IT would be unfair to compare Clarke'sbook The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire with Stanley Wolpert'sShameful flight: The last years of the Bristish Empire in India and Alex von Tunzelmann'sIndian Summer: The Secrect History of the end of an Empire. Wolpert deals specifically with Britain and India whereas Clarke deals with Britain in its last days as an imperial power, with special reference to its relationship with the United States which was to help keep Britain alive during the final years of World War II.
It is doubtful whether Britain would have survived without the financial and other assistance given to it by America under Lend Lease. Or, for that matter, without India'smassive contribution both in men and money. The armed forces that Britain raised in India was larger than all the forces raised by all other Commonwealth countries put together. And the money that Britain owed to India at the end of the war was a massive ? 1,300 million! The British, as Clarke notes ?thus owed their own Raj more than they owed the Great Republic (the U.S.)?. Winston Churchill, that mean and mealy mouthed character who hated India and was to say that he had not become ?the King'sFirst Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire? was to comment cheekily on Britain'sdebt to India. He is quoted as saying: ?We are now in their (India?s) debt?is ? 1,200 million the figure??Which we owe to them for the privilege of having saved them from conquest by the Japanese?. He forgot?though Clarke in his text doesn?t?that apart from raising a huge army to protect British interests everywhere, the like of which had never been seen in all of world history, India also paid for sending foodgrain to Britain at the cost of its own people of whom three million died in the Great Bengal Famine. But how can one expect Churchill to remember this? He happens to be the central figure in this book which deals with a whole range of events pertaining to war, like the talks at Potsdam and Yalta and Churchill'sdiscussions with US Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. Also figuring prominently is Palestine. Clarke merely puts India'sdemand for independence in the context of Anglo-American relations and what Britain owed to America. As he put it: ?The British Empire was a central issue in the financial negotiations (between the US and UK) because of the sterling balances. That meant above all India, because Britain owed more to India than to the rest of its sterling creditors.? In the circumstances, Britain was doing no particular favour to India by conceding independence to it. And even while conceding Independence it took care to see that India became part of the Commonwealth, an event which took place in 1949.
Clarke gives credit to Sir Stafford Cripps for hastening India'sindependence and not to the Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee who succeeded Churchill at the end of the war. According to Leopold Amery, then Secretary of State for India, Attlee'sattitude hardly differed from that taken by Churchill, namely that Britain cannot hand India over to Indian capitalists and exploiters! Attlee was later to change his mind, no doubt because he realised that Britain just could not hold on to India. Britain had become a bankrupt state and by the beginning of February 1946 prospects were so bad that electricity was not available for industrial production in England for most of the time, coal stocks could hardly meet ten days? requirements and two million workers had been laid off. Britain willy nilly had to give in. It could not, at that point in time, concede freedom to a unified India because the Muslim League under M.A. Jinnah'sguidance had terrorised Britain into submission to its will.
Clarke notes that Nehru and Patel had come to ?tacitly accept? the inevitability of Partition ?breaking from Gandhi'stutelage?. Gandhi was opposed to Partition; Clarke thinks that this was wrong on the part of the Mahatma to do so. And he stresses this time and again. According to Clarke, Gandhiji's?failure to rise to the political challenge in 1946 emerges as the most significant missed opportunity in the whole story?. And then again he writes: ?Even if Partition had eventually come in India, it surely need not have come in the way it did in 1947. in the final months Gandhi'sresponse was heroic on a personal level, but that need not blind us to the degree of his own responsibility for engendering the situation?. Still further he goes on to say: ?Gandhi'sincapacity to abide any imperfect solution was fatal in the final attempt to reach a negotiated settlement?. That is being very unfair to Gandhi. It was Britain that encouraged Jinnah to ask for partition. When Jinnah called for ?Direct Action Day? which led to wholesale killings in Calcutta, the then British Government in India should have had Jinnah arrested and placed behind bars. It would have taught him and his League a lesson. Responsibility for Partition rests heavily on Britain. But to come back to the book, it is not India-specific but deals in great detail with Palestine during the last thousand days of the British Empire. They were to end with King George having to drop the ?I? in his title ?R.I?,. Britain'simperial role had come to an end. Those thousand days were Britain'sbitterest, but what else did the country expect? During its heydays it had robbed half the world. The time had finally come to pay for its. In India, it did so with little finesse and it has been left to Clarke to recount it with glaring omissions.
(Allen Lane C/o Penguin Books (India) Pvt. Ltd, 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 019)