Title: Liberty of Death
Author: Patrick French
Publisher: Penguin Press
PP: 496 pages
It has been extremely difficult to find an unbiased book written on the history of independence of the sub-continent. Primarily based on the British intelligence reports (declassified in the mid 1990s), French meets this gap. He depicts well historical Gandhi, Patel, Jinnah, Bose and Nehru. He also depicts well the then British leaders.
According to a 1945 map (included in the book), princely states constituted close to half of India while British India was the remaining half. When the leaders were busy in liberating British India, it was only Patel who was planning for the fate of the princely states.
While Gandhi was more of an anti-modernization Hindu saint, Jinnah and Nehru were modern and secular. Another secular leader Bose was the only one who understood the possibility of removing the British rule by force as the British constituted significantly less than one percent of the Indian military. The British leaders also understood this and they agreed for Indian independence when Bose already began to attract many native military to revolt. The role of Gandhi’s non-violence movement seems to have impacted very little.
Jinnah is depicted as the most intellectual type leader of his time. After failing to convince his Congress colleagues for the protection of minority interests including interests of Muslims, Sikhs and low-caste Hindus, he was pushed to join the Muslim League movement for Pakistan. The League was created in Dacca and the Pakistan proposal was formally presented by Fazlul Haque (a Bengali leader) at a Lahore meeting. Pakistan movement was primarily carried out by Muslim leaders of North India and Bengal while leaders (like Sikender H. Khan of Punjab, Abdul Gaffur Khan of NWFP, the leader of Sind, and others) of what is Pakistan today actually opposed the idea of Pakistan. When the British accepted the idea of Pakistan in Muslim majority states of British India, it was Patel and his close associate Menon who were primarily responsible for the partition of Bengal and Punjab. Jinnah, the supreme Muslim League leader at that time) was given the choice of taking or loosing a truncated Pakistan. Nehru’s personal relationship with the family of Mountbatten also contributed to the decision. As part of the deal Mountbatten became the first governor general of independent India! Shortly after independence, Mountbatten helped Patel to take over one after another the majority of the princely states. Unlike Nehru and his descendants, Patel never cared for higher position. He worked behind the scene for greater interest of independent India and he is the real father of the nation.
To be consistent, French’s interviews with people from all the three countries should have resulted in some remarks on the later generation of leaders including Indira Gandhi, Bhutto, and Mujib. He tactfully remained away from making any prediction over the future of the sub-continent.
Although the subcontinent is similar to Europe in having many languages and ethnic groups, unlike Europe, India was more or less one country for most of its history including the Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim periods. The creation of Pakistan and Bangladesh did not make their people better of than the people of India. Certainly, the minority elites are better off. But the vast majority of the people are worse off. It is high time to think about a united India with full state/provincial autonomy. History needs to repeat soon. This way the problems of military conflicts, management of major watershed of the Himalayas including Farakka, and high overhead costs of central governance can be minimized.