In May 1945 as people across the planet celebrated the end of World War II in Europe, one baleful figure was planning the annihilation of the world’s oldest continuing civilisation. His heart full of hatred for Indians – and fearful of the arrival of Russia as a superpower – British Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked his generals to prepare a policy report “to safeguard the strategic interests of the British Empire in India and the Indian Ocean”. On May 19, the Post-Hostilities Planning Staff of the War Cabinet tabled a top secret document citing four reasons why India was of strategic importance to Britain: (1)
- British forces located in India could be deployed in the Indian Ocean area, Middle East and Far East.
- India was a transit point for air and sea communications.
- It had a large reserve of manpower of good fighting quality.
- Northwest India was suitable for deploying air power against Russia.
According to Narendra Sarila, a former aide-de-camp to Viceroy Louis Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy of India, in each and every subsequent appraisal by the British chiefs of staff from then on till India’s independence on August 15, 1947, the emphasis was on the need to retain the British military connection with the subcontinent, whatever the cost and irrespective of the constitutional changes there. The detachment of the northwest – and Balochistan – from India became causes that started gaining legs in London.
The more one scrutinises the words and actions of British politicians, diplomats and military brass in the years leading up to India’s independence, the more one is convinced that Britain divided India in order to create a strategic buffer in India’s northwest against Russia.
Since Congress leaders Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru lived in their delusional world of non-violence and non-alignment and were unwilling to offer the West a base for operations against the menace of communism, the British were able to convince the US – by hook and crook – that it was imperative to create a brand new country that would play along. In this mission, they found useful idiots in Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the Aga Khan and their Muslim League cohorts.
Sarila, who had ringside seats to the intrigues and manoeuvrings in the lead-up to independence, writes: “The idea of partitioning India in some form, to safeguard British strategic interests, had started to circulate in Whitehall in Churchill’s time. Defence and security considerations were therefore uppermost in the minds of British leaders as they considered withdrawal from India.”
On April 18, 1946, the British chiefs of staff Field Marshal Alan Brook, Air Marshal Arthur Teddler and Admiral Rhoderick McGrigor again reported to the British cabinet that since Russia is Britain’s “most probable potential enemy”, the areas where Britain must have bases to counter Moscow includes India. The airfields in northwest India were critical for bombing Russian industrial areas in the Urals and western Siberia. India was also an essential air link to the Far East. (2)
The commander of the British Indian Army, Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck, expressed similar views in a note on July 13, 1946: (3)
*The principal advantage that Britain and the Commonwealth derive from India is strategic.
*The greatest asset is India’s manpower. The war of 1939-45 could hardly have been won without India’s contribution of two million soldiers, which strengthened the British Empire at its weakest point.
*India is a very valuable base for war.
*The potential for supplying war material will increase as India’s industrial capacity increases.
*India’s naval bases are critical for the protection of oil supplies from Persia and the Persian Gulf.
*India has made a very substantial financial contribution to British defence.
Archibald Wavell, the arch racist Viceroy of India from 1943-47, believed that Congress leaders would not cooperate with Britain on military matters and foreign policy whereas the Muslim League, which had been demanding a homeland for Indian Muslims since 1940, would be willing to do so. The breach to be caused to Britain’s capacity to defend the Middle East and the Indian Ocean area could be plugged if the Muslim League were to succeed in separating India’s strategic northwest from the rest of the country, a realisable goal considering the close ties that Victor Linlithgow (Wavell’s predecessor and Churchill’s alter ego in his hatred for Indians), had built up with the Muslim League leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah during World War II.
Wavell had a long discussion with Churchill in March 1945 in London. He writes in his diary that the British PM had “visualised the division of India”.
British military pushes Partition
By early, 1947 the British chiefs of staff had become enthusiastic proponents of a Pakistan that would cooperate with Britain in military matters. On May 12, 1947 General Leslie Hollis put forward the following points to Churchill’s successor Prime Minister Clement Attlee to buttress the case for breaking India: (4)
- We should obtain important strategic facilities such as the port of Karachi and air bases in northwest India and the support of Muslim manpower.
