‘Transfer of Power’ in Perspective

Behind Britain’s Decolonisation

Amar Kant

What the British rulers thought of Indian political leadership and what  the transfer of power to the Indian leaders could mean to the Indian masses had been excellently stated by Mr  C R Attlee on page 246 of his book written in 1931 and titled ‘The Labour Party in Perspective’.

Mr  Attlee wrote: ‘India for the Indians’ is a simple slogan, but it is necessary to see what it means in terms of human life. There is no particular gain in handing over the peasants and workers of India to be exploited by their own capitalists and landlords.

“Nationalism is a creed that may be sustained with great self-sacrifice and idealism, but may shelter class domination and intolerance of minorities as well as economic exploitation.”.... “Throughout all the enquiries into the constitutional position of India, Labour members have always realised that nationalism was not enough. They have recognised frankly that it is unlikely that a poor and illiterate population will escape exploitation at the hands of the rich, the privileged and the educated class... to conclude the Labour Party, having to deal with the actual existence of the British Empire and Commonwealth, will seek to apply in that sphere, as in all others, the principles of Socialism.”

Ironically, Mr  Attlee handed over the peasants and workers of India to be exploited by their own [Indian] capitalists and landlords in 1947, when his Labour Party was in power and Mr  Attlee was the Prime Minister of Great Britain. The Labour Party headed by Mr  Attlee had come into power in 1945 after the end of the Second World War but, sadly, they did not take any step to apply the principles of Socialism in India, as claimed by Mr  Attlee in his book. That is how the fake socialists talk about but would not act. This is what Bhagat Singh had predicted and warned of in his writings.

By the end of the Second World War, Great Britain had weakened, both militarily and financially. Her man-power had also depleted. She was no longer sure of the loyalty of the Indian services and was rather feeling frightened of the possible revolution in case she continued to keep her hold over her colonial possessions including India. The question as to whether to continue to rule over India or to share power with the Indian leadership or to leave, was being discussed from time to time since 1942 within the British Cabinet and with the then Viceroys as well as with the Indian political leaders.

After the British Labour Party came to power, the overwhelming view was to handover power to the Indians. The following paragraphs give a glimpse of the minds of the decision-makers and the reason and circumstances which led them to take a decision to finally hand over power to their Indian political collaborators [The Congress and the Muslim League leadership].

‘Almost before the Labour Administration was fully formed, the Prime Minister, [Mr  C R  Attlee] had on his desk a secret memorandum from Lord J M  Keynes, [the famous economist], warning that Britain faces a financial DUNKRIK’. “The war had been fought with complete disregard for the financial consequences”. And wrote Keynes, “Britain was virtually bankrupt. We have not a hope of escaping what might be described without exaggeration, and without implying that we should not eventually recover from it, a financial ‘DUNKRIK’. The war had been fought with complete disregard for the financial consequence”; and wrote Keynes, “Britain was virtually bankrupt.’’ This said Keynes, “must either lead to an enforced and humiliating withdrawal from overseas obligations, or a reduced standard of living at home with an even greater austerity than in war times. ‘‘The conclusion’’ argued Keynes, “was inescapable. Britain would have to ask the United States for money. In the event, the Americans would drive a hard bargain.” [‘Britain’s Declining Power’ by Ronald Hayan, page 130]

‘What happened in the international sphere after the Second World War, gradually but decisively reinforced the sense that a global Empire was not only beyond Britain’s means, but was now also threatening her prestige and reputation and becoming a liability. The Cold War determined the main outlines of British policy. Because of it, Britain had to satisfy the nationalists, side with the USA, strengthen the Commonwealth and square the United Nations. Because of it, the whole thrust of decolonisation was to proceed in such a way as to encourage the emergence of pro-Western nationalist states’.

‘Strong, well – disposed interior regimes were essential geo-politically. A power vacuum must be avoided at all costs. The Chief of Staff thought, Russia would at least try to influence Independent India, and if Britain were at war with Russia, India could easily be run-over by Russia ... India was the lynchpin of Commonwealth air communications, the strategic protecting flank for Persian Gulf oil supplies, and it had important deposit of Thorium in Travancore [Thorium was needed to make atomic bombs]. The great game cast a long shadow.’ (Ibid - page 114)

