"The Transfer of Power in India"

A Lecture by


delivered at

The Winston Churchill Memorial
Westminster College
Fulton, Missouri
April 24, 1988


Copyright Philip Ziegler 1988 


President Saunders, Professor Davis, Ladies and Gentlemen, I feel profoundly honored to have been invited to give the Seventh Crosby Kemper Churchill Memorial Lecture. When I consider the eminence of those who have preceded me, I feel not merely honored but alarmed. My alarm is not alleviated by the fact that the subject which I have chosen, 'The Transfer of Power in India' is not one in which the presiding genius of this assembly, Sir Winston Churchill, appears to greatest advantage. It would indeed not be an exaggeration to say that India as an element in Churchill's career is mercifully unique; as being a theme on which he was invariably consistent, and almost equally invariably wrong.  

It is now a little over forty years since that moment in August 1947 when power was transferred in the Indian sub-continent and two new nations, some 450 million human beings, found their independence (the word 'some' is used advisedly; statistics in India have an awe-inspiring imprecision — no one would argue if one were to put the figure twenty or thirty million less or more). Two generations of Indians and Pakistanis have not known what it was to live under the British raj, only the most elderly of surviving elder statesmen exercised any authority before their countries took charge of their own affairs. It is a moot point when if ever one is able to survey the past with anything approaching objectivity but by now it should at least be possible to look back on those years immediately following the Second World War without being swayed too markedly by those passions and prejudices which are bred by personal participation. The Transfer of Power in India is ripe for reassessment; and Indian historians being no less enterprising, ingenious and energetic than those of other nations, there has been no shortage of real or self-styled 'authorities' from the sub-continent as well as from Britain and the United States, who are ready and eager to contribute to the task.  

The 15th of August, 1947 was a day of ecstatic euphoria for the citizens of the two new nations and was hardly less acclaimed in the former imperial power itself. The sternest critics were temporarily muted, the doubters hoped for the best, the optimists anticipated something even better. For the Indians and Pakistanis, it was a day of rejoicing at a great victory won; there might be storms ahead but during that day at least there was no need to contemplate them. For the British the triumph was more equivocal, yet they comforted themselves with the reflection that they had made the greatest act of enlightened self-sacrifice in recorded history and by so doing had won the loyalty and affection of those who otherwise might have been expected to become their enemies. A deluge of congratulations descended on Nehru and Jinnah, the leaders of the two new nations; on Mountbatten, the former Viceroy, in New Delhi; on Attlee, the Labor prime minister, in London. The British congratulated the Indians; the Indians the British; and above the welter of self-satisfaction rang the trumpet call of that guru of Washington's political commentators, Mr. Walter Lippmann: "Perhaps Britain's finest hour is not in the past. Certainly, this performance is not the work of a decadent people. This on the contrary is the work of political genius requiring the ripest wisdom and the freshest vigor, and it is done with an elegance and a style that will compel and will receive an instinctive respect throughout the civilized world. Attlee and Mountbatten have done a service to all mankind by showing what statesmen can do not with force and money but with lucidity, resolution and sincerity".  

It was, of course, much too good to last. Even before the celebrations in New Delhi and Karachi had run their course, the hideous massacres that accompanied partition were already gathering force. The atmosphere reminds one of Byron's Brussels on the eve of Waterloo: "There was a sound of revelry by night", the dance went on, joy was unconfined, until suddenly a deep sound struck like a rising knell. It was, I do not need to remind you, "the cannon's opening roar". That roar, or rather the anguish of the victims in the Punjab gave new heart to the critics of Britain's policy. They have not ceased to be heard today and will no doubt continue so long as the story of the end of the British Empire retains its fascination. Their voices are many and various but in the main they fall into two categories. First there are the traditionalists who believed, and sometimes still believe, that the surrender of power in India was the betrayal of a sacred trust, at the best premature, at the worst uncalled-for, and in either case disastrous in its consequences. On the other hand are those who are convinced that the transfer of power was essential and long overdue but that its execution was sadly botched; that the unity of India was sacrificed without more than a token effort being made to retain it; that the settlement was biased in one way or the other; that it was handled so precipitately that chaos and bloodshed inevitably ensued; and that it was so ill-conceived that it left behind it a legacy of problems that have haunted the Indian sub-continent ever since. Not surprisingly it was the first group who were most vociferous in the period directly after partition, the second whose criticisms have grown with the years and become more elaborate and sometimes more extravagant. My purpose today is to look back at 1947 and try to conclude whether, viewed from the vantage point of contemporary experience, Britain should have transferred power when she did. If so, could she have handled the transition to greater advantage and in a way that would have avoided such hostile criticism?  

