoples could always be yoked together in a single state. Avoiding mention of Pakistan and keeping his demands vague, he said that when the Raj ended the subcontinent should be divided into “autonomous national states.”94 He spat on the grave of the old ideal that India was a beautiful woman with one eye Hindu and the other Muslim.

Many Muslims condemned Jinnah’s assault on the unity of India. Hindus denounced him as the Viceroy’s stooge just as they denounced the maharajahs as Britain’s Fifth Column in India. But Jinnah had now made it impossible for Congress to pose as the sole avatar of Indian nationalism. Nor could Congressmen claim to be engaged in a straight fight with the British Empire. Hitler’s triumphs in Europe and Churchill’s accession to power in London compounded their difficulties. Nehru and his colleagues were torn between hatred for the swastika and hostility to the Union Jack. Churchill’s new Secretary for India, Leo Amery, raised in Milner’s kindergarten, wanted to exploit their anti-fascism to augment the war effort. Short, voluble and bouncy, he prompted the lofty, laconic and sluggish Viceroy, who was ultimately galvanised by the German Blitzkrieg, to make an overture to India. But while it was being formulated the Prime Minister intervened. Churchill had not changed his views about India since 1935…or 1896. He still believed that its possession made Britain a great power and he wanted the “Empire preserved for a few more generations in its strength and splendour.”95

Yet he was still haunted by Gibbonian apprehensions that the “shores of History are strewn with the wrecks of Empires.”96 As First Lord of the Admiralty in 1939, he had evinced a fierce “determination to support and maintain the most full-blooded British imperialism.”97 And at the outset of his Premiership he had famously declared that Britain’s aim was victory, for without victory there was “no survival for the British Empire.”98 Now, in the summer of 1940, Churchill seemed almost as vehement about retaining India as about defending Britain. He damned suggested concessions and told Amery that “he would sooner give up political life at once, or rather go out into the wilderness and fight, than to admit a revolution which meant the end of the Imperial Crown in India.”99 As Amery concluded: “India, or any form of self-government for coloured peoples, raises in him a wholly uncontrollable complex.”100 The Prime Minister did control the content of Linlithgow’s so-called August Offer. This invited Indians to frame their own constitution after the war, subject to various conditions, including the possible veto of minorities such as Muslims and maharajahs. It also proposed to appoint a few “representative Indians” to the Viceroy’s Executive Council, by which, of course, Churchill meant a few unrepresentative Indians. Nehru was scathing about the offer, which aimed to prolong the Raj by denying India democracy. It signalled the parting of ways, he wrote, and “the ending of all hope that we shall ever march together.”101

Yet neither side wished to march against the other. Gandhi refused to sanction a mass campaign of civil disobedience, saying that it would not remain civil for long, though he did permit individual non-cooperation. While millions of Indians were contributing to the war effort, many of them prospering in the process, these acts of defiance seemed mere pinpricks and Amery would not let Linlithgow go ahead with his plans for the “total extinction”102 of Congress. But the Viceroy did respond firmly and by 1941 the police had arrested some 26,000 volunteers. Among them was Nehru, who told the court that the British Empire, not he, was on trial before the bar of the world. He was sentenced to four years in gaol. Despite an appeal from Churchill, Linlithgow ensured that he was treated as a common criminal. Before his early release in December 1941 (this time opposed by Churchill, who suggested that it would be fatal to the Empire), he had suffered much petty persecution. As Nehru wrote to his daughter Indira, he retreated into the “mighty Maginot Line” of his shell, reading, writing, dreaming and practising yoga. He lived “in the mind”103 and stood on his head.

The political situation was equally static. Bose escaped to raise the standard of revolt in Germany, but the Nazis did not yet know what to do with him. Gandhi was caught in a crisis of faith, struggling to defend pacifism during a war against fascism. Congress lost momentum, still deadlocked with the Muslim League. Linlithgow always preferred to lie back and do nothing, though he did bring more Indians into his Executive Council. The status quo suited Churchill, but it did not suit the man on whom he looked as the likely saviour of Britain, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The President was a Wilsonian liberal committed to colonial emancipation, not least in the Philippines. When the two leaders first met, at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, in August 1941, they were soon at odds over this crucial question. Churchill became apoplectic when Roosevelt said, with reference to India, “I can’t believe that we can fight a war against fascist slavery, and at the same time not work to free people all over the world from a backward colonial policy.”104 The Prime Minister thought it “pretty good cheek” for the Americans to try “to schoolmarm us into proper behaviour”105 towards the Empire. But he did not let the issue mar his friendship with the President, who decided to treat Churchill on the subject of Indians as he treated southern senators on the subject of blacks.

Accordingly, they issued the Atlantic Charter. This was a high-sounding affirmation of Anglo-American principles which included a pledge to “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.”106 On his return to England, however, Churchill told the House of Commons that the Charter’s promise of self-determination did not apply to the Empire. Later, in order to counter stories that his “reactionary, Old World outlook” had upset Roosevelt, Churchill claimed that the Charter had been “cast in my own words.”107 But Roosevelt had edited Churchill’s draft and he desired a universal Charter. The President, who thought the British people decent, law-abiding and freedom-loving, privately inveighed against their government. It ran “a world tyranny compounded of imperialism, colonialism and power politics which violates all political morals and in particular denies the elementary human rights of all peoples to be independent like the United States.”108 Outraged by Churchill’s emasculation of the Charter, Indian nationalists were still more vituperative. Nehru, who corresponded with Roosevelt and hoped for his support, said that almost alone America kept “the torch of democratic freedom alight.”109

America became directly involved with Asia after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941—an act carried out, Roosevelt stressed, by the “Empire of Japan.”110 It advanced with ferocious speed, ripping huge holes in the flimsy fabric of western empires in the East. Everywhere the British, still apt to dismiss their oriental foes as “coolies in uniform,”111 were taken by surprise. White confidence and prestige plummeted with each defeat. The Japanese landed in Borneo. They seized Hong Kong. They rampaged through Malaya. On 15 February 1942 General Yamashita forced the capitulation of Singapore. The conquest of Burma followed, along with attacks on cities ranging from Calcutta and Colombo to Darwin. As Japan expanded in Asia and Germany invaded the Caucasus, the jaws of the Axis seemed set to close on India. So from America to China influential voices urged Churchill to give the subcontinent such measures of freedom and democracy as would rally its people to fight for those ideals in the global conflict. Roosevelt himself, in his first public pronouncement about India, said that the Atlantic Charter applied to the whole world. Labour members of Churchill’s government, Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin, argued that Linlithgow’s “crude imperialism”112 was impeding India’s war effort.

