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  Books   06 Jan 2024  Book Review | Churchill’s policy towards India was dishonest and mendacious

Book Review | Churchill’s policy towards India was dishonest and mendacious

Published : Jan 7, 2024, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Jan 7, 2024, 12:00 am IST

I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion

Fighting Retreat: Winston Churchill and India By Walter Reid. (Image: DC)
 Fighting Retreat: Winston Churchill and India By Walter Reid. (Image: DC)

Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister during the Second World War, is considered one of the world’s greatest leaders not just because he rallied his country against Hitler but also because he was at heart a compassionate man who supported the independence of Ireland and always expressed sympathy for the downtrodden. What is not discussed or written about is the despicable side of his personality — his attitude towards India.

For some reason, he detested Indians and believed they did not deserve to be independent. In 1942 he said to Leo Amery, then secretary of state for India: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

Why Churchill was so badly disposed towards Indians and why he fought tooth and nail to prevent it from getting independence is a story that has not been told before. Historian Walter Reid has for the first time come out with an explanation of Churchill’s machinations. His book, Fighting Retreat, is a masterful exposure of Churchill’s views and actions regarding India.

Churchill, the author writes, believed that the British Raj had rescued India from barbarism and should not leave the country in the hands of the Hindus or ‘Baboos’ as he called them. To a large extent, Churchill’s views about Indians was shaped by his personal experiences in that country as a young army officer. During that time, he appears to have been influenced by the common prejudices the British held towards the natives.

For instance, he believed in the myth about martial races and was always partial towards the Muslims who, he thought, were a more manly people than the Hindus. The author quotes Rab Butler, then minister for education, who wrote that in March 1943, Churchill launched into a most terrible attack on the ‘Baboos’ (read ‘Hindus’) saying that they were “gross, dirty and corrupt, and that he was quite happy to see Pakistan hived off from the rest of India”. Butler protested, saying he believed the whole purpose of the Raj was to stand for a united India. Churchill replied, “Well if our poor troops have to be kept in a sweltering, syphilitic climate for the sake of your precious unity, I’d rather see them have a good civil war.”

Churchill was no fool and believed Britain had to exploit Hindu-Muslim differences. In a Cabinet meeting he once said “that he did not share the anxiety to encourage and promote unity between the Hindu and Moslem communities. Such a unity was, in fact, almost out of the realm of practical politics, while, if it were to be brought about, the immediate result would be that the united communities would join in showing us the door. He regarded the Hindu/Moslem feud as a bulwark of British rule in India.”

Behind the venom, however, was the realisation that India was too precious for the British Empire and must never be lost. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, has always referred to India as that “most truly bright and precious gem of the crown”. “The loss of India'', Churchill had said in 1934, “would mark and consummate the downfall of the British Empire. That great organism would pass at a stroke out of life into history. From such a catastrophe there could be no recovery.”

The book shows how Churchill tried to sabotage every attempt by British leaders to grant more powers to Indians and work towards some sort of self-rule even if it did not mean full independence. He even delayed the passing of the India Bill. Sir Samuel Hoare, who was passionate about progressing India’s bid towards independence, later wrote: “Even more serious than delay was the atmosphere created by years of parliamentary wrangle… with the inevitable result that Indians came to believe that instead of giving them the fullest possible opportunity for obtaining responsible government, we were intent on tying them up in a straitjacket.”

At the end of the day, Churchill was an imperialist. During the Second World War, when Britain was desperate for American aid, US President Roosevelt put up several demands one of which was the end of colonial rule in India. Churchill, the author writes, was speaking from the heart when he said, "I have not become the King's first minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.”

When it was clear that Britain would have to quit India, exhausted and bankrupt as it was after the war, Churchill lamented that all his life’s work had been for nothing: “The empire I believed in has gone.”

Historian Walter Reid’s book is a major addition to the narrative on the complicated processes surrounding India’s struggle for Independence. It should be read along with the author’s previous work on the subject, Keeping the Jewel in the Crown: The British Betrayal of India, published in 2019. These two books together reveal the astonishing extent of the British subterfuge in keeping India bound to colonial rule even when the time had come for Britain to depart.

As for Churchill, the author concludes: “His consistent policy towards India from 1930 onwards cannot be excused or justified. It was dishonest, mendacious and immoral and neither typical nor worthy of a man who, in no other aspect of his public life, could attract such adjectives.”

Fighting Retreat: Winston Churchill and India
By Walter Reid
Published by Penguin Viking
pp. 321; Rs 699

Tags: winston churchill, british prime minister, second world war