In a world in which Europe's empires have almost entirely passed away and lip service at least is paid to the doctrine of self-determination in every country which professes itself democratic, it is hard to remember how substantial a body of opinion in Britain, and indeed elsewhere, believed at the end of the Second World War that imperial rule in India should continue, if not perpetually, then at least for many years. The chief proponent of this point of view was the architect of Britain's victory, the recently dispossessed prime minister, Winston Churchill.  

Churchill nourished a romantic veneration for the idea of the Indian empire coupled with a marked lack of enthusiasm for the Indian people. "I hate Indians," he once remarked to Leo Amery. "They are a beastly people with a beastly religion." This showed him at his most petulant, but even when in a more benign mood he was inclined to think that Indian soldiers were good enough to fight and if necessary die for the raj, and that some of the princes could play a decent game of polo, but that they were not equipped for anything more onerous. It was the sacred duty of the British to rule and educate this lesser breed until such time, perhaps fifty, perhaps a hundred years ahead, when they would be fit to take on the burden themselves. Such an expression of his views is of course a caricature of the case that would have been put forward by that most sophisticated and eloquent of statesmen, but Churchill, like many men of genius, was capable of extraordinary naivety, and India provoked from him reactions that would have been surprising even in a lesser man.  

There was nothing new about his attitude. It was as long before as 1931 that he had resigned from the shadow cabinet in disgust at Baldwin's far from radical policy towards India and had fought the government's modestly liberal India Bill clause by clause through the House of Commons. It was India which proved one of the first serious causes of dissension between Churchill and President Roosevelt, when the prime minister objected vigorously to what he regarded as the mischievous activities of Roosevelt's representative in New Delhi, Colonel Louis Johnson. It was Churchill who, having grudgingly agreed that Sir Stafford Cripps should lead a mission to India in 1942 to discuss the grant of dominion status once the war was over, did everything in his power to ensure that the mission did not and could not succeed. 1947 found him still firmly entrenched in his position; deploring any surrender of power but most of all one which was hurried through precipitately:  

"In handing over the government of India to these so-called political classes," he protested in the House of Commons, "we are handing over to men of straw of whom in a few years no trace will remain . . . Many have defended Britain against her foes, none can defend her against herself. But, at least, let us not add — by shameful flight, by a premature hurried scuttle — at least let us not add to the pangs of sorrow so many of us feel, the taint and smear of shame."  

In the inflexibility and extremeness of his attitude Churchill was unusual but by no means unique. There were in the Conservative party many decent and honorable men who could not look on the retreat from Empire with anything but anguished disapproval. The maverick genius of their leader often alarmed and sometimes dismayed them; they found a more acceptable expression of their doubts in the voice of the veteran Fourth Marquis of Salisbury who protested to Clement Attlee against a withdrawal from India enforced by weakness. "Is this country to go down in history," he asked, "with the badge upon her of betrayal?" Attlee replied firmly that there had been no weakness and no betrayal, and was fortified in his belief by the support of Conservatives such as R.A. Butler and the former Viceroy and Ambassador to the United States, the Earl of Halifax. The issue, indeed, was one that to some extent transcended party barriers. Some of the most cogent arguments against an early transfer of power came from the Labor Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, who in January 1947 told Attlee that the defeatist attitude adopted by the Cabinet and the Viceroy was undermining British foreign policy and playing into the hands of her enemies. Was the British Empire, he asked rhetorically, to knuckle under at the first blow?  

