Churchill and India: Manipulation or betrayal?
History is often written by the victor, and there can be no finer examples than Winston Churchill's books on the Second World War and British imperial stories, in which he played no small role. But truth cannot be seen from only one perspective. This is why Kishan Rana's book: "Churchill and India: Manipulation or Betrayal" (Routledge, 2022) is such an important contribution to an emerging global history different from just Euro-centric narratives. Superbly researched, Kishan connected the dots to find that Churchill's record on India reflected part of his own limited experience with Indians, formed through his leadership of Indian Muslim troops as part of his early career, and his grand, but often self-serving, view of world affairs from imperial London.
Churchill was right on the Nazi German threat but flawed on resisting India's road to independence. The Last Lion could not stop the slow but unstoppable deterioration of the British Empire, not with the emergence of the United States, which wanted no rival. In the post-Second World War period, America actively ensured that European states shed their colonies so that none would be strong enough to challenge her dominant status. American hegemony remains a classic "divide and rule" strategy, learnt well from the British.
Kishan's book chronicles the Indian context and perspectives, which were swept aside because Britain was pre-occupied with the European war. Distant colonies cannot be defended from imperial over-reach, so India was lucky that Japan was too pre-occupied by China and stretched managing the newly conquered South-east Asia to launch any full-scale invasion of South Asia. Subra Chandra Bose's Indian Independence Army, formed from Indian soldiers captured by the Japanese in the Malayan battle (one of the biggest disasters of British military history), marked a significant turning point in the Indian road to independence.
Managing huge empires has monumental consequences, much of which has been swept under the carpet until Indian historians began digging deeper into the fiascos. The 1943 famine in Bengal, in which more than 2 million Indians starved to death, happened under Churchill's watch as prime minister. The India-Pakistan split (which Churchill encouraged) resulted in the displacement of 10-20 million people and loss of life estimated between several hundreds of thousands and 2 million. The historical facts that India's GDP remained in absolute terms roughly the same at USD 1 trillion, and declined from roughly one quarter of global GDP when Britain took over to only 4 percent of world GDP at the time of independence, speak volumes about Britain's inglorious management of her glorious empire. Historian Utsha Patnaik calculated that Britain gained USD 45 trillion in today's money from her stewardship or occupation of India.
Kishan has done a great service to history by meticulously judging Churchill's record. For Britain, he was a faithful, loyal, even great servant. For India, under the yoke of empire, it is not so glorious. The colonised must suffer because they must, even if the coloniser betrayed their interests. This explains why India today is "on her own side", rather than the side of the North Atlantic allies, in the Ukraine War. Those who preached human rights, freedom and rule-based international order were all brutal former colonisers. War and invasion rightly should be condemned. But history remembers who did the invasions first. No power comes to the present with clean hands. Lord Acton was right – there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.
This is a book to be savoured, and like a true detective story, it tells the tale of great men with grand vision and their seemingly small faults.
Andrew Sheng is a distinguished fellow at Fung Global Institute. He writes on Asian affairs.