At one point during the recent general election campaign in India, the leader of the BJP opposition, L K Advani, accused the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, of being “weak”. Singh and his colleagues reacted with fury. This was an abusive term, they said, that insulted both the office of the prime minister and the country itself. Not to be outdone, Advani reacted by claiming he was “hurt” by the attacks on his record, and for good measure then failed to attend an all-party dinner in honour of the departing speaker of the Indian parliament.
Such exchanges suggest that levels of debate in the Indian political class are not particularly elevated. But to be fair to the participants, they have not been helped by the historical inheritance the new state received at its birth. It may be hard to credit now, as 700 million voters go to the polls in the world’s biggest elections, but back in the 1940s the wise men of the British Raj predicted that while Pakistan would prosper, India would soon be Balkanised. Pakistan, it was thought, would become a vibrant Muslim state, a bulwark against Soviet communism. India’s predominantly Hindu population, however, was presumed to be a source of weakness and instability.
Nobody expressed this view more forcefully than Lieutenant-General Sir Francis Tucker who, as General Officer Commanding of the British Indian Eastern Command, had been in charge of large parts of the country. His memoirs, While Memory Serves, published in 1950, the year India became a republic, reflected the view of many of the departing British.
Hindu India was entering its most difficult phase of its whole existence. Its religion, which is to a great extent superstition and formalism, is breaking down. If the precedents of history mean anything . . . then we may well expect, in the material world of today, that a material philosophy such as Communism will fill the void left by the Hindu religion.
Tucker was hardly alone among Raj officials. By then, it was almost an orthodoxy to believe that Hinduism was, if not an evil force, at least spent and worthless. Islam, on the other hand, was a religion the west could understand and with whose political leaders it could do business.
Rudyard Kipling, the great chronicler of the Raj, had long made clear his fondness for Muslims and his distrust of Hindus. He was appalled by the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the two great Hindu classics, and repulsed by the jumble of the faith’s beliefs. In contrast, Kipling claimed that he had never met an Englishman who hated Islam and its people, for “where there are Muslims there is a comprehensive civilisation”.
The British had seized power in the subcontinent mainly from Muslim rulers, and the crushing of the 1857 revolt, after which the last Mughal emperor was removed, put paid to any chance of Muslim revival. By the beginning of the 20th century, however, the Muslims had become the allies of the Raj as it struggled to quell the agitation for freedom led by the Indian National Congress. The Raj encouraged the formation of the Muslim League and determinedly portrayed the INC as a Hindu party, despite its constant promotion of its secular credentials and advertisement of its Muslim leaders. (True, the party was mostly made up of Hindus; but as India was overwhelmingly Hindu, this was hardly surprising. The Raj just could not believe that a party made up largely of Hindus could be truly secular.)
Such was the hatred for the Hindus, particularly Brahmins, that the Raj could not be shaken from this fixation – even when the Congress Party had political victories in diehard Muslim provinces, the most remarkable of which was in the North-West Frontier Province. Today, parts of the province (which voted to join Pakistan in 1947) are adopting sharia law, but in the 1930s a secular Muslim movement had grown up there, led by Ghaffar Khan and his brother Khan Sahib. They joined the Congress Party and won successive election victories from 1937 onwards, defeating established Muslim parties.
But the Raj pictured these secular Muslims as dupes of the wily Hindus. The only consolation for Sir Olaf Caroe, considered to be the supreme Raj expert on the local Pashtuns, was that they would soon come to their senses, “It is hard to see how the Pathan [Pashtun] tradition could reconcile itself for long to Hindu leadership, by so many regarded as smooth-faced, pharisaical and double-dealing . . . How then could he [the Pathan] have associated himself with a party under Indian, even Brahmin, inspiration . . .”
What would the west not give now for such secular Muslims to return to power in this playground of the Taliban and al-Qaeda – even if under the spell of “pharisaical Brahmins”?
Such caricatures of Hindus were not uncommon (featuring, for instance, in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop), but it was when this view was espoused by major politicians such as Winston Churchill that it became truly dangerous. When Churchill argued vehemently against Indian independence in the 1930s, his fire was directed mainly at the Hindus (in contrast, he praised Muslims, whose valour and virility he admired). As the Second World War neared its close, the British prime minister was so consumed by hatred of the Hindus that he told his private secretary John Colville that he wanted extraordinary destruction visited upon them. Colville’s The Fringes of Power records the extreme nature of his master’s feelings in February 1945, just after his return from Yalta:
“The PM said the Hindus were a foul race “protected by their mere pullulation from the doom that is due” and he wished Bert [Bomber] Harris could send some of his surplus bombers to destroy them.”
Clement Attlee, who came to power within months, did not share Churchill’s Hindu-phobia. There were also historic ties between Labour and Congress. Yet his government nevertheless agreed that a separate Pakistan was vital to Britain’s global interests. By early 1947, British policymakers realised they had to withdraw from the subcontinent, but still wanted a military presence there: to protect Britain’s position in the century-long Great Game with Russia, and to protect the sea routes to Arabian oil wells. Partition, the foreign secretary Ernest Bevin told the Labour party conference that year, “would help to consolidate Britain in the Middle East”.
British strategy was also shaped by Pakistan’s wish to remain in the Commonwealth, while India wanted out. By the end of the war, what little love there had been between the Raj and Congress had long evaporated, as most of the party’s leaders spent much of the war inside British jails. They had refused to co-operate with the war effort unless their masters promised freedom when peace came. Regarding this as blackmail during the empire’s “darkest hour”, the British made mass arrests and banned the party. In such circumstances, it was understandable that the pleas of both Churchill and Attlee that the king-emperor should remain as head of state were ignored.
British hopes for the country that emerged were not high. Just before he left India in 1943, the Viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow, forecast that it would take Indians at least 50 years to learn how to practise parliamentary democracy. Even then, he felt it would require much tutoring from the British and other Europeans, whom he thought could be tempted to the subcontinent by the arrival of air-conditioning. (Once they didn’t have to worry about the heat, he reasoned, some six million Britons could be persuaded to settle in India to take on the task.)
That democracy took root so quickly and successfully owes much to Jawaharlal Nehru, the first and longest-serving prime minister of India, who was in office from 1947-64. So well did the system embed itself that when his daughter Indira imposed emergency rule in the 1970s – the closest India has come to a dictatorship – it was ended not by tanks rolling down the streets of Delhi, but through the ballot box. That election showed, as have many since then, that ordinary Indians, many of them poor and illiterate, value their vote (perhaps even more than the rich, who feel money can buy them influence). They queue for hours in the baking heat to cast their ballots.
Before the Second World War, the Raj’s relationship with India was like a father promising to allow his stepson to come into his inheritance at some unspecified date in the distant future. It never quite believed that there could ever be a time that this brown person would be capable of managing the estate.
This general election campaign may have exposed just how fractured the political classes are today, with numerous caste, religious and communal groups competing and doing deals with each other. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance may have completed its five-year term of office, but many of its allies, including cabinet ministers, are opposing Congress at local level. Some of them make no secret that they aspire to the prime ministership, and all of them are aware that, as the Times of India put it: “Opportunistic post-poll equations will be more important than the pre-poll pitch of the parties.”
Yet the patchwork quilt that is made up of British India and the hundreds of princely states united and survived, and still manages to do so despite all the challenges that could have led to that Balkanisation predicted by old Raj hands. The likes of Tucker, Churchill and Kipling were proved wrong: constructing the new nation of India was not, after all, beyond the Indians.
Mihir Bose will be reporting on India for BBC World and BBC News in early May