- We should be able to ensure the continued independence and integrity of Afghanistan.
- We should increase our prestige and improve our position throughout the Muslim world, and demonstrate, by the assistance Pakistan would receive, the advantage of links with the British Commonwealth.
- Our link with Pakistan might have a stabilising effect on India as a whole, since an attack by Pakistan on Pakistan would involve Hindustan in war, not with Pakistan alone, but with the British Commonwealth.
- The position on the frontier might well become more settled since relations between the tribes and Pakistan would be easier than they could be with a united India.
That there was definitely a British consensus on balkanising India can be inferred from the words of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the chief of the Imperial General Staff and the most visible British general of World War II: “From the broad aspect it would be a tremendous asset if Pakistan, particularly the northwest, remained within the Commonwealth. The bases, airfields and ports in northwest India would be invaluable to Commonwealth defence. Moreover our presence would make for better civil administration, since British advisers, both civil and military, would ensure the efficiency of the (Pakistan) Provinces and might well attract Hindu States into adopting a similar relationship with the Commonwealth. In addition, we should be in a stronger position to support the integrity of Afghanistan….and the sooner this happened the better.” (5)
One of the little known facts about the Indian freedom movement is how strongly the Americans exerted pressure on the British to quit India. Unlike British leaders such as Churchill (who like a jilted lover was prepared to destroy India if he couldn’t keep it) the American interest in India was based on geopolitical realities. The US wanted to enlist popular Indian support against the advancing Japanese, ensure India’s freedom and establish a new post-colonial order in Asia. Also, with Soviet communism becoming a viable route for many colonised countries to gain their independence, the US knew that if India slipped into the jaws of communism, it would be a geopolitical disaster for the West.
In the early 1940s, during a whirlwind tour of the globe, Wendell Wilkie, the Republican candidate for the US Presidency in 1940, reported to the American public that from Cairo eastward, the question of Indian independence confronted him at every turn. Wilkie wrote: “The wisest man in China said to me: When the aspiration of India for freedom is put aside to some future date, it was not Great Britain that suffered in public esteem in the Far East. It was the United States.” (6)
In a memorandum prepared on May 5, 1941, US Assistant Secretary of State Adolf A. Berle observed that India of necessity exerted a vast influence upon the affairs of the Middle East, and that it was imperative to secure her active cooperation in the prosecution of the war, by bringing her into “the partnership of nations on terms equal to the other members of the British Commonwealth.” It was at this time that British and Australian troops were being routed in North Africa, the Nazis had gotten control of Greece and Yugoslavia and were planning the invasion of Crete, and Churchill was pleading for American help. (6)
According to US Secretary of State Cordell Hull, he and President Franklin Roosevelt “were convinced that the Indians would cooperate better with the British if they were assured of independence, at least after the war”.
In 1941, Roosevelt was of the view that India should be made a free member of a commonwealth at once, and after a certain number of years – perhaps five or ten – she should be able to choose whether she wants to remain in the empire or have complete independence. “As a commonwealth, she would be entitled to a modern form of government, an adequate health and educational standard. But how can she have these things, when Britain is taking all the wealth of her national resources away from her, every year? Every year the Indian people have one thing to look forward to, like death and taxes. Sure as shooting, they have a famine. The season of the famine, they call it.”
In order to strengthen India, the US State Department urged Britain to:
*Boost war production there, even if the British feared losing the Indian market after the war.
*Introduce India as a full member of the United Nations.
*Promptly recognise India’s aspirations as a free country.
The opinion in the US Senate was that since the US had given the British billions of dollars as part of the lend-lease programme, Washington now had the right to demand autonomy for India. Roosevelt and his cabinet were now fully behind India.
