Britain's precipitous and ill-planned disengagement from India in 1947condemned as a "shameful flight" by Winston Churchillhad a truly catastrophic effect on South Asia, leaving hundreds of thousands of people dead in its wake and creating a legacy of chaos, hatred, and war that has lasted over half a century.
Ranging from the fall of Singapore in 1942 to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, Shameful Flight provides a vivid behind-the-scenes look at Britain's decision to divest itself from the crown jewel of its empire. Stanley Wolpert, a leading authority on Indian history, paints memorable portraits of all the key participants, including Gandhi, Churchill, Attlee, Nehru, and Jinnah, with special focus on British viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten. Wolpert places the blame for the catastrophe largely on Mountbatten, the flamboyant cousin of the king, who rushed the process of nationhood along at an absurd pace. The viceroy's worst blunder was the impetuous drawing of new border lines through the middle of Punjab and Bengal. Virtually everyone involved advised Mountbatten that to partition those provinces was a calamitous mistake that would unleash uncontrollable violence. Indeed, as Wolpert shows, civil unrest among Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs escalated as Independence Day approached, and when the new boundary lines were announced, arson, murder, and mayhem erupted. Partition uprooted over ten million people, 500,000 to a million of whom died in the ensuing inferno.
Here then is the dramatic story of a truly pivotal moment in the history of India, Pakistan, and Britain, an event that ignited fires of continuing political unrest that still burn in South Asia.
Winston Churchill characterized the British withdrawal from India as a "shameful flight," a judgment that Wolpert, a leading American historian of South Asia, reinforces in this detailed and thoughtful study. Wolpert gets behind the inflamed partisan rhetoric of the day and explores the complex web of relationships involving Hindus and Muslims, British civil servants and British politicians. The partition of India led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, an outcome Wolpert argues was not necessary. It was a horrible end to British imperialism. Wolpert traces the tragic climax back to the missteps in leadership among all those involved, most particularly the last viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten. His study begins in February 1942 with the fall of Singapore to the Japanese and the failure of Sir Stafford Cripps' mission seeking Muslim and Hindu support for the war effort and ends with the Indo-Pakistani war over Kashmir in 1948. He examines almost month by month the developments that brought different leaders to center stage -- where they invariably proved to be failures.