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.