‘One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic’

Who is to blame for the chaos that marked India’s partition and independence? The hot money has always been on Earl Moutbatten. Not so, says Patrick French, the British historian. It was all Clement Attlee‘s fault.

The Labour prime minister has often been credited with granting India independence and generations of Indians in Britain have voted Labour in gratitute, but French writes in The Times, London, that Attlee—“the unnamed guilty man of India’s slaughter”—was the man who made all the key decisions back in London.

“Clement Attlee, quiet and uncharismatic—like John Major but without the circus background—makes an unlikely villain, but he was responsible for the key decisions.”

“Attlee hated the camera as much as his last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, loved it. A recent biographer repeats the common claim that in India he (Attlee) ‘achieved what virtually no one else, in any country, has achieved, before or since: to withdraw in good order from a vast slice of Empire’.

“This is palpably untrue: through his action and inaction, Attlee facilitated mass slaughter but never took the blame for it. In later life, he said that giving India Independence was his greatest achievement. As Josef Stalin observed, one death is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.

“Attlee gave Cyril Radcliffe, a British barrister, six weeks to invent a new dividing line. This uncertainty over boundaries was the proximate cause of the mass migration and ethnic cleansing.

“On the day when Radcliffe’s boundary was announced, Attlee held an emergency cabinet meeting over a currency crisis: the meat ration was cut, foreign holidays were banned, and the convertibility of sterling was suspended. India was the last thing on his mind.

“Today the carnage is often presented as the product of atavistic rivalries and larger historical forces, rather than the consequence of gross political incompetence. The BBC2 epic The Day India Burned: Partition has the best broadcast interviews I have ever seen with survivors and perpetrators of the 1947 massacres, but ignored Attlee altogether.”

Read the full article: The unnamed guilty man of India’s slaughter