Books | Rejoinder
Churchill on Trial
Seeing history through the prism of the present
Kishan S Rana
Kishan S Rana
31 Mar, 2023
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
MANI SHANKAR AIYAR is an old friend from St Stephen’s College days of the 1950s. Sadly, his book review (Churchill’s Endgame in India published in the Open, March 27, 2023) misses my intent. He applauds the data collection, but thinks my style is not suited to a work of history. We write in our own ways. The objective: to tell a cogent story. Mine is not a desiccated, detached work of history.
Aiyar writes: my motive is “to right a great wrong to his people and his nation… does not academia demand some distance from the subject?” I don’t claim ‘academic’ status! The book studies Churchill’s complex, long connection, starting with three years in India (1896-99); none of the 2.000- plus books on his life address that full panorama. Worse, major biographies often minimise, trivialise, or overlook key elements. Example: Gandhiji’s only letter to Churchill, written on 17 July 1944, after his prison release, a cri de Coeur, asks “to trust and use me” for the sake of all the peoples. Churchill’s response: he never received this letter, sent via the Viceroy’s Office! (refer to Churchill and India page 131-2)
Aiyar quotes EH Carr that an author should place himself in the shoes of his subject. Isn’t that the problem with many books on this great life—their ‘objectivity’ and ‘understanding’ are so profound that they do not fully address damning evidence of Churchill’s malign machinations against India. Consider: Churchill’s blatant falsehoods in 1932 to prove that the Indian National Movement was ‘Hindu’, ‘casteist’; he publicly claimed they would import German mercenaries to help oppress Indian Muslims! In mid-1942 he told Roosevelt and others that Gandhi would allow a Japanese land-army to traverse India, cross into Central Asia, marching to East Europe to reinforce Nazi forces fighting the Russians. Was such nonsense worthy of a statesman?
On India, Churchill shifted, from limited empathy (Jallianwala Bagh, Parliament speech, July 8, 1920), to escalating, unreasoned hostility, plus abuse. The inflection point: probably the 1921-22 Prince of Wales visit, when Gandhiji launched the first Satyagraha movement.
Was Winston Churchill a racist? Mani Shankar Aiyar dances around this charge, concluding: his targets ‘were foreigners, not foreign races’. That won’t wash
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Was Churchill a racist? Aiyar dances around this charge, concluding: his targets “were foreigners, not foreign races”. That won’t wash. Churchill initially spoke of “the English-speaking races”; the 1930s onwards, this was amended to “English-speaking people”. For him, those meriting top status were unchanged. During his White House sojourn over the 1942 New Year, Churchill spoke to Franklin D Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt about how “the English-speaking people would take control after the War”; Eleanor responded: it should be all the people that believed in democracy.
Churchill’s biggest crime: by early 1942, Partition was decided. But nothing was done to prepare for that cataclysmic event. Three years were wasted. The evidence: Roosevelt wrote to Churchill, April 11, 1942: “…why, if Britain is willing to permit component parts of India to secede from the British Empire after the war, it is not willing to permit them to enjoy what is tantamount to self-government during the war…?”. In 1943 Churchill told an FDR aide, “I prophesy a bloodbath”. He wasted three critical years, 1942-45. Further, the creation of a Muslim state was Britain’s strategic plan from 1941- 42, serving its long-term interests, according to Narendra Singh Sarila in The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition.
The Great Famine of 1942-44, is another story, deserving attention. Calling it “Bengal Famine” ignores the huge loss of life in Assam, Bihar and Orissa. The same Churchill we applaud for his sterling role in World War II, is also the man with whom the buck stops for that tragedy, its impact multiplied through British misgovernance. Should we devolve those failures on London’s underlings?
Carr called history an unending dialogue between the present and the past. As the present evolves, new questions are asked. That’s what I have done.
About The Author
Kishan S Rana is a former diplomat and the author of Churchill and India: Manipulation or Betrayal?
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