Scholarly writing explains British withdrawal from India in terms of a crisis of the colonial state precipitated by Britain’s expansive involvement in the Second World War and the sustained anticolonial struggle of Indians led by leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. This is not a complete explanation, but at least it nudges us in the right direction.
However, crucial questions remain unanswered. Why was their departure moved up by over a year—from June 1948 to August 1947? What explains the timing of the withdrawal? What were its moral costs? Could displacement have been averted and the mass killings prevented if withdrawal had been delayed? Did political actors taking these decisions foresee the looming moral disaster? Did the British have information about the extent and depth of violence once they announced the decision that the country would be partitioned? If they had adequate intelligence reports, what measures were taken to quell the violence? And finally, what lessons can be learned from the calamity that followed, during which an estimated one million people died and millions more were displaced? Here, I focus on these questions and limit myself to the period immediately prior to independence.
Let me at the outset state two truisms: First, no imperial power has been known to withdraw from a colony without securing its strategic interests. Second, an occupying power never leaves with egg on its face and must appear, at the very least, to exit on its own terms.
By the end of the Second World War, Britain knew that its exit from India was imminent. But the formal end of the empire did not mean that the British were prepared to relinquish substantive control over the region, and this consideration was to have a significant impact on the future. Fearful of burgeoning Russian influence in the area between Turkey and India, and worrying that the Indian National Congress might be susceptible to such influence, Britain felt that a concessive stance toward the demand for a separate state of Pakistan would better protect British interests in the subcontinent. This tacit support for a new state served another purpose. It helped Britain to save face—to tell the world that it did not exit as a defeated power, with empty hands. Imperial self-esteem depended on the belief that the jewel was still somewhere in the crown. A divided, somewhat weaker subcontinent, with a potentially malleable Pakistan, helped sustain that belief.
The process of cementing a “two-state” solution to “the Hindu-Muslim problem” partially determined the timing of withdrawal, but several other factors contributed toward it. For one, American pressure on Britain—dictated by similar neo-imperial considerations but also by its own struggle for independence—made some difference. Winston Churchill’s surprising defeat in the postwar elections seemed to have tilted domestic opinion away from those less favo...
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