‘Field Marshal Lord Wavell [the Viceroy] and the Commander-in-Chief, General Auchinleck, were advising that “there was a real threat in 1946 of large-scale anti-British disorders amounting to even a well-organised uprising aiming to expel the British by paralysing the administration. The Royal Indian Naval Ratings in February was the trigger. This could be very serious, and disaffection might spread to Indian troops in the Middle East with alarming repercussions.” (Ibid - page 106)

In a note by Field Marshall Viscount Wavell to the Prime Minister on the Services, on June 29, 1946, as stated in Volume VII, page 1087 of ‘the Transfer of Power Series for India’ [TOPI] in twelve volumes, he wrote that during the War, the cadre of the ICS had proved insufficient for task imposed on it, and many of the older men were tired and had lost heart. Even among the younger men there were many, who, finding their conditions of service distasteful and thinking that there was no future for them in India, wished to retire as soon as possible. Conditions were similar in the Indian Police and there had been no British recruitment since the War began.

Bevin [a senior Minister] argued that ‘any suggestion of abandoning our position in India, without obtaining a solution would be interpreted as evidence of decline in British power and resolution and would upset the Americans. If India broke down, Russia would step in and the seeds of world conflict could be sown’. [p. 106 of ‘Britain’s Declining Power’ by Ronald Hayam] On New Year day [January 1, 1947] Bevin wrote despondently that they seemed to be trying nothing except to scuttle out of it, instead of trying to find young men who could carry on the British Administration. He was opposed to fixing a date for withdrawal. He begged Attlee to take a strong line and not give way to this awful pessimism. (Ibid, p.116)

Attlee confidently rejected all this. In November 1946, Attlee set out with typically trenchency his reasons for rejecting this : (a) In view of our commitments all over the World, we had not the military force to hold India against wide-spread guerrilla movement or to conquer India. If we had, public opinion especially in our Party, would not stand for it. (b) It was very doubtful if our own troops would be prepared to act. (c) We would have world opinion against us and be placed in an impossible position at UNO (d) We had not now the administrative machinery, either the British or Indian to carry out such a policy.

The Chancellor of Exchequer, Hugh Dalton pressed for early withdrawal as he wrote in his diary that “I am quite clear that we could not think of India holding by force.” (Ibid pages 116, 108)

Mr Clement Attlee wrote to Bevin in a private and confidential communication that it has been a common ground with all of us who have had to study the Indian problem that there are millions of Indians who do not really wish for a change of government, but they are passive. The active elements in the population, including all the educated classes, have become indoctrinated to a greater or lesser extent with nationalism. This was largely true even at the time of the Simon Commission (1928). Since then the pace has accelerated. We have always governed Indians through the Indians’. Without the tens and thousands of lesser functionaries, we could not carry on. In a typical district of one or two million population it is quite common for there to be only one or two white officials. Under the regime of constitutional governments, which have now been in existence with some intervals for a number of years, the loyalty of Indian officials is increasingly directed towards the Indian governments and not the British Raj: With the knowledge that the termination of British rule in India not far off, how can you expect them not to look to the former. It would be quite impossible even if you could find the men for a few hundred British to administer against the active opposition of the whole of the politically minded of the population.

C R Attlee, on page 189 of his book ‘As it happened’, further writes that ‘Communism, which has little appeal to people enjoying a comparatively high standard of life, appears to many of the people of Asia as a liberating force. An attempt to maintain the old colonialism would, I am sure, have immensely aided the communist attack on Asia’

There was no mention of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-co-operation and civil disobedience or Satyagraha movements by the decision-makers in Great Britain. ‘Quit India Movement’ in 1942 had been discussed by the then Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow in his reports to Mr Amery, the Secretary of State for India and those were mostly of the acts of murders of policemen, burning of police stations and other acts of violence in various parts of the country, with the remark in a report stating that these diabolical acts are a comment on non-violence as understood by the proletariat. Ronald Hyam on page 66 of his book did write about Mahatma Gandhi and it was as a gesture of gratitude for his creed of non-violence that saved the British Empire in India from bloodshed (that is revolution). He stated; “it was his [Gandhi] preaching of non- violence more than any other single factor that stood between India and bloodshed [revolution] on a frightful scale.”

Reginald Massey, in his book ‘Shaheed Bhagat Singh and the forgotten Indian Martyrs’ has given an excellent account of the mutiny of the Royal Indian Naval Ratings in February l946. He has also given an account of the then Acting Governor of West Bengal, Justice Phani Bhushan Chakraborty’s conversation with C R  Attlee, while he was on a visit to Calcutta in 1956, with regard to the events leading to the British decision to quit India in 1947. Chakraborty recorded as follows: “I asked Lord Attlee about the extent to which the British decision was influenced by Gandhi’s activities. On hearing this question, Attlee’s lips widened slowly, putting emphasis on every single letter, “Mi–Ni–Mal”.

