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World War II and the end of Colonialism Source 8

Letter from Lord Wavell to Winston Churchill, Prime Minister, 24 Oct 1944.


24th October 1944

My dear Prime Minister

I have now completed one year in the high and responsible office for which you did me the great honour of recommending me to his Majesty and I feel I should write and give you some account of my stewardship and of the views I have formed on this present and future of India.

I propose to write entirely freely and frankly, as I know you would wish. I have served you now for over five years and we should know one another reasonably well. I know you have often found me a difficult and troublesome subordinate, I have not always found you an easy master to serve. But I think you realise that I have always served loyally - and I may say with unqualified admiration for your courage and your strategy - and that I have always told you the truth as I saw it without fear of consequences. I propose to do so now.

I will begin by saying that my primary reason for writing is that I feel very strongly that the future of India is the problem on which the British Commonwealth and the British reputation will stand or fall in the post-war period. To my mind, our strategic security, our name in the world for statesmanship and fair dealing, and much of our economic well-being will depend on the settlement we make in India. Our prestige and prospects in Burma, Malaya, China and the Far East generally are entirely subject to what happens in India. If we can secure India as a friendly partner in the British Commonwealth our predominant influence in these countries will, I think, be assured; with a lost and hostile India, we are likely to be reduced in the east to the position of commercial bag-man.

And yet I am bound to say that after a year's experience in my present office I feel that the vital problems of India are being treated by H.M.G. with neglect, even sometimes with hostility and contempt. I entirely admit that difficulty of the problems, I know the vital preoccupations of the European war. I agree in the main with what I think is your conviction, that in a mistaken view of Indian conditions and in an entirely misplaced sentimental liberalism we took the wrong turn with India 25 or 30 years ago; but we cannot put back the clock and must deal with existing conditions and pledges; and I am clear that our present attitude is aggravating the mischief.

May I give you a few instances of what seem to me a neglectful or unfriendly attitude to India and her problems.

I read the proceedings of the meetings of the Dominion Premiers. India, one of the most vital problems of the Commonwealth, was hardly mentioned, either from the strategic or political point of view.

At the last big debate on India in the House of Commons, I am told that there were hardly ever more than 40 members present.

In spite of the lesson of the Bengal famine, I have had during the last nine months literally to fight with all the words I could command, sometimes almost intemperate, to secure food imports; without which we should undoubtedly be in the throes of another famine, and probably of uncontrolled inflation, since without these imports I could hardly have held food prices from soaring as they did last year.

The recent increases of soldiers pay, which have added some £50,000,000 to our inflationary position, already precarious, and a considerable part of this sum to the Indian taxpayer's burden, was introduced without any consultation of India at all, or even warning; though we could have suggested means of easing the burden both for the British and Indian taxpayer; and Indian Members of Council would have felt no resentment if they had been consulted in advance.

The obloquy now being heaped on India for the lack of amenities for soldiers is mainly due to disregard of repeated requests during the past three years or more for doctors, nurses, medical comforts, and goods of all kinds.

Having got that off my chest, I will try to give you a picture of the Indian problem as I see it.

I will take as a text the directive you gave me on October 8th last year, before I left for India. This directive required me, in brief:
(i) to see the defence of India against the Japanese;
(ii) to rally all classes to the support of the war effort;
(iii) to establish and maintain the best possible standard of living for the largest number of people;
(iv) to appease commonal differences; and
(v) to make proposals for political advance as occasion warranted, subject to the demands of (i) and (ii) above.

The background of conditions in India is very well known to you; but I think it is worth while to recapitulate it briefly to show how it has affected the war organisation. By 1939 the Provinces of British India enjoyed a great measure of autonomy; the power of the Central Government had been much weakened both in law and in practice; and control by H.M.G. had almost ceased in the Provincial sphere and was less effective than formerly in the central sphere. Since Federation had not been achieved, the Indian States were linked with British India only through the person of the Viceroy as Crown Representative.

