On March 6, 1947, not long after Britain had set a timetable for withdrawing both its troops and administration from India, Winston Churchill rose to speak in the House of Commons.
"The government by their fourteen-month time limit have put an end to all prospect of Indian unity," he said, denouncing this cut-and-run philosophy as "Operation Scuttle." "How can one suppose that the thousand-year gulf which yawns between Muslim and Hindu will be bridged in fourteen months?… How can we walk out of India in fourteen months and leave behind us a war between 90 million Muslims and 200 million caste Hindus? … Let us not add–by shameful flight, by a premature, hurried scuttle–to the pangs of sorrow many of us feel, the taint and smear of shame."
Sound familiar? Sixty years and some flowery rhetoric may separate Churchill’s speech from George W. Bush’s recent address, but arguments for maintaining colonial rule in India are almost identical to the justifications offered for the continuing presence of US troops in Iraq and escalation of the war.
To leave would be irresponsible, would open centuries-old wounds, spark civil war and generally do a great disservice to these people who have had the good fortune to be conquered and pillaged by us. They need and want us, though they have yet to find a way to show it. For deep down they understand that before they can be freed, they must first be subjugated.
Such is the catch-all defense of colonial regimes under pressure to withdraw.
Sometimes these predictions of chaos and bloodshed are borne out–for example, given free rein, strife between Muslims and Hindus in India did lead to at least half a million dead and 12 million homeless in the wake of independence. Often, however, they are not. Less than a month before South Africa’s first democratic elections, the Sunday Times of London warned of "a Bosnia raging on the southern tip of Africa." South Africa, it was claimed, "is a mishmash of 11 tribes and lacks the typical requirements of a functioning democracy," and stood poised on the verge of "decades of ethnic strife and the unnecessary deaths of thousands." What actually happened was the birth of a flourishing democracy that has shown far more stability over the past thirteen years than, say, Italy or Russia.
In the case of Iraq it would be wrong to insist that things could not get worse in the short term if US troops leave. We simply don’t know. The point is that they will clearly not get better so long as the troops remain. Whatever the solution to these deep-seated ethnic, religious and sectarian conflicts might be, it is certainly not occupation. The partition of Pakistan and India was ugly. But colonialism was no less ugly and provided no better solution.