The Future of the
Great Game: Sir Olaf Caroe, India’s Independence and the Defence of
The major thrust of this slim volume based on Caroe’s long and distinguished career in the Indian civil service, his eventful tenure as foreign secretary (1939-45) and governor of NWFP (1946-7) apart from his extensive writings is to give the lie to an oft-repeated canard that he worked for the creation of Pakistan. More, that in the mid-1950s, he was the ‘grey eminence’ behind the US administration’s decision to arm Pakistan.
As to the former, the fact is that Caroe endorsed the creation of an independent Pakistan ‘only in the difficult last resort’; as to the latter, he had ‘little if any’ meaningful influence on the State Department. His ‘entire thinking’, Hodson, a close friend and confidant reasoned, had ‘no bearing whatever’ on the events as they unfolded themselves. Caroe’s views on frontier politics he avers reflected ‘ a certain amount of romanticism and a more definite paternalism’ typical among British administrators of the Raj for his advice did not in the end translate into policy and his prescriptions ‘in hindsight’, were ‘ out of step’ with the political exigencies and prevailing temper of his times.
Broadly, Probst underlines, Caroe recognised the subcontinent’s ‘geopolitical centrality’ a fact that US policy has increasingly come to recognize in the aftermath 9/11 believed that Russian land power posed ‘ a traditional and future danger’ to international stability and foresaw the empire of China as a great power.
More, he was strongly persuaded that Afghanistan and the remote borderlands of today’s Pakistan formed ‘a political fault zone’ of global significance, anticipated the resilience of Islam in the face of communism and secularizing ideologies, underlined the importance of the Persian Gulf in relation to both world oil production and as a base area for the stationing of Anglo-American forces throughout the Western India Ocean and up to into Central Asia.
As the linchpin of the ‘Viceroy’s Study Group’ (1942) which Wavell was later to christen as ‘Caroe’s Brains Trust’ (CBT), the then foreign secretary drew its members from diverse fields including the army top brass.
Discussions were wide-ranging and papers, for most part, anonymous. The subcontinent’s centrality may have been clear enough yet the potential of India’s power was moot point. Before long Panikkar’s India and the India Ocean (1945) presented views similar to those of Caroe and Francis Tuker, another prominent member of the CBT.
For a hundred odd years, the argument ran, the British had kept a sponge between Russia and India which because of the war and rapid modes of communications had worn very thin. Russia in its Soviet incarnation had remained above all a mighty land power bestriding two continents; Tsarist, Soviet, or post-Soviet, its technique and reactions had been much the same, its policy unchanged.
Both Afghanistan and Persia were ‘inextricably’ bound up with the defence of India; south-west Asia wing of the Indian centre. Nor did it form the only ‘vestibule’ in the subcontinent. In China, Caroe saw a second great continental power. There could, he argued, be no choosing between ‘leaving the Himalayas open to China and the Indian Ocean’ to Russian fleets. Even a cursory glance at Chiang’s China’s Destiny (1943) had convinced him that China’s ‘imperialist and irredentist sentiment’ had hardened.
He viewed Burma as a bulwark. Specifically lacking a firm bastion there, the eastern approaches to India could never be secure, for it constituted ‘a most necessary barrier’ between Indian and the ambition of China. He noted that New Delhi’s experience with China on the Burma frontier had convinced him that it was is in my case ‘a difficult neighbour.’
The creation of Pakistan, the study heavily underlines, represented’ the fading rather than the fulfilment’ of Caroe’s wartime vision of Asia defence remaining organized around an Indian centre in future.
It is true that he saw Pakistan as the eastern anchor in a military crescent of Islamic states arrayed against the Soviet Union but he articulated this view after the fact of Pakistan’s creation. Even then however Caroe’ never really favoured Pakistan’ over India.
Probst teaches history at Ohio University; the book under review represents his doctoral work, well-researched and forcefully presented.