Book Review: The Shadow Of The Great Game

The Shadow Of The Great Game:  The Untold Story Of India’s Partition, by Nandra Singh Sarila

In reading this book, I got the feeling that it was written largely for Indian audiences as a way of informing them about the tangled factors that went into Indian partition.  The author spins a tale of fragile egos, anti-Communist grand strategy on the part of Great Britain, anti-imperialist pressure from the United States in favor of a united independent India that was not to be, as well as bungling on the part of India’s Congress Party leaders.  As someone who has at least some interest in India’s history and politics [1], I found a great deal of this book to be of interest, but this book is certainly one that was written by an insider and as such it tends to suffer like many books of that kind do from simply being so long in large part because the author is trying to show off his knowledge of secret or semi-secret writings from the British as well as his insight into the misguided action of India’s native political elite in the period before and during and just after World War II that led to the division of India into multiple independent nations.

At more than 400 pages, this is sizable book, no doubt, with its material focused in a relatively small amount of large chapters that demand a great deal of close reading given the way that the author returns back to the same points over and over again from one chapter to another and keeps several threads active at the same time.  The author begins with a preface and some friendly acknowledgements before beginning the book proper with a discussion of the Great Game, a unifying concept he returns to over and over again, even if it seems inappropriate to this reader to compare that imperial context with the fight against Communism [1].  After that the author introduces the theme of the Anglo-Muslim League alliance that was key to establishing an independent Muslim state [2].  More discussion on Jinnah’s role in starting the (ultimately successful) Pakistan scheme follows [3] along with a look at the Churchill-Roosevelt clash between British desires for a continued Raj and America’s consistent hostility to imperialism [4].  A couple of chapters then follow that focus on the Indian Hindu side such as Mahatma’s ill-advised fury [5] and the triangulation that took place between India, the UK, and the United States [6].  A chapter follows on Wavell’s successful efforts to play the “Great Game” that make him, in the author’s eyes, the evil genius of partition [7], along with Atlee’s smoke screens that successfully allowed them to place the responsibility for partition on the Indians themselves [8].  After this comes a look at Nehru’s leadership of the postwar pre-Independence dominion of India [9] as well as a discussion of Montbatten’s savvy diplomatic work in preserving good feelings between the UK and India as independence loomed [10].  After this, the book takes an increasingly melancholy look at the end of empire [11] and two chapters on the 1947-48 war in Kashmir [12, 13] before the author adds a post-script to finish the work [14] in a reflective fashion.

It is impossible for this reader to follow the writer exactly as far as his counterfactual speculations are concerned.  I would have liked to have read more about the ability of Bhutan and (at least initially) Sikkim in preserving their independence from India, although the author shows no interest in talking about this.  The author is clearly a patriotic Indian nationalist, albeit one who finds a great deal to be critical about concerning the attitudes of the Nationalists that encouraged the British to look to their own geopolitical interests as they faced an exit from the Indian subcontinent.  The author wants Indians to know that Montbatten wasn’t to blame for partition and that the United States was a faithful if somewhat awkward friend of Indian independence, two things that Indians might not be aware of before reading this immensely popular book.  In reading this book I felt that the author didn’t do enough to make this book accessible to American audiences, using a lot of Indian terms that were unnecessary for international consumption.  Yet this book is informative, if more than a little gloomy, even though in looking at this book and its arguments that I cannot fault the British for doing what they did in the face of Indian squishiness against the spread of Soviet Communism.  The British took a losing hand and turned in a surprisingly good hand, as did Pakistan, and if that is not something to be celebrated, exactly, it does not seem like an outcome worth any outrage at this point.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Book Review: The Shadow Of The Great Game

  1. Pingback: Book Review: A Passage To India | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: FDR Goes To War | Edge Induced Cohesion

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