Churchill hoodwinks the Americans
However, the cunning and conniving Churchill had ample tricks in his pocket. In order to confuse the American diplomats, he painted a completely false picture of the situation in India: (7)
*Approximately 75 per cent of Indian troops are Muslims.
*The fighting people of India are from the areas now in Pakistan.
*The big population of central and south India did not have the vigour to fight anybody.
*Britain therefore cannot alienate the Muslims who are the main fighting force of the Indian Army.
*Britain also has to “consider our duty towards” the 30-40 million ‘untouchables’.
*Britain cannot abandon its treaties with the maharajas of kingdoms which together had an estimated population of 80 million Indians.
*Making overtures to the Congress would alienate the Muslim masses of India.
The reality was completely different. Of course, this side of the picture was hidden from the Americans:
*Only 35 per cent of Indian troops were Muslims. This fact had been communicated to London by Wavell the same week that Churchill resorted to the insidious misinformation.
*Britain was scarcely interested in the welfare of ordinary Indians, let alone so-called untouchables; like previous conquerors, they used the Brahmins as interlocutors. In most cases, British rule had made life more difficult for the poor.
*At that point, few Muslims backed the Muslim League. Jinnah and his Muslim League cohorts were seeking Pakistan not as a homeland for the Muslim masses but as a perpetual tax haven for the Muslim feudal elites. Being converts, ordinary Indian Muslims were rooted to the soil and disagreed with Jinnah’s call for a separate homeland. In fact, in the North West Frontier Province, which had a 95 per cent Muslim majority, Jinnah’s party had won exactly zero seats. When the Leaguers pitched the Hindu threat, the Pathans laughed at the possibility that the 2-5 per cent Hindu minority could be a threat to them.
*As for the maharajas, they mostly belonged to ancient dynasties which were staunchly Hindu and identified with India; barring the odd Muslim nawab, Indian rulers did not want independent status.
In 1942, Roosevelt sent Colonel Louis Johnson as his personal representative in India to arrange a deal between the Congress leadership and the British. The US wanted all Indians on board for the allied war effort but Churchill was adamant that he could clamp down on any civil obedience and get the Indians to enlist in the British Indian Army. After considerable effort, Johnson got a deal – if Britain agreed to give India autonomy status, the Indian leadership would entrust technical, military and naval defence control to the British.
However, Churchill backtracked, saying he hadn’t authorised anyone in British India to negotiate on his behalf. For him negotiating with the hated Indians, especially the pagan Hindus, would be treating them as equals, even humanising them. His righteousness did not extend to the Indian people, who he described as “a beastly people with a beastly religion”. He was after all, only months away from causing an artificial famine in the Bengal area that could kill more people (up to 7 million) than the total number of Jews the Nazis would murder in their gas chambers. (8)
The British prime minister was convinced that his police and army could drag the Indians into the war. This elicited an angry reaction from Mohandas Gandhi, who launched the Quit India Movement in 1942. In World War I Gandhi had actively supported the British and was in fact a recruiter for the British Indian Army, for which he was awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind, the highest civilian award of the colonial government. But now he was displaying a complete lack of understanding of geopolitics and strategy. Or perhaps fearing that overtly supporting the British war effort would make the Congress unpopular in India, especially when Subhas Chandra Bose and the revolutionaries were becoming popular, Gandhi had made a deal whereby the British would crack down on his party.
At any rate, Gandhi’s Quit India Movement was exactly what the British wanted as they brutally suppressed the movement, baton charged thousands, shot dead hundreds, jailed thousands and bombed freedom fighters from the air using the air force. This was all in a day’s work for Churchill who had wanted to use chemical weapons on Indians several years earlier. (9)
Gandhi, Nehru and the entire Congress leadership were arrested. In reality Gandhi was lodged in the comfortable and salubrious environs of the Aga Khan palace in Pune (10) and Nehru was in the minimum security Ahmadnagar prison where his daily life included regular morning exercises, reading, writing and gardening. (11) In contrast, genuine freedom fighters such as Veer Savarkar and the revolutionaries were sent to the horrors of Kala Pani in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, where third degree torture was routine.
