Winston Churchill loved India but hated Indians, a seemingly anomalous stance which is all too common among imperialists, who tend to disdain inhabitants of coveted lands. It’s worth asking how these divergent strands of Churchill’s thought – his desire to keep India under British rule and his extreme distaste for the real people who lived in that country – coexisted.
In opposition to granting India independence, Churchill once famously declared that “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” Yet virtually everything Churchill said about India demonstrates that for him those who lived in India were, quite frankly, beneath contempt.
“I hate Indians,” Churchill once said, “They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” On another occasion Churchill said that Indians were “the beastliest people in the world, next to the Germans.”
Hindus, Churchill thought, were a “foul race protected by their pollution from the doom that is their due.” (This attitude, common enough among the British ruling class, had far-reaching consequences: it led the rulers of the Raj to try and divide Hindus from Muslims, cultivate an Islamic elite as an alternative to the Indian National Congress, and ultimately to support the partition of the subcontinent along religious lines).
As historian Christopher Thorne noted in his masterful 1978 book Allies of a Kind, Churchill’s ethnic hubris had real consequences on policy, notably in the low priority that was given to famine relief in the 1940s (at least a million Indians starved to death during those years). Tales of hunger and misery in India were often occasions for Churchill and his cronies to make quips. On one occasion, urged to release food stocks to alleviate a famine, “Churchill responded with a telegram asking why Gandhi hadn’t died yet.”
Thorne’s summary of how Churchill’s government handled of Indian policy is worth quoting: “It was not simply that these affairs showed up a side of Churchill that was ignorant, ugly and at times vicious… or that they revealed something of the way in which Cherwell approached the sufferings of the coloured peoples he found so distasteful. The Cabinet as a whole, with obvious exceptions such as Bevin, were wont to discuss India’s problems, be they starvation, communal strife, or the country’s economic structure, in a manner which, as we have seen, Wavell for one found appalling in its insouciance.”
Insouciance is a very good word, suggesting as it does a kind of aristocratic fecklessness.
The Churchill paradox – a desire to rule coupled with a contempt for those ruled, leading to irresponsible governance – is common to many different types of imperialists. Don’t we see something like this in our own time? Isn’t it the case that those who are most eager to extend American power in the Middle East are also the very people who are most contemptuous of living, breathing Muslims? (Mark Steyn and Norman Podhoretz come to mind as examples). And doesn’t this combination of a desire to exercise imperial power fused with a disdain for those ruled lead to a repeated advocacy of policies that are not just wrong-headed but actually feckless, irresponsible, and divorced from reality?
In this sense, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are right to see themselves as heirs to Churchill.