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British author feels not quelling partition violence in 1947 was a 'terrible mistake'

In a new book, British author Barney White-Spunner says not prevent the violence in Punjab during the 1947 partition was a 'terrible, terrible mistake'

Barney White-Spunner
Barney White-Spunner

You say that you have approached the book as a soldier. What were your initial reactions while researching the events?
Having a long interest in India, and a fascination for Indian history, I had never been able to understand why the 5,00,000 strong British Indian army and the 50,000-odd British troops in India were not deployed into the Punjab to prevent the terrible violence of 1947. As a soldier myself, I found this incomprehensible. There were no other effective forces of law and order in India by the summer of 1947. In particular, the Punjab police had virtually collapsed and had lost the confidence of the Sikh community after the Rawalpindi massacres of March 1947. Preventing internal unrest was what the British Indian Army was largely constructed for. I have discovered some interesting and disturbing reasons why it didn't happen - partly because of the attitude of the Labour government in London, partly because of the attitude of Auchinleck, the commander-in-chief, partly because of Mountbatten and partly because of Congress' view. It was a terrible, terrible mistake. People say the army couldn't have been used because of the way it was recruited - specific units from specific communities and about 60% of it was from Punjab. Yet, there were 30,000 Gurkhas who were seen as neutral, many units from the south and east - and then why were British soldiers not used? Because London said they could only be used to protect European, not Indian lives.

You were once a soldier, serving in Iraq. Writing a book on the Partition of India seems like a diametrically opposite journey.
No, not really. Think about the links. I was a senior Brit responsible for trying to make sense of the latter part of a British intervention that had overstayed both its welcome and its utility. I was working at that political/military interface whereby we had to turn sometimes vague political intent into policy that worked on the ground amidst the fear of increasing violence. Does that not ring any bells? I think my background puts me in a strong position to analyse just why the Brits made such a mess of things. Even though 1947 is now 70 years ago, the pressures and mindsets of the major actors are familiar.

How has your perception of India changed over the course of writing this book?
A realisation that the tragedy of 1947 has had such an impact on modern India and on the lives of so many Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Also, an appreciation that, despite the events in Punjab, the UK enjoys - both as a nation and as a people - a deep and warm friendship with India and Indians, as we also do with Pakistan and Bangladesh. This relationship seems to have got even stronger since 1947, which is testimony both to Indian forbearance and also to just how much modern Britain has been influenced by the 350 years of association [with India].

Partition: The Story of Indian Independence and the Creation of Pakistan in 1947 is published by Simon & Schuster

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