It is clear that Mahatma Gandhi’s role, his non-cooperation, his civil-disobedience and ‘Satyagraha’ and the whole of his creed of non-violence as well as jail-going sacrifices of Pt  Jawaharlal Nehru and other Congress Leaders including the Party’s rank.and file, had little impact on the British imperialist rulers. They were only frightened of the revolution that was dubbed ‘terrorism’ while the revolutionaries were called ‘terrorists’ both by the British rulers and the Congress leaders.

The sudden decision of transferring power to the Indian political leaders after the end of the Second World War was primarily due to Great Britain’s own compulsions. They had felt terrified because of the acts of violence on a large scale against the British and Indian officials during Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘Quit India Movement as the Indian freedom-fighters including the rank and file of the Congress didn’t bother about the creed of non-violence during the Movement. They [The British Rulers] had become so weakened economically and militarily that they could not gather enough man-power and financial resources to maintain their control over India as well as over their other colonial possessions.

So, they decided to exercise their rule by other means, instead of the direct rule. They handed over their power to the collaborationist leaders of the colonies and it was a policy followed by other European imperialist powers also such as Holland and Belgium in Indonesia in Asia and Congo in Africa respectively. France felt reluctant to do so and had to suffer humiliating defeats in Indo-China (Vietnam) in Asia and Algeria in Africa. Great Britain also gracefully allowed herself to be subordinated to American imperialism and her multilateral corporations and by accepting herself to be a junior partner so much so that a few years back, Britain was called by the media as America’s “puppy.”

America had taken over the role of a world policeman to look after the economic interests of Capitalism and Imperialism.

Moments of RIN Mutiny of 1946  – ‘‘PATEL IMPEDES EFFORTS”, said MADAN SINGH, One of the Vanguards recalls those ‘Days of Bravery’, as he was interviewed by Mr  Vishav Bharti of  ‘Hindustan Times’, on January 23, 2007.

On February 19, 1946, the sailors of Royal Indian Navy (RIN), revolted against the British Empire and hoisted the Indian national flag on the warships.  And soon, the marching troops had taken to the streets of Bombay, inviting the masses to join in the struggle. And the navy wireless system was spreading the message of rebellion blended with revolutionary songs and poetry. And the whole country was filled with the echoes of, ‘Long Live the Revolution’.

Chandigarh-based Madan Singh , one of the vanguards of the RIN Mutiny of 1946, was, at that time,a young officer in his mid-20s and the Vice-President of the Naval Strike Committee. And , as he tracked down the years, the memories of the mutiny were still fresh in his mind, yes, even after six decades. In his mid-eighties [2007] he was still brimming with details of those days. [Now in 2016, he is no more]

To kick off the conversation, he was asked about the circumstances that inspired the revolt? He plunged deep into the sea of memories and kept staring into the ground. Some minutes passed in silence. But we saw his face switching many expressions in sudden flashes. He finally broke his silence with. “I do not want to use harsh words for Commander King because we should not hate even an undeserving man. Then he got down to narrate the long and engaging tales about the warriors who “fought heroically and never begged for mercy. They faced punishments with revolutionary songs on their lips. Well, the ground was fertile for a revolution and the newly-appointed Commander King gave it an instant shove, when on a routine visit to the ‘HMS Talwar’, he passed a derogatory comment on ratings (Navy employees), calling them ‘sons of Indian bitches’. We tried to lodge a complaint against him but we were threatened. And food served to us was pathetic and that only thickened the hatred. So on February 18, we broke into the slogan” - ‘No food no work’, he said.

“Then we gave a call for a general-strike and moved the masses. Britishers perceived it as a challenge to their hegemony. So in frustration, they opened fire on the sailors, workers and common people,” he added and fell silent and suddenly broke down and finally managed, in a trembling voice and moist eyes: “I had seen with these eyes many innocent people being killed on the streets of Bombay. And I also saw, our brave women were helping the injured amidst the firing bullets. They didn’t seem to care about religion of those they were saving. I have great respect for them and even today, can’t hold tears whenever I thought of them.”