Yet the weakness which Attlee denied had shaped British policy was very plainly apparent to even the most partisan observer. To some Indian historians, indeed, it seems that the transfer of power was no more than a surrender to force majeure and in no proper sense of the words a deliberate act of policy on the part of the British government. There are some powerful arguments to support their contention. Economically, militarily, administratively, politically, the case for a rapid retreat from India was very strong. Economically, Britain's position was pitifully weak. A quarter of her national wealth had been spent in the course of the war and her external liabilities amounted to well over million — pettifogging enough by the standards of today's debtor nations but intimidating in 1946. India, on the other hand, had accumulated sterling balances of over C1300 million in London. To finance a sustained occupation of the sub-continent against what seemed certain to be fierce local opposition would have strained intolerably Britain's already exiguous resources. Militarily the situation seemed even worse. The rapid demobilization of Britain's conscript armies was not merely desirable to get the factories and mines fully operational again but essential if growing discontent was to be contained; the servicemen remaining in South East Asia would have required some very convincing arguments to persuade them that they should now engage in a full-blooded campaign for the repression of Indian nationalism. The regular army was fully stretched by its responsibilities in Europe and the Middle East — there were more than 100,000 men held down in Palestine alone. The Indian army had on the whole proved astonishingly faithful to the raj throughout the war, but the 1000 Indian officers who served in it in 1939 had grown to nearly 16,000 by 1945, the ideals of nationalism were rife among the younger officers at least, the army's loyalty could no longer be taken for granted. Administratively the same was true, the proportion of British officials in the Indian Civil Service fell every year as less and less young Britons felt that the job offered any prospects of a secure career for life. Indianization of the Civil Service and the judiciary had been proceeding since the First World War. By 1945 the Indians in the higher reaches of the administration were more numerous than the British, within a decade it was clear that they would be in a massive majority. Finally, the political pressure on Britain from the United States to dismantle its Indian empire, was already powerful. The substitution of Truman for Franklin Roosevelt had perhaps somewhat muted the stridency of these demands, but the economic power of the United States was so absolute and their views on Indian independence so firmly established that the factor was one which any British government would ignore at is peril.  

So potent were all these factors that, even if Churchill had won the 1945 election, it is hard to believe he would have been able to delay the advent of Indian independence by more than a few years at the most. It was the timing and the style of the transfer of power that were in question, not its inevitability. But to those who see it only in terms of a British surrender it should be said that for the Labor leaders, for Attlee and Stafford Cripps in particular, the decision was still made on grounds of principle. It was ten years at least since these Labor leaders had manifested their belief that India should be granted independence. The war had provided reasons for deferring the transition but not for challenging its validity in terms of justice and morality. Now the time was ripe. That it happened also to coincide with British interests was a fact, but the fact did not shape their conclusions.  

So much then for those who said that Britain should never have yielded up its empire. What of those who felt the process was due, if not overdue, but that its execution was at fault? Many Indian historians believe in particular, that Britain's most precious legacy to Asia should have been a united India and that this heritage was thrown away with no more than a token effort to preserve it. Some would even say that it was willfully destroyed in the interests of securing a quick settlement. Britain, by this argument, was concerned exclusively with its own interests and not those of its former empire. "Mountbatten's mission" wrote B. Krishna, "was not so much to see a united free India as to carry out, as a true Englishman, Attlee's directive — to retreat from India with honor."  

That Attlee's directive was, on the contrary, to hand over independence to a truly united India, or failing that, then at least to as closely knit a federation as could be contrived, is evident both from the formal instructions issued to Mountbatten and the Viceroy's own testimony. The Cabinet Mission which had visited India in March 1946 was committed to the achievement of this end. It found an India which had been polarized as never before by the recent elections in which the Congress party had swept the board in almost all the predominantly Hindu provinces while the Muslim League led by Mohammed Ali Jinnah had captured 90 percent of the Muslim seats. Against this unpromising background the Mission had done remarkably well. It had so far overcome Jinnah's resistance as to secure his grudging acquiescence in a form of federation. This would have conceded almost complete internal autonomy to the Muslim provinces, while reserving issues such as defense and foreign policy to a central government. It was the Hindu Congress party which balked at this solution, in so doing rejecting terms which it would have grasped at eagerly only a year later.  

