CHAPTER - 11
THE SOLDIER’S CONTRIBUTION TO INDIAN INDEPENDENCE
India was pitched into World War II on 3 September 1939 by a proclamation by the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, who consulted neither the Central Legislature nor the major political parties. Mahatma Gandhi openly expressed his sympathy for Britain, but the Congress made its support conditional to a promise that India would be granted dominion status, if not complete independence, after the war ended. Finding such an assurance not forthcoming, the Congress decided to resign from the ministries in all provinces. The Muslims were divided on the issue; while the Muslim League warned the British Government that they would support them only if they were given justice and fair play, the Muslim Premiers of Bengal, Punjab and Sind pledged the unconditional support of their provinces. Soon afterwards, Jinnah made the demand for a separate state for the Muslims – Pakistan. This was opposed not only by the Congress but by several prominent Muslims, such as Fazl-ul-Huq and Sir Sikander Hyat Khan. Unfortunately, the Viceroy did not give Jinnah’s demand serious thought, choosing to ignore the demand and leave it for some one else to deal with, after the war. In a letter to Lord Zetland, the Secretary of State for India, he wrote, ‘I am not too keen to start talking about a period after which British rule will have ceased in India. I suspect that the day is very remote and I feel the least we say about it in all probability the better’. Later, the well known historian S. Gopal commented on this passage: ‘There could be no more revealing gloss on all the statements made by British authorities over the years on their determination to leave India.’ 1
Linlithgow was not the only British statesman who regarded grant of independence to India as premature; if anything, Churchill was an even greater imperialist. After the fall of France in 1940 and of Singapore and Burma in 1941, British fortunes were at a low ebb. With the Japanese invasion of India becoming a real possibility, it became important for Britain to garner support from the Indian public. In January 1942 Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, a prominent liberal leader, telegraphed the British Prime Minister, advising him to treat India on par with other units of the Commonwealth.. General Chiang Kai-Shek, worried that China would be cut off from western aid if India fell, visited India in February to rally Indian opinion against the Japanese, at the end of which he reported to Roosevelt and Churchill that unless the Indian political problem was immediately solved, Japanese attack on India would be ‘virtually unopposed.’ A few weeks before the ‘Lend Lease’ Bill was signed, Roosevelt sent Averell Harriman to London with the message: ‘Get out of India, or you may not get what you need now’. Shortly afterwards, Roosevelt wrote to Churchill that American public opinion just could not understand why India could not be granted independence immediately. 2
Churchill decided to send Sir Stafford Cripps to India with a draft declaration of policy that was designed to convince the Indian people of Britain’s sincere resolve to grant them independence as soon as the war was over. During the war, the present set up would continue, with Britain retaining control for the direction of the war. The declaration was more than what had been offered earlier, and both the Congress and the Muslim league were inclined to accept it. However, Mahatma Gandhi opposed it, since it provided for the provinces and the rulers of princely states, as distinct from the people of these states, the authority to refuse accession, which could result in vivisection of the country. During discussions, it emerged that the proposed Executive Council that was to consist entirely of Indians, except for the Viceroy and the Commander-in-Chief, would have very little say in defence matters. As a result, the declaration was rejected by both the Congress and the Muslim League. Commenting on the episode, Penderel Moon writes:
The mission had failed, as Linlithgow, Churchill and Amery had expected and may well have hoped. Churchill indeed did not attempt to conceal his pleasure at the outcome. In a consoling telegram to Cripps he said that the effect throughout Britain and the United States had been ‘wholly beneficial’. As a public relations exercise designed to appease American and left-wing British opinion, it was certainly a success. A serious attempt to meet Indian political aspirations had been made, and this was really no less important than that it should succeed – indeed its success should be fraught with positive disadvantages. Congress leaders as members of the executive Council were likely to be more of an embarrassment than a help in the prosecution of the war, and endless wranglings between them and the League members were more probable than a gradual drawing together in the execution of a common task.3
After the failure of the Cripps Mission, the British made no serious attempt to end the deadlock until the war ended. The intervening years saw many political changes, one of the notable ones being the ‘Quit India’ resolution of 1942, after which almost all Congress leaders were imprisoned and Jinnah gradually emerged as the undisputed leader of the Muslims. There was no apparent change in the British attitude to Indian independence, Linlithgow continuing to hold the view that British rule in India would continue for a long time. ‘For many years to come’, he told L.C.M.S. Amery, the Secretary of State for India, ‘our position in India will be the dominating position’. In the same vein he told William Phillips, an emissary of President Roosevelt, ‘there could be no question of our handing over here for very many years’. 4