And then he went on to add how the national leadership led by Sardar Patel disowned the struggle and asked the soldiers to surrender. “They were promised that they would not be punished. But those soldiers held their heads high and surrendered with this message’’ -“Our uprising - was an important historical event in the lives of our people”. “The coming generations, learning their lessons, shall accomplish what we have not been able to achieve. Long Live the Revolution’’.

All those soldiers were not only fired from their jobs but also put behind the bars. Madan Singh was also arrested and kept in solitary confinement for three months and a half, in a 5×4 feet cell under the guard of 16 British soldiers.

The Indian Navy had named a rescue ship ‘INS Madan Singh’ –  after his name and never forgotten to honour him. But he felt sad when after six decades of Independence, he still saw the people in a miserable condition: “This is not the freedom we fought for”, He said. [Courtesy: Vishav Bharti and ‘The Hindustan Times’ [dated January 23, 2007]

Having been handed over power on a platter, the Indian bourgeoisie headed by Pt Jawaharlal Nehru felt proud of inheriting a ready-made administrative machinery, while, the Chinese in 1948, after their revolutions, had to build afresh from scrap. Pt  Nehru didn’t realise  that the administrative machinery he took over was the British colonial, oppressive, feudal and corrupt one, while the Chinese built their new revolutionary people’s friendly administration.

The two-nations theory on the basis of religion, fomented and promoted by the British rulers and, consequently, the partition of the Indian sub-continent was an imperialist conspiracy that was implemented successfully proving disastrous for the masses of both India and Pakistan. The Indian leadership did not learn any lesson from the intrigues of past 200 years of British Imperialism.

There are two ways of conquering a foreign nation. One is to gain control of its people by force of arms; the other is to gain control of its economy by financial means. When the sovereignty of a country is threatened by military force, everyone in the world will know about it. Economic invasion, on the other hand, is silent, largely invisible, un-dramatic, un-newsworthy. It is often accomplished so gradually that the ordinary people of the invaded country are not even conscious that it had taken place. They even accepted the word of the invader that he had come as a benevolent friend to do them good.

The era of colonialism was over. But was it so? The colonial powers had not given up much. Only the form, the glory, had gone, while keeping the substance and they have given up their headaches – the trouble of administration, nothing more. Neo-colonialism is a more stable system of domination. To unite a people against neo-colonialism is far more difficult than to rally them against an explicitly colonial regime. The new state, after having been granted nominal (political) independence, provided immense opportunities to its elite (the class of mostly highly educated urbanised wealthy and their hangers- on) and the large landowners, to be benefited by exploiting their own people and looting the country’s wealth. - [Felix Greene-‘the Enemy’, page. 103, 104]

The main features and requirements of the fundamental economic law of present-day capitalism are “the securing of the maximum capitalist profit through the exploitation, ruin and impoverishment of the majority of the population of the given country, through the enslavement and systematic robbery of the people of other countries, especially, backward countries, and lately, through wars and militarisation of the national economy, which are uitilised for the obtaining of the highest profits.[ J V Stalin: ‘Economic Problems of Socialism’, page 45 from ‘Imperialism and Revolution’ by Enver Hoxha, page 133]

In July 1947, the Indian Independence Bill was passed by the British Parliament. On August 15, 1947, India became free and a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations. Lord Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy of India, was given an unprecedented reception and strangely at the request of the Indian leaders, he became the first Governor-General of India. Not only he, many other British officers were retained by the Indian leadership on some of the key positions. Field Marshal Auchinleck was appointed the Supreme Commander of India and Pakistan while General Lockhart was made the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army. Air Marshal Elemhirst was appointed the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Air Force. The British Governors of Bengal, Madras and Bombay were also retained on their respective posts.

It was quite natural that these officers owed their primary loyalty to their King in England than to India. C Dasgupta, then a distinguished officer in Indian Foreign Service, on page 200 of his book, ‘War And Diplomacy in Kashmir 1947-48’ had stated that “Lord Mountbatten, the first Governor-General of Independent India’s affection for India never interfered with his pursuit of British strategic interests: He rendered a great service to Britain and, incidentally, also to Pakistan by restraining Indian military initiatives on more than one critical occasion. He made sure that India did not extend her military operations upto the Pakistan border in Poonch and Mirpur districts – while prevailing upon Pt  Nehru to take Kashmir issue to the UNO. (a body dominated by the imperialist powers). The fact that India’s British Governor-General was not a mere constitutional figurehead, had gone almost unnoticed. Mountbatten’s appointment as Chairman of Cabinet’s Defense Committee invested him with real executive authority on an area of vital importance to the Indian State. By securing this appointment, Mountbatten manoeuvered himself into a position from where he could directly influence the Government’s policy, where possible, or undermine it, where necessary.”

