Portrayal of independence of the subcontinent by British press

ByRameez Ansari

An entrepreneur


August 13, 2023

Portrayal of independence

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Portrayal of independence  – August every year is a reminder of the tumultuous events of 1947 when the British departed the subcontinent handing over power to two succeeding states: Pakistan and India. Though the event was momentous but it did not arouse great interest in the UK that was in the process of recovering from the perils of the 2nd World War. Though the British press could not avoid reporting the event in detail but it did not elicit great deal of public response. Despite relinquishing their empire, the British press was known for its pro-empire thrust, and few years before leaving the subcontinent, gleefully propagated Churchill’s arrogant refusal to preside over the liquidation of the British empire. It was clearly evident that these sentiments were nothing but bravado and hardly evoked any enthusiasm with the British people.

The end of British rule in subcontinent was an epochal event provoking intense reaction from the global press. While rest of the world press hailed the event as victory of independence movement of the people of the subcontinent, the British press assiduously tried to add gloss to the Raj by presenting its withdrawal as a vindication of longstanding British promise of granting independence to the jewel of British crown. The British press stood true to its self-righteous vindication theme while reporting end of colonial rule. The dominant theme it adhered to was self-congratulatory in nature as was borne out by headlines of British newspapers.

One of the leading newspaper daily Telegraph congratulated Britain as power is transferred at Midnight, Indians Praise Britain despite the fact that a majority of Indian Civil Service felt that, keeping in view the fragile law and order situation that took lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, there was no power left to transfer. The Times showed a more measured tone as it reported that power is handed over to India and Lord Mountbatten on a friendly parting although the role of Mountbatten was deeply controversial for Pakistanis and his biased actions created a feud in shape of Kashmir that has kept both countries at loggerheads even after seventy years.The Daily Herald was more to the point by stating that India is pledged to peace.

It is interesting to observe that despite pro-empire tilt of the British press it comfortably adjusted to a strikingly consensual, positive reception of India and Pakistan’s newly found nation-hoods in August 1947 while awarding considerable credit of India’s independence to Britain itself. British press predominantly portrayed end of colonial rule as peaceful and as the fulfillment of Britain’s mission. The press dutifully referred to the Macaulay ideal of Britain’s proudest moment, an out of context reference to an event in 1833 when education member of viceroy’s executive council had boasted without conviction that eventual self-rule of India would be the proudest day in British history.

The Guardian known for its support to freedom movement got carried away and stated that freedom by a voluntary transfer of power was unique in history. The paper tried to justify the Raj by saying that Britain had no intention of subjugating India but came here to trade and that events and not intention created the Raj. It credited the Raj for enabling the subcontinent in creating contact with the outside world. It opined that Britain had no plan to rule India without its concurrence and that once the subcontinent showed promise to rule on its own it felt free to grant it freedom.

The underlying assumption of British press clearly appeared to be emphasising the large-hearted gesture of an overarching master towards its overburdened subject and expecting a well-earned gratitude and focused on the praise lavished by leaders of subcontinent on the magnanimity of their colonial masters. Partition was described as a misfortune and a tragedy without realising that it were the British themselves who rightfully granted national status to the Muslims whom they knew much before as a nation than Hindus with whom they came in contact after the 17th century. The British press calmly shifted the responsibility of bloodshed to the folly of feuding local politicians without paying attention to their role as guardians of peace and amity for more than two centuries.

The British were badly mauled in the Second World War and had lost wherewithal to administer the subcontinent. Instead of admitting this inability they decided to stage-manage their withdrawal so that it made up for the lost glory. British desperately wished to end their biggest imperial venture with tremendous dignity and fanfare and they succeeded in doing so despite large scale disturbances. The horrors of hasty and haphazard departure, however, soon haunted the British conscience and responsible sections of their press chastised the premature applause on the successful completion of greatest imperial mission. The attitude of British press in 1947 reflected the irony inherited in successfully ending their colonial rule but, in the process, severing ties with their richest possession. The Weekender


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