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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.
While Wolpert wisely starts five years prior to Britain's disengagement from India-with the fall of Singapore in February 1942 and the subsequent failure of the Cripps Mission-it nevertheless focuses on the tragic miscalculations of Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India. The author, a UCLA history professor and author of Gandhi's Passion, argues that Mountbatten's rushed and ill-informed separation plan, which involved partitioning Punjab and Bengal (a decision that resulted in an estimated 500,000 to 1 million deaths for those caught on the wrong side of the freshly-drawn borders), could scarcely have inflicted more harm upon the region. Though Wolpert's belief that the botched partition of British India is responsible for decades of violence is not an entirely pioneering theory, his account of the complex events surrounding the separation (and its bloody aftermath) makes for powerful reading and is accessible to non-specialists. India's growing economic might and profile in the West may bring in readers who would otherwise pass.