In October 1943 Linlithgow was replaced as Viceroy by Field Marshal Wavell, the post of Commander-in-Chief in India being taken by General Sir Claude Auchinleck, who returned to his old job from the Middle East. Unlike his predecessor, Wavell did not wish to wait for the war to end before finding a solution to the Indian problem. Even before he took up his new appointment, he submitted to London a memorandum recommending the formation of a coalition government in India drawn from all political parties. His proposal was shot down by the archtype imperialist, Prime Minister Winston Churchill. After attending a meeting in which his proposal was discussed, Wavell was convinced that the Cabinet was ‘not honest in its expressed desire to make progress in India’. Not surprisingly, Wavell waited for a year before making any fresh political move in India. During this period, his proposals for appointment of Indians in important positions or upgrading their status were vetoed by London. In September 1944 he sent to The Secretary of State a proposal for a transitional government working within the existing constitution but representative of all political parties. Wavell offered to come to London personally to explain his proposals.
After procrastinating for six months, the Government asked Wavell to come to London, only after a veiled threat to resign if there was any further delay. The next two months were spent in futile discussions with various members of the Cabinet. Churchill’s obduracy prevented any worthwhile result until the end of the war in Europe, after which the Coalition was dissolved and a caretaker Conservative Government took office. Churchill suddenly dropped his objections; he subsequently revealed that he had been assured that the move was bound to fail. After he returned to India Wavell invited Gandhi, Jinnah and 20 other political leaders for a conference at Simla, where he placed his proposals before them. Churchill had been right; the conference failed, thanks to Jinnah’s intransigence. However, Gandhi, Azad and several others were impressed by Wavell’s sincerity. They felt that he had opened new possibilities of Indo British friendship. 5
The Second World War came to an end with the capitulation of Japan after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. This coincided with the victory of the Labour party in the general elections in Britain. With Churchill’s removal from the scene, the Indian problem began to receive serious attention. Wavell’s suggestions to hold elections for the central and provincial assemblies, lift the ban on Congress organisations and release political prisoners were approved and he was asked to come to London for consultations. Sir Penderel Moon gives an interesting hypothesis as to the reasons for the change in Britain’s outlook after the war, which explains the central role of the Indian army in bringing about the end of British rule in India. He writes:
Even before the war British rule over India had become an anachronism, and two of the reasons that had then deterred the British from relaxing their grip had now, as result of the war, lost all validity. One of these was the fear that an independent Indian Government might repudiate all India’s foreign debt, most of which was held in England; but by the end of the war this had all been liquidated and Great Britain had become the debtor, owing India over 1,000 million pounds. The second and less selfish reason was that in the pre-war years there were not nearly enough trained Indian military officers to take over the Indian army and provide for India’s defence; but now there were over 15,000 trained Indian officers, and though only two or three had reached the rank of brigadier there was a sufficient number of them capable of filling the higher posts except in the technical arms, and plenty of regimental officers. 6
Towards the end of 1945 Wavell was confronted with a new problem - the trials of three officers of the Indian National Army in the Red Fort at Delhi. During the war people in India and the political parties had virtually ignored the Indian National Army, which had been raised from captured Indian prisoners of war with the help of Japanese. After the surrender fall of Rangoon, Subhas Chandra Bose fled to Bangkok – he died in an air crash shortly afterwards – leaving behind the bulk of the officers and men of the Indian National Army who became prisoners. It was decided to segregate them into three groups – white, grey and black – depending on the extent of their involvement. The majority, who fell in the first two categories, were either reinstated or discharged, but those who were accused of serious atrocities were to be tried by court martial. The initial trials were held in Simla and did not attract much notice. About 20 such men were found guilty and executed at Attock before it was decided to shift the trials to Delhi. 7
The decision to carry out the trials in the Red Fort at Delhi was unwise, as Auchinleck was to lament on several occasions. It gave the Congress a heaven-sent opportunity to arouse popular feeling against the British. The Muslim League also expressed their support for the prisoners, and the Viceroy and Commander-in-Chief were in a dilemma. The three officers were found guilty of waging war against the King, and sentenced to be cashiered and transported for life. The sentences caused great resentment and Auchinleck was forced commute the sentences of transportation. This had a serious impact, since it divided the Indian Army, where there were many who agreed with the decision while others felt that it amounted to condoning treason, considered the most heinous of military crimes. For the first time in its long history, there were fissures in the Indian Army, which were to have serious consequences in the coming months.
