Caroe's lessons

Print edition : May 19, 2006

The book dips into archival material to trace the strategic thinking of Sir Olaf Caroe, a distinguished Foreign Secretary of the Raj.


The Future of The Great Game: Sir Olaf Caroe, India's Independence, and the Defense of Asia by Peter John Brobst; The University of Akron Press, Akron, Ohio; pages 199, $39.95.

SOME time ago I asked Caroe's `Brains Trust' to produce a comparison between India and China as future Great Powers, e.g. in material resources, man power, political stability, organisation. They produced an interesting paper which I read today. The general conclusion was that there was not much in it, but that China was tougher and had been through the fire both of internal revolution and of external invasion, while India had not and was softer." Lord Wavell, the Viceroy, wrote this comment in his Journal on September 18, 1944, when India was under British rule and the Second World War had not ended. (Wavell: The Viceroy's Journal edited by Penderel Moon; page 90).

No Indian politician, academic or journalist thought of the prospect which exercised a foreigner who knew that the Raj would have to end not long after the war came to a close. Wavell was referring to Sir Olaf Caroe, ICS (Indian Civil Service), who was Secretary in the External Affairs Department. It sired the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).

Olaf Caroe belonged to a distinguished band of Foreign Secretaries who thought afar and left a legacy. Unlike Mortimer Durand and Henry McMahon, his impact was not in the realm of action but in the realm of strategic thinking. He was one of the most cerebral of them. He influenced and helped K.M. Panikkar, K.P.S. Menon and A.S.B. Shah. He read classics at Oxford and served in the Army during the First World War. His forte was geopolitics. He divided the world into "Seven Theatres of Power". The Gulf was an area of particular concern. He learned Urdu, was fluent in Pashto, studied the Akbarnamah and preferred the ICS to the British Foreign Office. In 1923, he joined the Indian Political Service; served as Foreign Secretary (1939-45) and as Governor of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) from March 1946 to June 1947. Jawaharlal Nehru hounded him out of this office after a sustained campaign of vilification. Since Caroe was opposed to the establishment of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah refused to recall him to that post after Partition and appointed George Cunningham, instead.

In retirement, Caroe joined the influential Round Table group, contributed to its journal and to the Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society. He wrote three influential books - Wells of Power (on security in the Gulf), The Pathans (a classic), and Soviet Empire (on Stalin's policies in Central Asia).

The Department of External Affairs then administered British protectorates in the Gulf, including Kuwait, Bahrain and the Trucial States. Until 1937, Aden was governed from Bombay. The External Affairs Department manned consulates in China, Central Asia and West Asia.

Caroe has been greatly misunderstood and his influence was vastly exaggerated. His futurology reflected a paternalistic romanticism. But there was a kernel of sound sense in his assessments, which have stood the test of time. He dared to think and thought creatively, though he was alarmist at times. Nehru's main concern vis--vis China was preservation of the McMahon Line. He was dimly aware, if at all, of the Aksai Chin till late in the day. As far back as on November 20, 1950, he said: "Our maps show that the McMahon Line is our boundary and that is our boundary, map or no map... and we will not let anybody come across that boundary."

No official did more to fortify India's case on the Line than Caroe did as Deputy Secretary. London had refrained from publishing the Shimla Convention of 1914 and the India-Tibet exchange of notes on the Line that year in order to give China time to come around. Caroe realised that this created uncertainty. He got published these documents and a map which showed the Line as the boundary. He wrote to R.A. Butler, Under Secretary at the India Office on March 4, 1937, warning him that the consequences of "our failure to publish the 1914 agreement with Tibet" enabled China's cartographers to absorb chunks of Indian territory in that sector. One finds, again and again, British officials in India remonstrating with London when Indian interests were neglected in framing imperial policy.

All this was known. What Prof. Peter John Brobst of the University of Ohio at Athens, Ohio, has done is to delve into the archives in the British Library in London and present instructive chunks from the treasure trove, which reveal the range and depth of Caroe's thought and that of his colleagues in what Wavell called his "Brains Trust". Brobst's comments, for the most part, are apt. The sole blemish is the author's projection of the Great Game, of which Kipling wrote in Kim, to the present day and an obsession with it that drives him mercilessly to irritate the reader with constant and irrelevant references to "the Great Game". This is a truly path-breaking and invaluable work. Not surprisingly, no Indian scholar has cared to explore this path.

