End of British Rule in India

From: The Crisis of Britain and the British Empire 1957 by R Palme Dutt

In 1947 British colonial rule in India ended, and British armed forces were withdrawn.  Governmental responsibility was transferred to the leadership of the National Congress in India and of the Moslem League in the newly-created State of Pakistan.

This transference is commonly presented in British official and semi-official expression, including in Labour imperialist propaganda, as a voluntary and magnanimous “gift” of independence to India.  The generations of struggle of the Indian people for national independence, during which heavy repression was exercised against the national movement (including the imprisonment of 60,000 Indian patriots by the second Labour Government) are lightly passed over and ignored in order to concentrate attention on the final outcome of the national struggle.

The historical conditions of the transfer, however, do not bear out this picture.

A fuller examination of the evidence would abundantly show that the retreat of imperialism in India, Pakistan, Ceylon and Burma was not so “voluntary” as is sometimes suggested.   In the view of competent and well-informed British observers on the subject, the political measures adopted in this region were compelled by the depth of the crisis and the popular upsurge following the war reaching to the armed forces, and were regarded as the only means to avert or postpone a revolution:

“India in the opinion of many was on the verge of a revolution before the British Cabinet Mission arrived.   The Cabinet Mission has at least postponed if not eliminated the danger.”

(P.J. Griffiths, leader of the European Group in the Indian Central Legislative Assembly, speech to the East India Association in London, June 24, 1946.)

In his Mission with Mountbatten (1951) Alan Campbell-Johnson reproduces the verdict of Lord Ismay, who was Mountbatten’s Chief of Staff in India, when he sought to justify the settlement against critics:

“India in March, 1947, was a ship on fire in mid-ocean with ammunition in the hold.  By then it was a question of putting out the fire before it reached the ammunition.   There was, in fact, no option before us but to do what we did.”

Even the then Editor of the Daily Mail admitted that if the Government had wanted to stay in India “it would have needed an occupation force of 500,000 men” – and no such force was available or could have been made available in view of Britain’s other military commitments.

Similarly, in the case of Burma, The Times Rangoon correspondence recorded on March 28, 1947:

“The mood of the British officials I have talked to is one of resignation.   They have been unanimous in declaring that British policy in Burma has been the only one that our resources permit, and that the Anglo-Burmese Agreement was the only alternative to a widespread rebellion with which we could not have coped.”

Sir Stafford Cripps, in the Parliamentary debate on March 5, 1947, stated on behalf of the British Government in justification of the policy pursued:

“What, then, were the alternatives which faced us?   These alternatives were fundamentally two, though both, of course, might be subject to minor variations.   First, we could attempt to strengthen British control in India on the basis of an expanded personnel in the Secretary of State’s service and a considerable reinforcement of British troops, both of which would have been required, so that we should be in a position to maintain for as long as might be necessary our administrative responsibility while awaiting an agreement amongst the Indian communities.   Such a policy would entail a definite decision that we should remain in India for at least fifteen to twenty years, because for any substantially shorter period we should not be able to reorganise the Services on a stable and sound basis.

“… The second alternative was we could accept the fact that the first alternative was not possible…  One thing that was, I think, quite obviously impossible was to decide to continue our responsibility indefinitely and, indeed, against our wishes – into a period when we had not the power to carry it out.”

Thus of the “fundamentally two alternatives” envisaged by the Government, (1) to maintain British direct power in India by “a considerable reinforcement of troops” or (2) to make the political transfer on the lines of the 1947 settlement, the first was judged by the Government to be “impossible…we had not the power to carry it out.”   The simple reader might be excused for concluding that the “two alternatives” were only one.   Behind all the complicated parliamentary phraseology the supposed “two alternatives” boil down into one – in other words, there was no choice.

In the same way the Manchester Guardian commented in an editorial on October 11, 1947:

“Public opinion has preened itself on British virtue in withdrawing voluntarily from India:  but posterity may dwell rather on the hustle with which the withdrawal was carried out… It may be hard to disentangle whether the British action was based on high principle or on a less glorious desire to retreat to shelter before the storm broke.”

