Review: The poisoned legacy of British rule in Asia

It is no accident that these books have been produced at this historical juncture.


The British empire dominated South and South East Asia, maintaining its power through the cynical manipulation of ethnic and religious division, alongside brutal repression. It could not, however, hold out against rising workers’ and nationalist movements, particularly after the second world war. As the 60th anniversary of Indian independence approaches, Peter Taaffe comments on the issues raised by two recent books on the end of empire. From Socialism Today (new window).

The poisoned legacy of British rule in Asia

Forgotten Armies – The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945

By Christopher Bayly & Tim Harper

Harvard University Press, 2006, £10 (pbk)

Forgotten Wars – the End of Britain’s Asian Empire

By Christopher Bayly & Tim Harper

Allen Lane, 2007, £30 (hbk)

The first deals with the second world war and the collapse of Britain’s Asian colonial empire under the devastating blow of Japanese imperialism’s military offensive. The second recounts the attempted ‘reconquest’ of the region by imperialism and its consequent failures. This century is widely seen as likely to be dominated by Asia and, above all, China. There is a need, therefore, to try and grasp the thread of history in this important region. These two books seek to do that.

Forgotten Armies details the complete collapse of British imperialism and its armies at the hands of Japan, viewed up to then as an "underrated and even despised enemy". Japan’s victories were swift: "One might have to look back as far as Alexander the Great’s lightning destruction of the Persian Empire of Darius to find anything like it". Moreover, such was the degree of hostility of Britain’s colonial slaves to their masters that, initially, Japan did not receive the hostility of the peoples in the region, which is the version that pro-imperialist historians of the past have presented. That came after the experience of the bestial methods employed by the Japanese generals. In fact, Japan saw itself in the role of leader of the ‘Asiatic peoples’, which was to be realised through Japanese occupation.

During the war, some nationalist forces joined the Japanese – Aung San, ‘father’ of Burma, as well as Subhas Chandra Bose, leader of the most radical nationalist group outside of the Communist Party of India, the Forward Bloc, and founder of the Indian National Army (INA). Bose demanded an immediate disobedience movement against the British when the latter declared war on India’s behalf without consulting the Indian people or politicians in 1939. The leader of Congress, Mahatma Gandhi, was horrified by the prospect of a major campaign, which he declared would lead to "anarchy and red ruin". Bose, who had been elected president of Congress against Gandhi’s wishes, was forced to resign. On the principle of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, Bose left India, made contact with the Germans and subsequently the Japanese, and organised the INA.

The collapse of British imperial military power, the arrest of Congress leaders and the terrible suffering of the mass of the Indian population, epitomised by the Bengal famine in 1943 when three million starved to death, laid the basis for the unstoppable movement for Indian independence in the aftermath of the war. The authors comment: "The victory of the Labour Party in the British general election in 1945 would raise expectations further". However, these hopes were dashed by Clement Attlee’s Labour government of 1945, which pursued a ‘liberal imperialist’ policy (in effect, continued occupation of their ‘possessions’), which was only abandoned in the face of mass resistance by the peoples of the area.

A rising working class

One of the most interesting aspects of both books is the detail showing the rise of the working class in the region – in India and Malaya (now Malaysia) in particular – both before the second world war and afterwards. We learn, for instance, that there were "perhaps 724,000 industrial workers in Malaya in 1931; this was about 16% of the total population. It was a unique concentration of workers: only perhaps 0.7% of the population of India could be classified [at that time] in this way". As early as the 1930s, the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) had made inroads into the small industrial towns of the west coast of the Malayan archipelago.

In the vast domain of the Malayan Collieries of Batu Arang in Selangor was a "state within a state": "Here the management saw its elaborate controls over a 6,000-strong workforce as modern and enlightened. But it was… most severe. In March 1937, a soviet was established, and Malaya’s principal source of power was paralysed by strikes. It was part of a wave of protest that enveloped the mines and the rubber estates along the west coast, involving as many as 100,000 workers. The Batu Arang Soviet was crushed ruthlessly by 250 police and 200 Malay troops". But this did not prevent the rise of workers’ resistance which became, at one stage, the major base for the MCP.