Churchill tried to stick to his guns. As Amery told King George VI, Winston “hated the idea of giving up all his most deeply ingrained prejudices merely to secure more American, Chinese and Left-Wing support. He was undergoing all the conflicting emotions of a virtuous maiden selling herself for really handy ready money.”113 But under pressure the Prime Minister acquiesced to a declaration that after the war an elected body would frame a new constitution for the whole of India (individual provinces being able to opt out), to be followed by “the complete transfer of responsibility from British to Indian hands.”114 If this were agreed the Viceroy would at once invite leaders of the principal sections of the Indian people to join the counsels of the nation. Churchill wrote tartly to Mackenzie King in Ottawa, “We have resigned ourselves to fighting our utmost to defend India in order, if successful, to be turned out.”115 In fact, Attlee wanted the subcontinent to become a dominion, like Canada. He hoped that Sir Stafford Cripps, who was dispatched to Delhi in March 1942 to persuade nationalists to accept the declaration, would become the Lord Durham of India.

Cripps, who had just entered the war cabinet after serving as ambassador in Moscow, seemed an ideal choice. A Communist fellow-traveller during the 1930s, he was on good terms with Nehru. As a barrister he matched Jinnah in brilliance and opulence. A purse-mouthed teetotaller and a wire-spectacled vegetarian, Cripps was a faddist to rival Gandhi—he espoused nudism and knitted his own ear muffs. Yet Cripps managed to alienate Britons as well as Indians. One MP, “Chips” Channon, thought him a “modern Savonarola,” saying that the air chilled as he passed and “I felt as if I had breathed the dark, fetid atmosphere of beyond the tomb.”116 Cripps’s Puritanism irked Churchill. “He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire,” said the Prime Minister,117 who called him “Sir Stifford Crapps.”118 The Viceroy distrusted him and said that he was “crooked when up against it.”119 According to Nehru, Cripps knew nothing about India but the more information he got the more confused he became. In fact, notwithstanding his forensic skill, Cripps had a head of feathers to go with his heart of gold. He was curiously naïve and obtuse. He regarded apple-pie beds as the acme of wit and, it was said, he saw more demanding jokes by appointment only. In particular he did not recognise the atavistic hostility of Churchill and Linlithgow to conceding significant power to the Indian nationalists even to gain their help in the war. Yet the Viceroy warned Cripps not to “steal his Excellency’s cheese to bait his own trap.”120

He came close to doing just that. Cripps stretched his brief to the limit by offering Congress an Indianised Executive Council that approximated to a ruling cabinet. Complex negotiations took place over whether an Indian could hold the defence porfolio and, with the intervention of Roosevelt’s emissary Colonel Louis Johnson, they might even have succeeded. But Churchill reined in Cripps and Congress rejected the British declaration because it did not provide for a free and united India. Gandhi protested about the mutilation of the subcontinent and refused to accept “a postdated cheque” on (a journalist added) “a failing bank.”121 However, the momentous fact was that Cripps had signed the cheque and it was bound to be honoured after the departure of Churchill. Independence was therefore imminent. For the time being, though, Cripps had not been able to offer India enough. So, amid mutual backbiting, his mission failed. Echoing a newspaper headline, Linlithgow remarked, “Goodbye, Mr. Cripps.”122 Amery said that if Congress were offered the moon it would reject it because of the wrinkles on its surface. Churchill celebrated the debacle by dancing round the cabinet room and chanting, “No tea with treason, no truck with American or British Labour sentimentality, but back to the solemn—and exciting—business of war.”123

Roosevelt made a belated attempt to rescue the initiative, protesting about the British refusal to give “Indians the right of self-determination.” This infuriated Churchill. According to the President’s envoy, Harry Hopkins, his “string of cuss words lasted for two hours in the middle of the night.”124 More formally the Prime Minister warned the President that an independent India would come to terms with the Japanese and threaten the Middle East. As General Alexander fell back from Mandalay and General Rommel captured Tobruk, this caveat became more persuasive. Gandhi reinforced it by declaring that India had no quarrel with Japan. Public opinion in the United States turned against the Congress Party. Americans particularly resented the Mahatma’s attacks on racism in the South, where blacks were lynched, visiting Indian officers were excluded from restaurants, and hotels displayed signs saying, “No Dogs or Jews.”125 The transatlantic change of heart blighted Nehru’s hope of hitching “India’s wagon to America’s star and not Britain’s.”126 Instead, after anguished debate, Congress embarked on another mass disobedience campaign. It was summed up in Gandhi’s ubiquitous slogan, “Bharat Choro!”—“Quit India!”

The government was well prepared and on 9 August 1942 it arrested the leaders, incarcerating Nehru until 15 June 1945. Despite the decapitation of Congress, its rank and file tried to disrupt the administration and dislocate the war effort. They went beyond strikes and hartals, and their efforts were often aggravated by the participation of dacoits and goondas (hooligans). Protesters sabotaged railways, cut telephone wires, and attacked police stations, post offices and government offices. Major disturbances rocked Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. Bengal, Bihar and the Central Provinces witnessed riots worse than those that had occurred in the Punjab at the time of the Amritsar massacre. Troops and aircraft helped the police to quell them. Several thousand people were killed and wounded. Moreover, notwithstanding genuine endeavours to put liberal principles into practice since 1919, there were occasional atrocities reminiscent of 1857. In the Central Provinces a senior official “boasted at the club in the evening that he had jolly good fun having shot down twenty-four niggers himself.”127 Sixty thousand Indians ended up in gaol. By autumn the authorities had established peace and they used a battery of weapons to keep it. Among them were public floggings, village burnings and a crushing censorship, which produced its usual crop of absurdities—books from the All-India Progressive Writers’ Association were banned while Hitler’s Mein Kampf was freely available. Linlithgow had no scruples about employing repression since this had been, he thought, the most serious revolt since the Mutiny.

Congress had failed to remove the British. Furthermore, the imprisonment of its chiefs left a power vacuum that was filled by the Communist Party and by rival Hindu organisations. The Muslim League also took full advantage of it. Yet despite the setbacks to Congress, the issue of India continued to plague Churchill. Reflecting a momentous swing in British opinion, the newly liberal Times argued that a political settlement might multiply India’s war effort tenfold. Americans insisted that they were not fighting to preserve the British Raj and Roosevelt virtually endorsed the opinion of his Republican challenger, Wendell Willkie, that the aim of the war was to end imperial domination. Privately Churchill fumed. Sometimes he got into a “frantic passion on the whole subject of the humiliation of being kicked out of India by the beastliest people in the world next to the Germans.”128 In public, buoyed up by Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein, he famously pronounced: “We mean to hold our own. I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.”129

