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Indian Independence: World War II Source 11

Reply from the Prime Minister C.R. Attlee to Ernest Bevin, 2 Jan 1947

[R/30/1/8a, ff.68-71]

P.M. Clement Attlee with Commonwealth leaders

P.M. Clement Attlee (centre) with Commonwealth leaders in London, 1951.

Private and Confidential

2nd January, 1947

My Dear Ernie,

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.

The Indian Army has so far stood up well and has not exhibited communal learnings, but I do not think that anyone doubts that in the event of communal strife breaking out on a large scale, the Army would be split. This is admitted with regret by Indian officers who themselves are on the best of terms with their fellow officers of other communities. The loyalty of Indian soldiers has been to the Crown and the British Raj. If the British Raj is not to continue, that loyalty must be transferred to an all India Government we hope, but if we fail to get that it will inevitably pass to the communities. By all accounts Auchinleck has the confidence of all.

It has been 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 practically 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. Since then the pace has accelerated.

We have always governed India through the Indians. Without the tens of 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 to the British Raj. With the knowledge that the termination of British rule in India is not far off, how can you expect them not to look to the future?

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. I presume when you suggest getting administrators from the Indian Army you mean the British units in India. How could Army officers with only a slight knowledge of the language and no knowledge of administration deal with such a matter as the collection of land revenue, the backbone of Indian Finance, if they had not even got Indian clerical assistance? If you proposed to govern by main force, you would be driven into shootings and the like for which you would find very little support in this country.

You suggest that we are knuckling under at the first blow, but this entirely ignores the history of the past twenty-five years. I must ask you if you are prepared to take the strong hand in India, to announced that we intend to stay there and to put in enough troops to enforce our rule? This is to go back on the pledges that have been given by Governments of every political colour.

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 do not understand your paragraph 4. The declaration that we are determined to hand over as a going concern is precisely what we are making clear to the Indians and we are placing responsibility on their shoulders.

The American representative in Delhi has tried his hand but without success. The Indians are very willing to get support from America, but have very little inclination to take advice from them.

If you disagree with what is proposed, you must offer a practical alternative. I fail to find one in your letter.

Yours ever,

Clement (signed)


The Right Hon. E. Bevin, M.P.