Farrukh Dhondy looks back at Indian succession on its 50th anniversary
The justification for Patrick French's account of India's freedom movement is that he has access to new material which is "intelligence" - the gathering of secret information by the British about the personalities, plans and strategy of their opponents in the Indian national movements.
There is also a second justification, and that is that French will not only present us with the facts that a hundred other books have rehearsed, and the portraits and thesis that are the common currency of the Transfer of Power literature, but that through his skills as an interviewer he will give us a context of the present into which this painstaking history fits.
The first claim is at best an exaggeration and at worst a fraud. It is as though socio-anthropologico-pharmacological studies had revealed after 10 years of research that smoking damages your health. One knew the conclusion anyway.
The facts and judgments gleaned from "intelligence" networks of the time lead French to a conclusion one has heard and read before: "I came to realize that the British decision to quit had been based on neither altruism nor strategic planning. It was not the logical culmination of a policy of benign imperial stewardship, like a kindly parent allowing its child to ride its bicycle unassisted from the moment it learned to pedal. Nor was it the inevitable consequence of unquenchable socio-political forces, with the people of India rising up as one to drive the invaders into the sea." Full marks. Smoking causes lung disease.
The book should have been called Liberty and Death because liberation was accompanied by the most shameful event in the modern history of the Indian people, the "ethnic cleansing" of Partition in which between one and two million people lost their lives, and anywhere between 14 and 17 million were forced to flee their homes.
The merit of French's compilation is that it brings the story of the freedom movement, the sketch biographies of Jinnah, Nehru, Gandhi, Wavell, Mountbatten, Patel, Bose and others into the same book. The narrative of events is compellingly told. If the letters and confidential memos of the viceroys and other officials tell us anything new it is that the sub-text of the great non-violent movement of Gandhi was always painfully clear to them: the glove of non-violence was no more than a cover for the fist of vengeance. Smoking makes you cough.
Commander-in-Chief Auchinleck's report in December 1945 when things were hotting up was: "Congress will have learned from the 1942 disturbances how easily rail, road and telephone communications can be disrupted and the paralyzing (sic. It is aimed at the American market, or HarperCollins is employing Taiwanese proof-readers who learnt their English in LA) effect of such disruption." Very clever, these Congresswallahs.
The last section of the book is a series of interviews with people in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh about events, personalities, and questions of and beyond the movement for freedom.
If Liberty or Death had really been aimed at the American market, it could have generated a neat little conspiracy theory - Nehru was in love with Lady Mountbatten and together they got Dicky to concede Pakistan to Jinnah and the Muslim League, and sabotage its potential at birth so that it would sue for reunification with a Nehru India.
French's very British conclusion that muddle and fudge were the last weapons of the Raj and the real instruments of freedom, is closer to truth. Even so, one is left with the impression that French doesn't know why he is writing the book. Nevertheless, before taking the field, he decides to clear the other Brits and Indians who occupy it with a scatter-gun of an introduction, a statement of astounding conceit in which he confuses and confounds his raison d'etre. First he goes for the Brits: "For many years, British books on India formed a small but precise genre of their own, involving the use of phrases like 'the heady smell of spices and woodsmoke' and descriptive evocations of cruel maharajahs, sly holymen, rebellious tribesmen." It is a long time since any such book was published. There are at least 20 books by British authors quoted in his own select bibliography which are very far from evoking woodsmoke and sly holymen and whose facts and judgments form the substance of his own chapters.
Then he sees off the Indians, attacking the subcontinent's "generally flimsy historical or biographical writing. Too often a narrow, obfuscatory nationalism has been the only way of facing the region's history." Again, his own bibliography contains 50 books by Indians from which he has taken facts, anecdotes, events and descriptions. And how does this judgment about narrow nationalism sit with his approval of the following idiotic quote from one of his Indian friends? "How would you behave if a whole lot of Indians took over your country and forced you to wear dhoti-kurta and speak Hindi and eat with your hands?" I don't know. I'd join the Tory Party, I suppose.
Farrukh Dhondy is commissioning editor for multicultural programmes for Channel 4