Narendra Singh Sarila - heir to the princely state of Sarila in central India. An ADC to Lord Mountbatten, he later joined the Indian Foreign Service, where he worked from 1948 to 1985.


Amongst the more exciting books I have been able to catch up on recently is ‘The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition’ by Narendra Singh Sarila, a former Indian diplomat and prince. It deals with what he very convincingly portrays as the British plan to partition India, mainly to protect what it saw as its own strategic interests. 

I had been told about the book long ago, by its publishers in India, when I mentioned to them my own study of Paul Scott’s seminal account of the last days of the British Raj. That was entitled ‘Partition and Divided Selves: British Inadequacies in Paul Scott’s Raj’ and explored his literary exposition of the British betrayal of, not just the Indians, but also their own ideals. 

I had long thought Scott the most exciting and accomplished of British writers who began their career after the Second World War. He could draw a whole range of characters and enable us to understand the emotional and psychological springs of their interactions, and he did this through illuminating evocation of the social and political background. In the process he made us understand the impact of their milieu on their characters as well as the effect their own compulsions and actions had on the world around them. 

Since his subject was the partition of India, a phenomenon that still continues to affect the world at large, and in particular our region, what he had to say still repays study. He makes clear through one of his more positive characters his view of the moral implications of what the British engendered – “”The creation of Pakistan is our crowning failure…Our only justification for two hundred years of power was unification. But we’ve divided one composite nation into two.”’ Significantly, the tragedy is not just for the Indians (and I refer here to the original composite state, the massacre of whose people, Muslims as well as Hindus and Sikhs, Scott movingly portrays) but for the British too, for he notes that India was ‘the place where the British came to the end of themselves as they were.’ 

However my subject here is Sarila’s work, not Scott’s, interesting as it would be to look at that too in greater detail. Certainly I believe the Americans should, for what Sarila makes clear is how brilliantly the British took the Americans for a ride. Unlike Scott, who sees some decent elements amongst the British, and suggests that these were overcome – because of the solidarity the former felt obliged to extend to people of their own race and colour – by the dogged determination of the prejudiced, Sarila sees all important decision makers amongst the British as ruthless in their opposition to a united India.  

The rationale for this was very simply the strategic importance of India, and the continuing belief that Russian expansionism southward was the great bugbear that had to be protected against. The British thought that the Indian Congress would not prove a reliable ally in this exercise, and therefore wanted to detach a portion of India which would be tied to them for defensive purposes. 

Roosevelt, though more idealistic than Churchill, could understand this worry, but his view was that solid alliances with India and China, as emerging democracies, would be the best solution. The manner in which the British made mincemeat of this ideal is related forcefully by Sarila, as with for instance the removal of Colonel Louis Johnson, Roosevelt’s original envoy, who seemed sympathetic to Congress – which led Churchill to wire to Harry Hopkins, perhaps Roosevelt’s most influential adviser, that ‘We do not at all relish the prospect of Johnson’s return to India. The Viceroy is much perturbed at the prospect.’ 

Ironically, it was the Muslim card that proved the British trump in this instance, even though it was clear that the Muslims at large in India were not anxious for partition, or initially supportive of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, whom Sarila presents as the chosen instrument of British imperial policy. Of course Jinnah himself was emphatically secular in his approach, so perhaps neither the British nor the Americans later can be blamed for failing to understand that, by basing their strategy on religious distinctions, they were paving the way for more dramatic distinctions. But the British policy of pushing politically moderate Muslims (including the Pathans who had been solid supporters previously of the Indian Congress) into Jinnah’s extremist camp led inevitably to theoretical concerns about identity, since naturally a new country could not base its existence either on Jinnah’s ambitions or on Britain’s own strategic requirements. 

Sarila’s account, it should be noted, is presented not in terms of recriminations, but for a better understanding of how productive policies should be formulated and implemented in the future. He concludes with also highlighting the ‘errors of judgment of the Indian leaders’ that contributed to partition, and trusts that awareness of all the causes ‘might help India and Pakistan in search for reconciliation’. 

Fortunately that now seems a priority for both countries, though we have to note that one of the most worrying aspects of the initial act of partition was a sense of fragility. In India the better judgment of later politicians (albeit not always, it should be added), plus solid economic and social strategies, has now ensured a united nation. Pakistan however went through the trauma of its own partition, and has still not overcome the deep cultural divides between even its current provinces, divides the British ignored, perhaps believing that religious conformity would suffice to bridge them. 

Paul Scott : 1920 - 1978

Indian unity and strength are now obviously seen as advantages by America, and I would have thought the same would apply to Britain too. However, as Paul Scott notes, Britain is full of adventurers with their own agenda, and one can never be too vigilant. The recent British coverage of the Indian election suggested an almost pernicious glee about what were presented as powerful nationalist tendencies in the South and the possibility of a hung Parliament. Of course journalists are anxious for sensational stories, and they could well have believed what they were saying, but one cannot ignore the possibility of particular mindsets amongst their informants. 

For Sri Lanka, study of what Sarila has to say is also important, given continuing British animosity to Sri Lanka, as exemplified most recently in its seminal role in trying to hold up GSP+. The common belief is that all this is due to electoral politics, and the performances of so many British politicians at the Global Tamil Forum suggest that they are anxious, given the vagaries of their electoral system, to avert the swings that the LTTE-oriented diaspora might precipitate. But I think we also need to worry about at least a few individuals continuing to play the Great Game – and I think a reading of Sarila’s book would also help to convince the Americans, who seem to have been unduly influenced by the British in recent months, that the predilections and prejudices of friends can sometimes be dangerous.