This shocked opinion across the Atlantic, where a poll found that 62 per cent of Americans favoured Indian independence (as did 77 per cent of Britons, if Gallup’s sample in November 1939 is to be trusted). Churchill’s intransigence also flouted hopes that the United States would be able to forge a new global order from the crucible of conflict. “America,” wrote Fortune magazine, “owes the world a substitute for the Pax Britannica, which is dead.”130 Whatever the peace might bring, the war strengthened American antagonism towards the Raj, particularly as more and more GIs and journalists saw it for themselves. Eric Sevareid, for example, reported that the morally sick atmosphere of Delhi “was not unlike what I had experienced in Nazi Germany after the pogrom against the Jews.” He disparaged the “second-rate” British officials and condemned the Viceroy’s House, a symbol of might “looming over vistas of wretchedness.” And he concluded that “no compromise within the framework of imperialism could ever put this country on the road to health.”131 But Churchill himself was in no mood to compromise. In November 1942 he told the Teheran Conference that Britain would resist any loss of colonial territory after the war by force, though it might in due course voluntarily give up portions of its Empire. This remained his position throughout the war. “‘Hands off the British Empire’ is our maxim and it must not be weakened or smirched to please sob-stuff merchants at home or foreigners of any hue.”132

That ringing declaration was part of a personal minute sent to the Foreign Secretary, but Churchill also wrote an elaborate speech in which he proposed to justify his imperial policies to the House of Commons. In it he acknowledged that there had been a time of

wicked and brazen exploitation of colonies and conquests. But the broad, shining, liberating and liberalising tides of the Victorian era flowed across this scene. The exploitation of weaker and less well-armed peoples became odious, together with the idea of subject races.

For at least eighty years Britain had served India, he said, bringing peace, trade and progress. “Our stewardship and our mission may come to an end but to India it may well be the age of the Antonines.”133 This was the delectable epoch, classically described by Gibbon, when the Emperors convinced mankind that Roman power “was actuated only by the love of order and justice.”134 However, Churchill did not deliver his speech. Perhaps he doubted whether the historical allusion was sound or feared that it would conjure up the spectre of imperial decline and fall. Certainly he was conscious of the danger of “stirring up controversy” in the Commons by raising “big issues” about the subcontinent.135 For by the end of 1942 there was a big issue on the horizon, which nationalists could plausibly present as the hideous “fulfilment of British rule in India.” This was the “man-made famine”136 that ravaged Bengal for over a year. It was much worse than anything experienced since the 1770s, wrote one ICS officer, Philip Mason, who said that the heart-rending scenes he witnessed in the towns were “a shame and a reproach to men of English blood.”137

Acts of God caused the dearth of food in India but mammon created the Bengal famine. Failed monsoons and poor harvests had raised the price of grain. Rice imports from Burma had dried up, replaced by a flood of refugees. Although many Indians prospered during the war, inflation had sapped the slim resources of the poor—that third of the population always on the brink of starvation. However, the provincial administration was hopelessly unprepared for the catastrophe. The British Governor was myopic and moribund; the Bengal ministry was corrupt and inept. Instead of procuring food themselves, the authorities advised people to keep two months’ stock, which encouraged hoarding, increased prices and produced a “psychosis of shortage.”138 The authorities were also slow to introduce rationing, to prevent profiteering and to supply needy districts with such food as they did obtain, which was stored under tarpaulins in Calcutta’s Botanical Gardens. Indeed, they impeded the distribution of provisions. In a panic measure they destroyed some fifty thousand coastal craft in the Ganges delta to deny their use to the Japanese and their allies, the 25,000-strong Indian National Army (INA), recruited from sepoys captured at Singapore and commanded by Subhas Chandra Bose. He seemed to be the real menace. Uniformed and bespectacled, the aspirant Führer of India had adopted the tiger emblem of Tipu Sultan and the watchword of the 1857 mutineers, “Delhi chalo!”—“Onward to Delhi!”

Meanwhile, a legion of the destitute marched on palsied limbs to Calcutta. In that city and in provincial towns some aid was available but it could never meet the needs of the famished multitude. So emaciated men in rags scavenged for scraps through filth-strewn bustees and collapsed in the doorways of blacked-out shops and offices. Clutching infants of skin and bone, skeletal women cried for alms on the pavements of Chowringhee and the platforms of Howrah. Fighting for offal in the dustbins of clubs and hotels, where affluent Indians as well as Europeans continued to eat substantial meals, stray waifs reverted to the wild and “got into the habit of feeding like dogs.”139 Every morning corpses, decomposing in the steamy heat and often gnawed by rats or jackals, littered the streets. The Calcutta Statesman printed gruesome pictures of the shambles. But censors changed the word “famine” to “grave food shortage”140 and an official spokesman for the Viceroy accused the press of dramatising the situation. The Delhi government, which was ultimately responsible for the welfare of the subject people, gagged its critics and dragged its feet. Linlithgow professed concern. But unlike his successor, Field-Marshal Lord Wavell, who galvanised the relief work, he did not visit Bengal. One ex-member of his Council said that Linlithgow had shown a “callous disregard of duty.”141

Indeed, the Viceroy seemed less preoccupied by mass starvation than by a single hunger strike. Early in 1943 Gandhi embarked on another fast and Linlithgow’s anxiety was reflected in the code word chosen to telegraph the news of his death—RUBICON. Officials secretly imported several hundred pounds of sandalwood so that he could be privately cremated in the grounds of the Aga Khan’s beautiful palace at Poona, where he was being detained. But having served God through mortification of the flesh, the Mahatma survived. Linlithgow suspected that the doctors had been spiking his lime juice with glucose, which may have been true since his weight, which fell from 109 pounds to 90 pounds, apparently rose by one pound towards the end of the three-week fast. In an undelivered broadcast Churchill described the episode as “fast or farce—because I understand there is some doubt about whether he kept to his own rules.”142 This kind of moral blackmail incensed the Prime Minister and, when it was repeated, he sent the Viceroy “a peevish telegram to ask why Gandhi hadn’t died yet.”143 Actually the Mahatma was an artist in anorexia. He recovered from these wasting ordeals with remarkable speed, reminding Amery of what Byron had said about his mother-in-law—she had been “dangerously ill; now she is dangerously well.”144

Meanwhile, conditions in Bengal had deteriorated, reaching a ghastly nadir during the autumn of 1943. Altogether malnutrition and diseases stemming from it killed some three million people. But Churchill’s chief scientific adviser, Lord Cherwell, who thought that Africans and Indians were subhuman, dismissed the famine as a statistical invention—just as he likened Gandhi’s “change of diet” to taking the cure.145 Despite pleas from Amery, the Prime Minister refused to divert scarce shipping to Calcutta and little was done to bring relief when it was most needed, though American aid came later. Churchill regarded the dispatch of food to India as an appeasement of Congress and he believed that “the starvation of anyway underfed Bengalis is less serious [than that of] sturdy Greeks.”146 He added that despite the famine Indians would go on breeding “like rabbits.”147 The Prime Minister continued to harp on this theme at the very time when the new Governor of Bengal, an able Australian administrator called Richard Casey, was sending Wavell a shocked indictment of accumulated British failures in his province:

