In April 1919, a group of soldiers led by a man named Dyer fired at a crowd of unarmed Indians at the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. Speaking in the House of Commons, Winston Churchill described this as ‘a monstrous event’, a ‘great slaughter or massacre upon a particular crowd of people, with the intention of terrorising not merely the rest of the crowd, but the whole district or country’.
Churchill was then the Secretary of State for War, and this was most likely his first public utterance on Indian affairs. His last such utterances date to the mid 1950s, when he and Jawaharlal Nehru were both Prime Ministers of independent nations. Now, Churchill expressed much admiration for Nehru as a man who had ‘conquered two great human infirmities’: fear and hate. In one fanciful moment, he even saw his fellow Harrovian as the ‘Light of Asia’, who was shaping the destiny of hundreds of millions of Indians and playing an ‘outstanding part in world affairs’.
Churchill’s first and last statements about India were notably sympathetic to nationalist sentiments. But his record in-between was truly dreadful. Indeed, a whole book might be written about Churchill’s tirades against this country and its peoples. These came in two phases. The first phase ran between 1929 and 1932, when the Gandhian movement had made the discussion of Indian self-government central to British politics. In October 1929, when the Viceroy (Lord Irwin) suggested Dominion Status for India, Churchill called the idea ‘not only fantastic in itself but criminally mischievous in its effects’. As an ambitious politician currently out of power, Churchill thought it necessary to marshal ‘the sober and resolute forces of the British Empire’ against the granting of self-government to India.
Over the next two years, Churchill delivered dozens of speeches where he worked up, in most unsober form, the forces hostile to the winning of political independence by people with brown (or black) skins. As the historian Sarvepalli Gopal writes, in these speeches Churchill ‘stressed not only the glory but also the necessity of empire’. The glory was to India, for in his view, without the Raj there would be little peace and less prosperity. And the necessity was to England, for if the Raj ended, then ‘that spells the doom of Lancashire’. Churchill assiduously stoked fears of an economic recession if access to Indian markets and goods was denied. Appealing to the basest prejudices of his audience, he claimed that the ones who would really benefit from any sort of decolonization were rival European powers.
Speaking to an audience at the City of London in December 1930, Churchill claimed that if the British left the sub-continent, then ‘an army of white janissaries, officered if necessary from Germany, will be hired to secure the armed ascendancy of the Hindu’. Speaking at the Albert Hall three months later, he claimed that ‘to abandon India to the rule of the Brahmins [who in his view dominated the Congress party] would be an act of cruel and wicked negligience’. If the British left, ‘India will fall back quite rapidly through the centuries into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages’.
Through the late thirties Churchill thought (and spoke) little about India. But then in 1940 he became Prime Minister, and had to confront the question as to what would happen to Indians after the Allies had won a war ostensibly fought to preserve freedom. As the diaries of his Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery, make clear, Churchill was implacably opposed to all proposals for Indian self-rule. In July 1940, Amery found Churchill ‘terribly exalté on the subject of India and impossible to reason with’. When, in March 1941, Amery expressed his ‘anxiety about the growing cleavage between Moslem and Hindu’, Churchill ‘at once said: “Oh, but that is all to the good”’ (because it would help the British stay a while longer).
An entry of September 1942 in the Amery diaries reads: ‘During my talk with Winston he burst out with: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion”’. A year later, when the question of grain being sent to the victims of the Bengal famine came up in a Cabinet meeting, Churchill intervened with a ‘flourish on Indians breeding like rabbits and being paid a million a day by us for doing nothing by us about the war’.
On 4 August 1944, after four years of suffering these outbursts, Amery wrote that ‘I am by no means sure whether on this subject of India he [Churchill] is really quite sane…’. To this let me append the comment of Lord Wavell, who as Viceroy of India between 1943 and 1945, likewise had much to do with Churchill. In his diary, Wavell concluded that the British Prime Minister ‘has a curious complex about India and is always loth to hear good of it and apt to believe the worst’.
Published in The Hindu, 5/6/2005