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Birth Anniversary: Winston Churchill, a Glitch to India’s Freedom

A hero of the Second World War, the man who led Britain as it stood alone against the might of the Nazis, a great orator. But the myth of Winston Churchill has not stood untarnished in much of the West, particularly the United States and Great Britain.

In recent years, Churchill’s reputation and his legacy has been questioned by noted scholars like Christopher Hitchens.

When it came to India too, Winston Churchill was far from sympathetic. He was a champion of colonialism and opposed to Indian independence, famously insulted Gandhi and by an act of willful negligence, caused the deaths of millions in the Bengal famine.

However, even in his attitude towards India there are shades of grey.

A White Man With a Burden

Churchill waves to a crowd in London after he announced that Germany had been defeated in WWII. (Photo: Public Domain Image)
Churchill waves to a crowd in London after he announced that Germany had been defeated in WWII. (Photo: Public Domain Image)
The princes, the Europeans, the Moslems, the Depressed classes, the Anglo-Indians - none of them know what to do nor where to turn in the face of their apparent desertion by Great Britain. Can you wonder that they try in desperation to make what terms are possible with the triumphant Brahmin oligarchy?
Winston Churchill at a Speech in Albert Hall, London, 1931

Churchill’s views on India were fairly typical of British Conservatives at the time. He seemed to have bought into Rudyard Kipling’s idea of the ‘White Man’s Burden”. Lesser people, like us, were to be ushered into civilisation and modernity by colonial rule. Left to ourselves, we would likely descend to barbarity.

Unsurprisingly, Churchill was also a staunch defender of the British Raj and thought it was a force for good in the world. His love for the empire made him a strong opponent of Gandhi.

Gandhi with Sarojini Naidu in London (Photo: Public Domain/expired copyright)
Gandhi with Sarojini Naidu in London (Photo: Public Domain/expired copyright)
It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer of the type well-known in the East, now posing as a fakir, striding half naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.
Comment on Gandhi’s meeting with the Viceroy of India, Feb 23, 1931
He ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back.
Churchill in a conversation with Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India, 1921.

But perhaps Churchill’s greatest crime against India came during the Second World War, and it lead to millions of deaths.

Devastation Born of Negligence

Bengal Famine of 1941 (Photo: Public Domain in India )
Bengal Famine of 1941 (Photo: Public Domain in India )

Approximately 3 million people died in the Bengal Famine of 1941. Yes, there were natural causes and bad harvests that led to a shortage of food grain but the scale of the devastation was increased exponentially by the policies of the British government. Having lost Burma (an exporter of food to India) to Japan, Churchill continued to export food supplies from India to aid the war effort.

Winston may be right in saying that the starvation of anyhow under-fed Bengalis is less serious than sturdy Greeks, but he makes no sufficient allowance for the sense of Empire responsibility in this country,
Leopold Amery, Secretary of State for India on his conversation with Churchill reported in the BBC

Not a Black and White Story

So was Churchill simply a champion of colonialism, a hater of Gandhi and out-and-out apologist for the crimes of the empire he championed? On at least two important occasions, Churchill stood by moral principles and acquitted himself admirably.

Let me marshal the facts. The crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything. It was holding a seditious meeting. When fire had been opened upon it to disperse it, it tried to run away... Finally, when the ammunition had reached the point that only enough remained to allow for the safe return of the troops, and after 379 persons had been killed, and when most certainly 1,200 or more had been wounded, the troops, at whom not even a stone had been thrown, swung round and marched away. We have to make it absolutely clear – that this is not the British way of doing business. Our reign, in India or anywhere else, has never stood on the basis of physical force alone, and it would be fatal to the British Empire if we were to try to base ourselves only upon it.
Gandhi_Naidu_London: Gandhi with Sarojini Naidu in London (Public Domain/expired copyright)
Gandhi_Naidu_London: Gandhi with Sarojini Naidu in London (Public Domain/expired copyright)

As a Member of Parliament, Winston Churchill disparaged the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in no uncertain terms. In fact, his condemnation of the massacre on the floor of the House of Commons echoes Gandhi’s sentiments after the incident. Gandhi had remarked on how the Raj had lost the “moral right to rule India” after the massacre.

For all his dislike of Gandhi while he was Prime Minister, Churchill was willing to praise the Mahatma when he felt it was due. One of his major problems with Gandhi and the Congress party had been that they would stand for “brahminical rule”, and the ‘untouchables’ of India would suffer if the British left.

Soon after his derisive comments in 1931, Churchill wrote to GD Birla in 1935 to register his appreciation for Gandhi.

Mr. Gandhi has gone very high in my esteem since he stood up for the untouchables… I do not care whether you are more or less loyal to Great Britain . Tell Mr. Gandhi to use the powers that are offered and make the thing a success.
Winston Churchill to GD Birla in 1935

(On his birth anniversary, The Quint reposts this piece on Winston Churchill from our archives, originally published on 16 September 2016.)