Bengal has, practically speaking, no irrigation or drainage, a medieval system of agriculture, no roads, no education, no cottage industries, completely inadequate hospitals, no effective public health services; consequently there is no real attempt to deal with malaria, which is the province’s principal scourge and killer, and no adequate machinery to cope with distress. There are not even plans to make good these deficiencies.148

The Prime Minister’s view seemed to be that it served them right. In February 1945, recorded his private secretary Jock Colville, Churchill described Hindus as a “foul race ‘protected by their mere pullulation from the doom that is their due’ and he wished [Air Marshal] Bert Harris could send some of his surplus bombers to destroy them.”149 Amery was once bold enough to tell the Prime Minister that he had a “Hitler-like attitude” to India, for which, according to Wavell, he “got a first-class rocket.”150

Churchill was increasingly desperate to hang on to India because Britain was slipping from its position as a great power as the United States and the Soviet Union came to dominate the wartime alliance. He had long said that only the Empire enabled the two English-speaking nations to “meet on those terms of perfect equality which alone can be the foundation for a still higher synthesis and a still more important destiny.”151 At the Yalta Conference the little British donkey, he complained, was squeezed between the mighty American buffalo and the great Russian bear. Churchill resented Roosevelt’s nuzzling up to Stalin. He even rebuked Anthony Eden for using the term “Big Three” because it was a “reminder of the Roman triumvirate, and Winston does not like to be regarded as Lepidus.”152 So, the Prime Minister told the cabinet, Empire solidarity was vital. Wavell, a brave warrior who had lost an eye during the Great War, took a different view. He believed that a disaffected India might become “a running sore which will sap the strength of the British Empire.”153 Public opinion at home, he said, would not allow him to hold down the subcontinent by force. The only alternative was to reach a settlement in line with the inter-war reforms by which India could become a friendly partner within the Commonwealth. Such advice ran counter to the Prime Minister’s cherished creed. Handing India to a “Brahmin oligarchy” would “open the floodgates alike to corruption and carnage.”154 It would also demonstrate that “we are a broken, bankrupt, played-out power.”155

So Churchill resisted the Viceroy’s counsel, though all eleven Governors of the Indian provinces endorsed it. He habitually undervalued the taciturn, poetic Wavell, regarding him as prone to “oriental lassitude”156 in military matters and best suited to be the chairman of a golf club or a Conservative association. Churchill kept putting him off and Labour ministers, alienated by the stubborn enmity of Congress, did not press for progress. Indeed, Attlee opposed Wavell’s initiatives, saying that he was “frankly horrified” by the prospect of ceding power to a “brown oligarchy.”157 But by the spring of 1945 an exhausted Britain had to confront the problem of dealing with the subcontinent after the war and Churchill needed to show the British people, before a general election, that he was not wedded to obstruction. So he authorised Wavell to convene a conference of political leaders (among them the newly released Nehru) in Simla to “advance India towards her goal of full self-government.”158 Churchill only made this overture because he was confident that it would come to nothing. Sure enough, Jinnah’s insistence that the League alone must represent the Muslim nation, which denied Congress’s claim to speak for all India, prevented any agreement. Still, the Simla conference was a clear sign of Britain’s weakness. During the course of it Sarojini Naidu said that the Empire now gleamed with “the iridescence of decay.”159Less than a fortnight later, on 26 July 1945, Churchill had to resign after Labour’s unexpected victory at the polls. By the following month he was reduced to begging Wavell to “Keep a bit of India” for the Empire.160

Paradoxically, Nehru had more respect for Churchill, whom he considered an honourable foe, than for the “humbugs of the British Labour Party.”161 Many of them were humbugs. They were staunch enemies of imperialism yet (in Herbert Morrison’s classic phrase) “great friends with the jolly old Empire.”162 They opposed racial discrimination yet proposed to sustain white supremacy in Africa for “a considerable time.”163 They were committed to Indian self-government but vague about how and when it would be achieved. Yet if Labour politicians were more apt to prate about principles than the Tories, they scarcely differed from them in practice. Socialists were unwilling to sacrifice Britain’s global position to anti-colonial dogma. In the words of Ernest Bevin, the hard-boiled Foreign Secretary, “if the British Empire fell, the greatest collection of free nations would go into the limbo of the past.”164 India had made a stupendous contribution to the war in men, materiel and money (London now owed the subcontinent £1,375 million) and its loss would involve an irreversible decline of imperial power and pelf.

When it came to the point, therefore, as Nehru sourly observed, Labour ministers were reluctant to speak plain about Indian independence. Bevin actually wanted to stand firm and draft in younger men to hold India. So Nehru was not alone in anticipating, at best, another round of procrastination. However, as the idealistic new Secretary for India, Lord Pethick-Lawrence, told the Viceroy, the Labour Party was bound by its previous pronouncements to reach an accommodation with India. Foreign opinion had to be placated, especially in the United States, at a time when Britain desperately needed dollars to rescue it from what Maynard Keynes called “a financial Dunkirk.”165 And American aid must be devoted to the creation of a welfare state at home rather than the perpetuation of the British Raj in India. Wavell now found himself lamenting that his countrymen had lost the courage to govern and resisting pressure from London for a quick transfer of power. Nehru also applied pressure, reinforced by threats of revolution. But as communal violence seethed and flared, the Viceroy remained intent on avoiding a settlement that would “throw India into chaos and turmoil.”

In his desire to maintain discipline, however, Wavell himself contributed to the growing disorder. He approved a trial in the Red Fort at Delhi of the guiltiest men who had served in Bose’s Indian National Army, the first accused being a Hindu, a Muslim and a Sikh. This even-handed selection united all three communities against him, for peace had transformed rebels into patriots. The prosecutions were a gratuitous blunder of the kind that always seems to attend the death of empires. Before being called off they provoked widespread riots, notably in Calcutta where dozens of people were killed. Rising prices, delays in demobilisation and other matters aggravated the unrest, which became acute during the national and provincial elections of 1945–6. They were the acid test for the Muslim League. Possessing builtin electoral advantages as a favoured minority, it had enormously strengthened its position during the war. Jinnah whipped his cohorts into action. As Wavell put it, he inflamed the minds of his “impressionable followers with the idea of Pakistan as a new Prophet’s Paradise on earth and as their only means of protection against Hindu domination.”166 Jinnah apparently said that he “cared not a whit if Muslims voted for a lamp-post provided the lamp-post was painted in the League’s colours.”167

