Confused by the last daze of the Raj

Blunders all round marked the end of British rule, says Sunil Khilnani; Liberty or Death: India's journey to independence and division by Patrick French, HarperCollins, pounds 20
Click to follow
The quarter-century leading up to the Partition and Independence of India in August 1947 is one of the most intricate, accelerated and decisive passages in 20th-century history. It is not at all easy to explain why events unfolded as they did.

British historians have told it as a story of upright leadership which bequeathed to the elites of Pakistan and India smoothly functioning tropical Westminsters. Historians on the subcontinent have celebrated their own starched heroes - Jinnah, Gandhi, Nehru and Patel - fighting epic struggles against the British or their opponents. From each point of view, it goes without saying that the protagonists knew exactly what they were doing.

The most welcome message of Patrick French's energetic book is that most of the actors, most of the time, did not. Motives were fluid, outcomes contingent. During the Thirties and Forties, the politics of the Indian empire was awash with questions: when would the British leave, to whom would they hand over power, would free Indians live together in a single state, and would it be federal or confederal, religious or secular? Yet by the end of the Forties the uncertainties had crystallised, setting a pattern for the subcontinent's future in ways that no one had quite expected or wanted. Even Jinnah did not want a sovereign, independent Pakistan.

French is right to try to integrate the histories of Partition and Independence, rather than seeing them as somehow inconveniently related (as most Indians would like to believe). He wades intrepidly - and sometimes with alarming insouciance - into a minefield of controversy, determined to produce "a radical reinterpretation". That, it has to be said, is not quite delivered.

Until recently, histories of this period have been written on the basis of a quite narrow range of sources (mainly state archives, often carefully doctored). French does offer something new here, making use of declassified British intelligence documents. But he relies mainly on that trusted warhorse of all who write about this period: the 12-volume Transfer of Power documents. He has not explored Indian or Pakistani sources, apart from some interviews which try to evoke the consequences of Partition. The result is a very much a British view of the story, albeit a self-critical one.

French uses the archives of the Indian Political Intelligence - a shadowy operation run from Whitehall by Philip Vickery, who in French's view did "as much as any single person to prolong British rule in India" - to reveal an administration rapidly losing its grip as well as its will to rule. Accelerated by the pressures of war, the crumbling of the formidable apparatus of the Raj was apparent by the Forties. It helped to make the Quit India agitation of 1942 possible, after which the British were merely in nominal control of large areas.

Administrative fatigue was matched by monumental stupidity on the part of the British leadership. The appointment in 1936 of the pig-headed - and pig-sticking - Linlithgow as viceroy was one instance of this. But what ensured that the British withdrawal from India would be messy and riddled with confusion was the personality of Winston Churchill.

French makes clear not only the man's obnoxious bigotry but also his peerless ignorance of, and ineptitude over, the "Indian question". On the other hand, it is good to see French restore Wavell to his rightful historical place. Wavell's brief viceroyalty has been overshadowed by the spectacular antics of his successor, but it was crucial in establishing the template largely followed by Mountbatten.

French moves his story along fluently, though the historical narrative is punctuated by anecdotal passages that record his own subcontinental wanderings. These encourage him to exercise a penchant for Indian absurdities (mispronunciation, misspellings, etc) which become arch and wearisome. For a would-be revisionist, French also has a worrying tendency to neglect argument in favour of ad hominem stabs and droll character cameos. Perhaps he tried too hard to please his publishers .

On more serious ground, his judgements are often persuasive. He rightly insists that "the potential for a complete administrative collapse in India in the late Forties should not be forgotten". Far from inheriting modern polities gleaming with liberal polish, the Indian and Pakistani elites took command of faltering, truncated states. That it was possible - at least in India - to pull this legacy round to a strong, democratic and secular union was a measure of the achievement of men such as Nehru, not a residue of the Raj's splendour.

The one act of the Raj that could not be undone was Partition. Running through this book is a powerful sense of Partition's continuing effects, and regret at its destruction of many of India's cultures and habits. Partition weakened all communities, and delivered few benefits to them. It implanted confusion into Muslim ideas of selfhood, was catastrophic for the Sikhs (who don't much figure in French's story) and has encouraged Hindus to dream of an ethnically pure "Bharatavarsha". It survives as an always available memory, around which the dissatisfactions of modern politics on the subcontinent can periodically, and murderously, coalesce.