The Tale of a Viceroy and Two Prime Ministers Lord Wavell, Churchill and Atlee
You might find this interesting; the first part of this article is the prologue and the second part an epilogue, an end so soon! But I couldn’t have named this part anything more than an epilogue, its epilogue approaching soon, India is close to her freedom; Wavell is close to his final task, and the British Empire heading towards destruction. Wavell was made a viscount in 1943; Lord Wavell he became.
Unlike Churchill who knew only two Hindi words, Wavell knew Urdu, Pashtu and Persian.[i] His profound scholarship made him quite incomprehensible sometimes, Peter Coat his ADC narrates such a story when he was C-in-C of India. In 1942, the possibility of a Japanese invasion of India had gripped the Viceroy’s palace in Delhi, and Wavell sought for Peter Coats. “Peter have you seen my Browning?” asked Wavell. Coats looked here and there for the gun, in the drawyer, in the shelves it was nowhere, but soon discovered that it was not the gun that Wavell looked for, rather the poet Browning! [ii]
We will begin this part of the story from the unfortunate affair which greeted Lord Wavell immediately after he assumed office, in 20 October 1943- The Bengal Famine. A monstrous famine had gripped Bengal during the years of 1943, whether it was shortage of rice crops which played a principal role, scholars are slightly divided in that, Amartya Sen believes that there was no shortfall of the produce while Madhushree Mukherjee (author of Churchill’s Secret War) believes that there was indeed a shortfall caused by epidemic of brown spot disease. Whatever might be the reasons behind it, no historian or economist differs in the aftermaths of it. Headlined “50000 Indians Weekly succumb to disease and starvation in spreading catastrophe,” William Fisher writes in the 22 November 1943 edition of Life magazine. “This week in Bengal, millions were deep in the valley of the shadow. The next two months will be the most critical in the Bengal famine unquestionably one of the worst in India’s recorded history.”
Photo Tarak Das
“Calcutta, the capital of Bengal, is only a barometer of what is happening in the districts, but it is characteristics of all areas where the stricken gather. There is the same smell of the living dead and haunting lifeless look in the people’s eyes. Refugees are still pouring into the city on foot and by boat and clinging to the sides of trains. Many are walking skeletons, jutting bones sheathed in brown skin. Children have enormous heads, sunken eyes and are without buttocks; their limbs are as big as a man’s thumb.” “Grotesquely the backdrop for this epic pathos is a city functioning as usual: Firpoo’s restaurant, hotels and fashionable clubs …where Europeans and rich Indians gather are serving five course meals…The US has been using India as a military base and has a large number of troops stationed in India, where they have been substituting largely on Indian food.” “Bengal lacks satisfactory agricultural statistics.” “British run Friends ambulance group and Indian ruin Ramakrishna Mission are doing good work…. General Wavell’s visit to Calcutta with lady Wavell made his second week as Viceroy impressive (Lord Linlithgow did not visit the famine stricken area before leaving India). General Wavell’s visit implied GOI responsibility at last. He called all provincial governors to New Delhi to an emergency food meeting. He assigned Major General AVT Wakely to take charge of the movement of grain. And he despatched Major General Richardson to Calcutta to direct relief distribute food, provide shelter and medical care.” In London financial secretary of the Indian Office, George H Baxter maintained, “that Government policy was to give preference to supply arms and ammunition to the forces”. Fisher concludes by saying,” From this welter of political confusion over the famine issue and amid the tragedy of Bengal, there was
Photo Tarak Das
Wavell had to push Churchill and wake up the sleeping dragon to send more foods for India. Wavell realized that Churchill considered sending food and provisions as ‘appeasement’ to Congress. In utter disgust of the prime minister’s indifferent policies Wavell threatened to resign. And then finally things pulled up but it was already too late. It may be said here that the initial signs of the famine were already prominent during the beginning of 1943, but Viceroy Linlithgow did absolutely nothing about it, it was Wavell who immediately addressed the situation upon assuming Viceroy’s office.
During the viceroyalty of Lord Linlithgow (Wavell’s predecessor), from 1936-1943 the political situation in India had worsened and a huge curtain of mistrust appeared between the British Government and the Indian people. He had been the perfect viceroy according to Churchill who just allowed the matters to keep to themselves and not to find a solution. The Churchill and Linlithgow duo knew that there could be only one solution to all these problems, and the solution can’t be given. It was like an underweight stone precariously kept in the mouth of an active volcano which could erupt in any minute.
