As Indian independence day approached - August 15 1947 – an Indian ‘nationalist’, one M.R. Jayarkar, wrote to the-then British prime minister, Clement Attlee, that Attlee had “enabled Macaulay’s hope to be fulfilled”. Attlee himself regarded Indian independence “probably” to be his greatest achievement – ahead of the formation of NATO, sending British troops in support of the American war in
But what sort of ‘independence’ did Attlee have in mind and negotiate with Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders of the ‘freedom’ struggle? There is an interesting clue in Attlee’s private papers which I have had the privilege of reading over the past few weeks.
Among those papers, held at Oxford’s Bodleian library, there is an interesting item dated 8 July 1947, just a few weeks ahead of India’s ‘tryst with destiny’. One entry of special interest contains quotations from two nineteenth-century imperial administrators – Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence and Mountstuart Elphinstone – both of whom foresaw the ‘end of empire’. Rather than despairing of what they both believed to be an historical inevitability, Lawrence and Elphinstone, among others, urged British rulers to prepare the way for a peaceful, negotiated settlement with the sort of people that could be trusted to govern India in an ‘enlightened’ and noble manner, i.e., ensure the security of British interests. Which brings us to Lord Macaulay, according to whom
Henry Lawrence argued the same: “We cannot expect to hold
Montstuart Elphinstone, before he rose to become Governor of Bombay in the 1850s, noted in his journal that, “The moral is that we must not dream of perpetual possession, but must apply ourselves to bring the natives into a state… beneficial to our interest as well as their own, and that of the rest of the world.” Twenty years earlier, Elphinstone wrote in his diary that “The most desirable course for events in that country to take is that European opinions and knowledge should spread until the nation becomes capable of founding a government of its own, on principles of which Europe has long had exclusive possession.”