The year 1946 opened with serious cases of disaffection in all three armed services, which have been described in earlier chapters. In the last week of March the Cabinet Mission, comprising Sir Stafford Cripps, the President of the Board of Trade; Mr. A.V. Alexander, First Lord of the Admiralty; and Lord Pethick Lawrence, the Secretary of State, arrived in Delhi, with the task of reaching an agreement with the principal political parties on two issues: one, the method of framing a constitution for a self-governing, independent India and two, the setting up of a new Executive Council of Interim Government that would hold office while the constitution was being drafted. The Viceroy was fully involved in the deliberation of the Cabinet Mission, but the problem of the disaffection in the armed services caused him not a little anxiety. In a dispatch addressed to King George VI on 22 March 1946, he wrote:
The last three months have been anxious and depressing. They have been marked by continuous and unbridled abuse of the Government, of the British, of officials and police, in political speeches, in practically the whole of the Press, and in the Assembly; by serious rioting in Bombay; by a mutiny in the RIN, much indiscipline in the RIAF; some unrest in the Army; by an unprecedented drought and famine conditions over many parts of India; by threatened strikes on the Railways, and in the Posts and Telegraphs; by a general sense of insecurity and lawlessness. …….
The most disturbing feature of all is that unrest is beginning to appear in some units of the Indian Army; so far almost entirely in the technical arms. Auchinleck thinks that the great mass of the Indian Army is still sound, and I believe that this is so. It may not take long, however, to shake their steadiness if the Congress and Muslim League determine to use the whole power of propaganda at their command to do so. 8
On 27 March 1946 Sir J.A. Thorne, the Home Member of the Viceroy’s Council, was asked to prepare a brief appreciation of what would happen if the Cabinet Mission does not achieve a settlement. One of the important points covered was the staunchness of the Indian Services if called upon to quell civil disturbances. According to Thorne’s appreciation, which he submitted on 5 April, the loyalty of the Services could no longer be taken for granted. In the 1942 disturbances the Services were nearly 100 percent staunch, but this would not be so on a future occasion. If faced with the prospect of firing on mobs, not all units could be relied upon. As regards the behaviour that could be expected of troops generally under these circumstances, there would be a lot of disaffection, and downright mutiny, especially in the RIAF, RIN and Signals units. Thorne suggested that an appreciation on these aspects be prepared by the War Department. 9
The Commander-in-Chief directed the Director of Military Intelligence, Brigadier B.P.T. O’Brien, to assess the present state morale and degree of reliability of the three Indian fighting services, with special reference to the Indian Commissioned Officers, from the point of view of their capacity to under three conditions – in aid of civil power in widespread communal or ant-present-Government disturbances; in operations on the Frontier; and as garrisons over seas. The Director of Military Intelligence submitted the Note to the Commander-in-Chief on 25 April, who expressed his general agreement with its contents. Extracts from the Note are given below: 10
........We consider that the Indian Services could not remain in being in the face of communal trouble started by, or turned into, a Jehad; neither can we suggest any action which might increase the likelihood of them starting firm under these circumstances.