Contrary to an Indian myth, India's "partition represented the failure and not the fulfilment of imperial design. Pakistan as the keystone of an Islamic alliance was a rationalisation of partition, not a motive. Indeed Caroe's geopolitical thinking weighed heavily against such a step. Supposedly one of its primary architects, Caroe in fact endorsed the creation of an independent Pakistan only in the difficult last resort, offering compelling evidence of the instinctive aversion that officials of the Raj generally felt toward partition."

As far back as June 28, 1935, when he was Deputy Secretary, Caroe wrote to the Secretary of State for India about "the new political forces... at work in Eastern and Central Asia". He was appalled at the "typical British and British Indian apathy" towards issues of security. In 1942, he set up the "Viceroy's Study Group". In a major paper dated April 26, 1942, he wrote that "a realisation is needed in the highest places that India cannot build a constitution unless the frontiers are held and the ring fence in some manner kept standing". It was entitled "Whither India's Foreign Policy". Two others he wrote bear mention. They are "Some Constitutional Reflections on the Landward Security of the India of the Future" (August 18, 1944) and "The Essential Interests of the British Commonwealth in the Persian Gulf and its Coastal States, with special reference to India" (1944). The Planning Division of the MEA set up in 1966 has been a joke from the inception.

In 1942, Caroe noted that intelligence assessors at the Foreign Office had "with a few exceptions in relation to Japan, been able to give little thought or study to the problems of Asia and none at all to India". India apart, he said, "the countries on the Indian Periphery all the way from the Middle East to Malaya are conspicuous by their absence". As a result, Caroe had "been considering means whereby we in India might be able to do something to fill this lacuna".

Jawaharlal Nehru with Olaf Caroe, then Governor of North West Frontier Province, in Peshawar on October 31, 1946.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Lord Linlithgow was Viceroy then. Even this wooden man felt the need for "some reflection to be undertaken", an exercise which India's leaders and diplomats find irksome and unnecessary. Prof. Brobst rises to the challenge of analysing the material. Archival discoveries supplement his own able research. Unlike some, he does not simply dish out the discovered documents, prefacing them with a perfunctory introduction.

The study group comprised senior officers from both the ICS and the Indian Army. General Sir Alan Hartley, Deputy Commander in Chief of the Indian Army; Major-General Walter Cawthorn, Director of Military Intelligence; Sir Theodore Gregory, an economist; and Sir Everlyn Wrench, in the Finance Department. Sir Maurice Gwyer, C. J. of the Federal Court and one of the principal draftsmen of the 1935 India Act, participated actively. So did Peter Fleming, Ian Fleming's older brother who had travelled extensively in Chinese Central Asia in the 1930s and had come to India in 1942 to organise strategic deception operations. Among the founding members was H.V. Hodson, Constitutional Adviser to the Government of India, who became Editor of The Sunday Times.

Two members especially influenced the agenda of the group. One was Guy Wint, an established expert on the history and politics of Asia. During the war, Wint was officially attached to Britain's Ministry of Information. Another key figure in the study group was Lieutenant-General Sir Francis Tuker, who joined in 1944. In 1946 and 1947, Tuker was GOC-in-C, Eastern Command.

Members presented papers to the study group anonymously, although Caroe kept a master list of the authors that he eventually sent to the India Office. Copies of papers were sent to the Viceroy and the C-in-C. The group met in the homes of members. Minutes of discussions were carefully maintained.

When Caroe emphasised to a colleague in London, on September 13, 1945, the "concept of India and [the] centre of [an] Asiatic System" he articulated a concept which lay at the core of Nehru's vision. "In the modern world it is inevitable for India to be the centre of affairs of Asia." Caroe wrote on August 18, 1944: "All who look forward to the emergence of India as a Great Power must assume and work for her unity." He was a true friend of India whom Nehru woefully wronged.