Thus he won the vast majority of Muslim seats and established the League as the unrivalled representative of his co-religionists. After an equally ferocious campaign, Congress gained over 90 per cent of the non-Muslim seats in the Legislative Assembly as well as control of eight provinces. Nehru might continue to dismiss Pakistan as a fantasy, but now Britain clearly had to reach a settlement acceptable to Muslims as well as Hindus—or risk civil war. The task became increasingly urgent as its hold on India slackened. More brown officials replaced white, leaving only five hundred British civil servants and five hundred police officers. The ratio of British to Indian troops fell dramatically: having been 81,000 to 152,000 during the 1930s, it stood at 64,000 to 389,000 after the war. Several mutinies took place, the most serious in February 1946 when sailors sparked off riots in Bombay. Wavell warned that if Congress started a revolution he might not be able to stop it. Attlee’s cabinet decided that since coercion was impossible negotiation was essential. So at the end of March 1946 it sent three of its members on a mission to India, Pethick-Lawrence, Cripps and A. V. Alexander, First Lord of the Admiralty. Wavell called them “the Magi.”168

As Cripps announced on their arrival, they brought a single gift—independence. But who should receive it and how should it be bestowed? Congress answered that power must at once be handed to a democratic government which, since communal strife stemmed from Britain’s divide-and-rule policy, would successfully unite India. The Muslim League replied that such a regime would be a Hindu tyranny, which only an autonomous Pakistan could prevent. For three hot months the three wise men engaged in a tortuous endeavour to please everyone. They so deferred to Gandhi that Wavell longed to bash the bald pate of the woolly-minded Pethick-Lawrence (inevitably nicknamed Pathetic-Lawrence) with a knobkerrie. The Viceroy regarded the Mahatma as the “evil genius” of Congress, “an exceedingly shrewd, obstinate, domineering, double-tongued, single-minded politician.” The single eye of the soldier glazed over as he listened to the oracular pronouncements of the sage. And Gandhi’s activities, which ultimately wrecked the chance of an accord, provided some justification for Wavell’s bile. At one interview, the Viceroy said, the apostle of ahimsa thumped the table and declared, “If India wants her blood bath she shall have it.”169

During the negotiations Nehru, whom Wavell thought a quixotic fanatic, likeable but unstable, matched his old mentor in truculence. Nehru bitterly inveighed against Jinnah, who had elevated rudeness into a political art and found a problem for every solution. The Quaid-i-Azam confirmed the Congress view that he was Lucifer, the fallen angel of Indian harmony. Yet it was Jinnah who finally accepted the cabinet mission’s complex scheme, which gave the provinces virtual sovereignty (excepting defence, trade, communications and foreign relations) but kept the subcontinent in one piece. This indicated that, as both Linlithgow and Wavell surmised, Pakistan might have been a bargaining counter. Its intrinsic value was questionable. For as a fully independent state Pakistan, with sixty million people, would be unable to protect the forty million Muslims left in India. And because of the predominance of Hindus in east Punjab and west Bengal, Jinnah feared he would get “a shadow and a husk—a maimed, mutilated and moth-eaten Pakistan.”170 So he plumped for the federal system, provided that its structure was set in stone. But in July Nehru, who disliked the agreement because it deprived India of a strong central authority, said that Congress was not committed to the framework of devolution. Livid at what he took to be a flagrant betrayal, Jinnah concluded that there was no alternative to partition. He declared that the Muslim League bade goodbye to constitutional methods and would create Pakistan through direct action. The cabinet mission, which had shown that the British were now “determined to quit India,”171 failed to provide a means by which they could do so without bloodshed.

In fact, through swathes of north India disorder was already rife during the spring and summer of 1946. The Punjab was worst affected. Cities, towns and villages were devastated by the largest explosion of violence seen since the Sikh wars a century earlier. The Sikhs, indeed, were once again a target of attack. Muslim mobs bent on murder and plunder set their beards as well as their houses on fire. They also assaulted Hindu enclaves, killing, raping and pillaging with only sporadic resistance from the forces of law. Often British officials could not rely on their Muslim police, but sometimes they neglected their duties, cynically referring panic-stricken Hindu refugees to the protection of Gandhi or Nehru. Ironically, the most shocking failure occurred in Amritsar. Here arsonists and looters destroyed the two main bazaars and many other buildings throughout the city, often butchering the inmates as they ran from the flames. Local people contrasted the ferocity of the British in defence of their Raj with the way in which they “appeared content to stand aside and do nothing” to defend the victims of its dissolution.172 Jinnah’s “Direct Action Day,” 16 August 1946, multiplied the victims. In Bengal, especially, Muslims embarked on a pogrom, shouting “Jihad” and slaughtering thousands. Hindus and Sikhs, many of them taxi-drivers, retaliated with still more lethal force.

Calcutta became a battlefield reminiscent of the Somme. But the carnage was more frenzied—men, women and children were cut to pieces. It was “unbridled savagery,” wrote a British general, “with homicidal maniacs let loose to kill and kill and to maim and burn.”173 Vultures feasted on mounds of corpses, apparently preferring human to animal flesh. The clean-up was called Operation Grisly and until its completion no one could escape the stink of putrefaction. As troops struggled to restore order, a stream of refugees poured from the city. Some bore wounds and all had atrocity stories which inflamed their brethren elsewhere. With incendiary speed bloodlust raced from Dacca to Bombay, from Ahmedabad to Rawalpindi. The fiercest conflagration raged in Bihar, where more than seven thousand Muslims were slain. “Murder stalks the streets and the most amazing cruelties are indulged in by both the individual and the mob,” wrote Nehru. “Riot is not the word for it—it is just a sadistic desire to kill.”174 Now Prime Minister of the provisional coalition government that Wavell had formed in the vain hope of resolving communal differences, Nehru suggested bombing the rioters. Faced with strife similar to that brewing in Palestine, the Viceroy said that he now had responsibility without power. At the end of 1946 he warned that the British could no longer control events and that “we are simply running on the momentum of our previous prestige.”175 His two plans for an evacuation of the subcontinent, devised to meet a more or less serious threat to the rearguard of the Raj, were respectively code-named “Operation Bedlam” and “Operation Madhouse.”

