Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British Empire in India

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Britain's precipitous and ill-planned disengagement from India in 1947--condemned as a "shameful flight" by Winston Churchill--had a truly catastrophic effect on South Asia, leaving hundreds of thousands of people dead in its wake and creating a legacy of chaos, hatred, and war that has lasted over half a century.
Ranging from the fall of Singapore in 1942 to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, Shameful Flight provides a vivid behind-the-scenes look at Britain's decision to divest itself from the crown jewel of its empire. Stanley Wolpert, a leading authority on Indian history, paints memorable portraits of all the key participants, including Gandhi, Churchill, Attlee, Nehru, and Jinnah, with special focus on British viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten. Wolpert places the blame for the catastrophe largely on Mountbatten, the flamboyant cousin of the king, who rushed the process of nationhood along at an absurd pace. The viceroy's worst blunder was the impetuous drawing of new border lines through the middle of Punjab and Bengal. Virtually everyone involved advised Mountbatten that to partition those provinces was a calamitous mistake that would unleash uncontrollable violence. Indeed, as Wolpert shows, civil unrest among Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs escalated as Independence Day approached, and when the new boundary lines were announced, arson, murder, and mayhem erupted. Partition uprooted over ten million people, 500,000 to a million of whom died in the ensuing inferno.
Here then is the dramatic story of a truly pivotal moment in the history of India, Pakistan, and Britain, an event that ignited fires of continuing political unrest that still burn in South Asia.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The independence of India and Pakistan in 1947 was a historical watershed that marked the end of the colonial era and the beginning of the liberation of the rest of Asia and of Africa. In his admirable account of this seminal event, Wolpert makes the compelling case that whereas independence and partition were inevitable, the horrible cost in the destruction of lives was not. He attributes the latter to a failure of political leadership, especially the British through its representative Viceroy Mountbatten, whose compulsive and egotistical conduct constituted a major contribution to the massive human disaster. This is a clinically powerful study of triumph and tragedy by a distinguished historian who is also a great humanitarian." --Jamsheed Marker, Former Ambassador of Pakistan and former Special Adviser to the Secretary General, United Nations

"In this engrossing, but very controversial, book, Wolpert considers the responsibility of the leaders, both British and Indian, for the immediate consequences of the partition in 1947 of British India into India and Pakistan when hundreds of thousands were killed in riots and millions became homeless refugees. Shameful Flight is sobering reading for anyone interested in the rise and fall of Western imperialism."--Ainslee Embree, Columbia University

"Wolpert's book is a delightful read and will shine for its stellar quality of scholarship among the growing body of partition literature that has surfaced in the last two decades. It will be of great interest to anyone curious about whatever happened to the great British Empire and those who often wonder why Indians and Pakistanis endlessly fight with each other."--Dilip Basu, University of California, Santa Cruz

"An entertaining and highly controversial account of the British transfer of power in India."--The International History Review

"A lively...account of the end of the British Raj...The text is well crafted." -- H-Net

Foreign Affairs
Winston Churchill characterized the British withdrawal from India as a "shameful flight," a judgment that Wolpert, a leading American historian of South Asia, reinforces in this detailed and thoughtful study. Wolpert gets behind the inflamed partisan rhetoric of the day and explores the complex web of relationships involving Hindus and Muslims, British civil servants and British politicians. The partition of India led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, an outcome Wolpert argues was not necessary. It was a horrible end to British imperialism. Wolpert traces the tragic climax back to the missteps in leadership among all those involved, most particularly the last viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten. His study begins in February 1942 with the fall of Singapore to the Japanese and the failure of Sir Stafford Cripps' mission seeking Muslim and Hindu support for the war effort and ends with the Indo-Pakistani war over Kashmir in 1948. He examines almost month by month the developments that brought different leaders to center stage -- where they invariably proved to be failures.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195393941
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 9/17/2009
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 669,343
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Stanley Wolpert is Professor of History Emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Gandhi's Passion, Nehru: A Tryst With Destiny, Jinnah of Pakistan, and A New History of India.

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Table of Contents

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2006

    Okay but not great

    I expected more from this book. There were 3 clear errors in the Introduction which unfortunately slipped through : 1. At page 4 there was a statement that the Lieutenant Governor Michael O¿Dwyer issued the infamous `crawling orders¿ of Amritsar. This is incorrect. The order was issued by Brigadier-General REH Dyer. (see page 50 of The Hunter Committee¿s Report on The Amritsar Massacre,1919- General Dyer in the Punjab © The Stationery Office 2000 ) 2. At page 5 commenting on Gandhi¿s rationale for his famous ¿salt march¿ it was stated that millions of India¿s poorest peasants required salt to survive India¿s intense heat. Salt is a basic necessity of life but it is not required to survive intense heat . ( see page 61 INDIRA-The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi by Katherine Frank ©2001 ) 3. At page 14 there was a statement that the British ships Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk by Japanese suicide and torpedo bombers. The Japanese only introduced the kamikaze suicide planes in Oct 1944 in the battle for the Philippines. ( see page 776 A World At Arms by Gerhard Weinberg 1994 ed.) The book is more a narrative than an analysis. Facts are presented mainly based on the British records compiled in The Transfer of Power volumes. It is unfortunate such facts and opinions were not tested against the records of the Indian nationalists. I finished this book with the knowledge of the author¿s case for the culpability of Lord Mountbatten for the Partition and the numerous deaths that followed but with my thirst for a fuller picture insatiated.

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