Was it not a blunder on the part of the Indian leadership to retain Lord Mountbatten as well as other Britishers on the country’s key administrative positions?

Mr C R Attlee, Premier of Great Britain in 1947, on Page 186 in his book, “As it Happened”, had acknowledged his gratefulness to Pt Jawaharlal Nehru for his “high statesmanship whereby in respect of India, the British Monarch was recognised as Head of the Commonwealth. He (Pt Nehru) had to face the critics in his own rank who had strong theorectical views on independence and republicanism.”

Here, in contrast, is a brief glimpse of how People’s Republic of China in 1997 took over the control of Hongkong, a colony of Great Britain for 156 years. At midnight on June 30, 1997, Hongkong returned to China. Shortly thereafter, China arrived in Hongkong waters from the West – from the same direction as the British Royal Navy had arrived 156 years ago. The whole story of discord in Sino-British relations, right upto the last moment, was there for all to see, as the British handed over the Chinese territory. The midnight ceremony presided over by Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Prince Charles ended at 12.14 a.m. It was probably the first time in the history of Britain’s decolonisation that the successor power did not say at all at this important midnight moment, any friendly or appreciative words about some aspect of the British rule. The Chinese press, plays, films, ballets, had all portrayed Great Britain as Hong Kong’s evil oppressor. The coming Chinese executive did not occupy the outgoing British governor’s house as he said the building had evil spirits. No Chinese dignitary went off to bid farewell to Prince Charles and Chris Patten, the outgoing British Governor.[‘The Times of India’ dated July 1,1997]

In more than one way, India had continued to maintain her old colonial relations with Great Britain. These included her security and intelligence services. Before 1947, India’s domestic Intelligence Bureau was controlled by MI-5, Britain’s domestic intelligence service and a department called “Indian Political Intelligence” [IPI], run by India office, Scotland Yard and Indian Government. IpI, started by a lone Indian police officer in 1909 to keep vigil on revolutionaries, grew into a massive organisation by world war second. By 1935 arrangements were made in all colonies integrating intelligence, police and security organisation to face freedom struggle. From 1919, Britain considered the ‘‘Red Menace’’ as their top challenge. After 1947, this mi-5-IB liaison continued. An unwritten agreement during the transfer of power in 1947 was the secret positioning of a security Liaison Officer [SLO] in New Delhi. British archives quoted then [1971] IB Director, SP Verma writing to the MI-5 Chief that he didn’t know ‘‘how he would manage without a British SLO’’, when told about his withdrawal. [‘The Times of India’ dated April 12,2015]

Being an important member of the British Commonwealth of Nations, Prime Minister Pt  Nehru would regularly keep himself in touch with the British Prime Minister on important developments in the international field.

A confidential note communicating details and his impressions of his visit to China in 1954 to Winston Churchill, then Prime Minister of Great Britain, as reported in the October 18, 2010 issue of ‘The Indian Express’, was something normal. It needs to be recognised that India had cast her lot with the Anglo-American powers. It was evident when India decided to be a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations soon after the British colonial power had transferred power to the Indian leadership headed by Pt Jawaharlal Nehru in August 1947.

Shaheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh’s idea of India’s Independence which he and his Party - The Hindustan Socialist Republican Association aimed at and were fighting for relentlessly: “the position of the Indian proletariat is today extremely critical, it has a double danger to face. It has to bear the onslaught of foreign capitalism on the one hand and the treacherous attack of Indian capital on the other. The latter is showing a progressive “tendency to join forces with the former...”

“The revolution means the complete overthrow of the existing social order and its replacement with the socialist order. For that purpose our immediate aim is the achievement of power. As a matter of fact, the State, the government machinery is just a weapon in the hands of the ruling class to further and safeguard its interest. We want to snatch and handle it to utilise it for the consumption of our ideal that is the social reconstruction on new that is Marxist basis for this purpose, we are fighting to handle the government machinery. All along we hope to educate the masses and to create a favorable atmosphere for our social programme. In the struggle we can best train and educate them.”

[Excerpted from a chapter of Amar Kant’s forthcoming book Shaheed-E-Azam Bhagat Singh – A True Marxist, A True Maha-Atma, A Valiant Spartacus]          

Vol. 49, No.47, May 28 - Jun 3, 2017