India's Exit Lessons for Iraq

As the debate over a future United States troop withdrawal from Iraq intensifies, pundits and lawmakers increasingly invoke the historical comparison to Vietnam in 1975. The comparison makes sense. But far more relevant to America's decision-making today is what happened in India 60 years ago, when in the summer of 1947 the British suddenly ended their colonial rule and left a country divided by religious hatred. Especially for liberals, what happened during the birth of modern India is a cautionary tale that needs to be heeded.

The violence that erupted in India after the British left came as no surprise. Tension between India's Hindu and Muslin populations had existed for years, and escalated during World War II after the leaders of the Hindu-dominated Congress Party of Jawaharlal Nehru were jailed for their 1942 "Quit India" campaign against the British. In their absence, the Muslim League of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, which refused to call for Britain's departure, grew in strength, increasing its hold over India's Muslim voters.

By 1946 the divisions between the Congress Party and the Muslim League made effective government under the British viceroy in India virtually impossible. As soon as Nehru announced that he would accept the premiership of an interim, post-colonial, government, the Muslim League declared a Direct Action Day for August 16. On that morning Calcutta was consumed by rioting. "We will have either a divided India or a destroyed India," Jinnah predicted.

For a Great Britain that was recovering from the war and had not yet begun receiving Marshall Plan aid, the Indian situation was a disaster. The Labour government of Prime Minister Clement Attlee was in no position to send more troops or money to India, and it had no such attachment to empire as the Churchill government it had replaced in 1945. In March 1947 Attlee sent World War II hero Louis Mountbatten to India to serve as the country's last viceroy; he went with instructions to negotiate India's independence. The only question was how long it would take Mountbatten to carry out his mission.

He was horrified by the chaos that he found. Within days of his arrival, Mountbatten reported back to the government, "The only conclusion that I have been able to come to is unless I act quickly I may well find the real beginnings of civil war on my hands." By April, after extensive negotiations with Indian political leaders and British officials, Mountbatten had hit upon a partition plan that would create India and Pakistan. After consulting with Attlee, Mountbatten announced a final version of his partition plan on June 2, and the following day, at a press conference, he set August 15 as the official date for the transfer of power.

For a Britain anxious to leave India as soon as possible, August 15 could not come soon enough, but for India's Hindus and Muslims, Mountbatten's timetable was a setback. The relocations that partition required were impossible to achieve in such a short time. "Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny," Nehru declared on August 14 as he became an independent India's first prime minister. "And now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour while the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom." But what followed was a rude awakening. Before August was over, Hindu-Muslin riots consumed India, and armed militia roamed the countryside killing, looting, kidnapping, and raping.

British historian Alex von Tunzelmann writes that it is impossible to know exactly how many were killed after independence was declared; historians estimate between 500,000 and a million. But there were other horrors as well. Between 75,000 and 125,000 rapes are thought to have taken place, and as many as 12 million people were forced to relocate -- either from Pakistan to India, or from India to Pakistan. By the middle of September, 60 percent of the Muslims in Old Delhi and 90 percent of the Muslims in New Delhi had abandoned their homes.

During this period of violence, Mahatma Gandhi was at his best. He was able to stop the killing in Calcutta with a fast. But there was a limit to what Gandhi could do, and there was a greater limit to what the British government, which had only 11,400 troops in India when Mountbatten arrived, was willing to do. Nehru did his best to stop the bloodshed and the attacks on Muslims, but once India's independence was official, he was unwilling ask for British help. "I would rather have every village in India go up in flames than keep a single British soldier in India a moment longer than necessary," he insisted.

Sixty years later, it is hard to miss the parallels with the United States' quandary in Iraq: too few troops, a religiously divided country, a public suffering from war fatigue. The difference is that today America has resources that England as a dying colonial power did not. The question is, Will we use them?

Getting out of Iraq cannot be done on the cheap. If the ethnic cleansing and murder now going on there are to be kept in check, some form of soft partitioning will have to take place. This will require moving millions of people from mixed neighborhoods and villages, dealing with a massive refugee problem, and figuring out a way to divide Iraq's oil assets. The United States may get lucky and find other countries to help prevent a Shia-Sunni bloodbath, but there is no doubt that we are going to foot the bill. Our situation in Iraq has become defined by Colin Powell's Pottery Barn rule of foreign policy -- "You break it, you own it."

The danger is that by next year, and certainly by the time there is a new administration in Washington, we will be tempted, as the British were in India, to leave Iraq as fast as we can while keeping our troops out of harm's way. The temptation, along with the bumper-sticker politicking that has accompanied it, is understandable. It makes for a good sound bite when Hillary Clinton says, "We are not going to baby-sit a civil war." But we should have no illusions about what flight from Iraq without a serious exit strategy will mean. And we will not even have a Gandhi or a Nehru to cushion the disaster.