Moreover, the struggle for national liberation in India was intertwined with the struggle of the masses in Malaya, particularly affecting the Indian population of Tamil origin. Bose had an effect on them during the second world war. Nor was the Malay population impervious to radical ideas and appeals: "The timeless lassitude of the kampong [a Malay village] was a myth. Even in the Malay heartland of the northern states, rice growing and fishing co-existed alongside forms of waged employment and petty trade. The village community had a symbolic place in the life of all Malays, and was still the principal focus of life for most of them. However, Malays were becoming urbanised at a faster rate than any other community on the peninsula". One of the most important aspects of Forgotten Armies is that it illuminates the methods of British imperialism in Malaya – "built on a viciously insidious form of apartheid" – but also the potential to cut across this by the labour movement if it had a farsighted leadership, politically and organisationally. The second, more recent book, Forgotten Wars, underlines this.

The shock of war

Forgotten wars also shows the terrible shock and devastation wreaked by the ‘great Asian war’ which the authors say "claimed around 24 million lives in lands occupied by Japan; the lives of three million Japanese, and 3.5 million more in India through war-related famine". They conclude that the "Great Asian War was longer and ultimately bloodier than Europe’s civil war". Whether there were more killed or less – in Europe an estimated 40 million people died – it seems indisputable that it was to have a profound effect on the peoples of Asia who "had not known war on any large scale, still less the full ferocity of modern mechanised conflict" before this. The authors write: "The Great Asian War was the most general conflict in south-east Asia since the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century, and the most intense since the great struggles for primacy on the mainland of Asia in the seventeenth century. And it had its serial holocausts, in the extermination of civilians, the coercion of slave labour, and mass rape".

When the second world war ended in Europe, it continued for a generation in Asia. Given their experience of imperialism prior to the war, and the brutal methods of Japanese imperialism in its ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’, there is little wonder that the demand for independence and national liberation was given an enormous fillip. This movement became unstoppable despite the fact that the reoccupation of its former colonies by Britain, Indonesia by the Dutch, and Indochina (Vietnam) by the French, meant that there were actually more military forces and a greater land mass constituting the ‘new empire’ of imperialism than prior to the war.

Mutiny & fraternisation

An interesting sub-theme of this narrative is the radicalising effect which the war had on the forces deployed to maintain the grip of British imperialism, ‘the forgotten army’. They were responsible with other ‘workers in uniform’ for helping to raise to power the Labour government of 1945. These mutinies, because this is what they were, arose from ‘fraternisation’ created by a series of incidents, in which British troops showed unprecedented sympathy and active support for national liberation forces: "Soldiers attended political rallies and Malayan Democratic Union meetings, and much of the Malayan Communist Party’s library in Singapore was donated by servicemen". Moreover: "At the time of the 29 January 1946 general strike, there were reports… that troops at Bukit Timah threatened to come out in support for the Malayan workers, and would refuse to put down the strike".

There was a series of protests at Royal Air Force bases across the ‘crescent’. Fourteen stations and 50,000 men were involved, beginning with Karachi and spreading to Malaya, Burma and Indonesia: "Men of the ‘forgotten armies’ were deeply worried about being disadvantaged in jobs or being denied places in higher education. In the petitions of the men, the use of the army in India and Indonesia was deplored, as it was seen as a central obstacle to demobilisation. Men with a Labour or Communist Party background founded their own discussion groups and made contacts with the Indian Communist Party". The "‘strike committees’ were run by men with trade union experience; their news-sheets were run by conscripted journalists who had links with the local press. The incidents stretched across the widest arc of the British Middle East and Asia: from Gibraltar, Cairo and North Africa, to India, and through to Singapore, where more than 4,000 men were involved in the strike".

Punishment and repression were meted out by the officer caste but this, in turn, demonstrated forcefully the growing incapacity of British imperialism to use the forces against a resurgent national liberation movement. Winston Churchill was "disgusted" to hear from one of his generals that "ninety per cent of the troops in the East were going to vote Labour [in 1945] and the other ten per cent would not vote at all". There were also mutinies among British forces from Karachi to Singapore because of "what seemed like completely unnecessary wars against nationalists in Indonesia and French Indo-China", as well as in India, Malaya and Burma. The events also gave a fillip to the British Labour left – which counted among its ranks at this stage none other than Major Woodrow Wyatt (an inveterate right-winger later on) who demanded, for instance, ‘a socialist approach to the Indian problem’.

