The brilliant British philosopher and activist offers his views on Indian independence.
Malvern, Pa., August 27
Dear Sirs: The Indian situation is dangerous, and if it is to be wisely dealt with, clear thinking is very necessary. I find in some quarters a lack of clear thinking which may increase the dangers that we all wish to diminish.
There are some points about which we are all agreed. First, the Indian difficulty must be handled in the way most likely to help in winning the war. Second, as soon as the war is over, India is to have independence–as complete, at any rate, as Great Britain or any other country will have. The only practical question at issue is: what is to be done during the continuance of the war? I feel that neither the British government nor the Congress Party is treating this question in the way most likely to lead to victory. Many people in America seem to feel that Gandhi must be in the right since he stands for national independence; others feel that loyalty to an ally makes criticism of the British government impolitic. Both seem to me mistaken. On the one hand, insistence on immediate independence, with all the confusion resulting from a transfer of government in the middle of a war, would probably end in the enslavement of both India and China to Japan. On the other hand, the problem of India, since it is part of the problem of victory, is a problem on which all the United Nations have a right to a voice.
The question of India is much more complex than it appears to many American liberals. They do not know that one of the points on which the Cripps mission broke down was the unwillingness of the Hindus to admit that Moslems have the same right to independence from Hindus as Hindus from British. They do not face the difficulties of a complete change of government when a Japanese invasion is imminent. They profess to think that Sir Stafford Cripps’s promises are not to be trusted. They imagine that if the demands of the Congress Party were granted, India would become enthusiastic for the war, although the example of Ireland should suggest the contrary. They attribute the poverty of Indians to the British, in spite of the fact that the poverty of China has always been at least as great. Mr. Louis Fischer, in The Nation of August 22, mentions that the infant death rate is 274 in Bombay as against 66 in London, and remarks that “such figures burn deep resentment, hatred, and disloyalty into the soul of India.” The implication that the higher death rate of Bombay as compared with London is entirely the result of British misgovernment is most unfair. Bombay has a hot climate and a high birth rate; London a low birth rate and a temperate climate. I have no doubt that the British government could have done more than it has done to reduce the high infant death rate, just as the government of the United States could have done a great deal more than it has done to reduce the death rate among the children of Southern Negroes; but there is no reason to suppose that fewer children would die in Bombay if British rule were to be succeeded by a government headed by Mr. Gandhi. Some years ago Mr. Gandhi stated that the earthquakes then troubling India were sent as a punishment for sin. This attitude has never been very effective against a high infant death rate. And Mr. Fischer should remember that there is every reason to think that the death rate in China, before the beginning of the war with Japan, was at least as high as in India.
Above all, American liberals refuse to face the difficulty of establishing Indian independence overnight when every scheme hitherto suggested, whether by Indians or by the British, is vehemently rejected by a large section of Indian opinion.
The British government has been gravely at fault in the past, and Mr. Churchill has been even more reactionary than the government, as appeared in his opposition to the Government of India Act. In these circumstances it is not surprising that Sir Stafford Cripps’s promises were not received at their face value. This difficulty, had it stood alone, could have been easily overcome: his promises could have been guaranteed by the United Nations. But this difficulty did not stand alone. The demand that India should be given full independence here and now is incompatible with victory, and would not be made by the Congress Party if it thought the defeat of Japan more important than immediate emancipation from England. It is this demand that creates the apparently insoluble difficulty. I believe, however, that a solution is still possible, though at some cost to British amour propre.
India, as an imperial possession, is lost to England; everyone in England, including Mr. Churchill and Mr. Amery, knows this. The problem is to make the transition to self-government without handing India over to Japan. This problem concerns China and Russia just as much as it concerns England. It should be dealt with, not by England alone, but by the United Nations jointly. There should be appointed, with the consent of the British government, a commission, of four men, chosen respectively by the British, American, Soviet, and Chinese governments, with full power to negotiate with all sections of Indian opinion and to make recommendations keeping in mind two objectives: first, that the war must be won; second, that Indian independence should be granted as soon as it can be granted without hindering this first objective. If, as I believe, complete independence cannot be granted now without retarding the conduct of the war, the commission would probably find that some of the functions of government could he transferred without delay. There should be, at the earliest possible moment, interim measures to produce an armistice in the present Indian conflict and, later, considered proposals for a permanent settlement. The British government should undertake to accept the findings of the commission provided the other three governments did so. If any section of Indian opinion rejected them it would be in effect siding with the Japanese and would have to be treated as a hostile force.
The measure should he regarded as a first step toward the establishment of an inter-Allied authority for deciding questions of common concern; and such an authority, in turn, should be viewed as the nucleus of a future international authority for the preservation of peace. Complete national independence, even for the strongest nations, has become an anachronism, since it can only lead to successive enslavement by predatory powers. For the same reasons a private imperialism, such as that of England in India, is equally an anachronism. But those American liberals who ‘think that insurgent nationalism is right while imperialist nationalism’ is wrong are still living in the nineteenth century.