They smacked to Attlee of Operation Scuttle, an Asian Dunkirk. Churchill himself was quick to accuse the Labour government, now “genuinely committed to the principle of Indian independence,”176 of conducting an ignominious imperial retreat. And it was partly to turn away his wrath that the Labour Prime Minister decided to sack Wavell. His replacement was his antithesis—reckless, flamboyant, egotistical, outspoken, ingratiating, vain, shallow, flagrantly handsome and pathologically ambitious. Admiral Lord Louis (“Dickie”) Mountbatten had other qualifications to be the last Viceroy of India and to preside, as Attlee announced in February 1947, over Britain’s orderly withdrawal from the subcontinent by June 1948. He was royal, a great-grandson of Queen Victoria, which enabled him to talk to maharajahs on equal terms. He had personal allure: if he put his mind to it, wrote one general, “he could charm a vulture off a carcass.”177 He was a war hero who had treated his destroyer like a cavalry charger and, despite suffering “one glorious defeat after another,”178 won Churchill’s esteem. He was a brilliant self-publicist, flashing his medals, polishing his genealogy and burnishing his myth at the expense of the facts. General Sir Gerald Templer once told him, unoriginally but not unfairly, “You’re so crooked, Dickie, that if you swallowed a nail you’d shit a corkscrew.”179 Certainly he neglected his wartime duties to help with Noël Coward’s film In Which We Serve, an exaltation of his naval adventures that he saw time and again. Priding himself on his panache, Mountbatten “was never afraid to take risks.”180 As chief of Combined Operations in Europe he had been “willing to experiment with lives”181 during the disastrous Dieppe Raid. And in order to speed up the advance in Burma he offered to take personal responsibility, as head of the South-East Asia Command (SEAC), for “getting anything up to 3000 men killed.”182

Nevertheless, he was an astonishingly popular leader. Much more than the “Glamour Boy” sneered at by Stilwell, Mountbatten was a showman to rival Montgomery. He possessed just the kind of flair and dynamism to win what he called Britain’s “last chukka in India.”183 He had instilled a new spirit into troops engaged in jungle warfare against the Japanese—an enterprise that Churchill likened to going into the water to fight a shark. Moreover, at SEAC—Americans claimed that the initials stood for “Save England’s Asian Colonies”—Mountbatten had actually favoured post-war colonial independence. An egalitarian besotted with the trappings of grandeur, he flew over a personal barber from the Mayfair salon Trumper’s to avoid having his hair cut by an Indian but he liked to cause consternation by shaking hands with Untouchables. His attractive wife Edwina, who Attlee thought would make a brilliant Vicereine, was also politically pink. But, grand-daughter of the Jewish millionaire Sir Ernest Cassel, himself such a close friend of King Edward VII that he earned the nickname “Windsor Cassel,” she was less socialist than socialite. Until she took up good works during the war, her life had been devoted to the frenetic pursuit of pleasure. She had spent hours with hairdressers, manicurists, couturiers. She had had her ear lobes pulped and remodelled. She had acquired a male harem, swapping one playboy lover for another and saying that her husband, himself unfaithful and known to his intimates as “Mountbottom,” regarded sex as “a mixture of psychology and hydraulics.”184 Together, though, the Mountbattens were a formidable, if not always a harmonious, couple. Among other things they forged a powerful bond with Nehru, who apparently fell in love with Edwina. He later told her that they had been drawn together by “some uncontrollable force.”

Granite-faced and ice-cool, Jinnah alone remained impervious to their fascination. Mountbatten employed his most seductive wiles and, when unsuccessful, concluded that Jinnah was a megalomaniac. The Calcutta Statesman added a wry comment to its report of a meeting between them: “Other riot news on page 4.”185 The Quaid-i-Azam, whose ideas were “diamond-hard, clear-cut, almost tangible,”186 would not be deflected from the goal of Pakistan. At first the Viceroy thought this sheer madness. But Mountbatten, who was charged with handing power to a united India (along the lines of the cabinet mission’s federal scheme) if possible, soon saw that partition was inevitable. In fact both the British government and the Congress Party had already come to terms with it. India was succumbing to the gangrene of communal violence. League gains in the Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province encouraged its spread. Rawalpindi and Multan were infected. As large parts of Lahore went up in flames and Amritsar became “a veritable inferno,”187 Nehru lamented to Mountbatten, “horror succeeds horror…[until] our senses are dulled.”188 The toughest Congress leader, Vallabhbhai Patel, said that partition was the amputation of “a diseased limb.”189 As that metaphor suggests, he doubted whether Pakistan could survive on its own. Nehru agreed, though his own image was a medical mare’s nest—he wanted to cut off the head to get rid of the headache. Mountbatten’s task was to save as much of the body as he could. Facing an “incredibly explosive” situation, he worked with “a terrific sense of urgency.”190 And he relied heavily on a dedicated staff (“the Dickie Birds”) led by General “Pug” Ismay, known during the war as Churchill’s khaki eminence.

Arriving at Delhi, where the tension was palpable, Ismay felt as though he had boarded “an ammunition ship which was on fire.”191 Dressed in traditional tropical uniform, he was further shocked to be greeted at the airport by Field-Marshal Auchinleck wearing a beret. “Have you gone mad, Claude?” he exclaimed. “Where is your topee?”192 Ismay learned with astonishment that this headgear was now outdated. Its abandonment presaged more momentous change. Mountbatten, who lacked precision in thought and writing, Ismay found, first recommended a radical but impractical scheme that would have balkanised India. By May, however, after intensive negotiations, he got agreement to a plan, suggested by a brilliant Indian official called V. P. Menon, to transfer power to two dominions which would stay within the Commonwealth—India and Pakistan. Each state would receive not only the provinces which chose to accede to them but appropriate areas of Bengal and the Punjab. This split was bound to be bloody. In particular it left the Sikhs, who “felt for the Punjab as Jews felt for Palestine,”193 as their leader Master Tara Singh said, “like no man’s children in no man’s land.”194 Nobody liked partition. Gandhi said that it would happen over his dead body and preached against “the vivisection of the motherland.”195

Yet the motherland was already tearing itself apart, as if to illustrate Robert Byron’s verdict that India had a “genius for disintegration.”196 Mountbatten said that only partition could avert full-scale civil war and Gandhi paid a smiling tribute to his persuasive powers: “you and your magic tricks.”197 So the Viceroy announced that Indians would get their independence on 15 August 1947, the time being changed to midnight on the more auspicious 14th to satisfy astrologers fearful of the malign conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Venus. Here was a retreat as historic as that of Honorius, the decadent Emperor chiefly devoted to “feeding poultry,”198 who sanctioned the independence of Britain and Armorica. It was duly saluted in this contemporary verse:

Lay down the white man’s burden:

An Empire great as Rome

Sends back its tired servants

And calls its legions home.

Four hundred puzzled millions

With bated breath await

The dawn of India’s freedom,

The last and fateful date.199

The British Raj, which had taken two hundred years to construct, was to be dismantled in seventy-three days.

