British Empire Books

Farewell Raj
Witness to End of Empire

AuthorTony Hearne
PublisherTommies Guides
First Published2009

Farewell Raj is a book that took me by surprise especially as the title does not prepare you for the full journey of the author's story. At first, I thought that this was going to be a book that took a fairly conventional, if wistful, view of India in the twilight days of empire. Indeed the first third of the book seemed to confirm that. It told the story of a hard working colonial family growing up in the privileged atmosphere of Northern British India. The father was a provincial civil servant and the children were sent to boarding schools - fairly typical. The author did mention the impact of the war and spoke highly of the loyalty and contribution of the Indian Army in the overall war effort. In fact the opening paragraph seemed to imply that the British ruled India with a paternalistic benevolence 'firmly and occasionally harshly, when the necessity arose, but never brutally.' These are fairly standard views that have been written many times by many old India hands. So for the first third of the book, I thought I was reading a fairly standard autobiographical account but then the book took a turn for the unexpected.

The story of the author taking a train ride from Calcutta to Lahore in the days after Indian independence forms the central core to the book. He recounts his demobilisation process, accepting a job in Kuwait of all places and going back to visit his parents before setting off on his new career. So far - so matter of fact. He goes on to explain how the train was to be used as a troop train for the Frontier Force Rifles - a unit that was heading north to the newly created Pakistan. He wonders why there is a delay in setting off and recounts the troops being disarmed before being boarded. He gives a very respectful account of the two Muslim subalterns that he shares a compartment with. Again, nothing particularly out of the ordinary. But he then slowly builds the tension as he recounts the story of his journey northwards in post-partition India. You have to read the book to appreciate the full substance of what he has to say - but he was obviously an eyewitness to events that Westerners rarely get to hear about or appreciate the size and scale of. Suffice it to say that he finds himself with another British ex-soldier on a train that has been led into a quite deliberate and well planned ambush. The regular regimental British officers had been separated from the rest of the train - although those doing the separating were unaware of these two other British ex-soldiers aboard. The two subalterns did everything they could to protect their carriage mates but were killed in the merciless ambush. The author is in no doubt - and his evidence is quite compelling - that this deliberate massacre of Pakistani troops was done with the connivance of the Indian military and/or politicians. Although he does find it harder to ascribe a motive to these murders.

His story does not finish with his frantic escape from the burning wreckage of the ambushed train - in fact, it has barely started! He then has to get himself, his injured colleague and two sepoys to the relative safety of a railhead back to civilisation or a British army base somewhere. He eventually manages to get to Ludhiana only to see that the communal violence of post partition India was tearing old established communities there into shreds also. He finds that much of the local Muslim community has tried to find escape and relative safety at the train station. These refugees found that the trains were no longer running and that they were a concentrated target for retribution. The author and his small band tried to help as much as they could by disposing of the decaying dead bodies and making life difficult for those attacking the refugees. Eventually, a form of transport was rustled up that allowed the author to drive a busload of women and children out of the city in the general direction of Pakistan. The book then recounts this horrific journey - in fact it has some truly awful details that make you question how humans could possibly inflict such barbarity on to their fellow humans. The climax of going through the border from India to Pakistan seems straight out of a Hollywood film - except with more casualties. This journey also reminded me of the Israeli award for 'righteous gentiles' awarded to those non-Jews who did not turn their backs on Jewish suffering and tried to help during World War Two. If Pakistan has something similar then the author should certainly be considered a recipient for trying to help so many women and children reach sanctuary. Then again, he probably would have done something similar going in the opposite direction - if he had been travelling south and had found Indian women and children requiring help.

But the book has still got yet another twist in the tail! As if all that excitement and high stakes morality were not enough - the author, a railway policeman and his father attempt to get to sanctuary in Kashmir - only to find that the post partition madness has not spared this area either. In fact, the fighting over Kashmir is still not fully resolved to this day. There is yet another, if darker, twist to the story and the author and the policeman find themselves resorting to some disturbing means to survive on the lawless frontier of a nation on the brink of anarchy. This review cannot do justice to the actions and motives portrayed in the book. You will have to read it to discover the actions undertaken. It is interesting to try and think how you would have reacted in similar circumstances. They do at least survive and make it back to a semblance of civilisation.

This is an intensely personal book. The events have clearly stayed with the author for his entire life. In many ways, the book feels as if the author is cleansing his soul by bearing witness to the events he saw and the actions he undertook and this is what makes the book such an emotional and powerful book. Really, it should not be called 'Farewell Raj' - as that is only incidental. It should perhaps be called 'Post-partition Madness' or 'Journey through Hell' - for it feels that the author's travels are the true focus of the book. The author is scathing of the speed of decolonisation and in fact, many would agree that there was an indecent haste to quit India. Mountbatten personally brought the timetable forward earlier than it was supposed to be! We often hear of the disturbances and of inter-communal violence that broke out in the aftermath of independence. But for some reason, the large numbers of sufferers bandied about in their millions seem to be proportionate and somehow acceptable in a nation as populous as India. Additionally, it was the Indians and Pakistanis themselves who suffered - not the British. We therefore are not exposed to the full extent of the horrors perpetrated there. The author has done us a service by providing a compelling eyewitness account. I said that the 'Farewell Raj' title was somehow inadequate - however it has a subtitle 'Witness to End of Empire' and this is a far more accurate description of the service provided to us by Tony Hearne. I urge you to read this book to get a fascinating insight into some dark days in the immediate aftermath of decolonisation.

Buy this book at: Amazon or at Abebooks

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by Stephen Luscombe