Caroe told the Study Group in 1941: "It was clear that with India on the threshold of greater industrialisation and increasing world importance, wider and fuller education was necessary on technological grounds to meet the rising demands for labour capable of efficient work with modern machinery in all forms." Use of Indian languages would help to improve the situation. He argued that the dominance enjoyed by English as the language of instruction had historically "acted as a deterrent to students and has thus restricted the spread of education", adding that "in India the second language had not to be acquired as we learn French to widen our outlook and open new doors, but as a medium of actual instruction in, e.g. mathematics". Caroe worried that the effect was "to render higher education unassimilable [sic] save for the ablest of all, and thereby to destroy the basis of all sound education". The use of English had provided a unifying force among India's elite, but like Tuker, Caroe recognised that defence had to be placed on a more popular footing. No longer, he warned, would it suffice to draw India's leadership "solely from the wealthy classes or from those who can afford to pay university fees".

Second to Caroe, if that, was Tuker's strong emphasis of India's importance in the future. He wanted to publicise the "certainty that India would be the centre of (the Indian Ocean) region". Tuker noted an Indian trait before it surfaced after Independence. It was in a paper entitled "Defence and National Efficiency" (1945). It was ignorance married to chauvinism.

Brobst does justice to archival material because his research in published matter is excellent. One dreads the prospect of an academic adventurer proceeding to London to publish the papers with an ignorant and chauvinistic Introduction. Incidentally, besides the papers, the minutes of discussion in the Viceroy's Study Group are also available in that library.

On January 7, 1943, the Group contemplated "a high-class magazine" on defence "appealing to the Indian intelligentsia". It would present "articles on all current important world problems in a way calculated to stimulate thought and encourage ideas which could be contrasted or compared with the affairs on which Indians now concentrate their whole attention".

Sir Maurice Gwyer contributed a paper on "Post-War Security in the Indian Ocean" in May 1944, in which he warned against trying to influence Indian thinking on security lest it be misconstrued "as an ingenious device of imperialism to reimpose control".

The author records in detail Caroe's interaction with and help to Panikkar, K.P.S. Menon and A.S.B. Shah. They shared a passion for strategic literacy. Neglect of India's external relations by British as well as Indian leaders depressed Caroe.

Brobst takes the reader through Caroe's theories on "India's Outer Ring", the Buffer System, much of which became irrelevant after Independence. Guy Wint was much more realistic than Caroe. Advances in military technology and the rise in air power had undermined the traditional role of the buffer states. He wrote on June 7, 1943, a paper entitled "Some Problems of India's Security", in which he pointed out that just "as Louis XIV, when his grandson ascended the throne of Spain, remarked that the Pyranees had ceased to exist, so today have the Hindu Kush virtually ceased".

Caroe's concern with the Soviet Union and China's "expansionism" is well known. But then, Nehru himself voiced the same apprehension in an interview to C.L. Sulzberger of The New York Times reported in The Times of India (April 27, 1950). "More and more" the Soviet Union was following a "nationalistic expansionist policy". The author perceptively notes: "Historians point out that the views represented by Caroe and Wint tended to embed a fossilised Russophobia and to reflect a blinkered ideology of anticommunism. In hindsight, British fears between late 1939 and early 1941 that the Soviets would attack Southwest Asia and perhaps even India itself were exaggerated. British suspicions about the Nazi-Soviet Pacts as an inducement to Soviet expansion at the expense of the British Empire slighted the intricacies of Soviet policy. Such criticism, however, can itself be carried too far. British thinking was complex and far from a knee-jerk response."

Nor has China proved revanchist as Caroe feared. It settled border disputes efficiently and fairly. India remains the sole exception for reasons Indians are not prepared to recognise. Interest in Tibet's autonomy was understandable, but there was scant interest in China's perceptions. Eventually, Caroe's "Inner Ring" (Balochistan, Nepal and the Naga Hills) proved as obsolete as the Outer Ring.

It is unfortunate that Nehru fell out with this dedicated official. He formed the Interim Government on September 2, 1946. Only a month later he began itching for a tour of the tribal areas in the NWFP. He went there against the advice of Gandhi, Patel, Azad, Wavell and Caroe. The four-day trip in October was a disaster. Predictably, the reception was hostile. We have a fair and objective account of the entire episode in Parshottam Mehra's excellent work The North-West Frontier Drama 1945-1947: A Reassessment (Manohar; 1998). It is based on extensive research in British archives and lives up to the high standards of Prof. Mehra's research. Far from conspiring against Nehru, Caroe asked Mountbatten to persuade Jinnah to instruct his followers not to hold demonstrations against Nehru. The Deputy Commissioner, Mardan, C.G.S. Curtis saved Nehru's life. Nehru, sporting his half-baked Marxism, talked of "class conflict" and abused the tribal leaders ("pensioners"). He went there for partisan ends, impetuously enough, and conducted himself arrogantly. Caroe was made a scapegoat for Nehru's follies. Since Nehru was "indispensable" to Mountbatten's success, Caroe had to go. In 1963, Nehru invited him as a state guest to help co-ordinate work for the Tibetan refugees.