The Quit India movement which started in August 1942 could not have much effect in the line of principles that Gandhi expected it to be. Neither he could influence it to great extent; he was arrested and detained in Aga Khan Palace even before he could even start it. A huge agitation started around whole India, telegraph cables were cut, government buildings were burnt, railway tracks were deformed, the government responded with equal ferocity and ruthlessness, thousands of arrests were made and thousands were killed. Lord Linlithgow became infamous for leaving a country famine stricken and politically handicapped, this made Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru say-“ ‘ Today, I say, after seven years of Lord Linlithgow’s administration the country is much more divided than it was when he came here”. Lord Linlithgow however put the entire blame on Gandhi by writing a “bitter” letter to him
So the road started from here and Wavell took up the baton from a predecessor who had been successful to keep situation as such or even worsened it. To know what he did is perhaps equally important as to know what he thought of India and her people. Let me put some of his thoughts regarding the country and the people, briefly, before I discuss anything else. Letters are important revelations in that approach and I shall put up one. In a letter to Churchill, in 24th October 1944, Wavell says, “Nor do I think that in any case we can hold India down by force. Indians are a docile people, and a comparatively amount of force ruthlessly used might be sufficient; but it seems to me clear that the British people will not consent to be associated with a policy of repression, nor will world opinion approve it, nor will British soldiers wish to stay here in large numbers after the war to hold the country down.” [iv] Then he says like an observer, “India will never, within any time that we can foresee, be an efficient country, organized and governed on western lines. In her development to self-government we have got to be prepared to accept a degree of inefficiency comparable to that in China, Iraq, or Egypt.” The last statement I hope bears considerable truth to what goes on in Indian politics even now.
Then he makes it very clear, “To be effective any move we make must be such as to capture the Indian imagination. If India is not to be ruled by force, it must be ruled by the heart rather than by the head. Our move must be sincere and friendly, and our outlook towards India must change accordingly.” This is the exact thing Churchill hated, “our outlook towards India must change accordingly,” to a man whom the Congress and its members were nothing more than a bunch of rabbles how he could just change his view, that he has preserved and nurtured for years. It will not be and Churchill will not relent, not till his last breath.
And then he pushes Churchill again, almost like a desperate military commander in a Napoleonic battle setting, haunted by the sight of dreadful French column advancing towards British lines. Wavell said, “If we are to make any progress, we must take risks and be prepared for failure; but a move made generously and honestly, even if it failed, would do good. I have, as you know, no axe to grind. I did not seek this appointment or wish it.”
Thus we see the Simla Conference in 25th June, 1945 when Lord Wavell invites all the leaders of all party to come and sit together and find a
It is rare in history that a hero who led his country to victory in a horrifying war had lost trust of the people. But so it happened, as English people opted for a change, Churchill had to quit as the prime minister and the Labour Party came to the power in Britain in 26th July 1945. In came Clement Atlee.
By then in India, as the INA trials unfolded in late 1945, situation changed rapidly. The soldiers of Indian National Army (formed by Subhas Chandra Bose) who had joined hands with the Japanese to fight the British, were tried in the historic Red Fort, where once The Last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar had been tried after Sepoy Mutiny. Lord Wavell immediately felt the heat when the trial kicked off under Auchinleck, who was the then C-in-C of India. A huge outpour of common people once again agitated the whole country. What was remarkably different in this massive movement was that all sections of people took part in it. Defence of INA prisoners of became the common slogan that united everyone; Subhas Chandra Bose became the God of India. Common man, civil service officials, businessmen, even soldiers raised their voice for the nationalistic prisoners and grabbed the Imperial British Lion by the throat.
Situation worsened day in and day out, and in a few months mutiny broke out Royal Indian Navy in February 1946. This was certainly not the India, that the British had ruled for 200 years, with the native civil service officers, with native army, and now all these classes who formed the government were against it, and wanted Freedom. There was no way left, and the only which remained had to be made quicker- the exit.
