‘Men of Martial Nature’: Reconsidering Churchill and Indian Muslims

Warren Dockter
Junior Research Fellow, Cambridge University
Follow on Twitter @WarrenDockter

Churchill in India.
Churchill in India.

Winston Churchill’s tumultuous relationship with India is typically seen in the context of his campaign to deny increased autonomy and independence to India during the 1930s. The standard narrative tends to engage Churchill’s relationship with India by depicting a fiercely imperialist Churchill whose policy ‘rested on the simple concept that British power in India must be preserved without qualifications’ against the meek and well-intentioned Mahatma Gandhi, whose policy of ahimsa (nonviolence) helped make Churchill seem even more fanatically imperialist. Many historians also have linked Churchill’s resistance to Indian Independence to his romantic Victorian conception of the British Empire. That is, that he allowed his belief in the ‘civilizing effects of British rule’ to serve as his primary, if only, motivation for opposing Indian home rule.  While Churchill’s romantic view of the British Empire undoubtedly played a role in his motivation to keep India within the British Empire, taken alone it does not sufficiently explain what motivated him to undertake such a politically ruinous stance.

These combined approaches are problematic because they are predicated on the notion that Churchill only understood British India as a static and monolithic extension of the empire, and that the Victorian-minded Churchill was so convinced of this view that he was willing to politically marginalize himself.  As a result, Churchill is often caricatured as a hater of all Indians, an approach that ignores important considerations regarding Churchill’s view of minorities in India — especially India’s Muslims.

Churchill’s relationship with India’s Muslims is far more complex than the traditional narrative indicates.  Far from lumping all of India’s groups together as non-differential imperial subjects, Churchill distinguished between the different ethnic and religious communities. Like most of his contemporaries, Churchill often separated India’s groups into Muslims, Hindus, and the depressed classes (those of tribal origins or lower Hindu castes); and like many of his contemporaries, Churchill typically favoured the Muslims due to their stature of being a ‘martial race.’

This was a reoccurring theme throughout Churchill’s speeches during the 1930s when he referred to Muslims as ‘Men of martial nature’, members of a ‘Fighting race’. It was most obvious in a speech at Albert Hall on 18 March 1931 when Churchill declared, ‘While the Hindu elaborates his argument, the Moslem sharpens his sword.’  Moreover, Churchill held on to this idea of courageous and loyal Muslim soldiers through World War I and after. In his note on ‘the importance on fair dealings with Moslems of India,’ he recalled that: ‘During the Great War the Moslems of India confounded the hopes of their disloyalty entertained by the Germans and their Turkish ally and readily went to the colours, the Punjab alone furnished 180,000 Moslem recruits.’  Clearly, he was impressed with Muslim Indians’ martial nature, but more importantly by their loyalty.

However, for Churchill this notion of respect for Muslims went far deeper than a romantic Victorian belief in shared warrior respect and would eventually help form portions of his thinking on Indian Independence and later the creation of Pakistan. The evolution of Churchill’s thinking about Indian Muslims can best be understood by examining four elements which coalesced to form the basis for his relationship with Indian Muslims.

The first element was the strange combination of Churchill’s Victorian education and self-education while he was in India. Such an amalgam created a mindset for Churchill in which all monotheistic religions were culturally valuable, whereas polytheistic ones were seen as holdovers from a bygone era.

The second element was his relationship with his father, Lord Randolph Churchill. Lord Randolph was relatively progressive as Secretary of State for the India Office in the mid-1880s, and he even worked for a time with the political radical Wilfrid S. Blunt (who would later befriend Winston) to better represent the Indian Muslim population.

The third element rests on Churchill’s view of the Ottoman Empire because the Ottoman Sultan served as the Caliph of Islam, which meant that the British Indian Muslims recognised the Sultan as a spiritual leader.

Churchill, second from the right, in polo gear. Bangalore, 1896.
Churchill, second from the right, in polo gear. Bangalore, 1896.

The fourth and most important element of Churchill’s was his experiences on the North West frontier when he was stationed in India in the late 1890s. While Churchill privately questioned the wisdom of the forward policy that brought him there in the first place, he wrote home of the bravery and skill (on the battle field and the polo field) of many of Muslims and Sheiks, especially those in the 11th Bengal Lancers, the 35th Sikhs and the 31st Punjabi Infantry.

By the 1930s these four elements had coalesced, laying a solid foundation of ‘civil’ imperialism and a particular sympathy with Indian Muslims, and Churchill was quick to seize on ideas and people which reinforced these foundations. A good example of this was Katherine Mayo’s book, Mother India (1930), which held a profound anti-Hindu bias and argued that mounting divisions and aggravations between Muslims and Hindus would end in a cataclysmic civil war and that the British presence in India was all that prevented such a catastrophe.

Aga Khan III, who knew Churchill very well and recorded in his memoirs how amazed he was that Churchill could recite virtually all of the epic Persian poem the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
Aga Khan III, who knew Churchill very well, recorded in his memoirs how amazed he was that Churchill could recite virtually all of the epic Persian poem the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

But more important were the alliances Churchill formed that would help shape his defence of British rule in India. These included his various friendships with prominent Muslims such as the Aga Khan, a major mover and shaker in British Islamic relations and one of the first president of the All-India Muslim League; Baron Headley (president of the British Muslim Society); Waris Ameer Ali (a London judge); Feroz Khan Noon (a future Prime Minister of Pakistan); and even M.A. Jinnah, the so-called father of Pakistan.

Granted, despite these relationships, it would be remise to ignore the evidence offered up by the traditional narrative, which suggests that Churchill’s relationship with Indian Muslims was not entirely one of martial sympathy. It is no secret that Churchill was a shrewd politician and a cunning strategist, and evidence does suggest that at times he only picked up the banner of minority rights for the Muslim community when it suited him politically.  For instance, Churchill’s famously disparaging comments about Islam in his book The River War (1899) and his confession to the War Cabinet in 1940 that he ‘regarded the Hindu-Moslem feud as the bulwark of British rule in India’ indicate that there was certainly more to Churchill’s views of Muslims, especially those in India, than a shared monotheistic and martial spirit.

But it would be a mistake to argue that minority rights for the Muslim Indian community did not also enter into the ethical equation for Churchill. After all, he still clung on to his Victorian romantic belief that the British Empire was a civilizing force that brought benefits to those it ruled.  It is similarly remarkable that Churchill dropped his line of criticism of Islam in the second edition of the River War, and sought to help Jinnah establish Pakistan after the Second World War.

Churchill’s opposition to Indian Independence was therefore not just some abstract concept of romantic imperialism which relied on Victorian conceptions of martial Muslims. Neither was it merely a cunning geopolitical strategy in which the former ties to the Ottoman Caliphate would prop up British rule in India, nor solely about civil rights and justice for Muslim Indian minorities. Rather, it was a combination of the three that, in Churchill’s mind, would act like ‘a sheet of oil spread over and keeping free from  storms a vast and profound ocean of humanity.’

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