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Decoding Winston Churchill's hatred for India

Brijesh Kalappa

Updated: September 13, 2012, 2:04 PM IST
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When the Independence Bill was being debated in British Parliament in 1947, Winston Churchill had angrily remarked, "Power will go into the hands of rascals, rogues, and freebooters. Not a bottle of water or loaf of bread shall escape taxation; only the air will be free and the blood of these hungry millions will be on the head of Attlee."

While reading Kuldip Nayar's autobiography, "Beyond the lines", I came across a portion which is a brief account of his interaction with Lord Mountbatten - wherein Nayar threw an allegation at Mountbatten: "But your act of advancing the date by ten months resulted in the killing of over a million on both sides of the border, I charged. It was as if I had touched a raw nerve because he suddenly became pensive and lapsed into silence. After a while he said that in the 1947 Partition riots nearly 2.5 million people had died but he had saved three to four million people from starvation during the 1943 Bengal famine by giving 10 per cent of the space on his ships for the transport of food grains to Calcutta despite Churchill's opposition. 'Well, before Providence I can say that the balance is in my favour', said Mountbatten, adding: 'Wherever colonial rule has ended, there has been bloodshed. This is the price you pay.' (Some books subsequently revealed that Churchill had intentionally denied food grains to India.)"

Quite a number of books like Richard Toye's new biography, "Churchill's Empire: The World That Made Him and The World He Made", William Manchester's "The Caged Lion" and "When illness strikes the leader" by Jerrold Post, a professor of psychiatry at George Washington University and Robert Robins, a professor of political science at Tulane University, written in 1993 and published by Yale University Press, throw new light on Churchill, his mental depression, his racist views, his early life that shaped his thoughts and his hatred of Indians.

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill (November 30, 1874 - January 24, 1965) was a British Conservative politician renowned for his extraordinary leadership of the United Kingdom during the Second World War. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest wartime leaders of the century. He served as the Prime Minister of England twice (1940-45 and 1955. A noted orator, Churchill was earlier an officer in the British Army and had served in Bangalore. He is also a historian, a writer and an artist. He is the only British Prime Minister to have received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 "for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values", and was the first person to be made an Honorary Citizen of the United States.

Churchill was voted as the greatest British gentlemen of the last century and his words that power will go into the hands of rogues in India is oft-quoted by those fighting 'corruption' in India.

Benjamin Disraeli, former British PM, called India "the brightest jewel in the crown," acknowledging India's valuable resources that Europe exploited like spices, mineral ores, textiles, the huge pool of cheap labour and the large market for British goods. As its largest colonial territory, India was the most important of all the overseas possessions of the British Empire. India became independent in 1947. In 65 years, India has crossed many hurdles. It is the world's largest democracy, a nuclear power, a human resource powerhouse and is emerging as an economic giant.

Why really did Churchill have to speak so disdainfully of the unborn Indian republic?

"When illness strikes the leader" unravels the mind of Churchill at the time he made this statement: "At the beginning of World War II, Winston Churchill was a healthy man of sixty-four. By the end of that conflict, the natural process of aging, six years of hard work under tension, heavy drinking and the frequent use of sedatives had taken their physical toll." His physician, Charles Wilson 1st Baron Moran, said Churchill's mental and physical health began to wane in 1944. In his diaries, Sir Francis Alan Brooke, Churchill's chief of the Imperial General Staff, observed on March 24, 1944, "He seems quite incapable of concentrating for a few minutes on end, and keeps wandering continuously."
The book reports that "The inner circle noted Churchill's rapid decline soon after the election. On some days he was nearly his old self, but more often than not he was unable to cope. The private secretary to the queen reported that Churchill often could not follow the trend of a conversation. At one point he even forgot that the electric power industry had been nationalized. He was frequently unable to contain his emotions often irritable and short of temper, at other times breaking into tears or becoming extremely maudlin. He also suffered from delusions of grandiosity, believing that only he could prevent a third world war."

Churchill, always a showman, kept criticism at bay by his continuing, though less frequent, personal flamboyance. Harold Macmillan, the most open and persistent of those in the inner circle who tried to get Churchill to resign, recollects visiting Churchill one morning by invitation and finding him in bed "with a little green budgerigar sitting on his head.... A cigar in his hand and whisky and soda by his side, from which the little bird took sips from time to time... while Gibbonesque sentences were rolling from the maestro's mouth about the Bomb. From time to time the bird said a few words in a husky kind of voice like an American actress. This was not senility but self-confident eccentricity in the grand manner."

