Before the advent of internet age, newspapers played an evermore critical role in writing the first draft of the history and in setting a precedent for how events and occasions would be remembered in future. Leading world newspapers from the New York Times to the Irish Times prioritised the event of Indian independence on their front pages, with typographical emphasis unspared in the employment of big, bold headlines, as this article shows. What is especially interesting is to examine how the British national press chose to interpret the end of its India empire, given that India was the proverbial ‘jewel of the imperial crown’ and easily its biggest source of income in the beginning of 20th century. Only a few years prior to Indian Independence, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill has infamously refused to “preside over the liquidation of the British empire.”
The pro-empire thrust of the British press in the 20th century is widely acknowledged, according to Chandrika Kaul, researcher at the School of History in University of St. Andrews. The press had always been a key player in the imperial project. Scholar Gauri Vishwanathan argues that British proved themselves to be fit to rule to its audience at home and abroad, more by representation than by actual behavior. And in that national press served as a major vehicle for representing these values and their political uses.
Self Congratulatory narratives
“Power is transferred at Midnight” “Indians Praise Britain” (Daily Telegraph)
“Power is handed over to India” “Lord Mountbatten on a friendly parting” “The End of an Era” (The Times)
“India is pledged to peace” “Midnight guns greet two new dominions” “An Accidental Empire ends” “Freedom Day” (Daily Herald)
“Farewell and Hail” (Manchester Guardian)
“India: The end of an epoch” (Spectator)
“Indian Link Arms — Great Freedom” (Daily Mirror)
“India greets Dawn of Independence” (Daily Worker)
The above are the August 15 headlines carried by some of the leading newspapers in Britain in 1947. As apparent from the various headlines, Kaul notes that in spite of the pro-empire trends and their vastly differing takes on domestic politics, the British newspapers were able to find a remarkably consensual, positive reception of India and Pakistan’s newly found nationhoods in the months leading up to August 1947.
One can argue that many of them awarded considerable credit of India’s independence to Britain itself. Both quality papers as well as the tabloids in British press portrayed the transfer of power to India and Pakistan as peaceful and as the ‘fulfillment of Britain’s mission’. Widely quoted and referred to, in these reports, was the Macaulay ideal of Britain’s “proudest moment” — a reference to an event in 1833, when Lord Macaulay, in his Minute on Indian Education, had declared that the eventual self-rule of India would be “the proudest day in British history.”
A ‘progressive mission’ completed
Kaul examines the ways in which India’s decolonisation was viewed as the fulfillment of 19th century ideals that purportedly underlay the very establishment of the empire. A cleansed version of British history in India was generally referenced in these stories. The liberal News Chronicle’s special correspondent Normal Cliff, contended, “Never has a great Imperial Power surrendered its proud domain or freedom been acquired by subject millions by so peaceful and friendly a transition”.
Even The Guardian, which had been ahead of its times in being supportive of Indian nationalism, stated how “freedom by a voluntary transfer of power was unique in the history”. It was further emphasised that Britain had gone to India “not to conquer, but to trade. Events not intention created the British Raj.” In fact, it credited the Raj for enabling “contact with the outer world” which facilitated the “recovery of a vitality and self-confidence” by the Indians. “As soon as this happened, the political changes now being completed could only be a matter of time, for Great Britain had neither the desire nor the ability to rule a people which had recovered the will to rule itself,” the piece read. The Observer emphasised the “moral and material benefits” that the Raj had brought to India, which included institutions like the Indian Army and the Indian Civil Service (ICS).
Grateful Imperial subject and Wise Colonial Master
The motif of the grateful imperial subject and the wise colonial master was amply present in the British press coverage of Indian independence. Conservative British newspapers such as Mail, Express, Telegraph and the Herald avoided a discussion on Indian nationalism and instead chose to focus on the gratitude expressed by the Indian leaders to the British. For instance, Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan was widely quoted as having said, “When we see what the Dutch are doing in Indonesia and the French in Indo-China, we cannot but admire the sagacity and genius of British people … as from midnight tonight we can no longer blame the Britisher”. Left out were all the details about exploitative and racist nature of imperialism and its deeply impoverishing impact on India.
The newspapers described Partition which led to the creation of Pakistan as a “misfortune” and a “tragedy”. Where the communal bloodshed was mentioned, the British steadfastly claimed no responsibility of it. The responsibility of it lay with the Indians. The Guardian maintained, “We have handed over India to the Indians: they have chosen what … seems a second best — a divided India. But it is their choice; if they come together well and good, but their destiny is in their own hands.”
The widespread publicity and coverage of Indian Independence, not only in print but audio-visually in newsreels was a managed staging, rather than an isolated coincidence.
The iconic Punch cartoon shows photographer Mountbatten trying to orchestrate the impossible trio post of the smiling British Lion and the two tigers representing the new dominions.
— Punch Cartoon Books (@PunchBooks) July 29, 2016
It was priority for Britain to see the last act of its imperial chapter unfold well, in the interest of international approval and not the least because it also hoped to maintain productive ties with the now independent colonies, where it still had powerful economic and strategic stake. Economists Michael Lipton and John Firn in their book ‘The Erosion of a Relationship,’ mention that by the end of 1950s British private capital in India was “well above the 1948 level”.
Britain had always been divided about how it felt about its Indian Raj — “a paternalistic despotism in the name of the superior Christian civilization or a progressive programme of improvements leading to eventual self-rule,” writes Kaul. The former sentiment had been more strongly grounded in the press, particularly in the right-leaning newspapers. But around the time of Independence, the press attitude took a new character, which reflected the latter. It was able to cast India’s Independence as a British achievement — reflecting Lord Macaulay’s dream in the 1830s — and an organic product of its long-term policy.
This collective honeymoon period of the Press did not not, however, last too long. It dissipated in less than a month alongside the reports about the Partition’s blazing fires. Once more the conservative papers reverted to questioning India’s capacity for self-governance and to the warnings of Churchill about the necessity of the British empire to maintain stability in India. Rebuking this wave, the progressive New Statesman, called it a “deliberate press campaign designed to convince the British public that the end of British rule in India has thrown the entire country into a state of anarchy”. And while the Partition massacres were “a ghastly by-product of painful rebirth” in India, they were “much less serious” than the 1943 Bengal famine which got “barely reported in England when more than one and a half million died”. The contrast points to the multiplicity of ideas floating at the time in the British public opinion above the severing of India.
The reversion of a part of the press to its skepticism about India’s independence soon after the event had a curious, ironic effect. They were able to vindicate and justify the British Empire, while simultaneously celebrating the loss of its crowning glory and deploring the violence of partition.
(The piece draws on history scholar Chandrika Kaul’s observations about British reportage in “Lord Mountbatten and the British Media at Independence”.)