The fourth and fifth tasks you have given me together constitute the political problem. I cannot claim to have made any progress with them, but they are of vital importance. The following seem to me to be the essential factors of the problem: (i) When we started, 20 or 30 years ago, on the political reform of India, we laid down a course from which we cannot now withdraw. It may have been better to have prescribed economic development first; but I am afraid it is too late to reverse the policy now. And the general policy, of giving India self-government at an early date, was confirmed not long ago in the Cripps offer. (ii) 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. There must be acquiescence in the British connection if we are to continue to keep India within the Commonwealth. (iii) 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. We must do our best to maintain the standards of efficiency we have tried to inculcate, but we cannot continue to resist reform because it will make the administration less efficient. (iv) The present Government of India cannot continue indefinitely, or even for long. Though ultimate responsibility still rests with H.M.G., H.M.G. has no longer the power to take effective action. We shall drift increasingly into situations - financial, economic, or political - for which India herself will be responsible but for which H.M.G. will get the discredit. We are already in the position that Indian Members of Council have a controlling voice, and are increasingly aware of their power. The British Civil Services, on which the good government of the country has until now depended, might almost be described as moribund, the senior members are tired and disheartened, and it will be extremely difficult after the war to secure good recruits. (v) If our aim is to retain India as a willing member of the British Commonwealth, we must make some imaginative and constructive move without delay. We have every reason to mistrust and dislike Gandhi and Jinnah, and their followers. But the Congress and the League are the dominant parties in Hindu and Muslim India, and will remain so. The control the Press, the electoral machine, the money bags; and have their prestige of established parties. We cannot by-pass them, and shall be compelled in the end to negotiate with them along with representatives of the less important parties. Even if Gandhi and Jinnah disappeared tomorrow (and I do not think that Gandhi today would be described by Insurance companies as a good life) I can see nor prospect of our having more reasonable people to deal with. We have had to negotiate with similar rebels before, e.g. De Valera and Zaghlul. (vi) When we should make any fresh move is a difficult problem. I am quite clear that it should be made some considerable time before the end of the Japanese war. When the Japanese war ends, we shall have to release our political prisoners. They will find India unsettled and discontented. Food will still be short; demobilisation and the closing down of the war factories, and overgrown clerical establishments, will throw many people out of employment. They will find a fertile field for agitation, unless we have previously diverted their energies into some more profitable channel, i.e. into dealing with the administrative problems of India and into trying to solve the constitutional problem. We cannot move without taking serious risks; but the most serious risk of all is that India after the war will become a running sore which will sap the strength of the British Empire. I think it is still possible to keep India within the Commonwealth, though I do not think it will be easy to do so. If we fail to make any effort now we may hold India down uneasily for some years, but in the end she will pass into chaos and probably into other hands. (vii) 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. I am prepared to put up proposals for a move, which will involve risks, but which I think constitute the best chance of making progress. What I have in mind is a provisional political Government, of the type suggested in the Cripps declaration, within the present constitution, coupled with an earnest but not necessarily simultaneous attempt to devise means to reach a constitutional settlement. Amery knows my views, and I drafted a paper for the Cabinet, which I have asked him to withhold for the present. But the real essential is a change of spirit, a change which will convince the average educated Indian that the British Government is sincere in its intentions and is friendly towards India. It will not be easy to do, there is a very deep-rooted feeling of suspicion to overcome, but certain steps could be taken which would help to reduce the mistrust and enmity now generally felt. In fact, if we want India as a Dominion after the war, we must begin treating her much more like a Dominion now. If certain measures, which I would suggest, were taken by H.M.G., and I were permitted within a policy approved by H.M.G. to try and convince India of British sympathy, I believe it would be possible to effect a considerable improvement. I should like to add that the view that something must be done before long is not merely my opinion. It is the considered opinion of the Commander-in-Chief, of all eleven Governors of the provinces of British India, and of all the senior members of the Services with whom I have discussed the question. I do not think H.M.G. can afford to ignore the entire weight of British official opinion out here. If the Cabinet is opposed in principle to any move during the war, I think a clear statement to that effect should be made so that we may all know where we stand. But if it is a matter of timing and of method my advice is entitled to due weight. I think the failure of the Gandhi-Jinnah talks has created a favourable moment for a move by H.M.G. It is easy to condemn any plan for betterment of the Indian situation on the ground of risk or probable failure. 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; but since I have been placed in a position of such immense responsibility for the future of the British Commonwealth which we serve. I am bound to place my views in front of you; "without partiality, favour or affection".

Yours sincerely

(Sd. - WAVELL)


The Right Honourable Winston Churchill, CH, MP.