In 1970, I was 19 and had many heroes. Over twenty years had passed since the end of the Second World War and the Independence of India but the legacy of 89 years under the British Crown was strong in my country.
Being an avid reader of military history from my childhood, naturally many of my heroes were of the victorious British forces during the Second World War. Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader, Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC, Field Marshal Lord Slim, Group Captain Sir Leonard Cheshire VC, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding are some names that come readily to mind. One also admired the simplicity and dedication to duty shown by King George VI during the war years. But all these names, the King Emperor included, were overshadowed in published literature by one man: Sir Winston Churchill, (1974-1965) the war time Prime Minister of Britain from 1940-45 and again from 1951-55.
He was a pugnacious and tenacious leader during the War, and the world still admired his ability to ignite defiance in his people during their darkest days. His war time speeches have gone down in history. His ” We will fight from the beaches” speech after the defeat at Dunkirk in 1940 and his speech in admiration of “The Few” following the Battle of Britain are but two examples. He emerged at the end of World War II at the height of his powers , forming a trinity set to rule the world. The others were his war time Allies, President Roosevelt of the United States and Stalin, the Prime Minister and undisputed boss of the Soviet Union.
Yet the tables turned , most unexpectedly for Churchill in the 1945 General Elections. The Labour Party was voted to power. Much to his shock, he was thrown out of office. The people had decided that he was a perfect leader for war but a bad choice for peace!
50 years have passed since 1970. Now, in my late 60s, I am able to re-assess Churchill in the light of more information available on his imperialistic policies. Clearly, the universal adulation for him as a defender of liberties for the Western democracies against Nazi Germany did not cover the Crown colonies. His attitude towards India and Hindus in particular was most questionable. He once said, ” I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” It is now well-known that he supported the Divide and Rule policy followed by the British in India which pitted Hindu versus Muslim. He tacitly supported the Muslims due to his hatred for Gandhi whom he called a ” half-naked fakir.”
Churchill would have loved to keep India in the British Empire. After all, it was the legendary jewel in the crown. However, the ruling Labour Government under Attlee agreed to the Partition of India. It is now well known that the last straw for a Britain crippled by the war came from the strong fear that the Indian troops would mutiny against the British.
In recent times, it is also clear that Churchill was responsible for the deaths of 3 million Indians during the Bengal Famine of 1943. The British Government could have done much more to save the situation. The crisis was man made. The hardships faced by the poor could have been mitigated. As those who died were Indians, Churchill was indifferent to the whole issue.
This brings me to the conclusion that everything depends on your perception of the issue. From the stand point of the British, especially during the Second World War, he was a most successful leader. From the Indian point of view, he was by today’s standards a die hard imperialist and a racist! It is widely reported that he prophesied doom for an independent India because of calibre of its politicians. Vadakkus has this interesting blog post on what Churchill actually said.
Yes, we have had our ups and downs as a country over the decades. Yet, not only have we survived but have done pretty well considering our size and the complexities of governing a very diverse democratic country like India.
In conclusion, Mr Churchill must be turning in his grave to know that India overtook both UK and France in 2019 to become the fifth largest economy of the world!