Then came the Muslim League's call for a 'Direct Action Day' to mark its disapproval of Hindu intransigence. Riots and massacres followed, leaving more than 20,000 killed or seriously wounded in Calcutta alone. Attitudes hardened on both sides. By the time Mountbatten arrived in India in March 1947 Jinnah had reverted to the same attitude he had taken up before the arrival of the Cabinet Mission; he was not interested in discussing the details of the transfer of power, still less of any possible sharing of power between Muslim and Hindu, until the principle of a wholly independent Pakistan had been accepted. And by Pakistan he made it clear he meant not what he called the moth-eaten nation over which he was eventually to rule but a greater Paki whole of Bengal, the whole of the Punjab, and with a stan corridor to include sweeping the 'great men' theory of history tends today to be unfashionable in the ranks of academic historians. Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Washington, perhaps left some mark on the march of events but to comprehend history properly one must study the agriculture and the trading patterns of the age, the demographic trends, the incidence of plague, the climatic variations. There is more than a little truth in this but as a biographer by profession I must plead that there is room for great men too. And even if the role of the individual is often credited by the romantic with greater significance than can be justified, there remains always a handful of men and women who by a combination of the qualities of their characters and the circumstances of their time exercise a decisive influence on the destinies of their fellow men. Preeminent among such people was Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Gandhi was the greater man by the standards which the world customarily applies to greatness; Nehru was more attractive and perhaps wiser, but in Jinnah's hands lay the destiny of united India.  

It is one of the more curious ironies of Indian history that Jinnah made his name as a member of the Congress party and a champion of unity between Muslim and Hindu. In 1928 he left the Congress Party in frustration at what seemed to him the exclusively Hindu aspirations of its leaders. By 1940 he was the champion of an independent Pakistan. In 1946 he briefly wavered towards acceptance of some loose and, as he no doubt calculated, temporary form of federation but the events of that year quickly cured his uncharacteristic weakness. Mountbatten arrived in Delhi to be confronted by a Muslim leader who seemed incapable of even a suspicion of inflexibility, chilly, adamant, indifferent to any efforts to change his point of view. Patiently Mountbatten deployed and redeployed what seemed to him the overwhelming economic and political arguments against partition; Jinnah, he wrote "offered no counterarguments. He gave the impression that he was not listening." It was more than an impression. In any meaningful sense of the word Jinnah was not listening, he had made up his mind and closed it, nothing would induce him to reopen the question.  

Mountbatten has been accused of abandoning the idea of a united India with undue alacrity; it has been said that he had written it off in his own mind even before he arrived in Delhi and sought only to maneuver the Congress leaders so that it appeared that the initiative towards partition came from them. This is not how Mountbatten saw it. He had been sent to India to work for a united and independent country and nothing else could in his eyes be counted as complete success. Partition was a defeat to be accepted with reluctance: economically damaging to both new countries, militarily disastrous, politically catastrophic. It was only when it became clear that the imposition of any form of united India would lead to civil war that he accepted the inevitable. He was one of the last to do so. The Viceroy found that the Congress leaders acquiesced in the dismemberment of their country with disconcerting alacrity. Nehru himself was to say that partition had become unavoidable a year at least before it happened. Britain can fairly be blamed for helping to create the circumstances in which Muslim nationalism could flourish, but the decision to divide the sub-continent was taken by the inhabitants of that region, and to the deep regret of the former imperial power.  

One tantalizing query remains. Jinnah was a dying man. Already the tuberculosis which was to kill him little over a year after independence was gnawing at his strength. If Mountbatten had known, could he so have spun out negotiations that the final decision was taken when the Muslim leader had departed from the scene, and would it have helped if he had? The question is, of course, academic; Mountbatten did not know and so had no reason to seek to delay matters — on the contrary, as we shall see, had every reason for hurrying them along. My personal view is that even if he had known, or even if Jinnah had died eighteen months earlier than he did, it would have made little difference. It was by then too late. However much some of the Muslim leaders might have doubted the wisdom of partition they would not have dared reject the burden which Jinnah had laid upon them. The Muslim League was by 1947 irrevocably committed to the pursuit of an independent Pakistan, and nothing Mountbatten or anybody else did or said could have deflected them in their crusade.  

Another charge frequently levelled against the British is that the terms of the settlement were unfair to Pakistan. Sometimes such accusations relate to the basic equipment necessary to run a state. When the vast omelette of United India had to be divided, there was no question of reconstituting every egg and sharing them out equitably. Rough justice had to be done. To the minds of the Pakistanis the justice was sometimes very rough indeed. When it came to tanks and airplanes for the armed forces, rolling stock for the railways, printing presses for the production of official publications, even typewriters and telephones for the government offices, India took the lion's share. The geography of United India made it inevitable that the bulk of such material should be in the possession of the Hindus on Independence Day. Human nature being what it is, and possession being nine points of the law, that is where the material remained. There was little the British could do. Mountbatten did his best to see fair play. For instance, at the end of 1947, India proposed to freeze the €30 million due to Pakistan out of the residual capital funds. Mountbatten denounced their attitude as unwise, unstatesmanlike and dishonorable. He enlisted Gandhi as an ally, and won the day.  