Propping up Jinnah
With the Congress out of the way – or more likely having made a secret deal to get out of the way – the British had a free run on the chessboard. It was the Congress’ strategic blunder. The Muslim League, which was a party without a popular base, was now propped up everywhere and allowed to consolidate. Considering how easily Muslims are swayed by appealing to danger to their religion, it wasn’t very difficult to drum up support for the League. Without the Congress leaders around to explain what was happening to the country, the Muslims went over to the League.
Author Mark Curtis sums the final stage of Partition: “By 1944, Wavell was determined to build up Jinnah’s Muslim League and withdraw British military forces into the strategic northwest, where they would seek to retain their bases. Pakistan, he envisaged, would become a dominion within the Commonwealth; the rest of India would be left to its own devices. Prime Minister Churchill had long rejected any form of Indian independence, but by March 1945, Wavell remarked that Churchill’s position was shifting: he ‘seems to favour partition of India into Pakistan, Hindustan and Princestan’ – Hindustan referring to the Hindu regions of India, and Princestan to the numerous princely states which Britain had long cultivated to ensure colonial control.” (12)
The reference to Princestan makes it clear that India’s balkanisation was very much a British goal.
When Pakistan was finally midwifed, the British were ecstatic, despite the horrendous bloodletting and the uprooting of 20 million Indians from villages and towns where their forefathers had lived for millennia. On August 15, 1947, The Times, London published the following editorial: “In the hour of its creation Pakistan emerges as the leading state of the Muslim world. Since the collapse of the Turkish empire that world, which extends across the globe from Morocco to Indonesia, has not included a state whose numbers, natural resources and place in history gave it undisputed pre-eminence. The gap is now filled. From today Karachi takes rank as a new centre of Muslim cohesion and rallying point of Muslim thought and aspirations’.”
The writer of the editorial would be spinning in his grave today.
Could Partition have been avoided?
Yes, but not with Gandhi and Nehru at the helm. Both leaders were too chicken to fight; Gandhi had crackpot ideals of extreme non-violence while Nehru was basically white bread – a man without substance or experience in politics, a leader foisted upon India by his moneybags father Motilal Nehru. His mind clouded by lust for Mountbatten’s honey trapping wife Edwina, Nehru became like putty in British hands. (13) More comfortable with impeccable dinner table manners, he called himself the last Englishmen in India. Plus, he was impatient to become the Prime Minister.
But there was a more pressing reason for the Congress Party’s abject surrender to the Muslim League mobs and Jinnah’s threat to make rivers of Hindu blood flow in his Direct Action Day (14) speech on August 16, 1946. Nehru just didn’t have the cojones to dig in for a fight. The only person who actually paid it back in kind to the Muslim League goons was Sardar Patel but he was asked by Gandhi to step aside and let Nehru hog the limelight.
If Gandhi and Nehru’s acquiescence be followed again – as India’s liberals, leftists and minorities demand so vocally – it would result in endless partitions. The Congress Party caved in to Jinnah’s threats because Gandhi, Nehru and the rest of Gandhians lacked spine. They let the country be divided for the sake of communal harmony and to prevent a mass slaughter, but neither was achieved. Communal harmony had gone up in flames after Direct Action Day, and at least a million people died during the riots that happened during the transfer of populations. A civil war would have led to a lot fewer deaths. The Muslims were 20 per cent of India’s population at that time and there was no way they could have defeated the Hindus even with British and Afghan support.
In the 1948 War, Nehru showed his cowardice when he let Pakistan grab a third of Kashmir and refused to let the Indian Army take it back. In the 1962 China War, he again proved he had no stomach for a fight by accepting a ceasefire on Chinese terms instead of sending more troops to the front. The Indian Army had a million troops in the plains but the bulk of them were not despatched to the front to evict the Chinese because Nehru didn’t want to fight. Instead he lapsed into depression and died. Had he been alive three more years, India would have lost the 1965 War too.
