Problems of Early Withdrawal

British withdrawal from India

  • After the World War – II, the nationalist forces had gained upper hand in the struggle for hegemony over Indian society
  • Nationalism had penetrated into hitherto unpoliticized and apolitical groups
  • The labour government elected in Britain after the war was in a hurry to leave India.
  • British Prime Minister Clement Attlee in his famous statement on 20th February, 1947 to the British Parliament set a deadline of 30th June, 1948 for transfer of power
  • Lord Mountbatten replaced Lord Wavell as the new Viceroy of India.
  • The Mountbatten Plan of 3rd June, 1947 was soon announced to devise a way for partition of the country and transfer of Power
  • Under the Mountbatten Plan it was decided the British Rule in India would end with effect from 15th August, 1947
  • While the communal tension was already rising in India, haste made by the British to leave India made the situation worse

Rationale for an Early Date

The rationale for the early date for transfer of power (15th August 1947) were as following:-

  • The British wanted to secure Congress’ agreement to the dominion status
  • As an additional advantage, the British could escape the responsibility for the worsening communal tension.

Problems of Early Withdrawal

The British not only abdicated responsibility for growing messy situation in India but the speed with which the withdrawal took place, made the situation worse. The seventy-two day timetable, 3rd June to 15th August 1947, for both transfer of power and division of the country, was to prove disastrous. Arranging partition details in such a short span of time, under Lord Mountbatten, created many anomalies and failed to prevent the Punjab massacre.

  • As the historians believe, peaceful division could take a few years at the very least. As it happened, the Partition Council had to divide assets, down to typewriters and printing presses, in a few weeks.
  • There was a complete absence of any transitional institutional structures within which the problems of partition could be tackled.
  • Mountbatten had hoped to become the common Governor General of both India and Pakistan. It would have provided a much needed link in the governance
  • However it could not happen as Jinnah wanted the position of the Governor general of Pakistan for himself.
  • Hence, even the joint defence machinery set up failed to last beyond December 1947 by which time Kashmir had already been the scene of a military conflict rather than a political settlement.
  • The Boundary Commission Award was ready by 12th August, 1947 but Mountbatten decided to make it public after Independence Day, so that the responsibility would not fall on the British.
  • The delay in announcing the Boundary Commission award (under Radcliffe) made the situation very complex in already communally charged atmosphere.
  • The Punjab massacres that accompanied Partition were the final indictment of Mountbatten.
  • British officials were hesitant in taking decisions and intervening. They did not know how to handle the situation.
  • Nobody knew who could exercise authority and power.

Could the mess made by the early withdrawal be avoided?

  • From the British point of view, a hasty retreat was perhaps the most suitable action.
  • Later, Mountbatten defended his advancing the date to 15th August, 1947 on the ground that things would have blown up, had the British not left India when they did.
  • As a matter of fact, in the short term the British could assert their authority, but did not care to.
  • When people started to panic, they appealed the British official for help. However, the reluctant British officials asked them to go to Jawaharlal Nehru, M.A. Jinnah, Mahatma Gandhi and Vallabh Bhai Patel, for help.
  • Many Indian historians believe the situation, rather than warranting withdrawal of authority, cried out for someone to wield it.
  • Many senior British officials in India like Jenkins, the Governor of Punjab and Auchinleck, the Commander-in- Chief were of the view that peaceful division of the country could at least take a few years.
  • But the haste made by the British to quit India and to transfer the power proved to be disastrous for the country.

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