He had few comparable victories and got little credit for his attitude from the Pakistanis, who saw him as a puppet of Nehru and one of their most inveterate enemies. They were at their most critical when it came to the drawing of the partition line that was to separate India and Pakistan. The principle was that each state or province should be allotted to India or Pakistan on the basis of whether it was predominantly Hindu or Muslim. In the Punjab and Bengal, however — two vast provinces in which Hindu and Muslim populations were roughly equal — the principle broke down. In these provinces there must be partition within partition. Yet the two denominations did not live in neatly segregated areas but hopelessly intermingled. In the Punjab the problem was still further bedeviled by the existence of 14 million Sikhs. This warlike and intemperate race had elements of both Hindu and Muslim religions in its faith. They disliked the one almost as much as the other, but their greater fear of the Muslims led them to make common cause with the Hindus. They too had to be accommodated in the final Settlement.  

To achieve the impossible and divide these provinces on a basis which would both make economic and political sense and appear equitable to both parties, a British lawyer, Cyril Radcliffe, was imported. Radcliffe was a man of formidable intelligence and unquestionable integrity, but his job, as he freely admitted, was that of the butcher rather than the surgeon. In theory he worked with the help of expert assessors drawn from both groups; in practice, since the assessors were diametrically opposed on any point of contention, he was constrained to make up his own mind. By the application of a pencil to a map he carved up communities that had been one for centuries, severed farms from their markets, fields from their water, arbitrarily created two countries where there had been one before. It was a brutal and thankless task; that he performed it to the best of his ability is accepted by everyone capable of forming an objective opinion.  

Whether the British authorities, in particular whether the Viceroy, performed their task with equal impartiality is where the historians differ. Radcliffe delivered his recommendations for the partition line on the 13th of August, 1947. Mountbatten — now renewing life as Governor General of independent India but, significantly, not of Pakistan — published them on the 16th of August. Nothing will convince the Pakistani historians that during those three days Mountbatten did not tamper with the findings and, in certain small but vitally important particulars, amend them in favor of India. Above all, they are emphatic that he over-ruled or over-persuaded Radcliffe so as to ensure that three quarters of the district of Gurdaspur should be awarded to India, thus providing the Indians with a means of access to Kashmir. The evidence is circumstantial. Radcliffe's secretary a week or so before had indicated to the Punjab government that the final partition line was likely to be somewhat more favorable to Pakistan than in fact it was. Members of Mountbatten's staff recorded that the Viceroy was under pressure from Nehru to amend Radcliffe's recommendations and was having energetically to be dissuaded from doing so. Against this we have Radcliffe's flat denial that anyone had sought to influence him or to amend his conclusions. If the main object of such a change was indeed to allow India access to Kashmir and thus to facilitate the accession of that state to India, then indeed Mountbatten would have been behaving eccentrically in bringing it about. At the period he was engaged in a vigorous though ultimately unsuccessful effort to persuade the Maharajah of Kashmir to follow the wishes of a majority of his people and accede to Pakistan. The matter has never been, and I suspect never will be decided with absolute certainty one way or the other. My own conclusion, for what it is worth, is that Mountbatten was perhaps tempted to succumb to Nehru's blandishments and re-draw the partition line to India's benefit, but that the temptation was resisted. The risk of being caught red-handed was far too great. Whatever else Mountbatten may have been, he was not a fool. To imperil the whole settlement for the sake of winning some small advantage for one side or the other would have been an act of folly.  

If Radcliffe had been given more time for the task the partition line would have been plotted on a more scientific basis. There would still have been shattering disruption to the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities, but some injustices and inconsistencies could have been avoided. The job was rushed. This charge, that the whole operation was conducted at too breakneck a pace and insufficient time left for reflection and preparation, is the one most widely levelled at the British government, above all at the Viceroy. It has been voiced by Hindus as well as Muslims, and by many Britons too. If only , , it said; if only Mountbatten had allowed time to prepare people for the idea of partition; to persuade them to remain in the villages where they had been born; to let those who were determined to move do so in a gradual and orderly fashion, to station troops in the areas where communal trouble was most likely. Then, goes the argument, there need have been no massacres; the great movements of population which triggered the worst of the bloodshed would never have occurred, properly escorted convoys could have moved the hard core of would-be refugees to their chosen homes.  