Division in Malaya

We have dealt elsewhere with some of the most important features of the history of the Malayan Communist Party and the opportunities it had to take power (End of Empire: Memoirs of a Malaysian Communist Guerrilla Leader, Socialism Today No.91, April 2005). However, this book reinforces the potential for the MCP and also for revolutionary change in Malaya at this stage. This would only have been possible through a policy of uniting all workers and peasants on the basis of class and not ethnicity, with correct perspectives, programme and tactics. The strength of the MCP and its military wing, the Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), was shown after the capitulation of the Japanese when "in many areas they [MPAJA and MCP] began to set up skeleton administrations in the form of ‘people’s committees’: according to one estimate, 70% of rural towns were under their control". The British officer, Major HH Wright, who at one time liaised with the MCP, commented that these committees "were all-powerful in those small towns" in which the MCP were concentrated. Wright, with some experience in Albania and the successful guerrilla struggle there against the German army during the second world war, declared: "They [the MCP] were the masters and not me".

The task of cementing class unity, cutting across ethnic divisions, would not have been easy at this stage – nor is it today – but was possible in an ethnically and racially divided country such as Malaya. The Malay sultans and their hangers-on, and nationalists like Tunku Abdul Rahman, who went on to help found the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), furthered the British policy of fostering divisions. However, if the MCP had consistently pursued a policy of uniting all the races and ethnic groups in a war of national liberation, it could have seized power even in 1945 when there was a gap of three weeks before the British were able to reoccupy the country. This would only have been possible through a policy that broke with the idea of ‘stages’, which the MCP was wedded to, and the adoption, in effect, of Leon Trotsky’s idea of the permanent revolution.

Would the MCP, with majority Chinese supporters, have been able to hold power if it had taken it? There are no a priori guarantees in a serious struggle for power. But the Viet Minh under Ho Chi Minh successfully occupied the whole of Indo-China, including the cities of Saigon and Hanoi, for a period in 1945. They then retreated under the military onslaught of imperialist troops – in which British forces played a key role. However, the example that they set of proclaiming an ‘independent’ republic sowed the seeds for the successful eviction not only of French imperialism but also of US imperialism later in 1975.

Events would turn out differently in Malaya, not least because of the weaknesses in the MCP’s position. Malaya was not Vietnam: its population of 3.97 million in 1931 was made up of 49% ‘Malays’, 34% Chinese and 15% ‘Indians’. But if the overwhelmingly Chinese city of Singapore had been included, the Malays would have been reduced to only 44% of the population. The fact that they were "a minority in their own country" was played upon, both by the British and the developing Malay capitalist nationalists.

Striking for rice & freedom

The war proved to be a crucible for revolution. Malaya only escaped by "a narrow margin" the horrors of the Bengal famine of 1943. But the Japanese occupation resulted in "permanent damage to the working capacity of the population as a whole". The authors paint a convincing picture of the horrors of Japanese occupation and the incapacity of the returning British to do much about conditions. This explained the attractiveness of the MCP. Its youth league "included a giddy panoply of groups". The Johore Peoples’ Assembly, under the control of the MCP’s armed wing, "contained demands for women’s equal rights to inheritance, to equal wages and crèches in the workplace, for an end to polygamy, prostitution and the keeping of ‘slave-girls’. Many Chinese women were attracted to the Communist Party by this preaching of an end to feudalism". One Perak newspaper caught the mood: "Now Spring had returned to the world we must go hand in hand to unite together, no matter whether we are mistresses or paid-servants, or nonya [Straits Chinese matrons] or labourers or dulang [traditional mining instruments] washers…"

