The Atlantic Charter, according to Churchill, would “reassure the world of our righteous purpose in wartime”, but Churchill’s righteousness did not extend to the Indian people.
In a provocative article in the Washington Post recently, Indian Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor, author of Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, remarked at the continued adulation of Winston Churchill in the West, most recently by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. British actor Gary Oldman went home from the 2018 Academy Awards with an Oscar for his role as Churchill in yet another hagiography of Churchill - the movie, Darkest Hour. However, as Tharoor points out, to Indians, the “blinkered imperialist” Churchill’s “darkest hour” was in fact “his constant effort to deny us (Indians) freedom”.
Much has been made of the “special relationship” between the US and Great Britain. The term was in fact popularised by Churchill who frequently evoked the close cultural, historical, linguistic and religious ties between the two nations. But it was over the question of India’s future after the end of the Second World War, and Churchill’s insistence on “denying Indians their freedom”, that this special relationship was tested.
President Franklin D Roosevelt’s (FDR) vision for a postwar world was one that restored self-government to all colonised and occupied nations. This vision was articulated in a document called the Atlantic Charter, authored jointly in 1941 by Winston Churchill and the president. They had met for the first time on board the USS Augusta, anchored off the community of Ship Harbour in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, Canada to draft a statement which defined their goals in a postwar world. The Atlantic Charter was Britain’s way of getting some commitment from the US, which in 1941, had yet to join the allies in Second World War. The Atlantic Charter was not a binding treaty although it laid out Roosevelt’s vision beyond the Second World War – one that would be characterised by freer exchanges of trade and self-determination of people around the globe. The Atlantic Charter, according to Churchill, would “reassure the world of our righteous purpose in wartime”. Sadly, Churchill’s righteousness did not extend to the Indian people, who he described famously as “a beastly people with a beastly religion”.
The Charter included eight “common principles”. Among them:
- to not seek territorial expansion;
- to seek the liberalisation of international trade;
- to support the restoration of self-governments for all countries that had been occupied during the War and allow all peoples to choose their own form of government
The third clause of the Atlantic Charter, that Britain and the US would support the “restoration of self-governments for all countries”, seemed to augur well for India, engaged as it was in a long drawn out freedom struggle. However, Churchill dashed any hopes for independence when he stated categorically in the British Parliament in September of 1941, that the Atlantic Charter was never intended for India at all:
“The Joint Declaration (the Atlantic Charter) does not qualify in any way the various statements of policy which have been made from time to time about the developments of constitutional government in India, Burma, and other parts of the British Empire (...)
“At the Atlantic meeting we have had in mind, primarily, the restoration of the sovereignty, self-government, and natural life of the states and nations of Europe now under the Nazi yoke, quite a separate problem from (...) regions and peoples which owe allegiance to the British Crown."
Churchill’s decision to withhold the Atlantic Charter’s principles from India was strongly criticised, not only by Indians, but also by President Roosevelt and other Americans, African-American leaders, intellectuals and anti-imperialists around the globe.
The Manchester Chronicle pointed out that “what the British Government will gladly concede to Yugoslavia (i.e. the right to self-determination) it will withhold from the jewel of the British Empire”. The paper referred to the Atlantic Charter as “a symbol of hypocrisy”.
However, while Churchill was adamantly against extending the principles of the charter to Britain’s colonies, President Roosevelt wanted Britain to commit to decolonisation. In fact, differences of opinion had emerged as early as the initial meeting in Newfoundland. Captain Elliott Roosevelt, FDR’s son and military aide, was present at those meetings and describes their conversations in his book, “As He Saw It” (New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1946). Here’s an excerpt:
“FDR: “I am firmly of the belief that if we are to arrive at a stable peace it must involve the development of backward countries. Backward peoples. How can this be done? It can’t be done, obviously, by eighteenth-century methods. Now —”
Churchill: “Who’s talking eighteenth-century methods?”
FDR: “Whichever of your ministers recommends a policy which takes wealth in raw materials out of a colonial country, but which returns nothing to the people of that country in consideration. Twentieth-century methods involve bringing industry to these colonies. Twentieth-century methods include increasing the wealth of a people by increasing their standard of living, by educating them, by bringing them sanitation — by making sure that they get a return for the raw wealth of their community.” (...)
“Those (British) Empire trade agreements are a case in point. It’s because of them that the people of India and Africa, of all the colonial Near East and Far East, are still as backward as they are.” (...)
Churchill: “There can be no tampering with the Empire’s economic agreements.”
FDR: “They’re artificial. . .”
Churchill: “They’re the foundation of our greatness.”
FDR: “The peace, cannot include any continued despotism. The structure of the peace demands and will get equality of peoples. Equality of peoples involves the utmost freedom of competitive trade. Will anyone suggest that Germany’s attempt to dominate trade in central Europe was not a major contributing factor to war?” (...)
It was an argument that could have no resolution between these two men. . . .”
Later, according to one of FDR’s biographers Kenneth Davis, author of FDR:The War President, 1940-1943, Roosevelt continued to fret over the fate of Indian Independence. In her thesis at Dickinson University, author Becca Solnit quotes Davis in her 2012 essay titled “The Forgotten Lobby: Advocates for India in the U.S during World War II: “Ever since Pearl Harbor, and especially after Singapore’s fall, India and its defense had been a growing concern of Roosevelt’s — and it was, for him, an unusually principled concern. He fully shared the predominant American view that Britain had no right to rule and exploit the nearly four hundred million Indian people, whereas Gandhi and Nehru, with their National Congress Party, had every right to struggle for Indian independence.”
The president stuck to his guns. On Memorial Day, in 1942, Sumner Welles, FDR’s Under Secretary of State addressed the nation at Arlington National Cemetery. He was undoubtedly speaking for the president when he declared in his speech that “the age of imperialism is ended. The right of “a people to freedom must be recognized” and that “the principles of the Atlantic Charter must be guaranteed to the world as a whole – in all oceans and in all continents.”