Philip Ziegler

Not so duplicitous as painted

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The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition

Narendra Singh Sarila

Constable, pp. 432, £

Narendra Singh Sarila has a theory. Because he is a man of high intelligence and has researched diligently into the sources, his theory must be treated with respect. As one of India’s most senior ambassadors he is well qualified to assess the limitations of state papers and to distinguish between what politicians say and what they really mean. He is moderate in his judgments and, for the most part, fair in his treatment of individuals. The only pity is that he is almost entirely wrong.

His thesis, as is made clear by the title of his book, is that the British attitude towards the independence of the Indian subcontinent was largely shaped by the politico-strategic considerations of the ‘Great Game’, which had bulked so large in the minds of the imperial power over the previous century. On this analysis, the British favoured partition and worked successfully to achieve it because they did not trust a Congress government to provide a bulwark against Russian incursions into the area. Only a strong, independent Pakistan could be relied on to protect the Himalayan frontiers and the rich oil fields of the Middle East.

There is evidence to support this thesis. No one can reasonably deny that the schism between Muslim and Hindu in India, though not invented by the British, was fomented by them on the principle of divide and rule. It is also true that the senior military figures of the Raj traditionally favoured the Muslim — clean-limbed, honest fighting men — against the wily and untrustworthy Hindu. Wavell for one regularly put on record his conviction that British interests would best be protected by forging a close alliance with the Muslims and advocated withdrawing British troops into the Muslim majority areas and leaving the rest of India to stew in its own juice.

But it is a far cry from this to assuming that in 1947 such considerations bulked large in the minds of the Labour government or of Mountbatten. Mountbatten’s instructions when he went to India as the last Viceroy were categoric: ‘It is the definite objective of His Majesty’s Govern- ment to obtain a unitary government for British India and the Indian States.’ Sarila maintains that this was eyewash, that Attlee from the first was bent on creating Pakistan: ‘Working behind a thick smoke screen, he wove circles around Indian leaders and persuaded them to accept partition.’ This analysis assumes, first that Attlee was paying far more attention to the issue than in practice he had time or inclination to do, and, second, that he was pursuing a policy directly opposed to that which he professed in public. In terms of his own character or according to the demands of realpolitik, this does not seem remotely probable.

Still more is this true of Mountbatten. Sarila notes that in his reports and minutes Mountbatten ‘scrupulously avoided any reference... to British strategic considerations’. This is adduced as evidence of Mountbatten’s duplicity; Sarila does not seem to have considered the possibility that at that time such considerations hardly entered Mountbatten’s head. Over Kashmir, Mountbatten from the outset maintained that the wishes of the population should be established by a plebiscite and that the state should then accede accordingly to India or Pakistan. When the maharajah acceded to India, Attlee, according to Sarila, made it clear to Mountbatten (by then governor-general) that this was contrary to British interests. ‘Like the good soldier that he was [a description that would have made the governor-general shudder] Mountbatten immediately fell into step with HMG.’

In fact there is no reason to think that there was any difference of view over Kashmir between Mountbatten and Attlee, or that Mountbatten in any way changed his policies as a result. It is a notorious weakness of Indian historians that they assume the British were far more clever and subtle than in fact they were. On the occasions when Mountbatten sought to behave deviously he made his intentions embarrassingly obvious; over Kashmir he was commendably consistent and resolute, even if in the end he failed.

Off his home ground Narendra Singh Sarila is sometimes alarmingly slapdash. One can forgive him for repeatedly getting wrong the complexities of British aristocratic titles or for thinking that a man educated at Harrow must be a Harrowian. One can excuse Wellesback for Wittelsbach (or, for that matter, Zeigler for Ziegler). But when one is told that Sir Ramsay McDonald was succeeded as prime minister by James Baldwin one begins to sense that the author is not entirely at home in British politics. There is no evidence that a proofreader or moderately competent sub-editor has come within striking distance of this text; some sentences are so convoluted that they defy analysis.

This is a pity because, even if the reader does not accept Narendra Singh Sarila’s thesis, it still deserves attention. It is also relevant to the present day. ‘Many of the roots of Islamic terrorism sweeping the world today,’ the author believes, ‘lie buried in the partition of India.’ The Shadow of the Great Game does not fully bear out this contention but there is enough truth in it to provide an extra reason for reading this thoughtful, interesting, if essentially wrong-headed book.