The party was even "beginning to turn away from its core Chinese support base and becoming more ‘Malayan’ in its outlook". Recognising this, the British sought every opportunity to pursue their age-old policy of ‘divide and rule’. This did not prevent a massive post-war strike wave. The British used captured Japanese personnel as strike breakers. But this only led to the spread of further strikes in Singapore, which included "transport and municipal workers, including the collectors of night soil and firemen; even 300 cabaret girls stopped dancing. At a vast rally of 20,000 workers at Happy World amusement park, 50 unions turned out in solidarity. Japanese troops were now out cleaning the streets and fighting fires". This set the pattern for three years of deepening industrial conflict. The general labour unions of the pre-war period began to revive. "The Singapore General Labour Union, inaugurated at the 25 October Happy World rally, claimed a membership of 100,000 workers from over 70 individual bodies, most of whom earned a mere 50 cents to $1 a day".

This movement was not confined to the Chinese workers but involved the Indian population with big rumblings of opposition among Malays as well. Moreover, this was not just an economic struggle but was linked to the idea of freedom from capitalism and imperialism: "The distinction between rice and freedom was incomprehensible to local [trade] unionists".

However, the British did not simply sit back and risk their ‘possession’, Malaya, rich in natural resources, slip from their hands. They combined repression with splitting tactics. The Labour government’s proposals for the future of Malaya, for instance, excluded Singapore from their grand plans for a ‘Malayan Union’. This was to be followed by the complete separation of Singapore into a city state, one of the purposes of which was to give an inbuilt majority to the ‘conservative’ Malays against the, at that stage, more radical Chinese. The first weeks of 1946 were a period of unprecedented political freedom which would later become known as the ‘Malayan spring’, including the general strike of 29 January 1946.

Ruthless repression

The British set about widening divisions. They announced, through a White Paper, a ‘Malayan Union’. This went hand in hand with the courting of the Malay bourgeoisie and the creation of a "national umbrella organisation of Malay bodies", UMNO, which has effectively ruled Malaya for the past 60 years. "The British", the authors conclude, "had now reconciled themselves to an alliance with ethnic-based parties in order to hold on to their diminished Asian empire".

However, there were still opportunities for the MCP to cut across these plans, with the rising power of the working class and MCP clear in the period up to 1948. At this stage, a majority of the working class was organised into unions, with unprecedented influence for the MCP. If the militant class-struggle policies pursued at this stage among the workers had been combined with a clear and skilful approach to all sections of the working class – Malays as well as the Indian population – the opportunity was there to completely paralyse British imperialism and its local representatives, leading to a revolutionary national liberation struggle. Chin Peng, the leader of the MCP, later conceded that the slogan of a ‘Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Malaya’ – with its echoes of what was initially established in China under Mao Zedong – was not capable of reaching out to the Malay population. He wrote later: "Our battle cry should have been: Independence for Malaya and all Malayans who want independence".

The British, of course, resorted to ruthless repression, including the outlawing of the trade union confederation. In fact, a ‘white terror’ was unleashed not just against Chinese members of the MCP but also radical Malays who were in alliance with the MCP or were open to it. As Chin Peng revealed in his memoirs, the decision to take to the countryside in a classical guerrilla war and effectively abandon the urban struggle was made under the influence of an Australian Communist Party leader, Lawrence Sharkey. It was a mistake which the MCP and the Malayan revolution were to pay dearly for. The British fomented the ethnic divisions but the guerrilla struggle based upon a minority, as the experience of Northern Ireland in the last 40 years demonstrated, cannot succeed. The only way the Malayan revolution could guarantee success then and now would have been on the basis of a class struggle cementing unity between the workers from different ethnic backgrounds. The authors show with abundant detail that this was the conclusion to be drawn from this period.

India breaks from Britain

Forgotten wars also provides an enthralling account of the retreat of British imperialism from India and the tragedy of the division of the sub-continent. In the rising post-war ferment, the Indian working class stepped forward but was unable, because of false leadership, to avoid the tragic and lasting consequences of partition. This was a product of the past policies of British imperialism’s divide-and-rule methods, as well as the incapacity of both the Hindu and Muslim petty bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie to affect a lasting union between the different peoples of the Indian sub-continent. The Attlee government declared: "Two new dominions within the ‘Commonwealth’ would come into being on 15 August 1947. Freedom would be granted separately to Pakistan and Hindustan-India". This had been preceded by terrible communal horrors and violence.

