10.3 Partition and Conspiracy: Churchill


Where Almeida has the defence that he is an enthusiastic layman, no such excuse is available to Professor Manmath Nath Das. We can now move in and look at his book, Fateful Events of 1947: The Secret British Game of Divide and Quit (Standard Publishers, 2004).

Fateful Events is not the first book to promise more excitement on the cover than it delivers inside. In Das’ defence, it is likely that it was not he that wrote the flyleaf summary, judging by its tone, spelling and grammar. We are told: ‘Their [the British] deliberate game to balkanise India by keeping some princely states independent was too obvious’. Then: ‘… the desperate British went in for a comprehensive conspiracy to take advantage of the continuing communal civil war for achieving their sinister design of ‘Divine and Quit’ (sic). But despite such succulent promises of exposures and shocking truths, the book does not show the ‘obvious’ game at all.

To be fair, after this massively overwritten trailer, the book turns out, on the whole, to be a thorough and sober examination of the events surrounding Partition, with a great deal of detail from provincial India. Where the book falls down is when it flirts with the exciting prospect of conspiracy, this time between Churchill and Jinnah, and between the British generally and the princes of India. Das does a pretty good job of recounting the problems the British encountered in trying to whip in recalcitrant princely states, especially Hyderabad and Kashmir, which were large enough to consider some kind of autonomy after Indian independence. However, the actual text reveals not conspiracy, but rather its opposite – honest, public endeavour.

It shows the British trying to push the independent states into the two successor nations, not keeping them out. There was a well-known attempt by Sir Conrad Corfield, a senior British official, to keep the major Princes independent in some way, and a number of senior British politicians had a strong sentimental attachment to the traditions of Princely India, mindful of the consistent loyalty the Princes had shown, and reinforced by a dislike of the socialist Congress. But there was never any concerted attempt, at governmental level, to keep the 565 Princely States out of the new Dominions of Pakistan and India.

The British government could have opened diplomatic channels to the larger states, but no such overtures were made. On the contrary, Mountbatten, under direct instructions from London, refused to discuss the grant of Dominion Status to any of the Princely states. This was guided by a well-argued policy position. How could any Indian State become a Dominion when none of them were part of the British Empire? They were only ever allied powers. The relationship between the British Crown and the Princes was a network of individual treaties, standardized in their wording perhaps, but each treaty was made with an independent, autonomous ruler. Single agreements could have been drawn up with the larger, more viable states, and that indeed is what Corfield and others proposed. But Attlee’s government considered that this would be an unfriendly act towards the two new Dominions and refused to initiate any such relationships.

The ‘Union of India’ as envisaged by post-war British policy would have consisted of elements of regional autonomy – Muslim or otherwise – alongside a Congress-dominated India and some kind of absorption of the Princes. Something very like this had been proposed in the Government of India Act 1935, but it had never materialised. The post-war formula of a federated India as ‘Pakistan, Hindustan and Princestan’ was a continuation of this idea. There was never any attempt to prise the Princes out of the larger framework. Quite the opposite occurred, and the Princes were consistently told informally, and later publicly on 26 July 1947, that they must choose one state or the other.

However, repeated attempts to persuade Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir to make a decision for Pakistan or India proved unsuccessful. The Maharaja persistently evaded seeing Mountbatten when the latter came to visit him. This does not look very like a conspiracy. One imagines that an over-enthusiastic publisher set out Professor Das’s stall for him on the book’s flyleaf, guessing what the Indian public might be inveigled into buying.

Professor Das is much keener on another idea, one that does not appear on the cover. He is convinced that Winston Churchill had some kind of secret agreement with Jinnah – a joint plan to create Pakistan. Das is not alone in trawling a variation on this theme, but being a scholar, and hoping perhaps to move beyond hints and guesses, he tries to prove it with a documentary trail. Unfortunately this starts with the rather vague and non-verifiable assertion that the World War II period ‘provided an opportunity to Churchill and his compatriots, as well as to Muhammad Ali Jinnah and his cohorts, to work towards destroying the unity of India now that the end of the Empire was in sight’ (p. 41). Really? Why? Das then rather undermines his own argument by immediately accepting that by the time Churchill left office, in July 1945, India had become a ‘cauldron of popular upheaval, anarchy and civil war’, and that this left Attlee no choice but to leave ‘quickly’ (p. 41).

