Man of integrity

Published : May 18, 2007 00:00 IST

A fair appraisal of Archibald Wavell, who as Viceroy did his best to preserve India's unity.

ARCHIBALD Wavell was Britain's Viceroy and Governor-General in India from October 1943 to March 1947. This was the period during which the last chance to preserve India's unity collapsed, paving the way for India's partition. His successor, Lord Mountbatten, hurriedly arranged that for August 15, 1947. The massacres and refugee movements in its train need no recounting here. Mountbatten came to India with a brief to prepare for partition. Wavell had come to preserve India's unity.

In one of his first speeches shortly after his arrival, Wavell spoke of India's "geographical unity", which drew a strong attack from Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Maulana Azad recalled in his memoirs how Churchill and his coalition government (with the Labour Party) had shut the door to negotiations after the Congress' Quit India Resolution of August 8, 1942, and acknowledged: "To Lord Wavell must belong the credit for opening the closed door. In spite of initial opposition from the coalition government, he was able to persuade them to agree to make a new offer to India. The result was the Shimla Conference [1945]. It did not succeed but everything that has followed since then has been a logical development of the courageous step he took.

"I am confident that India will never forget this service of Lord Wavell and when the time comes for the historian of independent India to appraise the relations of England and India, he will give Lord Wavell the credit for opening a new chapter in these relations."

It is accepted by all that Wavell was a man of integrity and ideals. He was, however, a tragic figure, dismissed from high office by two successive Prime Ministers. Churchill dismissed him on June 22, 1941, from "the command of armies in the Middle East" and appointed him Commander-in-Chief in India in place of General Claude Auchinleck, who took over Wavell's job. In February 1947, Clement Attlee sacked Wavell as Viceroy. The decision had been taken much earlier, largely at the prodding of Stafford Cripps.

One hopes a fuller biography will be written. As the author records, "Wavell's private papers remained closed" during her research. She was permitted to quote from his unpublished letters and poems in other manuscript collections as well as from his publications. On these and other published material the author had worked hard. The result is a book that offers a fair assessment of the soldier and statesman. In both capacities he served nobly; in both fortune was unfair to him, as indeed were the two Prime Ministers he served so loyally.

Wavell was Commander-in-Chief in India when Cripps came to India in April 1942 with his proposals for a Congress-League agreement, which both the parties rejected. The Quit India movement followed. The Cripps Mission gave Wavell his first encounter with Indian leaders - and with Cripps, who instantly disliked him. It was to serve him well when the three-member Cabinet Mission arrived in India in March 1946 with Cripps as its dominant figure. Curiously, when Linlithgow quit as Viceroy in 1943, among those mentioned as possible successors was Mountbatten and Cripps. Churchill chose Wavell for the job, Auchinleck returning as Commander-in-Chief.

In 1945 Wavell announced, with London's approval, the release of Congress leaders from prison and the convening of a conference in Shimla. What the author's narrative brings out clearly is that the Secretary of State Leopold Amery sympathised with India's aspirations and, jointly with Wavell, put up a fight for reform, to Churchill's great annoyance.

Since access to the private papers were denied to her, it is not the author's fault that she could unearth nothing new about the collapse of the Cabinet Mission's Plan of May 16, 1946, based on India's unity. But she offers some good insights. Attlee began, unfairly, to doubt Wavell's ability, and suggested that he make Sir Maurice Gwyer, Chief Justice of the Federal Court, his "political adviser. Wavell resented the suggestion and offered to resign.

Cripps, who had struck a deal with the Congress to accept its interpretation of the Plan, was eager to get rid of Wavell. The Viceroy was the only one in the British establishment who stood by the Plan, which represented the last chance for preserving India's unity. His humiliation and tragedy reflected India's as well. Everyone suffered in reputation. In retrospect, Wavell emerges a taller figure in Victoria Schofield's eminently readable biography. His Breakdown Plan in late 1946 was unrealistic but London refused to give him a chance. Mountbatten led the path to partition and ruin.

"Wavell's relationship with Attlee as Prime Minister was less tempestuous than that with Churchill, but the two men had little in common and it was not in Wavell's nature to flatter Attlee any more than he had Churchill. In his confrontations with Churchill over India, he had at least had Amery's support; no such rapport ever developed with Pethick-Lawrence [Secretary of State for India]. Mountbatten had the advantage of having observed Wavell as he tried to reconcile the Muslim League and the Congress Party while at the same time reporting back to London; Mountbatten's insistence, before accepting the Viceroyalty, that he be granted plenipotentiary powers is evidence that he had learned from Wavell's experience." A fair appraisal.

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