We consider that the very great bulk of Indian Armoured Corps, Gunners, Sappers and Infantry, could be relied on to act in communal trouble not amounting to a Jehad but would advise against bringing other services in the Army, the R.I.N. or the R.I.A.F. into direct contact with rioters.
….Our views on the reliability of the Indian Services in widespread Congress inspired trouble are
(a) The Indian Armoured Corps, Gunners, Sappers and Infantry can in the main be depended on provided that their I.C.Os, particularly the senior ones, remain loyal and any waverers among them are dealt with firmly and immediately…
(b) The Indian Signal Corps cannot at present be considered reliable….
(c) The Ancillary Services of the Army as a whole should not be relied on to act against rioters…
(d) The Royal Indian Navy cannot at present be regarded as reliable….
(e) The Royal Indian Air Force must be regarded as doubtful…
….the key to the reliability of the Services, particularly the Army, is the attitude of the I.C.O. …the morale of the I.C.O. can be greatly improved by the example and attitude of British officers…
Auchinleck forwarded Brigadier O’Brien’s Note to the Viceroy and the Cabinet Mission, giving copies to Army Commanders as well as the Chiefs of the Royal Indian Navy and the Royal Indian Air Force. As can be imagined, it caused considerable dismay and alarm in all quarters. Meanwhile, the Cabinet Mission requested the Viceroy for an appreciation of the situation that was likely to arise if their proposals fail and for a general policy on India in that event. In a Top Secret Memorandum dated 30 May 1946, Wavell made some interesting observations. The Congress, he felt, was determined to grasp all the power they can as quickly as possible. ‘It is as if a starving prisoner was suddenly offered unlimited quantities of food…his instinct is to seize it all at once … also to eat as much and as quickly as possible, an action which is bound to have ill effects on his health’. As for Mahatma Gandhi, he was ‘a pure political opportunist, and an extremely skilful one, whose guiding principle is to get rid of the hated British influence out of India as soon as possible’. Wavell warned that if the Congress and Muslim League failed to come to terms, serious communal riots may break out, with very little warning, especially in the Punjab and the ‘Mutiny Provinces’ of UP and Bihar. Prompt action would be required to deal with the trouble, with very little time for consultations with London. He suggested that their actions should be based on certain definite principles, the first being to give India self-government as quickly as possible without disorder and chaos breaking out. It was important that Britain should avoid a situation in which she had to withdraw from India under circumstance of ignominy after wide spread riots and attacks on Europeans, or adopt a course that could be treated as a policy of ‘scuttle’ or gave the appearance of weakness. While deciding the short term policy, the long-term strategic interests of Britain should be safeguarded. In the event of serious trouble, there was a military plan, which provided for holding on to the principal ports – Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, Karachi – and to Delhi. Subsequently, British troops would be transferred from Southern India to the North. Stressing the need to avoid at all cost being embroiled with both Hindus and Muslims, he suggested a ‘worst case’ solution – to hand over the Hindu Provinces to the Congress and withdraw to the Muslim Provinces the North-West and North-East. 11
Three days later, the Cabinet Mission and the Viceroy sent a ‘Most Immediate’ telegram to the Prime Minister, stressing the urgent need for the British Government to announce a clear policy in the event of the negotiations between the Cabinet Mission and the political parties breaking down. They expected the crisis to be reached any time between 5 and 15 June, and the necessity for urgent decision on the line of action that the Viceroy was to adopt. The first point to be decided was whether they should attempt to repress a mass movement sponsored by the Congress and maintain the existing form of government. This was possible only if the Indian Army remained loyal, which was doubtful. It would also cause much bloodshed and achieve nothing, unless it was intended to stay on in India for another 10 to 20 years. At the other extreme was the decision to withdraw from the whole of India as soon as the Congress gave a call for a mass uprising. This would have an adverse impact on British prestige throughout Commonwealth. After considering several options, the Cabinet Mission opined that if negotiations did in fact break down and they were faced with serious internal disorders, the situation would have to be met by adopting one of five courses. These were (1) complete withdrawal from India as soon as possible; (2) withdrawal by a certain date; (3) an appeal to the United Nations Organisation; (4) maintaining overall control throughout India; and (5) giving independence to Southern and Central India, and maintaining the existing position in North-West and North-East India. 12
The appreciations of the Viceroy and the Cabinet Mission reached London while the latter were still carrying out their negotiations in Delhi and Simla. They were considered by the Defence Committee of the Cabinet, which asked the Chiefs of Staff to examine the military implications of the five courses of action listed by the Cabinet Mission, keeping in mind the short-term policy and the long-term strategic interests listed by the Viceroy. The Report of the Chiefs of Staff, which was prepared without consulting General Headquarters India due to the short time available, figure in the Defence Committee Paper D.O. (46) 68 dated 12 June 1946, entitled ‘India – Military Implications of Proposed Courses of Action’. It is a remarkable document, which reveals the difference in the mind sets of ‘imperialists’ in London and the ‘liberals’ in Delhi. It also casts doubts on the intentions of the British Government, regarding granting independence to India.