The desire for speed came from Mountbatten for sure but, inconveniently for the Churchill-Jinnah conspiracy idea, his main partner in this acceleration was not Jinnah but the Congress, whose leaders indicated through April 1947 that an early transfer of power would make Commonwealth membership acceptable to them. Mountbatten was keen to secure this, and the two parties pulled together to bring forward the transfer, reinforcing the pressure that the civil order question was exerting. Meanwhile Jinnah and the Muslim League repeatedly pleaded for a slowdown. They fully realised that they were being given a country that had no functioning capital or administration, whereas the Congress had New Delhi with all its buildings and staff already in place. For the League on the other hand, questions of defence and administration, currency and infrastructure all had to be addressed before Pakistan could become a viable state. There is a strong argument that the very fact that Mountbatten maintained his high-speed policy to the very end was an enormous favour to Nehru and Patel, and a boon to the Congress cause. It was Jinnah that wanted delay and the Congress that wanted speed.

This, of course, does not fit at all well with all the theories about Jinnah’s illness, which Das duly brings into the picture. He insists that the ‘omnipotent’ British Intelligence must have known of Jinnah’s ‘deadly ailment’. ‘But was it probable that the British intelligence service could not collect any hint about it? If they did, then Mountbatten would be first to know’ (p. 57). Yes, indeed, and he didn’t know. No reputable historian has ever suggested that detailed information about x-rays of Jinnah’s lungs ever went beyond his doctor’s surgery. But Das continues the thread: if Mountbatten did know, then ‘was his attempt to create Pakistan at a much earlier date the result of his will to bring that Islamic State into existence before Jinnah’s death, apprehensive of the fact that there could be no Pakistan without Jinnah!’ (p. 57).

Here the threads are finally tied  – that the British paid for the certainly of obtaining Pakistan in innocent Indian blood. This is placing layer upon layer of speculation and it seems quite out of place with the more measured tone of most of the rest of the book.

Could there have really been no Pakistan without Jinnah? Perhaps not in 1941, with so many twists and turns ahead, but what if Jinnah had died in the few weeks of Mountbatten’s viceroyalty before Partition was announced? Whether Pakistan would still have appeared is a matter for speculation, but Mountbatten himself told Lapierre and Collins, as revealed in Freedom at Midnight, that if he had known Jinnah was dying, he would probably have held back, because in his view it was chiefly Jinnah that was driving the demand; with him out of the way, some other Leaguers might have been brought to see reason. This would tend to suggest, therefore, that Mountbatten did not know of Jinnah’s advanced condition, unless, of course, we believe Mountbatten was hell-bent on Partition, come what may. Das is refreshingly free of this conviction, and is relatively mild in his treatment of Mountbatten, scarcely touching on his part in the conspiracy, and restricting himself to one passing comment – that Mountbatten was ‘the Viceroy who came to India to divide and quit’ (p 111).

Some of this covers similar ground to Prakash Almeida, as shown above, although Das disagrees over the indispensability of Jinnah. But Das’ main focus is Churchill, and he makes some shrewd and pithy observations. ‘Churchill loved his Indian empire, but not India’ (p. 58), and he follows with another neat line: ‘He loved the British rule, but not the Indian subjects’. Quite so. But then we move into more speculative regions. After the war, Churchill’s ‘one consolation’ was ‘that an independent India would also be a divided India – divided into Hindustan, Pakistan and ‘Princestan’, with the latter two still remaining strong bastions of British power’ (p. 62). Such an India was indeed the general thrust of British policy, but if we just call it ‘a federated Indian Union’ it does not sound so sinister. And as for the consolation Churchill is supposed to have drawn from it, this is just the first of many misconceptions Professor Das seems to have managed to accumulate about Churchill and British political circles in general.

Churchill would indeed have drawn some comfort from the creation of an Indian Union containing some sort of ‘Pakistan’, but then so would the entire British establishment. The formula ‘Hindustan, Pakistan and Princestan’ could cover anything envisaged by the original Cripps Mission of 1942, or the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946. The British wanted to oversee the creation of some sort of unitary Indian state, and were very keen that it should be kept within the Commonwealth. The idea that Churchill would have enjoyed seeing the creation of a divided India flies in the face all the documentary evidence we have, and runs counter to everything Churchill ever believed about India and the British Empire in general. Nor, to return to Das’ original comment above, is it at all certain, or even likely, that any ‘Pakistan’ would have been a bastion of British anything.

