In “The Gathering Storm,” a recent HBO movie, Winston Churchill is depicted at one point as an out-of-touch fool on the issue of Indian independence. This is the conventional view of Churchill as a hopeless reactionary in his opposition to a western pull-out from India. How, some liberal intellectuals and journalists ask, could such an insightful man lack such insight about India?
If India and Pakistan ever start a nuclear war, Churchill’s critics may table this question. They may come to see his fears for India’s de-westernized future as one more proof of his prophetic gifts.
Churchill knew that a western retreat from India would not eliminate problems, but create new, far scarier, ones. What the liberals of his day called “progress,” he called a prescription for religious war.
“The withdrawal or suspension of British control means either a Hindu despotism,” he said in 1930, “or a renewal of those ferocious internal wars which tortured the Indian masses for thousands of years before the British flag was hoisted in Calcutta.”
This is precisely what happened: the British took their hands off the lid on Hindu-Muslim tensions, it popped off, and a blood bath, covering a million or so lives, poured forth.
Churchill had a very dim view of liberal compassion in India. It would lead not to peace and justice for its supposed beneficiaries, but to violence and tyranny.
“To abandon India to the rule of the Brahmins would be an act of cruel and wicked negligence. It would shame for ever those who bore its guilt,” he said in 1931. “These Brahmins who mouth and patter the principles of Western Liberalism, and pose as philosophic and democratic politicians, are the same Brahmins who deny the primary rights of existence to nearly sixty million of their own fellow countrymen whom they call ‘untouchable,’ and whom they have by thousands of years of oppression actually taught to accept that sad position. They will not eat with these sixty millions, nor drink with them, nor treat them as human beings. They consider themselves contaminated even by their approach. And then in a moment they turn round and begin chopping logic with John Stuart Mill, or pleading the rights of man with Jean Jacques Rousseau.”
Liberals, Churchill said, sought to give democracy to leaders who wouldn’t practice it, and grant peace to people who wanted war. “India will fall back quite rapidly through the centuries into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages,” he said.
These days liberals call for peacekeepers and an impartial third-party to govern the dispute between India and Pakistan. But in Churchill’s day, they wanted all such troops and third-parties banished from the region. Churchill, on the other hand, viewed Britain’s “appeasing sceptre” as the only instrument with which to keep the Hindus and Muslims “dwelling side by side in comparative toleration.”
“While the Hindu elaborates his argument, the Muslim sharpens his sword. Between these two races and creeds, containing as they do so many gifted and charming beings in all the glory of youth, there is no intermarriage. The gulf is impassable. If you look at the antagonisms of France and Germany, and the antagonisms of Catholics and Protestants, and compounded them and multiplied them ten-fold, you would not equal the division which separates these two races intermingled by scores of millions in the cities and plains of India,” he said.
“Were we to wash our hands of all responsibility and divest ourselves of all our powers, as our sentimentalists desire, ferocious civil wars would speedily break out between the Muslims and the Hindus. No one who knows India will dispute this,” he said.
No one who knows India today can dispute it either. Churchill’s vision was remarkably clear. Nothing illustrates this better than that the progressives who have long chuckled over his insistence on a Western presence in India now worry about its absence.