British Empire Books

Liberty or Death

AuthorPatrick French

Despite an interesting premise, in many ways this is a disappointing book. The book is about the struggle for Indian independence and the partition that went with that newly found freedom. The book draws on the authors own personal experiences in the sub-continent, interviews with those who remember the partition and research into recently declassified intelligence reports. Unfortunately, these sources are put together in a less than coherent manner and the book itself, although interesting in places, reads more like a travelogue than a serious historical work. And it is on his historical ideas that the book falls furthest from grace.

It becomes quickly evident that Patrick French has a view of Imperialism as seen through late Twentieth Century glasses: That is, hugely discredited and almost always bad. He finds it difficult to go back into the past and see the future through his subjects eyes. To French, The British Empire was always heading towards its own self-destruction. For example, from the Eighteenth Century Indians worked for the British, only to undermine its authority from within (pp 6-7). Of course, the idea that all Indians worked for the British just to overthrow the regime is clearly ludicrous, but it fits the authors views on Imperialism and so he feels compelled to quote it as if it were a fact.

The flip side to the authors sympathies with the Indians is that the British must have been ogres. Due to the authors late Twentieth Century, liberal sensibilities he cannot accept that the highest praise that a Briton might bestow on an Indian at the turn of the century would be to have labeled him "... as truly a white man among Indians."(pp 8-9) To French, this marks Charles Hardinge, who uttered these words, as a racist scarred by the Imperial experience. He cannot seem to penetrate an early Twentieth Century mindset that might actually believe that what it was doing was for the best of the Britons and Indians alike. You might not agree with their suppositions, but you have to recognise that most imperial actors were genuine in their conduct and actions. Unfortunately, this book is filled with errors of this kind.

In fact, one of the best assassins of the authors views is an Indian himself. The author, in one of his descents to travelogue, follows the salt march route taken by Gandhi (I should have seen this as a neon-warning before I started reading the book). He tries to reinforce his late Twentieth Century guilt trip by finding Indians that agree that Imperialism was an evil institution. Unfortunately, he finds that the vast majority are a) ambivalent and if pushed b) non-commital to British rule. He tries to push one poor source (who happened to see Gandhi on his original march) withs about the British:
"but weren't you glad when independence came?"
"The British never came into my village, and I don't like to travel to the city. The government makes the rules and I live my life. It makes no difference, same to same.
"So how old were you when you saw your first European?"
"Around thirty years old, when a man like you came here following the salt march of Gandhi-ji, and asked the same question."
This exchange says more about the author's misreading of history than anything that I could say. To his credit, at least the author had the courage of including this discussion in his book.

The other major failing of the book is that the author attaches to much importance to his own sources. It seems that the author feels that he has had some kind of historical 'exclusive' by being the first person, in his words, to examine the records of the intelligence agencies. Now, these may well be important sources and may throw valuable light on the events leading up to Indian independence however, the historian must be careful. First of all, an intelligence agency is just like a person in that they like to overstate their importance in events. In fact, an intelligence agency is probably a less reliable witness than a person in that their very existence is based on the fact that they must deliver results, opinions and justifications. They would always have to seem as if they knew what was going on even if they didn't, otherwise somebody might pull the plug on their operations. Reading this book, you might be forgiven for thinking that British India was run like Stalin's Russia - with operatives running about with cloaks and daggers and planning the destiny of millions. Soldiers, bureaucrats, police and businessmen had little or no part in running French's British empire. Again, it is his lack of critical historical skills that undermine the credibility of this book.

In its defence, the book is well written and flows reasonably well. Indeed, the book does improve the further into the book you read. The last section of interviews with Indians who remember partition is probably the most eloquent and interesting section of the book, and this is probably because he leaves out his own historical views and moralising and lets his subjects reach their own conclusions. However, this is not a book that I could recommend to anybody with any serious interest in the events leading up to partition some fifty odd years ago.

Buy this book at: Amazon

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by Stephen Luscombe