Right at the beginning, the Chiefs of Staff – Alanbrooke, Cunningham and Tedder – spelt out the strategic requirements of Britain in India in any future war. It was emphasised that Britain should have recourse to India’s industrial and manpower potential, and should be able to use her territory for operational and administrative bases, and air staging posts. It was therefore important that India should be secure from external aggression and internal disorder. For defence purposes, it was essential that she should remain a single unit. These were surprising assertions, considering that even at that moment, the Cabinet Mission was in Delhi, discussing with Indian leaders the form of self governance that was to be introduced. It was also inconsistent with the Viceroy’s stated views about giving India self-government as quickly as possible.
Before proceeding to examine the military implications of the courses proposed by the Cabinet Mission, the Chiefs of Staff eliminated the first three. The first and second courses that envisaged a complete withdrawal, with or without a time limit, were ruled out since they did not safeguard Britain’s strategic interests. The third course of appealing to the United Nations had the disadvantage of freezing military action while the case was being debated, and was therefore unacceptable. That left only two courses viz. maintaining control throughout India and a withdrawal in phases, which they proceeded to examine. The most important factor in retaining hold over the whole country was the ability to maintain law and order, which depended largely on the loyalty of the Indian armed forces. The conclusions on this crucial aspect were in line with those of General Headquarters India. ‘ ….we consider that the reliability of the Indian Army as a whole, including those in garrisons outside India is open to serious doubt. This applies even to Gurkha units….The Royal Indian Navy and the Royal Indian Air Force cannot be regarded as reliable’.
An important part of the Report deals with the reinforcements required to deal with internal disorders, based on estimates given by the Commander-in-Chief, India. In case the Indian Armed Forces remained loyal, it was estimated that in addition to the existing British forces then in India, reinforcements of three brigade groups and five air transport squadrons would be required. In the event of Indian troops becoming disaffected, the existing British forces and reinforcements mentioned earlier would be employed to hold key areas. To restore the situation in case of widespread disorder, additional reinforcements `required would be between four and five British divisions, for which considerable administrative backing would also be needed. The Indian formations serving overseas would also have to be replaced by British formations. The requirement of reinforcements outside India was visualized as six brigades in Burma and Malaya; two brigades in Hong Kong and Japan; two battalions in the Dodecanese and three battalions in Iraq. The total British reinforcements thus came to five divisions for India; six brigades for Burma and Malaya and three battalions for Iraq.
The Report examined the availability of reinforcements and implications of providing them. There was at that time one British division in the Middle East; two in Greece; one in Italy and one division and seven brigades in Germany. Apart from the fact that pulling them out from these theatres would have serious security implications, it would need at least four months to move all the troops, equipment and vehicles to India, and that too at the expense of merchant shipping and vessels then engaged in carrying personnel home under demobilisation and repatriation programmes. The implications of maintaining the existing units in India up to their present strength would make it necessary to stop release in the formations concerned. In the interest of equality of treatment, it may become necessary to suspend release throughout the army and the other services. These would have a serious effect on morale as well as political repercussions. .