Mountbatten said that speed was essential to save India from “complete breakdown”200 but it actually helped to precipitate a holocaust. The Viceroy promised to nip “trouble in the bud.”201 He would use tanks and aircraft if necessary to ensure that any communal violence was “utterly and ruthlessly crushed.”202 In the event the very imminence of Indian independence gave him an excuse to avoid effective action. Although warned that Sikhs were planning a ferocious revenge for massacres they had suffered at the hands of Muslims, he detailed only 23,000 men to act as the Punjab Boundary Force. It understandably failed to keep the peace in an area larger than Ireland containing fifteen million souls. British officials, poised for sudden departure, lost their last vestiges of authority. One wrote, “The civil administration was by this time completely paralysed and I knew that it was pointless to attempt to restore it in the name of the dying British Raj.”203 As Ismay later said, “The sand was running out of the doll hour by hour.”204

Mountbatten spent much of the time on the ceremonial aspects of the handover while his minions concentrated on the complex business of dividing assets, roughly in a ratio of four to one, between India and Pakistan. Everything had to be apportioned—from rolling stock on railways to books in libraries, from weapons in arsenals to furniture in offices, from ingots in vaults to lunatics in asylums. The army, navy and air force were sundered. Similarly the princely states had to be bullied and cajoled into acceding on privileged terms to one country or the other. Once again Mountbatten demonstrated his powers of persuasion, abrogating with regal nonchalance commitments to a feudal order that had been Britain’s “sheet anchor in India”205 since the Mutiny. As one ICS man put it, the Viceroy induced the princes “to sign what proved to be their own death warrants on the assurance that this afforded them the best chance of survival.”206 He failed over Hyderabad (which India seized in 1948) and Kashmir, whose Hindu ruler soon took his largely Muslim subjects into India, a source of bitter conflict to this day. Deeply mortified by Jinnah’s refusal to let him become Governor-General of Pakistan (to match the office he would hold in free India), Mountbatten also seems to have made a secret and personal contribution to the discord. In response to Nehru’s anxieties, he evidently put pressure on Sir Cyril Radcliffe’s boundary commission to award India key Muslim-majority regions in the Punjab, notably the Ferozepore district and the Gurdaspur corridor to Kashmir. Fearing a boycott of the independence celebrations, his hour of glory, Mountbatten delayed announcing the particulars of Radcliffe’s iron surgery until the following day.

In fact, the inauguration of Pakistan was a surprisingly muted affair. Around the new capital of Karachi, a bursting city set between desert and ocean, had blossomed an eczema of temporary dwellings, red-roofed hutments, sand-coloured shanties and white tents. The atmosphere was taut as Sikhs reportedly planned to assassinate Jinnah, perhaps during his processional ride with the Viceroy in an open car. No bomb was thrown and the ceremonies were a damp squib, greeted with “public apathy.”207 Mountbatten still regarded Jinnah, now a wraith dying of cancer, as a “psychopathic case.”208 Moreover, the last Viceroy complained, he had to attend a reception for 1,500 leading citizens of Pakistan that “included some very queer looking ‘jungly’ men.” The celebrations at Delhi, by contrast, provided him with the “most remarkable and inspiring day of my life.”209 With the impromptu magniloquence that came so naturally to him, Nehru began by broadcasting his famous proclamation:

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, while the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.210

When Independence Day dawned, India’s “joy was almost delirious.”211

From the countryside a multitude streamed into the capital, its trees and grass verdant from early monsoon rain. They came on foot or bicycle, by donkey or lorry, aboard rattling tongas or creaking ox carts painted saffron, white and green. Some laughed, others wept and still others filled the air with cries of “Jai Hind.” Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus embraced amid manifestations of “intense popular enthusiasm.”212 The British themselves were cheered—at last, it was said, they had conquered India. In the Durbar Hall at the Viceroy’s House, enthroned with his wife, who wore a silver-lamé gown, long white gloves and a coronet, Mountbatten, in white admiral’s uniform, gleaming decorations, Garter sash and sword, took part in a ceremony of “the utmost pomp.”213 He had designed it himself. After being sworn in as Governor-General, he administered oaths of office to the white-jodhpured, Gandhi-capped Nehru and his ministers in front of five hundred leaders of the new India. Then the Mountbattens processed through Delhi in the black and gold state carriage made for George V’s coronation durbar, which was drawn by six chestnut horses. They were attended by a bodyguard in blue and gold turbans, white uniforms splashed with scarlet, and long black boots. Only this glittering cavalcade, with its bugles, pennants and lances, could have forced a way through the tumultuous throng, a maelstrom of noise and colour. In fact, the weight of humanity almost crushed the Governor-General’s party at the climax of the day. This was the flag-raising ceremony at the India Gate, which took place amid “scenes of the most fantastic rejoicing.”214 Here was unfurled the tricolour of the new dominion, with the Emperor Asoka’s twenty-four-spoked wheel of cosmic order (preferred to Gandhi’s charkha) at its centre. Simultaneously, at the other end of the Rajpath, in the black clouds louring over the Secretariat Buildings, appeared a rainbow. It seemed to echo the hues of India’s flag, like some garish special effect created in Hollywood. But as Mountbatten’s press attaché remarked, “it would have taken a man of iron scepticism to be unimpressed by such an augury at such a moment.”215

For Indians the heavenly arc symbolised the blessings of freedom; for Britons, who wished the death of the Raj to be swallowed up in victory, it marked the fulfilment of a covenant. According to a myth even then being concocted, Britain’s withdrawal from India was not a sign of national weakness, still less a portent of imperial collapse. It was a triumph of statesmanship, a logical conclusion to the process of tutelage and, as Macaulay had forecast in 1833, the proudest day in English history. There was an element of truth in this fabrication. The end of empire was in its beginning and the British had frequently said that their goal was colonial self-government. But the myth was designed to conceal the fatal damage that the war had done to Britain’s position as a great power. It aimed to obscure the overwhelming strength of Indian nationalism, the prospect of administrative breakdown in the subcontinent, the diminishing returns of the Raj and the erosion of Britain’s will to occupy the seat of the Mughals.

So London played down the abdication of the last Emperor of India while trumpeting the emancipation of a fifth of the human race. It placed less emphasis on the curtailing of imperial commitments at a time of economic crisis than on the benefits that would accrue to the Commonwealth from the adherence of two voluntary members. “The Indian Empire disappears from the political map,” pontificated The Times, “and the circle of the Dominions is enlarged.”216 Indian independence marked the end of the era initiated by Vasco da Gama and it breathed life into nationalist movements that seemed “likely to make the coloured man of Asia the master in his own house for the first time in several centuries.”217 Some people were appalled by this mighty caesura. The young aspirant Viceroy, Enoch Powell, believed that “the British were married to India, as Venice was married to the sea.”218 On their divorce he felt that his world was “coming apart,” walked the streets all night and finally “sat down in a doorway, my head in my hands.”219 But in general the British, basking in the afterglow of their finest hour, liked to think that little had changed. An almost empty House of Commons had nodded through the independence legislation. The Daily Mail merely replaced on its masthead the legend “For King and Empire” with “For King and Commonwealth.” Politicians at Westminster stressed the continuity and amity of relations with India and Pakistan. They claimed that everything had gone according to plan and that nothing became the British Raj like the leaving of it.