I have said already that the science of statistics in the Indian subcontinent is alarmingly inexact. Many figures have been put forward as to the number of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs who died in the communal massacres that followed partition. The nearest approach to a serious analysis that has been made suggests the death roll to have been somewhere between two hundred thousand and a quarter of a million. The total is small compared with the wilder estimates of a million or more. It seems smaller still compared with the million and a half who died in the Bengal famine of 1943. Yet it is horrifying enough. "It seems to me immaterial" wrote Mountbatten's Chief of Staff, General Ismay, "whether one hundred thousand or a million have actually died: or whether only three percent of the country is in turmoil. The essential facts are that there is human misery on a colossal scale all around one and millions are bereaved, destitute, homeless, hungry, thirsty — and worst of all, desperately anxious and almost hopeless about their future."  

Surely, say the critics, nothing could have been worse than this? An operation which ended in such carnage must, ipso facto, have been ill-conceived and botched in its execution. And yet the issue is not as clear-cut as this. Mountbatten was playing from a rapidly weakening hand. All those elements which could normally have been relied on to operate the machinery of partition were being eroded by the day: the police, the judiciary, the civil service were running down and, with the rapid withdrawal of the relatively impartial British element, were disintegrating into hostile factions. The Army, the only force that might have been able to control the vast disturbances in the Punjab, was itself falling a prey to communalism — many of its regiments could no longer be trusted to hold a fair balance between Muslim, Hindu and Sikh. Yet simultaneously the fires of religious hatred were burning ever more fiercely. Once the principle of partition had been accepted it was inevitable that communalism would rage. The longer the period which Mountbatten left before severance actually took place, the worse the tension and the greater the fear that violence would spread. As it was, only the phenomenal influence of Mahatma Gandhi checked the spread of the massacres to Bengal; from there they might have enveloped Hyderabad or any of the other areas where Muslims and Hindus lived cheek by jowl. Two hundred thousand dead could have become two million, even twenty million.  

The only way to establish with certainty whether any other approach would have proved more successful would be to go back to the beginning and start again, and since this recourse is mercifully denied us one historian's guess will remain as unverifiable as another's. When I myself was working on the biography of Mountbatten I approached the controversy with an open mind suspecting that there must have been bungling somewhere but wholly without a firm foundation of fact on which to base my suspicions. I am by no means confident that I now possess such a foundation and have my doubts whether anybody else does either, but I have been convinced by the unanimity of all those who were in a position to form an opinion at the time. Civil or military, Indian or British, friend or enemy of Mountbatten, all agree that time was not merely not on his side but was his greatest enemy. The view was enunciated most tellingly by Chakravarty Rajagopalachari, the man who was in time to replace Mountbatten and become India's first Indian head of state and who combined wisdom with cunning in a way which is rarely found among us Anglo Saxons. "If the Viceroy had not transferred power when he did," said Rajaji, "there could well have been no power to transfer." That, in a nutshell, is the case for the way the British handled the transfer of power in India.  

It would seem as if I seek to acquit the Viceroy and the British government on every charge. Was the transfer of power in India then a model operation planned by wise and far-seeing statesmen, carried through with copybook perfection? The question hardly needs an answer. Power was transferred by desperately anxious men, working in the conviction that a disaster of awe-inspiring proportions was only a few months or even weeks away, believing that an imperfect settlement was far, far better than no settlement at all. In such an atmosphere it was inevitable that there would be grave mistakes made and important decisions left untaken.  

Some of these imperfections were to impose a heavy burden on the fledgling nations. Most notable, perhaps, was the division of Pakistan into two uneasy portions separated by more than a thousand miles of hostile country. Racially distinct, economically impoverished, East Pakistan's feeling that it was the poor relation in the Muslim family was encouraged by its Hindu neighbors. It proclaimed itself independent in 1971. No one had been optimistic about the union from the start. Jinnah had believed a corridor linking East and West Pakistan was essential to its survival, Mountbatten had given the union twenty years and had not proved extravagantly pessimistic. Given the troubled history of Bangladesh, one must wonder whether much of this misery could not have been avoided. To accept a divided Pakistan was the path of least resistance. Would it not have been possible instead to make some grandiose deal by which Pakistan might have been compensated in the Punjab for its surrender of a claim to East Bengal? Might Mountbatten have tried for the alternative of a united and independent Bengal? Such options would perhaps have created more problems than they caused but surely some greater efforts should have been made to avoid a so-called 'solution' which solved nothing and merely ensured trouble in the future?  