One of the problems of talking about Churchill and Pakistan is that Churchill was long out of office by the time Jinnah ever satisfactorily outlined what he actually meant by Pakistan. It was not until early 1946 that Jinnah, in private, began to make concrete proposals to British emissaries. It was many more months before it became clear that he could not be satisfied within some federal system of regions and provinces. So, any talk of what Churchill did and did not think about ‘Pakistan’ after the war needs to be specific to avoid being either anachronistic or wildly speculative. It is also irrelevant within the wider historical context, because Churchill was by then out of government.

This casts a rather different light on one of Das’ masterstrokes, his interpretation of Mountbatten’s meeting with Churchill on 20 May 1947, when the Viceroy paid a flying visit to London for consultations. Even as Mountbatten was explaining the newly drawn up (Menon) plan for partition, Das says that ‘the old man still hoped that India would be fragmented into several pieces’ (p. 63). But how does he know this – apart from a general extrapolation of what he has already assumed Churchill had been thinking over the previous two years? He ‘hoped’ that India would be divided? Really? Did Das not read Churchill’s passionate speech in the House of Commons, on 6 March 1946? In that speech he excoriated the Labour government for giving Mountbatten no more than fourteen months to reach a settlement, thus putting ‘an end to all prospect of Indian unity’ (Churchill’s Speeches, Volume VII, p. 7444). Because of the government’s mistakes, which included putting Nehru at the head of the Interim Government, he said that ‘the last chance’ of unity had now been ‘extinguished’. ‘India is to be subjected…to fragmentation, and to haphazard fragmentation’. That does not sound like a man revelling in India’s division.

Das seems to imagine that having to accept the Partition Plan was a blow for Churchill, not because it marked the end of a unitary India, but contrariwise, because he was disappointed that India was only being divided into two. This is a very perverse way of looking at it. If Churchill was disappointed at anything it was the necessity, as stated in his speech above, to create two countries as opposed to one. This relates to the common British assumption that an independent Pakistan was a potential liability. For confirmation of Churchill’s view of this there is Stanley Wolpert’s personal testimony, that Mountbatten told him in 1975 of how Churchill shouted at him in public on his triumphant return to London in 1948, after Partition, saying that what he had done in India was ‘like whipping your riding crop across my face!’ (Shameful Flight, p. 147). But Das will not be denied his preferred picture, of Churchill the disappointed advocate of a diced India, and he opines poetically that Churchill’s hopes ‘melted like snow’ that summer (p. 63).

As support for his idea that Churchill ‘hoped’ to see a ‘fragmented’ India, Das quotes a letter from Churchill to Attlee, dated 21 May 1947, written after Mountbatten’s presentation, agreeing to support the Partition plan as long as it included ‘effective acceptance of Dominion Status for the several parts of a divided India’ (p. 63).

There is no hint in the letter that Churchill wanted further subdivisions of India. Mountbatten, as Viceroy, had come to see Churchill because he was Leader of the Opposition, not as a personal call to give him an opportunity to hold out for further subdivisions of India. Churchill had to be consulted, not because he could have stopped any legislation relating to Indian independence, but out of propriety – that agreement between the main parties should be reached on such a major issue, and because of Parliamentary scheduling. Churchill could not have stopped the Indian Independence Bill, but he could have delayed and obstructed it, adding weeks to the schedule necessary to enact it, especially because the summer recess was approaching. Quite properly Churchill was asked, and quite properly he formally pledged his and his party’s support for the government’s position.

It is hard to see what could have caught Das’ attention, apart from the words ‘several parts’. But if so then he is barking up the wrong tree. The word ‘several’ here has a specific, and quite standard legal sense. It means ‘more than one’ but does not preclude larger numbers. This is how the word is actually used in the Indian Independence Act, where Clause 18 (3) begins: ‘The laws of British India and of the several part thereof…’. ‘Several’, in the context of Churchill’s letter, does not have the colloquial meaning of ‘lots’ or ‘many’, as in ‘I made several attempts to contact you’, which would imply more than two. If this is not Das’ reading then it is difficult to see why he should quote this letter as proof of Churchill’s desire to see India split into more than two sections, a desire he definitively did not harbour, and for which no other evidence is adduced.