Yet even as London indulged in congratulation and Delhi revelled in celebration, the Punjab was inundated by “rivers of blood.”220 Mountbatten himself had seen signs of the carnage when flying back from Karachi, billowing clouds of smoke and a vast panorama of burning villages. Even as Nehru took part in what some saw as his coronation, he was cast down by reports that Lahore was experiencing the “bloodiest orgy of violence and fire in five months of communal rioting.” As news of Radcliffe’s boundary award reached the Punjab, where Muslims denounced it as “territorial murder,” sporadic attacks turned into “a systematic war of extermination.”221 Everywhere majority communities assaulted and expelled minorities, in a vicious cycle of reprisal and counter-reprisal that went on for many weeks. None were better disciplined than the Sikhs, a perpetual minority whose gangs (jathas) armed with swords (kirpans) and other weapons behaved with “pre-medieval ferocity.”222 But Muslims and Hindus also perpetrated every outrage summed up in that grotesque modern euphemism “ethnic cleansing.” They roasted babies on spits, impaled infants on lances, boiled children in cauldrons of oil. They raped, mutilated, abducted and killed women, sometimes hacking off the penises of their dead husbands and stuffing them in their mouths. They subjected men to frenzied cruelties, burning them alive in their houses, stabbing them in the streets, butchering them in hospitals, strangling them in refugee camps, torturing and forcibly converting them in desecrated temples, mosques and gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship). They poisoned their enemies, drenched them in acid, blinded them by throwing chilli powder in their eyes.

The atrocities totally eclipsed those of the Indian Mutiny. Perhaps they reflected the brutal finality of partition. But many witnesses found the violence inexplicable save in terms of evil and madness. One official observed a man being sawn into “several pieces in a diabolical manner that baffles comprehension.”223 Neighbours who had lived on friendly terms for years suddenly went berserk and slaughtered one another. Some of the worst massacres took place on the railways, formerly vehicles of British military control freighted with hopes of Indian communal harmony. Taking advantage of a system already seriously disrupted, bands of goondas held up trains packed with people trying to escape the terror. Often they left nothing but coaches full of corpses, which arrived at their destinations, in the charge of Eurasian engine drivers, with gore seeping from every aperture. British officers said that the spectacle was a “thousand times more horrible than anything we saw during the war.”224 Some of the mobile charnel houses bore chalked messages, “A Present from India” or “A Present from Pakistan.”225 Lahore railway station and others like it, once white fortresses, became brown death traps. Hordes of refugees travelling by road, some in columns up to fifty miles long, became a still larger target for rapine and murder.

Delhi itself was infected by the violence and citizens saw “a whole social order haemorrhaging before our eyes.”226 Nirad Chaudhuri found it literally indescribable.

I have weighed nearly all the words and phrases which the murderous ferocity of man, as distinct from his warlike ferocity, has contributed to the vocabulary of European peoples: massacre, pogrom, lynching, fusillade, noyade, St. Bartholomew, Sicilian Vespers, Bloodbath of Stockholm, Bulgarian atrocities, Armenian massacres, Belsen, genocide, etc., etc., but find them all inadequate.227

Yet troubles in the capital scarcely compared with the havoc in the frontier region. There cities such as Amritsar looked as if they had been bombed. Towns were ravaged by arson and looting. The countryside was a vast crematorium, with thousands of villages reduced to ashes. The Punjab Boundary Force was itself lacerated by communal hatred and soon had to be disbanded. By the time the convulsion subsided a million had died and eleven million had been driven from their homes, one of the largest migrations in history. A Punjabi magistrate remarked wryly, “You British believe in fair play. You have left India in the same condition of chaos as you found it.”228

Bengal was less turbulent largely because Gandhi, ignoring the Delhi festivities, exercised a seemingly miraculous influence there. Even though the East Pakistan frontier was just as arbitrary as that with West Pakistan—jute-exporting Calcutta was severed from its jute-growing hinterland—there was a further movement of only 1.25 million refugees. And when communal rioting did break out in the city, the Mahatma fasted for peace. Much of the police force went on sympathetic hunger strike and within days thousands of Muslims and Hindus were mingling together in friendship on the maidan. Gandhi would pay for his saintliness with his life—a Hindu fanatic, who could not bear what he took to be his partiality to Muslims, shot him in January 1948. Meanwhile, the Governor-General extolled the Mahatma as a “one-man boundary force.”229 Keen to minimise the damage done by precipitate partition, Mountbatten also said that most of India had remained calm and that “only” 100,000 people had died in the north. Ismay was horrified by his speech since it obscured the essential fact that “there is human misery on a colossal scale all around one.”230

Yet Indians themselves were reluctant to dwell on the agonising birth pangs of nationhood and many said that parting with their former rulers was such sweet sorrow. The feeling was mutual. It was displayed at many farewell ceremonies, notably the exodus of the last regiments: the Black Watch from Karachi on 26 February 1948, the Scots “blubbing like babies,” and the Somerset Light Infantry from Bombay two days later. That parade was an emotional affair with guards of honour, slow marches, royal salutes; flags raised and lowered, formal presentations and speeches about “the manly comradeship existing between the soldiers of our two countries.” Finally, the colour party and escort of the Somersets, dressed in green berets, drill shirts and shorts, white belts and gaiters, trooped the colours through the Gateway of India. Witnesses “could see tears in everyone’s eyes.”231 The band played “Auld Lang Syne,” the Scottish refrain being taken up by thousands of Indian voices, as the English embarked on the Empress of Australia and sailed home for good.

Yet such nostalgic valedictions, which were to become familiar over the next few years, projected on cinema screens in a thousand flickering newsreels, could not hide the fact that the British Raj had ended in blood as well as tears. To that extent the prophecies of Churchill and his ilk were fulfilled. Indeed, it became a commonplace to warn, as Norman Angell did, “When the Roman Empire, which was full of imperfections, fell, it was not followed by something better, but by something worse, the Dark Ages. Something equally unhappy could so easily follow the complete break-up of the British Empire.”232 It was hard to deny, though, that the end of the Raj heralded the dawn of freedom in the subcontinent. Nor was it easy to escape the conclusion that the British themselves bore a significant share of the responsibility for the disaster of partition. In the short term Mountbatten, despite lifelong attempts at self-vindication, was much to blame. Had he stuck to Attlee’s timetable and taken proper precautions, a reconstituted army might have kept relative peace in the Punjab. This was certainly the view of Field-Marshal Auchinleck, who was in the best position to judge. In the longer term, however, the fault lay in the character of British imperialism itself. Such was the British impact on India that ever since the Victorian era both Hindus and Muslims had been forced to “raise mental and moral defences around themselves.”233 Economic and educational differences had helped to crystallise separate communal identities. And the British, by dividing in order to rule and by favouring the Muslim martial races, exacerbated the growing religious antagonism. This culminated in the hecatombs of the Punjab. Far from quitting India with honour and dignity, the British left amid the clamour of homicide and the stench of death. Auchinleck’s private secretary, Colonel Shahid Hamid, believed that “The British Empire, which tried to build India over centuries, can never live down this great tragedy.”234

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