Legacy of the Raj


Par­ti­tion: The Story of In­dian In­de­pen­dence and the Cre­ation of Pak­istan in 1947 By Bar­ney White-spun­ner Si­mon & Schus­ter £25.00 Oldie price £16.41 inc p&p

The year 1947 in­volved three dif­fer­ent but con­nected events in the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent: in­de­pen­dence and the end of for­eign rule, the re­duc­tion of the Bri­tish Em­pire to a quar­ter of its pre­vi­ous size, and the di­vi­sion of In­dia and Pak­istan into sep­a­rate na­tions.

Bar­ney White-spun­ner, a for­mer com­man­der of 16 Air As­sault Brigade dur­ing the 2001 oc­cu­pa­tion of Afghanistan and later of Bri­tish troops in Basra in Iraq, ap­proaches the last of th­ese – Par­ti­tion – from, in his own words, ‘a sol­dier’s per­spec­tive’. It is where he uses his mil­i­tary knowl­edge to an­a­lyse crit­i­cal choices made at this time that his book is most valu­able.

Less suc­cess­ful is his de­pic­tion of the op­er­a­tion of In­dian so­ci­ety, and of the politi­cians who drove the process of con­vert­ing a pop­u­lar move­ment for free­dom into a world his­tor­i­cal event. They are sketched cur­so­rily, as are Churchill and At­tlee, who took the key de­ci­sions that led to the loss of con­trol which pre­cip­i­tated the deaths of sev­eral mil­lion peo­ple from, first, the Ben­gal famine and then re­cip­ro­cal geno­cide, cen­tred on Pun­jab.

Jawa­har­lal Nehru is de­picted as such an emo­tional bag of nerves (‘He would fre­quently lose con­trol in meet­ings’) that it is a won­der he man­aged to be­come one of the most dili­gent and suc­cess­ful states­men of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. Bri­tish im­pe­ri­al­ists, on the other hand, are mainly de­scribed in the lan­guage of Saki or John Buchan. They are ‘ded­i­cated and selfless’, do­ing what they must. The provin­cial gov­er­nors ‘were all peo­ple who had ded­i­cated their lives to In­dia’. Colonel Bill Birnie liked big-game hunt­ing and ‘knew the Fron­tier as well as any man’. The Viceroy Lord Wavell had ‘a par­tic­u­lar love of In­dia’. The writer

Paul Scott ‘ac­tu­ally came to love In­dia’, and so forth. Has any na­tion been more loved and mis­treated by its pur­ported ad­mir­ers? To quote Zadie Smith in her novel White Teeth, ‘Oh, he loves her; just as the English loved In­dia and Africa and Ire­land; it is the love that is the prob­lem, peo­ple treat their lovers badly.’

But on the pres­sures upon those who made vi­tal de­ci­sions on the ground in 1947, White-spun­ner of­fers real in­sights, based on his own ex­pe­ri­ence of the mech­a­nisms of civil and mil­i­tary ad­min­is­tra­tion in times of cri­sis.

Field Mar­shal Claude Auchin­leck was Com­man­der-in-chief of the army, navy and air force in In­dia, as well as of 50,000 Bri­tish troops. In ad­di­tion, for his­toric rea­sons, he was ‘dou­ble-hat­ting’, con­trol­ling the govern­ment’s de­fence pol­icy. His power was dis­pro­por­tion­ate but, ex­hausted by the Sec­ond World War and up­set by the elope­ment of his wife with an old friend, he re­fused to plan for the loom­ing dis­as­ter. He was ‘fo­cused on the army it­self and its beloved reg­i­ments, rather than on the job it was there to do’.

No plans were made to use Bri­tish troops for in­ter­nal se­cu­rity dur­ing par­ti­tion. Auchin­leck ‘strongly op­posed’ the cre­ation of an im­promptu peace­keep­ing op­er­a­tion, the Pun­jab Bound­ary Force or PBF, and did re­mark­ably lit­tle to sup­port it. Tens of thou­sands of avail­able Bri­tish and Gurkha troops were ex­cluded. WhiteSpun­ner makes the strong claim that ‘The PBF was set up to fail from its in­cep­tion.’

The legacy of th­ese tragic de­ci­sions is well known: the largest mi­gra­tion of peo­ples in his­tory, un­known num­bers at­tacked, raped or slaugh­tered, fam­i­lies split and the sub­con­ti­nent locked in un­re­solved dis­putes.

As the nar­ra­tive pro­gresses, it feels as if White-spun­ner has al­most dis­cov­ered a dif­fer­ent story. He de­scribes the lack of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment in In­dia as ‘prob­a­bly the most dif­fi­cult legacy of the Raj to jus­tify’. White-spun­ner con­cludes that the Bri­tish went to In­dia to make money, but ended up be­liev­ing they were on a civil­is­ing mis­sion and run­ning a chron­i­cally un­der­funded ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The par­al­lel in the back of my mind as I was read­ing Par­ti­tion was Brexit. Dur­ing the months im­me­di­ately be­fore and af­ter the di­vi­sion of the sub­con­ti­nent, a myr­iad of com­plex, de­ci­sions had to be made about which as­sets and li­a­bil­i­ties would go in which di­rec­tion, how trade and new borders might be man­aged, what ex­ist­ing sys­tems could re­main, what mech­a­nisms be estab­lished to re­solve dis­putes. Many of th­ese ques­tions re­main unan­swered, sev­enty years later.

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