The last course proposed by the Cabinet Mission was granting independence to Hindustan and withdrawing to Pakistan, comprising North-Western and North-Eastern India. This had several political and military implications, the most important being the division of India, which would preclude the establishment of a central authority to deal with defence, and in turn prejudice the future security of India against external attack. The armed forces would have to be reorganized and while India would have a strong army immediately, it would take many years for Pakistan to form an effective army of her own, making her susceptible to raids from the tribes on the North West Frontier. There would be communal riots in the Punjab due to the large Hindu population in the area under British control in Pakistan. In Hindustan, the Muslims may be ill-treated. In the worst case, there may even be civil war, leading to British troops being involved in fighting with Hindustan and controlling communal strife in parts of Pakistan which have Hindu minorities. The Report concluded that withdrawal into Pakistan would not safeguard British strategic interests, could lead to civil wars and in the event that Congress opposed it, even lead to war. Hence, this option was completely unacceptable on military grounds.
The Report ended with the conclusions, which stated:
….A policy of remaining in India and firmly accepting responsibility for law and order would result, if the Indian Army remained loyal, in an acceptable military commitment and would safeguard our long term strategic interests….If however, the Indian Armed Forces did not remain loyal… we would be faced with the necessity of providing five British divisions for India, with the consequent abandonment of commitments in other areas hitherto regarded as inescapable, serious effects on our import and export programmes and world-wide repercussions on the release scheme. The only alternative to this would be ignominious withdrawal from the hole of India. 13
The Report by the Chiefs of Staff is an important document that brings to light several important points connected with India’s independence. It clearly brings out the fact that the British Government was seriously considering the option of creating Pakistan in June 1946, not because of the lack of agreement with the political parties – this was still being negotiated by the Cabinet Mission – but due to the threat of disaffection in the Indian armed forces. This option was ruled out only because it did not serve British strategic interests. The disparity in the outlook of British officials in London and Delhi is also clearly visible; for the former, Britain’s long term strategic interest dictated continuation of British rule, while those closer to the scene of action, such as Wavell and Auchinleck, realized that it was time to go. Had the Indian armed forces remained loyal or there had been enough British divisions to keep them in check, the British would never had left India.
Early in September 1946 the Viceroy forwarded to London a plan for phased withdrawal from India, which was a revised version of the Breakdown Plan of the Cabinet Mission. This had and rejected by the British Government as it did not help British strategic interests. Wavell could see that the situation was steadily deteriorating, and unless a clear policy was announced, India could slide into anarchy. After consulting the Governors and the Commander-in-Chief, he estimated that the British could hold on for not more than 18 months. The Secretary of State, Lord Pethick-Lawrence, did not agree with Wavell’s appreciation. He felt that it was still possible to hold on to India, and proposed further European recruitment to augment British troops in India. By this time, serious communal riots had broken out in East Bengal and in the Punjab, resulting in sizeable casualties among Hindus as well as Muslims. A new Interim Government headed by Jawaharlal Nehru had been installed at Delhi, with Sardar Baldev Singh as the defence member. In a letter dated 12 September to Auchineleck, who had recently been appointed a Field Marshal, Nehru discussed the withdrawal of British forces from India; pulling out Indian troops from the Netherlands East Indies and Iraq; and the future of the Indian Army. In a broadcast to the Armed Forces on 9 October Baldev Singh announced the setting up of a committee to accelerate the pace of nationalization. In view of these developments, Pethick-Lawrence’s proposal to raise additional European troops for India appeared surreal.