Das is also convinced that there was a substantial Pakistan lobby at the highest levels of British political society. This is quite simply not true. As explained previously, there was certainly a willingness to protect Muslims from majoritarian subjection, and a general desire to reward the Muslims of India for their wartime loyalty. But Das goes much further. ‘For years,’ he says, Jinnah received ‘sympathy’ from ‘the highest quarters’ in Britain (p. 85). This we can assume includes Churchill, but we are also told that ‘Many eminent Conservatives had openly blessed Jinnah’s ideas’ (p. 85). However, Das does not name or quote any of them. He then relates Jinnah’s own story of his visit to Buckingham Palace in December 1946, when he, Liaquat Ali Khan, Nehru and Baldev Singh were present, as part of the deputation to the so-called Downing Street Conference, which was a last attempt to bring the Muslim League into the new All-India Constituent Assembly, due to meet for the first time on 9 December. Jinnah gaily related to Mountbatten, in an interview in early April 1947, that on this occasion he had discovered that not only the King, but also the Queen and the King’s mother, Queen Mary, were all pro-Pakistan. This is enough for Das, who reads Jinnah as a reliable witness here, despite assassinating his character nearly everywhere else.

Perhaps, for substantiation, Das should have read the King’s entry in his personal diary for that day, which tells a rather different story. The King wrote on 5 December that he sat at lunch between Nehru and Jinnah. Nehru was ‘very uncommunicative’ while Jinnah ‘told me a great deal’. The King recorded that he himself said ‘nothing’, meaning nothing in the way of a general address to all four delegates (quoted in George VI, His Life and Reign: J. W. Wheeler Bennett, Macmillan 1958; p. 706). And imagine if, while sitting directly next to the taciturn Nehru, and in such a small party, the King had told Jinnah that he was pro-Pakistan! Nor should he have said anything to the guests, privately or personally.

Das even acknowledges this truth when he quotes Sir Eric Miéville, one of Mountbatten’s staff, who had previously been personal Secretary to the King. When told the story of the palace lunch by Jinnah in April 1947, Miéville immediately said that this was unconstitutional behaviour on the part of the three royals concerned, which it definitely would have been. Jinnah, in reply, just laughed. Das takes Jinnah at his word and ignores the very pertinent point made by Miéville, who might be expected to know rather more about the constitutional position of British royalty than either Das or Jinnah.

Who knows? Perhaps the royals said a number of very British, non-committal things like: ‘Mr Jinnah, you know we are all hoping that the future India will be to your liking’, or ‘May God bless you in your current difficulties and bring you safely through them’, or ‘I wish you the very best of luck and hope that you can get what you want’, or ‘For the sake of India and the Empire we ardently wish to see you and your people fully satisfied and living at peace’. The likelihood that the King ever said anything like: “Y’know, I am one hundred per cent behind this whole Pakistan thing. Dam’ fine idea. You chaps deserve it”. The King was, if anything, even more of an old-fashioned imperialist than Churchill. The idea that he would agree, in a lunch party conversation, to give away a large part of his Empire is simply not credible. The vital question is why Jinnah chose to misunderstand, or dared to misrepresent, what had been said to him, especially considering that Mountbatten was in close and constant contact with the King in his role as Viceroy.

Taken overall, the Jinnah-Churchill, or Jinnah-royal conspiracy does not hold good. Das is out on a limb here, and in the very next paragraph he proves it, by making a serious mistake. He thinks it significant that at the time of the Lahore Resolution, when Jinnah first asked for a separate state, ‘Gandhi’s greatest enemy (i.e. Churchill) was the war time Prime Minister of the British Empire’ (p. 85), thus setting up the Pakistan pincer movement. No. The Lahore Resolution was debated and passed on 23-24 March 1940, and Churchill only became Prime Minister two months later, on 10 May 1940. Yet Das reads something extra into the Lahore Resolution and its synchronicity with Churchill. He points out that the Congress leadership was locked up within two years of its passage. He leaves us, however, to make the connection for ourselves. Das is right to state that most of the British Indian administration was anti-Congress at the start of the war, but he takes for granted that this hostility immediately turned, by default, into pro-Muslim League sentiment. This is not quite what happened, certainly not straight away. Any claim that British antipathy to Congress automatically implied support for India’s Muslims should be treated with maximum caution.