The HMG had sent the Cabinet mission in March, 1945 to India, to discuss with the Indian leaders and find some sort of common ground. It must be borne in mind till that point there was no idea of forming a separate Pakistan. Given the nature of political deadlock and the atmosphere of mutual distrust that existed at that time, anyone who has a look at the plan could feel but one thing that it had to fail. The idea of creating a federation of A,B,C provinces, the complex set up, the rule of Hindu-Muslim collaboration irrespective of how many seat they get, all constituted this impractical plan. It had to fail and it did.
Calcutta Riots, 1946
Jinnah became utterly weary to see all these deadlocks and impasses and called for “Direct action day” (16th August 1946) communal riots spread across the country, to an extent which the world has never seen. The tale of riots has been repeated so many times that I have no intention to narrate those horrific scenes afresh.
Month before this happened Wavell sums up the effects of Indian Independence on Britain. “The transfer of political power in India to Indians will affect Great Britain and the British Commonwealth in three principal issues: Strategy, Economics and Prestige.”[vi] “The greatest asset is India’s
After the stalemate regarding the Cabinet mission, Prime Minister Attlee became doubtful of the diplomatic capabilities of Lord Wavell, he wrote to Wavell on 22nd July 1946,” In the difficult months ahead it seems to me your hand would be strengthened if you had with you someone well versed these things who would act as an intermediary for you with the politicians.” [vii]Wavell replied on 1st, August 1946, “you and HMG may feel that you would rather have a politician than a soldier at the head of India at present… I shall of course accept your decision.” “I must be allowed to exercise my own judgement … I do not believe it has been so far very wrong up to date.” Then during the communal riots that followed “Direct Action Day” Attlee said, “I am still hopeful that your efforts will be crowned with success,” and Wavell replied with a taunt, (in 28th August 1946) “I assume that you wish me to remain in the present position.”
Wavell was from the beginning interested to keep the “geographical unity” of India, he was not much in favour of a separate state of Pakistan. He was aware that in reality the two states of Bengal and Punjab would be the primary states whose borders will be negotiated with Muslim League and Congress. And both parties have equal claims to it, although he himself believed that these states should go to the Indian Union as they had been for ages. Now if that is done, then the geographical area of Pakistan would be reduced to great extent, making it weak. In Jinnah’s words, “the husk will remain”. Wavell felt, “No one believes that Pakistan is in the best interests of India from the practical point of view, and none knows where the partition of India, once it starts, will end short of Balkanisation.”[viii]
So he devised a plan, “Breakdown Plan” and placed it before the 7thSeptember 1946 to the HMG, although the workings for the plan had begun by his instruction much before that. The plan was simple, a sort of military retreat, the British would leave India in two stages, at the first stage from the south India, where chaos were less, and second from the rest of India. His experience told him that as long as British were in India the political leaders would fight among themselves and create stalemate, but once they would go the Indians would be able to find a solution themselves. Probably then they would realise the need to keep India united, the dream of Pakistan would be unattractive and chaos would cease to exist. Much like what Gandhi had wanted that out of chaos a new dawn will arise, from anarchy to stability. The “Breakdown Plan” also suggested that the last Briton would withdraw from India on 31st March 1948.
Attlee didn’t like the name of the plan, “Breakdown”, which suggested sort of defeat, but above all he didn’t like the smell of the plan. Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin wrote to Attlee 1st January, 1947, “I have examined this problem in relation to Egypt, Palestine the Middle East, and all the Arab States and Persia, and I cannot help feeling that the defeatist attitude adopted both by the Cabinet and by Field-Marshal Wavell is just completely letting us down.”[ix] And more, “..I would strongly recommend that he be recalled and that you find somebody with courage who, even if he were the last man left there would come out with dignity and uphold the British Empire and Common-wealth.” Attlee agreed fully with Bevin’s perspective, “I agree with you that Wavell has a defeatist mind and I am contemplating replacing him, but in fairness to him I must say that he has the support of the most experienced civil servants in India. I am not defeatist but realist.” [x]He further added his next step forward in the letter, “We are seeking to fulfil the pledges of this country with dignity and to avoid an ignominious scuttle. But a scuttle it will be if things are allowed to drift.”
“I have been sacked,” Lord Wavell said, “as if I were a crook,” [xi]this was his third dismissal and that too at the shortest notice. He was replaced by Lord Mountbatten who would shepherd the Independence and partition of India. Mountbatten had everything he wanted, he had received extraordinary powers from the HMG could act by his own discretion, had the support of the Congress, especially of Nehru who called Mountbatten couple as, “my dear friends”. Edwina Mountbatten, who was the Kohinoor of Lord Mountbatten, was pro-Congress what more would be required?