As we approach the sixtieth anniversary of partition there are capitalist voices who seek to argue that this catastrophic event was ‘inevitable’ because of the deep, almost endemic, divide between the Hindus and Muslims. British imperialism, it seems, merely ‘held the ring’ in a vain attempt to prevent the terrible communal bloodletting. On the contrary, the whole period of British conquest of India went hand in hand, as in Malaya, with attempts to divide and rule. Britain conquered India originally, not with British troops but with Indian forces led by British officers. This was possible given that India was divided into statelets and had not yet developed a national consciousness. Under the whip of British imperialism, this consciousness developed even in the nineteenth century, through the first part of the twentieth century – with the rise of Congress as the main vehicle of the Indian bourgeoisie – and was particularly stimulated during the second world war. British imperialism faced colossal opposition during the war with the ‘Quit India’ campaign. This, in turn, led to the arrest of Congress leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru. Despite the anti-war fever in India, the Communist Party of India (CPI) supported the ‘allies’ war effort once Hitler attacked Russia in 1941. This stand enormously discredited the CPI, from which it never fully recovered.

Despite the developing opposition, even after 1945, the Labour government "expected that the country would remain a dominion of the Crown". Churchill and the Tories, in particular, remained obdurate. In 1941, he mused to General Wavell about the possibility of dividing the Indian empire into "Pakistan, Hindustan and Princestan, the last an amalgam of India’s princely states. The first and third of these entities would remain within the British Empire no matter what happened to the ‘Hindoo priesthood machine’ [sic] and its commercial backers". The term ‘Pakistan’ was first mentioned in 1940 and then only in vague terms without any real conviction on the part of the Muslims that it would actually materialise. But following the big victory of Congress in the March 1946 elections, events began to spiral out of control. This period and the consequent bloodbath were reflections of the incapacity of the Indian bourgeoisie – Muslim and Hindu – to solve the national, caste and ethnic problems of India.

Communal bloodletting

The bloody events of this period vindicated, in a negative fashion, the correctness of Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution; in the neo-colonial world it retains its force for today. The dominant Hindu bourgeoisie was incapable of overcoming the ethnic and religious divisions, in other words, of carrying through one vital aspect of the capitalist national-democratic revolution, unification of the country, the overcoming of particularism, etc (as the rising capitalists in France in 1789, for instance, unified the nation).

Congress refused to allow the Muslim League ‘parity’ in a future independent central government. Muhammad Jinnah and the Muslim League then declared that the only alternative to this was a weak central power in Delhi with powerful provinces, "so ensuring the Muslims would be in a strong position in Bengal and the Punjab". Congress feared that this would lead to the ‘Balkanisation’ of the country and even its total disintegration. The authors underline that "almost to the very moment of independence neither Hindus nor Muslims really knew what [Pakistan] meant". "No one would have predicted the emergence of the geopolitical absurdity that was to separate the two halves of a sovereign country by a thousand miles and cut off a large area of northeast India from the rest of the national territory".

When the Indian Constituent Assembly was convened in September 1946, Congress dominated with only two Muslim League ministers. Alongside this, in Calcutta events took a racial and ethnic turn after Muslims staged a mass political demonstration against the British which span out of control. This resulted in one of the worst bouts of communal killing in Indian history. As many as 6,000 people may have been murdered and 12,000 injured in the ‘great Calcutta killings’ of 1946. Bengal politicians, who had been completely lethargic during the 1943 famine, whipped up Muslim hostility.

Jinnah called a ‘direct action day’ in Calcutta on 16 August, which actually set off the killing. The authors comment: "Officially, the purpose of this day was to ‘end British slavery’, but also, and more ominously, it was intended to ‘fight the contemplated caste-Hindu domination’." Congress replied likewise, with goondas attempting to close down Muslim shops and bazaars. The bigots on either side began to come to the fore as bazaar toughs and gangland leaders led raids and counter-raids on Hindu and Muslim quarters: "There was a tinge of class hatred to these events. The houses of the great Hindu Marwari merchants in the city centre proved an early target; a leading Muslim merchant was found hanging from a lamp post". Only after five days of carnage did the government step in but, by this time, 30,000 people had fled the city.