Refusing to take no for an answer, Wavell sent a strongly worded note to the Secretary of State on 23 October, in which he reiterated his demand for a firm declaration of the policy of the British Government. His plan, he wrote, was based on two main assumptions: (1) the object was to transfer power to India without undue delay and with the minimum of disorder and bloodshed; to secure the interests of the Minorities and to provide for the safety of the 90,000 Europeans in India; (2) the power of the British Government in India was weakening daily, and could not be sustained beyond 18 months. Using exceptionally strong language, Wavell made it clear that as the man on the spot, it was his responsibility to advise the Government of the action to be taken to achieve these objects. ‘If the H.M.G. consider that my advice shows lack of balance and judgment, or that I have lost my nerve, it is of course their duty to inform me of this and to replace me’, he wrote. ‘But they take a very grave responsibility upon themselves if they simply neglect my advice’. Wavell ended by emphasizing that they ‘must have an emergency plan in readiness; and if it is agreed that we cannot hope to control events for longer than 18 months from now, we shall have to make up our minds and make a definite pronouncement at least in the first half of 1947. While I agree that we should not leave India till we have exhausted every possible means of securing a constitutional settlement, we can make no contribution to a settlement once we have lost all power of control’. 14
In December 1946 the British Government invited Nehru, Baldev Singh, Jinnah and Liaqat Ali Khan to London for discussions, along with the Viceroy. During his visit, Wavell again pressed for adoption of the Breakdown Plan, urging the Government to announce that they would withdraw all control from India by March 1948. Some Cabinet Ministers such as Bevin and Alexander, who were imperialists at heart, balked at the prospect of a stark announcement of the ending of the British Raj. Prime Minister Attlee also felt strongly that the British should not relinquish control until at least a constitutional settlement had been reached. Since the chances of reaching an amicable settlement appeared dismal, Attlee’s views seemed illusory. After a series of meetings the India and Burma Committee decided to recommend that 31 March 1948 should be announced as the date by which the British would hand over power in India. Wavell pressed for a firm announcement in this regard by the British Government. Attlee replied to Wavell on 21 December 1946, giving the impression that his proposal had been by and large accepted. Three days earlier, Attlee had offered Mountbatten the post of Viceroy in replacement of Wavell. 15
Moutnbatten reached India on 22 March 1947. Before he left London, he had been told that India would be granted independence by June 1948, i.e. after 15 months; this was exactly what Wavell had been demanding for the last two years. On 23 May 1947 the British Cabinet approved, in principle, a draft Partition Plan, which was to be implemented in case of a failure to secure a final compromise. After consulting Indian political leaders, Mountbatten announced on 3 June 1947 that India would become independent on 15 August 1947. A few days later Mountbatten received the draft Indian Independence Bill, and was surprised to find that the British Government intended to retain the Andaman Islands, which were not be regarded as a part of British India. It transpired that Britain was planning to make the Andamans a British Settlement. The recommendation to retain the islands had come from the British Chiefs of Staff, due to their strategic location in the Bay of Bengal, covering the sea routes to the East. Mountbatten strongly opposed the plan, informing London that any attempt ‘to claim the Andaman Islands as colonies, to be treated in the same way as Aden, will cause an absolute flare-up throughout the length and breadth of India.’ In view of Mountbatten’s strong opposition, the British Government decided to drop the proposal. 16
The crucial role of the Indian Armed Forces, especially the Indian Army, in the British decision to quit India has been commented on by several writers and historians. Captain Shahid Hamid, who was the Private Secretary to General Auchinleck, made the following entry in his diary on 30 March 1946: ‘Today the Hindustan Times commented editorially on the Auk’s appeal to the Indian Army. “There is no doubt whatever that if the transfer of power is not quickly brought about, the foreign rulers of India cannot count upon the loyalty of the Indian Army…”17
The well known historian, Dr. Tara Chand, has written: ‘The most controversial measure of the Viceroy was the decision to advance the date of transfer of power from June 1948 to August 15, 1947. On this issue Mountbatten recorded his reasons in his conclusions appended to the Report on the Last Viceroyalty submitted to His Majesty’s Government in September 1948. His defence for expediting the transference of power to the Indians was on these lines… “Secondly, the ultimate sanction of law and order, namely, the Army, presented difficulties for use as an instrument of government for maintenance of peace…’18