But Das is not in the caution business. He is happy to declare that: ‘Jinnah had sensed Churchill’s mind in respect of Pakistan ever since he launched his campaign for it’ (p. 85). This is nothing but mind-reading at extreme distance, and it is palpable nonsense. However, it is included for a reason. Das’ theory does connect up, in its own way. ‘Churchill had thought of giving Jinnah his Pakistan, and the Nizam, Hyderabad, as well as the chief princes their respective States as independent territories under British protection’ (p. 86). Had he? Again no reference, and we can remark in passing that this would be, at the very least, unlikely. Churchill would have given absolutely no thought to such matters, even as ‘worst of worst’ scenarios. Churchill wanted to win the war and he wanted to keep a united India within the empire in some way. He never, ever said anything else in public or in any official document. Das cites none. If Churchill ever thought any of these things, he kept them very much to himself, and we can be quite sure he didn’t tell Professor Das.

It was Churchill behind the August Offer of 1940 and he that determined the limits of the Cripps Offer of 1942 – both, incidentally, rejected by his ‘ally’ Jinnah. He refused throughout the war to make any constitutional commitment to any party in India, beyond the offer of Dominion Status after the end of hostilities, made implicitly in 1940 and explicitly in 1942. Had he wanted to advance an agenda of division or balkanisation he most certainly could have taken steps in that direction, but he held the line defiantly, and would not move an inch towards binding any post-war Parliament or government (which he fully expected to lead).

But Das continues: ‘Churchill thought of Indian freedom only at the price of balkanisation.’ Why say this? He wasn’t thinking of Indian freedom at all. And a balkanised India would be of no use to Britain in strategic terms, in or out of wartime. Which would you rather fight with – a big stick, or lots and lots of really small ones? More follows. ‘A small Hindustan might break away leaving the rest of the subcontinent under the British supremacy with Pakistan at its core’ (p. 86). This really is the most fabulous unsupported, unrealistic bunkum. A ‘small’ Hindustan? How was that going to happen? Via a ‘small’ Congress Party? And what guarantee was there that any Muslim entity built around any kind of Pakistan would remain under British control? Would any British statesman seriously risk such a venture, what with Muslims being so notoriously pliable, and friendly to Western influence?

Still Das ploughs on, reading the minds of Jinnah and Churchill as if they were telephoning him hourly. Jinnah, he says, had not anticipated that Churchill would lose the post-war election, but nevertheless ‘he did not reconsider the shape of his proposed Pakistan or his pronounced demands’. Hmm. So, the change of government – the loss of Churchill – ‘did not deter Jinnah in his demands’ (p. 86). This, one would think, might well persuade an intelligent observer that Jinnah was therefore either unconnected with British politics, or was unconcerned about the specifics of who was governing Britain. But Das insists that Jinnah had a British support base. ‘The King himself was in favour of Pakistan’ (p. 86). But he wasn’t, and anyway it was not till December 1946 that Jinnah actually met him and ‘discovered’ this. Or was the King writing supportive letters to Jinnah in the meanwhile?

At last we get to the payoff, and the reason Das has been so cavalier in his reading of the motivations and intentions of all the principal actors. He feels that something has been underlying all this manoeuvring, and he finally lets us in to his thinking. Much of the story will never be known, ‘because evidences in support of such suppositions as Churchill-Jinnah conspiracy have been deliberately destroyed’ (p. 87). What? Copies destroyed at both ends – by agreement? Or just coincidence? By whom? And why? No answers, just two words to persuade the reader – ‘deliberately destroyed’. No qualification at all.