As the caption says, Lord and Lady Mountbatten, with Nehru in the middle.
As India and Indians became aware of the impending partition, rioting reached a terrible height. Lord Mountbatten became busy with his plans to fly his Buick Limousine to Karachi for the installation ceremony.[xii] Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who never had set foot on Indian soil, came from London to draw the boundary lines in less than ten weeks. He was helped by a bunch of civil servants who suffered from mosquito bites, heat and dysentery and were “itching to go” back Britain. As soon as the new maps, with new borders became ready, Lord Mountbatten snatched it away, didn’t care to show the Governor of Punjab, thumped the seal and put it into action.
Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah all asked Mountbatten to “slow down” but “Dickie” liked “pace” and “action”. The Sikhs requested for “Sikhistan”, Bengalis for a common land of “Bengal”[xiii] but Mountbatten said, “This is the time for action” and rolled on the wheel of partition, which crushed and grinded innocent millions under its Titanic weight. Gandhi called it “vivisection of India.” What followed next is history, and everything that happened achieved superlatives, the greatest exodus the world has ever seen, the brutal communal riots that followed, which left around 10 million dead as 14 million people changed borders.
Partition of India, 1947
When I was active in student politics, I was told during one of our political classes that the price of change to a political regime is sometimes bought by the price of blood. It was true for India.
Major General Simone Cooper was a 13 year old boy, when he saw, “the funeral of the late Lord Wavell whose cortege, led by a sole piper playing the Flowers of the Forest, passed through the lines of Wykehamists to the 13th century cloisters. It made a great impression on me, and the life of a gallant soldier, leader and statesman, a man whose straightness of character and sensitivity was such an example to those who served him, became an inspiration and beacon to me as I passed through my own small military career.”[xiv]
The funeral of Field Marshal Wavell on 7th July 1950 was the second funeral after Lord Horatio Nelson by the river. Dignitaries of India and Pakistan had come; Clement Attlee and Edwina Mountbatten were present, but amongst the crowd someone was still missing, Winston Churchill. A brilliant career spanning close to 50 years had come to an end. I have read of Caesar and Alexander’s victories, Napoleon and Fredrick’s genius, but none that I know, could touch human heart equally by great victories and by great poems. Lord Wavell found time and pleasure to write an anthology called, “Other Men’s Flowers” , I take the liberty to present one of his lovely sonnet for the Madonna of the cherries, which will certainly fill in the gaps about Lord Wavell, if any, in this 4000 word article :-
Dear Lady of the cherries, cool, serene,
Untroubled by the follies, strife and fears,
Clad in soft reds and blues and mantle green
Your memory has been with me all these years.
Long years of battle, bitterness and waste,
Dry years of sun and dust and eastern skies,
Hard years of ceaseless struggle, endless haste,
Fighting ‘gainst greed for power hate and lies.
For all that loveliness, that warmth, that light,
Blessed Madonna, I go back to fight.
[i] Victoria Schofield, Transcript of Winchester Speech, February 6th, 2007.
[ii]Max Hastings, book review -Soldier who lacked the killer instinct, May 21, 2006.
[iii] Arthur Herman, Gandhi and Churchill, Hutchinson, 2008.
[iv] Letter from Lord Wavell to Churchill, British Library, October 24th, 1944.
[v] Victoria Schofield, Transcript of Winchester Speech, February 6th, 2007.
[vi] Wavell Papers, Political Series June- Dec 1946, pp 17-24, British Library.
[vii] Nicklaus Thomas Symonds, Attlee: A Life in Politics, I B Tauris.
[viii] Minute addressed to Gibson, undated, Turnbill Papers, MSS. EUR/D.714/72.
[ix] Letter from Ernest Bevin to Prime Minister Attlee, Januray 1st, 1947, British Library.
[x] Reply from Prime Minister Attlee to Bevin, January 2nd, 1947, British Library.
[xi] Victoria Schofield, Transcript of Winchester Speech, February 6th, 2007.
[xii] Andrew Roberts on Mountbatten.
[xiii] Stanley A Wolpert, India and Pakistan: continued conflict or cooperation, University of California Press, 2010.
[xiv] From a letter of Major General Simone Cooper.