Mangat Rai, a colleague of Penderel Moon in the Indian Civil Service before Independence, wrote an appreciation of the latter’s book The British Conquest and Dominion of India. Commenting on the role of the Indian Army he writes:
How far were the competence and size of the Indian army factors in persuading the British to contemplate withdrawal from India, and in the final decision? In general Moon has consistent praise both for the sepoy regiments of the Company and for the Indian army’s contribution in two world wars. He notes that at the end of the Second World War the army comprised two and a half million, in place of the 190,000 at the start. The army’s record was brilliant marred only by the defection of comparatively small numbers to the Japanese –promoted INA. With an army of Indians of this calibre and size, would it have been practical to continue to govern India under British control? 19
Charles Raikes, a British Civil servant of the Mutiny days, had bluntly asserted that the British ‘should legislate and govern India as the superior race’, adding with some prescience, ‘whenever that superiority ceases, our right to remain in India terminates also’. This was in line with the view held by most Britons, who felt that British rule was a blessing for India. By the time World War II ended, the USA had assumed the mantle of the leader of the developed World, and her democratic principles of equality began to be embraced by other nations in the West. From the mutiny onwards, Indians had steadily acquired knowledge and skills that they had previously lacked, closing the gap between them and the British. According to Sir Penderel Moon, ‘One noteworthy, but not often mentioned, example of change was the ending of the superiority of British to Indian troops, which had been a factor in the Company’s original conquest of India. By 1943 Indian Divisions, in the opinion of Field Marshal Sir William Slim, were among the best in the world and divisional commanders on the Burma front called for Indian rather than British battalions. Thus Charles Raikes, if he had still been alive, would probably have felt obliged to admit that on his own premises the time had come for British withdrawal’. 20
It is interesting to reflect on the course of history if the Indian soldier had not been affected by nationalistic feelings and continued to serve loyally as he had during and before World War II. Though the freedom movement had developed considerable momentum by the time the war ended, the assumption that it would have achieved independence on its own would be erroneous. With the vast resources at their disposal, it would not have been difficult for the British authorities in India to muzzle the movement, as they had done in 1930 and 1942. The only reason for them not being able to resort to such measures after 1945 was the uncertain dependability of the Army. Had the Indian soldier remained staunch, or adequate British forces been available, it is most unlikely that freedom would have come in 1947. If nothing else, it would have been delayed by 10-15 years. If this had happened, perhaps India would not have been partitioned, the Kashmir problem would not have existed, and the Indo-Pak wars of 1948, 1965 and 1972 would not have been fought. Who knows, with its large size, population and a long spell of peace unfettered by the threat of war, India would have been a World power, equalling or even surpassing China by the turn of the century.
This chapter is largely based on Sir Penderel Moon’s The British Conquest and Dominion of India, (London, Duckworth, 1989); and Nicholas Mansergh and Penderel Moon’s The Transfer of Power 1942-47 (London, 1982). Specific references are given below:-
1. Sir Penderel Moon, The British Conquest and Dominion of India, (London, Duckworth, 1989). P. 1092, quoting S. Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru (1975-79), vol. 1, p. 263
2. Lt. Gen S.L. Menezes, Fidelity & Honour, (New Delhi, 1993), p. 345,
3. Moon, p. 1109
4. Moon, p. 1122
5. Moon, p. 1136-8
6. Moon, p. 1140
7. Maj Gen D.K. Palit, Major General A.A Rudra – His Service in Three Armies and Two World wars, (New Delhi, 1997), p. 277
8. Nicholas Mansergh and Penderel Moon, (ed.) The Transfer of Power 1942-47(12 vols, London) vi, pp. 1233-37.
9. Mansergh and Moon, The Transfer of Power, vii, p.150.
10. Mansergh and Moon, The Transfer of Power, vii, pp. 406-7.
11 Mansergh and Moon, The Transfer of Power, vii, pp. 731-7.
12 Mansergh and Moon, The Transfer of Power, vii, pp. 787-95.
13. Mansergh and Moon , The Transfer of Power, vii, pp. 889-900.
14. Mansergh and Moon, The Transfer of Power, viii, pp.794-9
15. Moon, pp. 1164-5
16. Mansergh and Moon, The Transfer of Power, xi, 306
17. Major General Shahid Hamid, Disastrous Twilight, (London, 1986), p.47
18. Dr Tara Chand, History of the Freedom Movement in India,
19. Moon, pp. 1195
20. Moon, pp. 1187