Click here to skip to content

Indian Independence: World War II Source 1

Memorandum by the Lord Privy Seal, Clement Attlee, for the War Cabinet on 'The Indian political situation', February 1942



Memorandum by the Lord Privy Seal, Clement Attlee, for the War Cabinet on 'The Indian political situation', February 1942 [L/PO/6/106b]


February 2, 1942

War Cabinet

The Indian Political Situation

Memorandum by the Lord Privy Seal

I have read with interest the Memorandum by the Secretary of State for India (W.P. (42) 42) and the telegram from the Viceroy (W.P. (42) 43), but I am unable to accept the conclusion that nothing can or should be done at the present time. This seems to me to result from a dangerous ignoring of the present situation.

2. It is, I think, agreed, as pointed out in the Simon Report, that India has been profoundly affected by the changed relationship between Europeans and Asiatics which began with the defeat of Russia by Japan at the beginning of the century. The hitherto axiomatic acceptance of the innate superiority of the European over the Asiatic sustained a severe blow. The balance of prestige, always so important in the East, changed. The reverses which we and the Americans are sustaining from the Japanese at the present time will continue this process.

3. The gallant resistance of the Chinese for more than four years against the same enemy makes the same way.

4. The fact that we are now accepting Chinese aid in our war against the Axis Powers and are necessarily driven to a belated recognition of China as an equal and of Chinese as fellow fighters for civilisation against barbarism makes the Indian ask why he, too, cannot be master in his own house.

5. Similarly, the success against the Axis of a semi-oriental people, the Russians, lends weight to the hypothesis that the East is now asserting itself against the long dominance of the West.

6. If the successful outcome of the war is recognised as due to the co-operation of the big four: Britain, the USA, the USSR and China, the two Asiatic Powers will claim a powerful voice in the settlement. A Pan-Asiatic movement led by Japan has been recognised as a danger; a Pan-Asiatic bloc of our Allies is a possibility that should not be ignored. Incidentally, American sentiment has always lent strongly to the idea of Indian freedom.

7. The increasingly large contribution in blood and tears and sweat made by Indians will not be forgotten and will be fully exploited by Indians who have not themselves contributed.

8. The Secretary of State thinks that we may weather the immediate storm by doing nothing; but what of subsequent storms? Such a hand-to-mouth policy is not statesmanship.

9. After having tried to assist in dealing with the constitutional problem of India for some five or six years I have no temptation to ignore the complexities of the problem, complexities which are made harder, nor easier, by the war, more and not less urgent by the approach of the war to the confines of India.

10. The Viceroy, in paragraph 14 of his telegram, points out that "India and Burma have no natural association with the Empire, from which they are alien by race, history and religion, and for which neither of them has any natural affection, and both are in the Empire because they are conquered countries which have been brought there by force, kept there by our control, and which hitherto it has suited to remain under our protection". This is an astonishing statement to be made by a Viceroy. It sounds more like an extract from an anti-imperialist propaganda speech. If it were true it would form the greatest possible condemnation of our rule in India and would amply justify the action of every extremist in India. But it is not the whole truth. All India was not the fruits of conquest; large parts of it came under our rule to escape from tyranny and anarchy. The history of at least 150 years has forged close links between India and the United Kingdom.
It is one of the great achievements of our rule in India that, even if they do not entirely carry them out, educated Indians do accept British principles of justice and liberty. We are condemned by Indians not by the measure of Indian ethical conceptions but by our own, which we have taught them to accept.
It is precisely this acceptance by politically conscious Indians of the principles of democracy and liberty which puts us in the position of being able to appeal to them to take part with us in the common struggle; but the success of this appeal and India's response does put upon us the obligation of seeing that we, as far as we may, make them sharers in the things for which we and they are fighting.
I find it quite impossible to accept and act on the crude imperialism of the Viceroy, not only because I think it is wrong, but because I think it is fatally short-sighted and suicidal. I should certainly not be prepared to cover up this ugliness with a cloak of pious sentiment about liberty and democracy.

11. While I have little or not faith in the value of "gestures", I do consider that now is the time for an act of statesmanship. To mark time is to lose India.

12. A renewed effort must be made to get the leaders of the Indian political parties to unite. It is quite obvious from his telegram that the Viceroy is not the man to do this. Indeed, his telegram goes far to explain his past failures. His mental attitude is expressed in paragraph 8 when he talks of regaining lost ground after the war. He is obviously thinking in terms of making minor concessions while resting on the status quo.

There are two practical alternatives:

(a) To entrust some person of high standing either already in India or sent out from here with wide powers to negotiate a settlement in India; or

(b) To bring representative Indians over here to discuss with us a settlement. The first alternative seems to me preferable, because Indians sent over here would be in the position of delegates bound by their instruction and unable to abate a jot or tittle of their demands.

I consider that the best chance of getting a settlement would be by the method of private and informal meetings of a very few men.

13. It would be necessary to give to our representative very wide powers both as to the future and as to the present, though I consider that the demands for steps to be taken now are likely to be far less important than demands for the post-war period.

14. There is precedent for such action. Lord Durham saved Canada to the British Empire. We need a man to do in India what Durham did in Canada.

15. There is no virtue in delay or in mere dilatory action. In all probability the time saved will be less than the duration of the war. Delay will only make the problem harder.

16. My conclusion therefore is that a representative with power to negotiate within wide limits should be sent to India now, either as a special envoy or in replacement of the present Viceroy, and that a Cabinet Committee should be appointed to draw up terms of reference and powers.


February 2, 1942