Compare Nehru’s week kneed approach to the Muslim League thugs with US President Abraham Lincoln’s resolute six-year leadership during the American Civil War (1861-65). That war was fought among the 34 US states when seven southern slave states individually declared their secession from the US to form the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy grew to include 11 slave states. The brutality and extent of that conflict can be measured from the toll – 750,000 Americans killed and many more injured. The entire country burned for six long years, but Lincoln didn’t back down despite growing pressure from his party to cut a deal with the Confederacy and call a ceasefire.
Now imagine a scenario in which Lincoln had decided there was going to be too much bloodshed and that civil war would be ruinous for America. The result would have been division, with a large slave owning county right next door to the United States, leading to an arms race between the two antagonistic powers. The history of America – and probably the world – would have been different. The Confederate States of America would have allied with slave owning Britain and slavery may have lasted well into the 20th century. The Confederates would be like apartheid South Africa – only 100 times stronger and more vicious.
Nobody comes out smelling of roses from India’s Partition saga – the Muslims are the usual suspects for betraying India; the British are the real perpetrators for hatching the plot; but the Congress is the watchdog that allowed the crime to happen with its eyes wide shut.
- PHP (45) 15 (0) final, 19 May 1945, L/W/S/1/983988 (Oriental and Indian Collection, British Library, London)
- Narendra Sarila, The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition, page 23
- British Library, http://blogs.bl.uk/untoldlives/2017/02/indian-independence-a-source.html
- Narendra Sarila, The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition, page 26
- Extract from British Chiefs of Staff meeting, November 29, 1946
- Ramtanu Maitra, US Policy Toward India, 1940-50: An Indian Viewpoint, https://www.larouchepub.com/eiw/public/1995/eirv22n20-19950512/eirv22n20-19950512_053-us_policy_toward_india_1940_50_a.pdf
- Ramtanu Maitra, US Policy Toward India, 1940-50: An Indian Viewpoint
- India Facts, India’s forgotten holocaust, https://indiafacts.org/remembering-forgotten-holocaust-india/
- Times of India, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/uk/Winston-Churchill-wanted-to-gas-Indian-tribes-Historian/articleshow/23436465.cms
- Aga Khan Palace, https://www.inditales.com/aga-khan-palace-pune/
- Nehru in Ahmadnagar prison, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/pune/How-Ahmednagar-fort-brought-out-the-best-in-Nehru/articleshow/29297841.cms
- Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam, http://markcurtis.info/2016/11/08/partition-keep-a-bit-of-india/
- The Sun, https://www.thesun.co.uk/tvandshowbiz/2998118/bed-hopping-royals-a-french-mistress-torrid-affairs-viceroys-house/
- Direct Action Day, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/direct-action-day-the-core-of-pak-malignancy/articleshow/9618433.cms
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Rakesh is a globally cited defence analyst. His work has been published by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi; Russia Beyond, Moscow; Hindustan Times, New Delhi; Business Today, New Delhi; Financial Express, New Delhi; BusinessWorld Magazine, New Delhi; Swarajya Magazine, Bangalore; Foundation Institute for Eastern Studies, Warsaw; Research Institute for European and American Studies, Greece, among others.
As well as having contributed for a research paper for the US Air Force, he has been cited by leading organisations, including the US Army War College, Pennsylvania; US Naval PG School, California; Johns Hopkins SAIS, Washington DC; Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC; Rutgers University, New Jersey; Institute of International and Strategic Relations, Paris; Institute for Strategic, Political, Security and Economic Consultancy, Berlin; Siberian Federal University, Krasnoyarsk; Institute for Defense Analyses, Virginia; International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, Washington DC; Stimson Centre, Washington DC; Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia; Center for Strategic & International Studies, Washington DC; and BBC.
His articles have been quoted extensively by national and international defence journals and in books on diplomacy, counter terrorism, warfare, and development of the global south.