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Indian Independence: World War II Source 9

On the results to the British Commonwealth of the transfer of political power in India

Simla, 13 July 1946
(Wavell Papers. Political Series June-Dec 1946, pp.17-24)

Top Secret

1. 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. This note is an attempt to assess very briefly our prospective gains and losses in each of these fields.

2. The principal advantage that Britain and the Commonwealth derive from control of India is Strategic. The greatest asset is India's manpower. The War of 1939-45 could hardly have been won without India's contribution of two million soldiers, which strengthened the British Empire at its weakest point.

India was also, during this period, a very valuable base of war. Her contribution in material was very considerable: and the potentialities will increase as India's industrial capacity expands.

The Naval bases in India and Ceylon have enabled the British Navy to dominate the whole of the Indian Ocean region, except for a short interlude in the last war; these bases are of importance for the protection of oil supplies from Persia and the Persian Gulf.

India will also be an indispensable link in the Commonwealth air communications both in peace and war.

Before the war some 60,000 British troops were stationed and trained in India and were paid for by the Government of India, which thus made a very substantial financial contribution to British defence. India also formed a valuable training ground for officers and men. In view, however, of the deficient manpower of the UK, and the increasing unwillingness of the youth of Great Britain to enlist for service abroad, the above advantages are at least partly outweighed by the relief afforded to her manpower.

3. On the Economic side there is a very valuable trade connection between India and the UK. In 1944 India was one of the countries with the largest import and export trade with Britain.

British business has also had in the past a considerable share in industry in India, especially jute and tea. There has lately been a tendency to sell out British undertakings at high prices to Indian capitalists, but the British stake in Indian industry is still large. As India's commerce and industry expand, there seems every reason that British business, both in India and in the UK should also benefit increasingly. Britain is still the natural market from which Indian importers are likely to seek their requirements; and sterling balances will greatly strengthen the connection. British technical skill is also highly valued in India. As the prosperity of India expands it will become a most important market for the import of consumer goods of every kind, in which Britain should have a great share. Although Britain is likely in time to lose her privileged position in regard to shipping on the UK - India routes, it will take India some considerable time to build up a shipping industry.

4. By giving up political power in India, Britain will lose a valuable field of employment for the professional classes in the India administrative and technical Services. The earnings of British personnel in these Services are estimated at about £2,000,000 a year, and civilian pensions paid by India in the UK amount to £3,000,000 a year. Britain is not likely however to lose the whole of these amounts, as there is likely to be a demand in India for British technical and other experts for some time to come.

5. In International Prestige, Great Britain should on the whole gain by her transfer of power, provided that this results in an orderly and friendly India.

The general conclusion is that on the whole Great Britain should not lose, but on the contrary, may gain in prestige and even in power, by handling over to Indians, provided that the following main conditions are fulfilled:

A. Power can be transferred in an orderly manner to a friendly and united India.
B. A satisfactory defensive alliance can be secured.

These two provisions are the crux of the whole matter. If India lapses into chaos, Britain will lose trade, strategic advantages, and prestige, and a danger to world peace will be created. The worst possible outcome from Britain's point of view will be if India, either through lack of responsible Government or by communist revolution, or by deliberate choice, falls under the control of Russia. Britain will then have sacrificed her own position and given nothing to India.

6. The strategic consequences of independence for India are set out in the G.H.Q. paper attached. It is clear that a defensive alliance with India is of great importance to Britain. Such an alliance cannot be forced on a free India, but is likely to be sought by India itself, if we manage well. It should secure our naval position in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf, the maintenance of the link in air communications and so far as possible the use of Indian manpower. Without such an alliance Britain stands to lose very heavily by abandoning India.

7. The greatest danger is that an independent India may come under the domination of Russia. It is very difficult to estimate how likely this is to happen. An independent Indian Government could hardly be unconscious of the length of its seaboard or of the fact that 90% of its trade is sea-borne. The defences of the country are so much stronger by land than by sea that India would naturally look first for a naval alliance, especially at a time when a steady flow of imports is so vital to the development of the country. And it must surely be many years before Russia can become a formidable naval power in the Indian Ocean. Again communications by land with Russia are so bad that Russian help would be no substitute for British or American help in developing [the] country. It seems therefore that the future Government of India will not of its own choice go for Russian protection.

8. Russia might however try to employ her usual tactics of giving support to a revolutionary party. Conditions in India are not unfavourable - a few capitalists and Princes have enormous fortunes, while labour is still exploited, has genuine grievances, and has begun to feel its power. Maladministration can easily cause local scarcity and famine. The nucleus of a communist organisation already exists and is making itself felt. It would not be difficult for Russia to gain a foothold in the country by its usual methods if the Government is weak and if the gateway of Afghanistan is not effectively barred.

9. Unfortunately there is every prospect of an Indian Government being ineffective. It is a tremendous task to take over control of a country as large and diverse as India. There is no evidence that either the political or the administrative capacity to do so exists. If the Indian Government does turn out to be weak and incompetent, the country is likely to lapse into chaos and disorder. If that condition occurs, the loss to Britain in strategic position, manpower resources, communications and trade, will be very serious even if Russia does not intervene. Indeed any advantages to Britain that can be anticipated as a result of handing over political power are all conditional on there being a stable successor Government that can rule the country.

10. To sum up it is vital to Britain that when she gives over political power in India she may be able to hand over to a stable and friendly Government and contract with it a genuine defensive alliance. Fortunately India's interests quite obviously point the same way. If this objective is achieved the demission of political power may bring advantage and not loss. In all other circumstances the debit balance will be heavy.