Redrawing the lines

The demise of colonialism in West Asia and a comparison to India.

At the time of India’s independence there were several doubts about the country’s unity and success as a nation state. A diverse population, partition along religious lines and early external conflicts did not help. Questions were also raised on the political ability of Indians to govern themselves following a long period of British rule. Other nations that became independent around the time suffered from at least one of military coups, dictatorships, colonial interference and secessionist movements. In fact, India almost stands alone (Israel being the other country that comes to mind) in avoiding all of these.


While James Barr’s 2012 book A Line in the Sand (Simon and Schuster) is primarily about colonialism in West Asia, it also tells the stories of how Lebanon, Syria and Israel became independent. These  provide a  contrast to the freedom movement in India, and help us understand how the freedom movement was pivotal in India’s post-independence success.

The book begins around the First World War, with Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot signing a secret agreement in 1916 to demarcate British and French spheres of influence in Ottoman-controlled Arabia. The eponymous line in the sand (which also gives the book its name) thus drawn, set off a geopolitical struggle between the two powers in the region. Britain wanted to renege on the Sykes-Picot agreement soon after it was signed, in an attempt to expand influence at French expense. This was driven by Britain’s desire for control of Palestine, over parts of Syria (which the British had helped Arabs capture from the Ottomans) and the areas around Mosul where oil had been struck.

The French objected, though they agreed to grant Britain areas around Mosul in exchange for a 25 percent stake in the company licensed to prospect for oil in the region (this explains why the current Iraq-Syria border deviates from the Sykes-Picot line). This set the ground for the next battle, on how to lay the pipeline connecting Mosul to the Mediterranean, with the British and French wanting the majority of the pipeline in their respective territories. They eventually compromised with a pipeline that bifurcated with its two termini on the Mediterranean (Tripoli in Lebanon and Haifa in Palestine).

Earlier, Britain had installed Faisal (son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca) as the King of Syria – much to the annoyance of the French who quickly drove him out. The British supported the Druze insurgency and clamoured for the independence of Syria and Lebanon, hoping to reduce the influence of the French. The French on their part provided a base, weaponry and moral support to Jewish terrorists in Palestine. Despite being allies in both the World Wars, Britain and France remained at each other’s throats. After Faisal was driven out of Syria, the British installed him as King of Mesopotamia (after rigging an ‘election’ to that effect). Around the same time, his brother Abdullah was installed king of Transjordan. TE Lawrence remarked that Abdullah was an ideal candidate for the post because he was “not too powerful, and who was not an inhabitant of Transjordania (sic) but who relied upon His Majesty’s Government for retention of his office”.

British pressure resulted in France declaring Syria and Lebanon independent in 1941, though it did not mean much on the ground. Like Abdullah and Faisal, the French too chose loyalists and weaklings who were dependent on French support to head these new republics, though the fact that elections had to be called rendered this strategy unsustainable. When Lebanon went to the polls in 1943, the French rigged them in favour of their chosen candidate. When such rigging did not work, the French orchestrated a coup by getting the entire Lebanese cabinet (including the president) kidnapped. It was again down to British influence to get the French to back down and reinstall the popularly elected government.

Despite nominal independence, France continued to have a military presence in both states, and remained responsible for their entire security apparatus. When in 1945 Syria demanded that the troupes speciales, a twenty-thousand strong Syrian militia under French control be transferred to them, France responded by despatching additional troops to Damascus and ultimately bombing the city, including the Parliament and Government Palace.

The lack of broad-based nationalist movements in the two countries meant that it was up to the competing colonial power Britain to lead pressure against the French. Lack of nationalist movement also implied difficulty in administration following full independence, as the two coups (one bloody and one bloodless) in Syria in 1949 showed. When elections were called later the same year, entire sections of the population such as the Bedouin tribes of Eastern Syria were disenfranchised.

Meanwhile, the French hit back against Britain (which had been ambivalent in its support for the Zionist movement) by offering support to Jewish terrorist groups, which had launched a violent struggle against the British in Palestine. The French armed Jewish terrorist groups such as the Stern Gang, Irgun and Haganah, and offered them bases in France to conduct their activities. When Britain tried to control the immigration of Jews into Palestine following the Second World War, France organised for boatloads of Jews to be shipped to Haifa. Britain’s decision to exit from Palestine in 1948 was driven by a combination of violent resistance and international pressure (led by France and the US).

In comparison to these West Asian nations, India had an orderly independence process (barring the tumultuous partition-related riots). Britain did not interfere in India’s affairs after independence. There was an even handover of institutions such as the military, with the peaceful freedom movement meaning that British Indian army transitioned to become the Indian army (much unlike Israel where the formerly terrorist Haganah transformed into the Israeli Defence Forces). The peaceful freedom movement also implied a smooth transition in civil administration.

A reason behind India’s continued success as a nation-state and a democracy is, – India’s long,  and broad-based freedom struggle spanning decades, prior to Independence. In order to understand why this was critical to India’s success, it is necessary to look at the history of other countries, especially the West Asian nations that became independent at the same time. India’s struggle was critical in creating a broad multiparty coalition in favour of independence, which was also able to take over the administration after the British left (elected provincial assemblies before independence also deserve credit here). While the Indian National Congress had led the freedom struggle, the presence of other political parties prevented any authoritarian takeover. This also meant that no groups could be disenfranchised, like the Bedouins of Syria.

There is a school of thought that questions the efficacy of the Indian freedom movement, arguing that the British would have left anyway due to economic hardships in the wake of the Second World War (as they did in other countries that lacked a strong freedom struggle). While there might be merit to this argument, it cannot be denied that the long and peaceful freedom struggle was critical to the success of Independent India.

Tailpiece: In anticipation of the release of the Netaji papers, questions have been raised on how India would have turned out had Subhas Chandra Bose and other leaders of the Indian National Army participated, or even led, in government formation following independence. A good template to construct such alternate histories would be Israel. Israel’s first Prime Minister following independence in 1948 was David Ben Gurion, who had earlier led the Haganah. Yitzhak Shamir, who had led the Stern Gang, and Menachem Begin, who had led the Irgun, would also go on to become Prime Ministers of Israel.

Photo: Kevin Dooley