Das’ suspicions were aroused by a letter he found in the Quaid-i-Azam archive. The letter is from Churchill, dated 11 December 1946, and in it he refuses a lunch invitation from Jinnah, who was then in London for the Downing Street Conference, because he feels that ‘it would perhaps be wiser for us not to be associated in public at this juncture’. Churchill regrets having to decline, though he records that he had enjoyed the ‘talk’ the two men had had ‘the other day’. Not so controversial, but what Das finds damning is that Churchill gives a cover address for any future correspondence with Jinnah, to be used for discretion, ‘without attracting attention in India’. The name of the addressee should be E. A. Gilliatt, at an address in London, SW1 (p. 86-87). Das thinks he has got Churchill bang to rights here. Secret letters! A false name! ‘The redoubtable Winston thought it very much necessary to convert himself into E. A. Gilliatt.’ Das takes this as a sign that there were ‘earlier deals’, ‘conducted in absolute secrecy’. Even better, Jinnah’s reply to this letter is ‘not to be traced’ (p. 88).

Having allowed this mountain of supposition to accumulate, Das holds hard to his conclusions unabashed. But we, however, must take on the task of knocking it all down again. For there is a formidable array of misconceptions piled up here, and the casual reader of Das’ book might never catch a hint that all is not as he describes.

First, E. A. Gilliatt was Churchill’s secretary. Not so suspicious. And not so difficult to find out either. The identity of Gilliatt, and the fact that it was her address, are to be found in Churchill’s official biography – as is the text of the suspicious letter (Churchill, Vol. VIII, Gilbert, p. 292). Second, a ‘talk’ during Jinnah’s trip to London is not very suspicious either, as Churchill was the Leader of HM Opposition. Jinnah had been to Chartwell, Churchill’s home, on the 10th. Third, the idea that Jinnah’s reply has not survived contains an important assumption, namely that there ever was a reply to go astray. Fourth, this letter does not represent an entry into secret deal-making, nor does it imply that any previous secret deals had been hatched. Set aside for one moment the conviction that Churchill is a secretive villain, and it is entirely possible to see that Churchill is here politely giving Jinnah the brush-off. A talk in private was one thing – quite proper in fact – but to be seen socialising in public was entirely another. Jinnah was clearly using Churchill, in an attempt to make it look as if Churchill was pro-Pakistan. The best help Churchill could give Jinnah at that stage was to be seen associating with him. Secret deals were no good to Jinnah, at least not with a man who, despite his status in the British political firmament, was out of government and had no power to affect events directly. Churchill, quite correctly, was distancing himself from Jinnah’s cause, not, as Das assumes, entering into a plot with him. Churchill was cautiously making provision that any future communication would not attract attention, for much the same reasons as he did not want to go out to lunch publicly. Neither man was in government, so they would be obliged to use open telegraphy; hence the precaution of taking famous names off the potentially sensitive correspondence.

The reason Jinnah’s reply has not been found is quite probably that he never wrote one. Churchill was only of any political value to the Quaid if the veteran statesman would publicly embrace the Pakistan cause. Anything less was of no use. Churchill was not a die-hard Pakistan man. The (scanty) correspondence he had with Jinnah through these months was fractious and anything but warm. He did not sympathise with Jinnah’s endless demands, or with many of his friends who seemed, to the old man, ungrateful and disloyal. In the end, for Churchill Partition was a failure, not a triumph, which it would have been had he conspired to create Pakistan with Jinnah. Came the day, Churchill eventually accepted Partition as the best solution possible, in much the same spirit that a great many of the Indian leaders viewed it. He hoped, like many of them, that it might prove either temporary, or at least amicable, though he had his fears. This was his main objection throughout, that the consequences of Partition would be bloody, that it would unleash ’ancestral hatreds’ built up over a thousand years. He was not at all pleased at having to consent to the creation of Pakistan. Really, the record cannot be made any clearer.

But still Das crashes on to the bitter end, seeing traces of plots, and assuming that signs of the destruction of evidence and the suppression of vital correspondence lie all around him. ‘The hand of Churchill, thus, as a maker of Pakistan remains invisible, but it was there anyway’ (p. 88). Invisible? Indeed.

Glory be to conspiracy theories! Once they start they simply will not be stopped. Neither the rules of logic, nor the absence of proof, nor the presence of contrary evidence can deflect the true believer. Extravagant and entertaining theories such as this will probably live on forever – under-researched, averse to caution and low on general knowledge, full of reckless leaps. If anyone only ever reads Professor Das’ book, then they will end up with an entirely unrealistic view of what actually happened to India.

Part 4

 Posted by at 1:15 pm