Partition: the story of Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan in 1947 by Barney White-Spunner
In the comprehensive index of Barney White-Spunner’s Partition there is no entry under Ireland. This is surprising because in the text there are many occasions when Ireland is important. For example, White-Spunner mentions that the representative of the Calcutta branch of Congress ‘visited Ireland and learned about leading revolutions against Britain from Michael Collins and the IRA’.
Strange wording since he arrived in Ireland in 1936 fourteen years after Collins’s death. The visitor was Subhas Chandra Bose who, like his fellow party member Mohandas Gandhi, had been educated in England, at Cambridge. Bose was in opposition to the non-violent ‘Mahatma’ and believed in an armed struggle against the British. Some historians interpret Bose’s beliefs and efforts as those of an ‘Indian Michael Collins’.
The internecine struggle in Congress took place before the Second World War and, as White-Spunner shows, was only a small part of the complexity of the situation in which both India and Ireland found themselves in terms of their relationship with Britain. Indian politicians and thinkers kept a close eye on events in Ireland considering that there were parallels in the two countries’ roads toward independence.
What is revealed in Partition is that the British botch of the process in India was infinitely more incompetent, more negligent and more numbskulled than it was in Ireland. And it was an independence botch that left millions dead or maimed. The resultant partition of India and Pakistan caused political, religious and violent outcomes which are explosive even today.
At the beginning of the book White-Spunner provides a useful potted history of the relationship between Britain and India in the eighteenth, nineteenth and first third of the twentieth centuries. Most striking perhaps is the fact that with so few settlers the empire retained the colony for nearly 200 years.
In compiling his account the author has to juggle all the different linguistic areas, provinces, administrative districts, princely states, political systems, religions, taxes, plagues, famines and uprisings. His skill in doing so reflects, symbolically, the way in which the Viceroys and the Indian Civil Service administered the multitudinous complexities of the subcontinent for generations.
In 1937 Congress emerged as the strongest party and, states White-Spunner, men like Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, ‘intelligent students of how the Raj had managed to exercise total control across India with only the slenderest of resources’, learnt that they must keep all the key branches of government centrally in Delhi. This was one of the seeds of partition since if everything was so centralised a binary split into two nations would seem better than devolution or federation.
In 1938 the colourful character of Bose returns to the narrative arriving to take his place as president of Congress perched high on a 51 bull chariot. By 1941 he was in Berlin flirting with Nazism and organising Indian prisoners into an adjunct of the Waffen-SS. Bose then travelled, in a German submarine, to Japan and involved himself in developing the Indian National Army. The remnants of the INA were troublesome in the post-war run up to independence causing ructions during a series of courts-martial trials. Many regarded the INA as national and nationalist heroes rather than traitors. Bose, however, had died in an air crash in 1945 leaving India still under the yoke of imperialism.
After the war Congress was, according to White-Spunner, ‘the universal voice of the Hindu majority’. But within the party there were divisions and oppositions. Gandhi did not think that religion was problematic: instead he believed that all Indians should live together, as they had proved they could under the British, in an undivided post-colonial India. Patel was keen to proceed at speed and was likely to accept partition if necessary. Nehru, a socialist, was also impatient to govern – seeing India in a secular light but containing within his faction, to his left virulently anti-British refusniks and to his right, extremely intolerant, Muslim-hating Hindus.
The Muslim League was led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. He broke from Congress in 1920 when he disputed Gandhi’s preferred method of civil disobedience. Jinnah preferred an approach of high-level negotiation with British rulers. In 1927 he had attempted to build bridges between Congress and the League but his proposals were rejected. Again in 1937 he approached Congress with power-sharing ideas, but again he was rebuffed. White-Spunner suggests that these occurrences were two of the ‘tragic missed opportunities that would ultimately lead to 1947’.
Meanwhile, on the British side, Viceroy Archibald Wavell, had been sacked and minor royal, Louis Lord Mountbatten, briefed by Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee, was preparing to take the reins. Sworn in on 24th March 1947 Mountbatten was the twentieth and last governor-general and viceroy. Mountbatten realised that India was on the edge of chaos but also that Congress, not himself, was in the driving seat so that his own role would be to facilitate speedy action.
The Indian Army were, according to White-Spunner, ‘the only effective instrument of power in the government’s hands’. But their commander-in-chief Auchinleck, devastated by the likelihood of dividing his command into two forces – one for what was to be Hindustan and the other for Pakistan – seemed no longer able to focus on what needed to be done. Plans should have been drawn up and further troops obtained to police the partition process. Instead the senior staff concentrated on the remaining Europeans and their protection. This inaction had disastrous results for Indians.
Jinnah who had demanded separation mainly as leverage to achieve a federal India now found himself accepting the imminent existence of Pakistan. Congress, whilst insisting that the new state would not be called Hindustan, agreed reluctantly to ‘a partition of India… as it was a peaceful settlement involving the least compulsion of any group or area’.
Things were moving fast now and by May there was a date for transfer of power: 14th/15th August 1947. Mountbatten would attend celebrations in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan on 14th before travelling across to Delhi for India’s festivities on 15th.
The stage was set for the gory finale. In the preface White-Spunner warns the reader that the story he tells is full of violence and horror. In the subcontinent human life became, for a period, of little value. Neighbours raped, maimed and killed each other. Some killed themselves to avoid forced conversion to another religion. Trainloads of refugees were butchered as six million Muslims attempted to move to Pakistan whilst six million non-Muslims moved in the opposite direction.
White-Spunner, an experienced and senior commander himself, mulls over the British colonisation of the Indian states and the preparations for independence. He thinks, as did many of his colleagues, that the British Army experience in Iraq after the 2003 invasion can be analysed against the framework of Indian independence. He identifies a poisonous pattern of British governments interfering in other countries for money or status and then finding it difficult to leave.
The book deals clearly with the political process but White-Spunner also interweaves eyewitness accounts given by ordinary Indians from all walks of life. The personal stories add poignancy to what is already an entirely compassionate rendition of history. He dedicates Partition to ‘all those who lost their lives in India and Pakistan in 1947’. It would be interesting if White-Spunner were to write a similar account of the British in Ireland along with the manner of their leaving.
White-Spunner, B. Partition: the story of Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan in 1947. London: Simon & Shuster. 2017.
A version of this review was first published on pages 34 and 35 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 24th February 2018. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.