India's High Commissioner in London, B.K. Nehru, wrote a note of thanks to Caroe on February 1, 1975, for his support to India's absorption of Sikkim within the Union of India.

Brobst fully demolishes the myth which Selig S. Harrison and Chester Bowles fostered that the United States arms aid to Pakistan was inspired by Caroe's Wells of Power. Caroe's visit to the U.S. State Department in May 1952 left him feeling insulted.

In retirement, Caroe received attention and respect given to few. He foresaw a lot, misunderstood a lot. Brobst makes the perfect comment on his contribution when he writes that "a combination of anachronism and prescience... . characterised so much of his thinking".

Fundamentally, Nehru's world view clashed with Caroe's. Fundamentally, Nehru was right on non-alignment. It is true, of course, that he had in 1948-49 sought an alliance with the U.S. and was rebuffed. Non-alignment is, however, a non. It no more indicates how a country pursues its interests than calling a person non-married indicates how he or she pursues happiness.

K.P.S. Menon wrote in his autobiography Many Worlds (1965; page 271): "A Foreign Office is essentially a custodian of precedents. We had no precedents to fall back upon, because India had no foreign policy of her own until she became independent." He was grossly unjust to the Foreign Secretaries who preceded him - like Caroe. The National Archives of India refute him. A Foreign Office is no mere "custodian of precedents" either.

What he added reveals a lot; everything, in fact: "Our policy therefore necessarily rested on the intuition of one man, who was Foreign Minister - Jawaharlal Nehru. Fortunately, his intuition was based on knowledge... " The first part was, tragically, all too right. The second was preposterously wrong.

Nehru had, broadly, two aims in sight - promoting India globally and checking Pakistan, especially on Kashmir. In March 1947, he wrote a memo on Germany's reunification. He dictated - rather tried to - terms to the U.S. on a peace treaty with Japan. Nehru stipulated cancellation of the U.S.' alliance with Japan and surrender of its bases.

His note to Vallabhbhai Patel on November 8, 1950, said: "The fact remains that our major possible enemy [sic] is Pakistan. This has compelled us to think of our defence mainly in terms of Pakistan's aggression. If we begin to think of, and prepare for, China's aggression [in Tibet] in the same way, we would weaken considerably on the Pakistan side" (Sardar Patel's Correspondence; Volume 10; page 344). Nehru's use of the word `enemy' betrayed an outlook he tried to conceal.

Eventually, he lost the friendship of both and drove the two into an embrace in 1963. How? The reason is not addressed at all. The stark truth was that temperamentally Nehru was a unilateralist. His note to Sheikh Abdullah on August 26, 1952, spelt out this line. In Delhi Pakistan's Prime Minister Mohammed Ali was reminded that "in the balance, the Indian army was stronger than the Pakistan army and we would win in the end" (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Volume 28, page 249). To the world he would counsel against a talking from a position of strength: "It is the approach which uses the words: `Let us have a tough policy, let us speak from strength.'"

If vis--vis Pakistan he banked on superior armed power, vis--vis China he unilaterally altered "all our old maps dealing with this frontier" which would then be treated as a "firm and definite one which is not open to discussion with anybody" (July 1, 1954; SWJN, Vol. 26, page 482). That spelt a deadlock. Here China was the more powerful adversary. But, then, Nehru was unaware of even the concept of limited war and imagined that any armed conflict with China would lead to a world war.

Even on international issues Nehru was a unilateralist; flouting international law and morality he asserted an exclusive right to the upper riparian (India) to deal with the waters as it pleased. This was said in regard to the Farakka Project on March 12, 1960 (Sharing the Ganges; Ben Crow & Ors; page 64). It was unilateralism rampant, throughout.

The country has paid a heavy price in its foreign and domestic policies for practising the personality cult and neglecting professionalism. The Caroes had a lot to teach us.

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