The political settlement of 1947 was thus no magnanimous voluntary gift of freedom by imperialism, but a retreat extorted and dictated by conditions of crisis which had outstripped the power of the rulers to control it by superior force, and which rendered it impossible for the ruling power to continue to maintain its rule in the old fashion.

This retreat, however, was accompanied by considerable political manoeuvring to salvage the maximum extend possible of imperialist interests in India and Southern Asia in the new conditions.   The settlement of 1947, negotiated by Lord Mountbatten with the leadership of the National Congress and the Moslem League, followed by the corresponding settlements in Ceylon and Burma, bore a two-sided character.   On the one hand it expressed the retreat of Britain from endeavouring to continue the old colonial rule.  On the other hand it represented a compromise between imperialism and the dominant upper-class leadership of the national movement and landlord and big capitalist interests in India, against the menace of a victorious popular revolution, such as would have swept aside, not only the basis of imperialism, but also the old feudal and monopolist interests that had been association with imperialism   Just as the naval revolt at the beginning of 1946, which had revealed the collapse of the foundations of British rule in India and led to the decision to despatch the Cripps Mission, announced he day after the outbreak of the naval revolt, had been equally opposed by the imperialist rulers and by the leadership of the National Congress and the Moslem League, so the Mountbatten Settlement represented also a certain compromise alliance against the mass movement.

Part of the price of this compromise was the partition of India into the two states of India and Pakistan, with extremely artificial frontiers of demarcation, leading to mass shifts of population, bloodshed, communal slaughter, and wholesale flight of refugees.   Just as the retreat from Ireland in 1921, after all attempts to crush the national revolt had failed, was accompanied by partition, whose consequences still bedevil the relations of the two parts of Ireland and hamper progressive Irish development, so the retreat from India in 1947 was accompanied by partition.  The resulting tension and issues of conflict between the two states weakened both, and facilitated subsequent imperialist attempts at intervention.

The British rulers, with their long experience of political manoeuvre, undoubtedly hoped through the Mountbatten Settlement to draw the new governments in India, Pakistan, Ceylon and Burma into close association in practice with imperialism, despite the change in political sovereignty, and to carry forward a new type of political and military partnership which would continue to protect essential imperialist interests, and which would be counterpart of the already close association of the biggest monopoly interests in three countries with monopoly interests in Britain.   In the initial phases the continuing economic, trading, political and military ties with Britain were still very close   India, Pakistan, Ceylon and Burma continued to be a very profitable base of exploitation by British capital.  Strategic control, dispositions and training continued to be very closely integrated with the British military authorities.

Even in the case of Burma, whose independence outside the Empire was proclaimed by the Treaty of 1947, similar close links were maintained in practice.   The Treaty of 1947 between Britain and Burma, which established the new state and was ratified by the British Parliament in December, 1947, saddled the new state with a crushing debt burden equivalent to £120 million, protected the rights of the British monopolies domination Burmese economy, and provided for a British Military Mission to Burma with British training and equipment for a Burmese Army, and British strategic rights to use Burmese ports and airfields as imperial bases.   Not without reason the Labour MP, Woodrow Wyatt, could claim in this speech in the House of Commons on November 5, 1947:

“Although the Treaty takes Burma out of the Commonwealth, in fact it leaves her practically in the Commonwealth.   It leaves her so closely allied with the Commonwealth that it is true to say that we are in a very special relationship with Burma, one that we are not in with any other foreign Power.   The agreement to accept military missions only from this country and not from any other country than this virtually does imply a military alliance.   So, also do the provisions that provide that Burma will afford all facilities necessary in Burma for the British whenever we wish to bring help to any part of the British Commonwealth.   The solidarity of the Defence Agreement … has ensured that there is, in fact, no gap whatever in Commonwealth Defence…”