Eventually, however, the book reports that "The press began to comment on the extent of Churchill's disability. Even he began to acknowledge it. On August 29, 1954, he said to his doctor, 'I have become so stupid, Charles, cannot you do anything for me?' Six weeks later, however, he boasted, 'If they try to get me out I will resist.' In March 1955, he spent much of his time depressed and staring vacantly ahead."

On April 6, 1955, after six months of almost total inactivity, he finally succumbed to the persuasion of his friends and the pressure of his adversaries and left 10 Downing Street. Having painfully learnt the folly of confronting the magnitude of Churchill's disability directly, the inner circle based its most effective arguments not on a criticism of Churchill's poor health and impaired leadership but on the positive state of the nation. They argued that he had fulfilled his promises to the people about improving housing, stabilising prices, reducing taxation, ending rationing, creating a balance of payments surplus and increasing the rate of growth. Parliament had been sitting for four years and now was a good time for an election. Churchill was told that he could finish on a note of triumph. Otherwise, he would have to undergo an election campaign. Ever mindful of the judgments of history, Churchill yielded.

Churchill did not however die soon after but lived for another decade in declining health.

The South African president President Thabo Mbeki made news recently with a withering attack on Winston Churchill and other historic British figures, calling them racists who ravaged Africa and blighted its post-colonial development. He said British imperialists in the 19th and 20th centuries had treated Africans as savages and left a "terrible legacy" of countries divided by race, colour, culture and religion. He singled out Churchill as a progenitor of vicious prejudice who justified British atrocities by depicting the continent's inhabitants as inferior races who needed to be subdued, and pointed out that Kitchener and Wolseley had waged ruthless campaigns in Sudan and South Africa.

Mr Mbeki quoted a passage from "The River War", Churchill's account of Kitchener's campaign in Sudan, which described shortcomings in "Mohammedanism" - Islam. It said: "Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity."

Richard Toye opines that Churchill's racism, was acceptable in the early 1900s because almost all white people held racist views at that time. He writes that Churchill's dysfunctional family forged his attitude to race, imperialism and war. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, briefly Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer, "actually loathed Winston", wrote William Manchester. "His mother, a beautiful American named Jennie Jerome, devoted most of her time to sexual intrigue, slipping between the sheets with handsome, powerful men in Britain, in the United States, and on the Continent. Her husband was in no position to object. He was an incurable syphilitic. A father who loathes you and a mother who embarrasses you (one of her lovers was the Prince of Wales) are not a recipe for a happy childhood and Winston's was not. He went to Harrow, came last in class, flunked Oxford and Cambridge and was packed off to Sandhurst as a consolation prize. Churchill's lack of a university education nagged him throughout his adult life and he acquired many affectations to disguise it."

Churchill arrived in India in 1895, aged 20. He reportedly spent his time in Bangalore, reading Plato, Aristotle, Gibbon, Macaulay and Schopenhauer, honing his skill with words and ideas. By 1899, he was in South Africa, covering the Boer war. He was imprisoned, escaped heroically and became nationally famous at 24. He was elected to Parliament and, by 33, was a cabinet minister. It would take him, it reads, despite ambition and single-mindedness, another 32 years to become Prime Minister.

Toye notes Churchill's pathological aversion to India and how he wished Partition upon the subcontinent. "The mere mention of India," he writes, "brought out a streak of unpleasantness or even irrationality in Churchill. In March 1943, R A Butler, the education minister, visited him at Chequers. The Prime Minister "launched into a most terrible attack on the 'baboos', saying that they were gross, dirty and corrupt." He even declared that he wanted the British to leave India, and - this was a more serious remark - that he supported the principle of Pakistan. When Butler argued that the Raj had always stood for Indian unity, Churchill replied: "Well, if our poor troops have to be kept in a sweltering, syphilitic climate for the sake of your precious unity, I'd rather see them have a good civil war."

The Partition of India with Pakistan caused the death of about 2.5 million people and displaced some 12.5 million others.

(The writer has used extensively in this article.)
First Published: September 13, 2012, 2:04 PM IST

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