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Why the empire struck back

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The British Empire in the 1920s was losing its grip on India. Two conservative leaders in the British government, Winston Churchill and a school buddy, F.E. Smith, aka Lord Birkenhead and the secretary of state for India, keenly wanted to hang on.

So Birkenhead came up with a counterintuitive idea. He figured that setting India on a fast pace to self-rule would actually slow it down, and might even scuttle the whole push for independence before a liberal government could take over that would be “soft” on India.

Acting on his idea, Birkenhead set up a commission on Indian self-rule four years ahead of schedule in 1925. He put a liberal in charge but packed it with neutral and conservative members of Parliament who probably wouldn’t be keen on dissolving the empire.

It was a brilliant plan with just one flaw. There were no Indians on the commission that would decide the fate of India.

Indians reacted with fury. Although Churchill did his utmost to argue that England had saved India from “ages of barbarism, tyranny and internecine war,” the commission served as a catalyst for Indian nationalists.

Mohandas Gandhi initially stood back from the fray. As India’s spiritual leader, he instead worked quietly behind the scenes to unite the country’s warring factions enough to pass a declaration of independence.

“Pray to God to relieve us from the curse of disunity,” Gandhi said. Through his own deft manipulations of moderates and radicals, his prayer was answered.

Bottom line: Would including Indian members on the commission have averted India’s independence? Probably not, but their absence launched a revolution.

—Adapted from Gandhi & Churchill, Arthur Herman, Bantam Books.

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