- - Sunday, January 29, 2017



By Walter Reid

Birlinn/IPG, $28.99, 288 pages, illustrated

British military and political historian Walter Reid has written one of the most provocative original books on a well-worn subject. The bumpy road toward self-government in the Indian jewel in Britain’s crown and its extraordinarily bloody achievement of independence on a scale without parallel anywhere else in its imperial history. On this bloody birth, Mr. Reid does not mince his words:

“The British Raj had ended. It ended horribly. Between August 1947 and the spring of 1948 millions of Indians, perhaps fourteen million, perhaps sixteen million, were forced to leave their homes. No one knows the true numbers of those killed … The true figure may be a million. But whatever the figure, the deaths alone do not speak of the horror of the times, the mutual hatred, the extravagance of the violence, rapes and mutilation … It was bloodlust, the crystallization of hatred.”

And he backs up all this with an appalling litany of details.

How can such a denouement have occurred? Mr. Reid lays the blame squarely on the shoulders of the politicians in London, although he does not spare some of the Indian ones from their share in the catastrophe. But there are those who come out well in his sorry tale, like “the Indian Civil Service, the men who administered India from India, as opposed to the Indian Office, chiefly in Britain, which ruled India in a more political sense, were highly-principled and motivated by a powerful sense of duty.” Similarly, individual viceroys, notably the penultimate one, Gen. Archibald Wavell, emerge as well-intentioned men. Even his roundly and rightly vilified successor Lord Mountbatten, while getting his due share of the blame for the Raj’s catastrophic ending, at least here gets to share his dish of opprobrium with many others.

On the vexed subject of the culpability of the speed with which India and Pakistan were divided, for instance, Mr. Reid absolves Mountbatten from sole responsibility. But as to the choice of an English lawyer Sir Cyril Radcliffe actually to draw the map, the author’s indictment is characteristically harsh and pithy:

“The systematic failure of British governments to contemplate or prepare for any planned transfer of power is epitomized by the fact that a man of Radcliffe’s background and lack of experience (he had never been east of Gibraltar before he came to India) should have been asked to embark on such a fundamental task so very late in the day. He was only in India for six weeks … When he reached India Radcliffe asked how long he had got. Mountbatten said, ‘five weeks.’ Before Radcliffe could protest that this was grossly inadequate, Nehru intervened: ‘If a decision could be reached in advance of five weeks, it would be better for the situation.’ Jinnah and the others agreed.”

If the men who would take the reins of independent India and Pakistan outdid the last viceroy in their unwise — to put it mildly — zeal for haste in butchering the subcontinent, then history has been a bit unjust to Mountbatten.

Alas, for those of us who are admirers of the great Sir Winston Churchill, his part in Mr. Reid’s account — and it must be admitted in most others — was definitely not his finest hour. A deeply committed imperialist with an abiding personal love for British India where he had served as a soldier early in his career, he abhorred the notion of independence. Even under pressure from his friend and ally Franklin Roosevelt, a fervent anti-colonialist, and most of his colleagues in all parties including his own at home, his support was grudging and carping at best and often outright obstructive.

Mr. Reid’s first words in “Keeping the Jewel in the Crown” tell us we are in the hands of an uncommon writer:

“The question which this book is intended to answer began to form in my mind during my first visit to India. It was, ‘Did the British mean to leave all this?,’ and it was prompted by architecture.”

But you realize just how perceptive he is when he does not follow the well-worn path of pointing to the imposing structures designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens for the new imperial capital of New Delhi. Instead, he makes the much more unusual choice of the reflection of Britain in Mumbai’s “commercial buildings … in this huge financial centre … [which]is not a political statement [and] represents a continuing capital investment and commitment that looks far into the future. Did the British honestly mean to leave all this?”

Readers need not agree with Mr. Reid’s entire premise about the British endgame on the Indian subcontinent. His story of the last 30 years of the Raj reveals little evidence of goodwill or wholehearted commitment to India’s well-being. Nor with the harsh conclusion of his text: “the end of a shabby tale of procrastination, and deceit, an end that was finally cobbled together in panic and despair.” But he has succeeded in modifying or even standing on its head many a received wisdom on his subject. It is a rare book that will alter the way you look at one of history’s pivotal events and one of its greatest tragedies, but this is one of them.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.

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