And then there was Kashmir. Mountbatten was convinced that this predominantly Muslim state, ruled by a Hindu maharaja, should follow the wishes of the majority of the people and accede to Pakistan. But he did not devote to the subject a large enough proportion of his energy and persuasive powers to achieve the desired end. The Maharaja dithered, the Pakistanis lost patience and sent in the Pathan tribesmen, the Maharaja panicked and acceded to India, Indian troops flew in, the long-drawn-out imbroglio had begun. It was to bring India and Pakistan to war and today still embitters relations between the two countries. Mountbatten should somehow have contrived that the Maharaja of Kashmir took the natural course and opted for Pakistan; failing that he should have aimed for partition, with predominantly Hindu Jammu going to India and the Muslim Vale of Kashmir to Pakistan. He had an awful lot else on his mind, there is no shortage of excuses for him, yet in the last analysis, he failed.  

Bangladesh independent and in perpetual economic crises, Pakistan under military rule, India having had its own experiments with authoritarian rule and plagued by the problem of the Sikhs: the history of the Indian sub-continent since independence has not been wholly triumphant. And yet how much worse it might have been. The direst prognostications of Winston Churchill and the other opponents of the Transfer of Power have not been fulfilled. The area has not disintegrated into an ill stitched patchwork of warring fiefs. It has not moved into the Communist camp. The essential principles of democracy and equality before the law are still observed in India and there is reason to hope that Pakistan has not finally abandoned them. Perhaps most striking of all, the individual from the West, above all the English speaker, is welcome throughout the sub-continent and can feel at home in a way he will hardly experience in any other country with so different an ethnic and cultural background.  

I do not come here to argue the pros and cons of imperialism. There is no lack of far better qualified historians who can do and contest whether the British presence in India was justified at the Outset and, given that the empire had come into being whether and when it should have been brought to an end. All I would say is that the history of the sub-continent since 1947 suggests that the servants of the raj did not do too bad a job, and that the legacy they have left India is not one of which Britain need feel ashamed. And though the details of the transfer of power have been justly criticized and the settlement which it introduced has been modified in important aspects, the essentials have withstood the tests of time. Perhaps Walter Lippmann went too far when he described it as a "work of political genius requiring the ripest wisdom and the freshest vigor," but at the least it was the work of honorable men toiling to the best of their abilities in conditions of almost impossible difficulty. Of their labors too Britain has no cause to feel ashamed.  



Philip S. Ziegler was born in 1929 in Ringwood, Hampshire, where he still lives. His education was at Eton College and New College, Oxford, where he won the Chancellor's Essay Prize and received First Class honors in the school of Jurisprudence.  

He entered the Diplomatic Service on leaving Oxford, and he served subsequently in Vientiane, Pretoria, Paris, and Bogota.  

Upon retiring from the Diplomatic Service in 1967, Mr. Ziegler joined the London publishing house of William Collins, where he became an editorial director in 1972 and Editor-in-Chief in 1979. He left the publishing house in 1980, when he was appointed to write the official biography of the Earl Mountbatten of Burma. In 1987, he edited a first volume of Lord Mountbatten's diaries, which is to be followed by two further volumes. In that same year, he was commissioned by The Queen to write the official biography of King Edward VIll, and he currently is at work on that project.  

Mr. Ziegler became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1975 and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1979. He was chairman of the London Library from 1979 to 1985, and currently he is Deputy Chairman of the Society of Authors.  

His publications include: The Duchess of Dino (1962); Addington (1965); The Black Death (1968); King William IV (1971); Omdurman (1973); Melbourne (1976), which won the Heinemann Award; Crown and People (1978); and Mountbatten (1985).  

Mr. Ziegler is married and has three children. 


Biography appears as published in 1988. 

“Leave the past to history especially as I propose to write that history myself.”

Winston S. Churchill