After this, communal suspicions deepened. Dacca, soon to become the capital of East Pakistan, had a large Hindu minority who quickly fell victim to Calcutta’s infectious violence. A "highly organised programme of forced conversions of Hindus to Islam" was carried through, which led to reprisals, for instance in Bihar, where 25,000 Muslims were slaughtered, sparking a massive migration of Muslims towards the east. Over the next decade as many as four million people would move from their ancestral homes. First, it was the prosperous Hindus of East Bengal who moved off to Chandpur or Calcutta, never to return. One refugee remembered: "The change was so sudden, you see. Even a year ago we had played Holi [a Hindu festival] together with Muslim girls. But Noakhali [where Hindus were slaughtered] changed everything. As young girls, we began to feel insecure".

The Indian bourgeoisie, through Congress and Gandhi, was utterly incapable of preventing the bloodletting. Gandhi refused further ‘concessions’ to Muslim League politicians and had thumped the table in front of the English viceroy shouting: "If India wants her bloodbath, she shall have it!"

Ironically, Hindus and Muslims in Bengal had more in common than they had in most parts of India. They all spoke Bengali and there was no superficial language division based on the difference between Sanskrit- and Persian-derived scripts as there was over much of the subcontinent. Moreover, most of the Bengalis were followers of popular devotional sects that blurred the boundaries between Hinduism and Islam: "Yet over the years economic differentials, the play of sectarian politics in British-founded institutions, and the activities of unscrupulous or purblind leaders, had fractured relations between members of the two religious traditions". There had been previous Hindu-Muslim riots, for instance in the 1930s, when peasants protested against landlords and moneylenders but which, without a class lead, had been infused with the inflammatory language of religious revivalism.

Red flag of unity

The possibilities of class unity were shown in the Royal Indian Navy mutiny – also called the Bombay mutiny – of February 1946. This important event was triggered by protests against conditions on the ships but showed in action great unity of the Hindu and Muslim sailors. Moreover, the mutineers were supported by the Bombay workers in a one-day general strike. Gandhi condemned the strike, as did Jinnah. Yet the mutineers hoisted three flags together: those of Congress, the Muslim League and the red flag of the CPI, signifying the "unity and demarginalisation of communal issues among the mutineers".

The brother of Bose, Sarat Bose, although an Indian nationalist, also opposed what he believed was an imperialist ploy to divide India and even called for a united, autonomous Socialist Republic of Bengal. Heroic efforts were made from below by communists and socialists to persuade the peasantry in Bengal that it was an alliance of bosses, imperialists and landlords who were fomenting the communal riots; representatives of the poor, low-caste Indian peasants from the eastern province had previously shared interests with the Muslim peasantry. This had some success in the north-east of Bengal but was largely powerless to prevent the communal and sectarian violence.

The terrible suffering of the mass of workers and peasants, both Hindu and Muslim, is described in tragic and painstaking detail. This is required reading for those who want to prevent the further fracturing of an ethnically and communally divided world, the product of capitalism and imperialism today, as it was in the past.

The chapters on Burma and Indonesia are no less riveting for the light that they cast on the power of the revolutionary upsurge, the mistakes of the Communist Party – which were to be repeated in Indonesia on a much larger scale in 1965 – and the infectious revolutionary energy which affected even British troops. As a division of Seaforth Highlanders who had been the first to be deployed against the Indonesian revolution were leaving the docks in Jakarta, they taunted the "fresh Dutch conscripts disembarking to face their own colonial war with raised fists and the cry, ‘Merdeka!’ [Power]".

These books, although not at all faultless, both in their construction and some of the argumentation at times, are nevertheless a valuable source to those wishing to understand the dramas of the past in South-East Asia, without which it is impossible to understand the even more convulsive events that will unfold in this region in the future.

From Socialism Today (new window), magazine of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales.


Liked this article? We need your support to improve our work. Please become a Patron! and support our work
Become a patron at Patreon!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.