Churchill conundrum

EducationWorld February 2023 | Books Magazine

Churchill and India: Manipulation or Betrayal
Kishan S. Rana
Pages 192 

The author discerns four distinct phases in Churchill’s association with India between 1896 and 1965, when he was given a state funeral in London



While the title of his book Churchill and India: Manipulation or Betrayal? is puzzling (in that the alternatives seem to be in contradiction to each other) and preemptively conclusive, its narrative is not, unfolding point by seamless point towards a final set of hypotheses.

That the book emerged, as the author says, from ‘quasi isolation’ during the pandemic may explain its self-interrogatory nature, questions asked, alternative answers offered (although in the end it is ‘reader, you decide’) much in the manner, one imagines, of the discussions and debates in the Yan Jin club of young diplomats of which the author was a member when posted in China in the early sixties.

That solitude may well have contributed also to the leisured lyricism in much of the writing, compelling disagreement with the author’s assertion that “presented here in a paraphrased mode, Churchill’s strong, direct words lose their force; such narratives must be read in the original”. Kishan Rana’s versions soar.

The author allows characters (including Churchill’s parents, friends, loves, political allies and adversaries and the vast landscape of people in India so critical to the story) to animate its pages, with extensive annotations almost anatomical, each finger of fact pointing in the direction of a defined determination while remaining organically linked to the body of the work in its whole. He discerns four distinct phases in Churchill’s association with India: beginning as ‘romantic adventurer’ on his first landing on the subcontinent in 1896, continuing with ‘benign but superficial empathy’ until 1920, then two decades of “tempest, of extravagant, unreasoning hostility to India”, followed by his 1940-45 prime ministership, “the years of manipulation, plus attempted subversion of Indian independence”, and finally, his last twenty years, “mellower, but not a whit apologetic”.

Through that life, he sought reassurance in the loneliness of his oratory and writing, including in the “imaginary dialogue between his father and himself, centered on (his) life achievements”, a tribute to a remote but affectionate parent whom he lost on 24 January 1895, 70 years before the day of his own death. Randolph Churchill’s vision for India was everything his son’s was not, personified in his call “to weld (Indians) by the influence of our knowledge, our law, and our higher civilization, in process of time, into one great, united people; and to offer to all the nations of the West the advantages of tranquility and progress in the East”.

But for Winston Churchill, as this work makes clear, all that mattered was the gallery. The supposed convictions that prompted him, in 1904, to cross the floor in Parliament, opposing a bill he said reflected racial prejudice against Jews, saw no reflection in the views he was to express on Kenya that “there was no question of granting electoral rights to the ‘naked savages of the Kikuyu and the Kavirondo”’, precursor, as Kishan Rana notes, of his “India ways, with imaginary, scary fiction… racist even by the norms of his times” and his felicity in damning with barely perceptible praise, and “half growls”, (‘primitive but agreeable races’). In 1931, a published speech sought to exile Gandhi to a desert island arguing that the Congress wanted to replace British rule with “Brahmin domination which would threaten Muslims and the oppressed castes with extinction”. In 1935, he spoke of being a “sincere admirer… of the heroic efforts” that Gandhi was making for India’s depressed people.

This was only one in a conundrum of contradictions that informs the many perceptions Kishan Rana diligently gleans. That “Churchill did not seek out any Indian intellectual, even as a casual interlocutor, much less for serious discourse on the life questions that deeply engaged him”; had he done so, “he might have seen another India, one that he had never imagined”. That he was hostage to “superficial, outdated, half-understood concepts, buttressed neither by a study of facts nor subsequent revisits to his own assumptions, much less checking these against ground realities”.

And yet, Churchill “insightfully assessed (the ability of Indians) to adapt and thrive in the environment of different lands” in which the author sees “perhaps one of the earliest British tributes to the Indian diaspora… prescient anticipation of today’s ‘globalisation’, future competition in the Western world through ‘Asiatic commercial ambition’.

The larger commercial argument, the author suggests, deserves more attention than it has usually received. While India was a ‘captive market’, Churchill purported to see the Empire as essential to the well-being of the governed as much as the governing; in his 1931 phrase, had Britain addressed itself “to the moral and material problems that are at the root of Indian life… it would have been much better for the working folk of Burnley and Bombay, of Oldham and Ahmedabad”.

Today, Kishan Rana notes, we would call these good governance concepts. But the problem was that Churchill clutched at anything that served his political purposes. His interest in improved colonial management was shallow. He never reverted to these arguments or developed them into policy recommendations. Worse, later as prime minister, determining colonial policy, these humanitarian and good governance concerns did not tinge or guide Churchill’s actions.

What their profession did do was help shape his spoken and written word, which gave indication of the person he might have proven to be, courageous and coolheaded, drawing upon the metaphor of his first ventures into battle as a soldier, which were invariably combined with journalistic reporting from the battlefield, harbinger to the intertwined lives he led as a leader and historian, each action determined as much by the immediacy of its impact as its measure by a reader distant in time and geography; in the end, and in his life, affirming the truth that all seemed to coalesce around the quotation from Shakespeare’s King John with which he opened Malakand.

According to the fair play of the world, Let me have an audience.

Ramu Damodaran (The Book Review)

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