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Churchill’s Blunder: Iron Rule of the Raj in India

“I am by no means sure whether on this subject of India [Churchill] is quite sane.”

—Leo Amery, Secretary of State for India and Burma

One of the few strengths Great Britain had during World War II was its empire – a globe-spanning holding so vast that it was truthfully, and often, said “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” The empire’s most valuable possession, its “Jewel in the Crown,” was India. As Great Britain fought for its life in Europe, Indian nationalists saw an opportunity to finally achieve independence from the Raj, as British viceroy rule in India was called. But Churchill, a Victorian to his marrow and whose father Lord Randolph Churchill had been Secretary of State for India, believed that the British Empire represented the forces of light against the forces of darkness as epitomized by Adolf Hitler.

On Aug. 20, 1940, just four months after becoming prime minister, in a speech to Parliament Churchill thundered, “The British Empire stands invincible. . . . [And] will kindle again the spark of hope in the breasts of hundreds of millions of downtrodden or despairing men and women throughout Europe.”

In 1885, Lord Randolph Churchill said, “Without India, England would cease to be a nation.” In 1941, it was a sentiment immutably echoed by his son. Thus the stage was set for a conflict within a conflict, between the irresistible force of Indian nationalism and the immovable object of one of the greatest statesmen of the twentieth century.

The most influential leader of Indian independence was Mohandas Gandhi of the Indian National Congress (INC) the largest political organization in the country. A lawyer who received his degree in London, he became a political activist in 1893 as a civil rights advocate for Indian expatriates living in South Africa. Though a pacifist, he conducted a war recruitment campaign in India for the British Army during World War I, which brought him opprobrium and which he later regretted because of its compromising of his nonviolent principles. For much of the interwar years he concentrated on resolving a number of social injustices within India as well as advancing the cause of Indian independence. Ultimately Gandhi’s stature grew to the point where he became the living symbol of Indian independence.

Churchill saw Gandhi’s rise as a dangerous threat. On March 18, 1931, in a speech titled “Our Duty in India,” Churchill minced no words about it: “Gandhi stands for the expulsion of Britain from India. Gandhi stands for the permanent exclusion of British trade from India. . . . You will never be able to come to terms with Gandhi.” The first sentence was true, the second an exaggeration, the third, false – in point of fact on the subject of India, it was with Churchill that one would never be able to come to terms.

During the years when Churchill was out of power, Britain had slowly moved toward granting India greater autonomy. But when Churchill became prime minister all that diplomatic effort was tossed out the window. Churchill rejected an INC offer of military support in return for independence made in September 1940 and refused to address any change in the status quo until after the war was won.

A new threat for Indian independence came from an unexpected quarter in March 1941, when the Atlantic Charter between the United States and Great Britain was signed. The document included a joint declaration calling for “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they live” and the restoration of self-government to those deprived of it. Churchill interpreted the language as applying only to the conquered peoples of Europe, but members of Britain’s colonial office saw that it could be applied to their empire as well. Churchill quickly made it publicly clear that his interpretation carried the day. For many Indians, this exposed Churchill as a hypocrite, to the point of being a racist – the Atlantic Charter was a “white European” document – colored peoples under colonial rule need not apply.

Churchill enforced his words with deeds – authorizing the imprisonment of INC leaders – and thought he had brought India to heel by October 1941. And, on the one hand, Churchill succeeded. When enlistment appeals were made, 2.5 million Indian men volunteered for the British Army and served with distinction. But the truth was Churchill’s unilateral actions only raised the level of the reactionary dike holding back the floodwaters of independence.

On the subject of empire, Churchill would later famously say, “I have not become the King’s first minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” He would confront that very possibility in August 1942, when Gandhi launched his Quit India Movement.


DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...