Churchill’s own darkest hours

Dr. Jeanne Zaino feels the new film ignores the unsavoury side of Britain's tenacious wartime leader, arch-conservative and colonial enthusiast

Churchill’s own darkest hours
One of the most celebrated films at this year’s Academy Awards was Darkest Hour. The movie, which chronicles Winston Churchill’s early days in office, received six nominations, including best picture, and best actor.

Darkest Hour is the second major motion picture this year to focus on the British Bulldog. Both films reinforce the popular narrative of Churchill as one of the greatest, most eloquent and driven leaders of all time. A war hero, who stood firm against the Nazis and fascism, and fought against grave odds for the ideals of democracy, liberty, and freedom.

What the films fail to address is the other side of this man. The side that prompted protestors to storm a Churchill themed cafe in the United Kingdom recently chanting “Churchill is a racist.” The side that some speculate may have driven President Barack Obama to have Churchill’s bust removed from the Oval Office. After all, it was under Churchill’s watch that Obama’s grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was imprisoned without trial and tortured for two years for resisting the empire. It is also the side that prompted even his most ardent supporters, with whose support he fought the Axis powers, to castigate the Prime Minister for his statements regarding the fate of one of the Empire’s most prized colonies.

Churchill was quite content to go back on the promises of the Allies' Atlantic Charter

In August of 1942, Sir Sikander Hyat-Khan traveled to Egypt to inspect the Indian troops who had been deployed to the Middle East and African theatres of war. During the visit, he met with Churchill in Cairo. At the time, Hyat-Khan was not only Premiere of the Punjab and the highest ranking elected Indian from the Subcontinent, he was also a fierce proponent of India’s involvement in the war effort. A soldier who had fought in World War I and was subsequently knighted for his bravery, Hyat-Khan was more responsible than any other Indian leader for sending the more than two-and-a-half million Indians into battle, including two of his own sons. He was also the undisputed leader of the Punjab – from which the vast majority of the Indian soldiers hailed and the person who advocated most effectively to the leadership of the All India Muslim League that they would be making a grave mistake by following the Indian National Congress under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru in refusing to support the Allies.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the AIML, was initially lukewarm on the question of India’s role in the War. It was Hyat-Khan who urged him to support the war effort. In a letter dated the 25th of December, 1941, Hyat-Khan wrote, “We are faced with a situation fraught with grave and imminent danger…I have from the very outset of this war pleaded for a policy of wholehearted and unconditional support, because it is my fixed conviction that bringing this war to a successful conclusion is of vital importance to India… We shall fight the ruthless and unscrupulous enemies of liberty, justice and religion, and incidentally win freedom for our motherland not by political maneuvering or bargaining, but by virtue of our deeds and by extending wholehearted and honourable cooperation to a friend.”

Hyat-Khan and Churchill in Cairo, 1942

Hyat-Khan, a pragmatic thinker, had both moral and strategic reasons for urging Jinnah and the AIML to adopt this position. Like the vast majority of Indians, he supported the war against Nazism and Fascism on ethical grounds, and as a devout Muslim, he was sensitive to the plight of persecuted religious minorities. He was also of the mindset that India helping Britain successfully conclude the war would accelerate the path towards independence. His conviction was not without precedents – following World War I, Britain had taken some minor steps towards granting the colony more autonomy. As Hyat-Khan stated, “I believe that valour and sacrifices of our fighting men alone can win India freedom just as they won 1921 reforms by their sacrifices during last war.” Finally, he was convinced that if the Axis powers were successful, India would be vulnerable to another invading force –one more destructive than Britain.

Never one to miss an opportunity to push for Indian independence, during their meeting in Cairo, Hyat-Khan pressed Churchill on the need for greater autonomy and constitutional reforms and walked him through the major components of his plan for India’s independence, as stated in his “Outlines of a Scheme of Indian Federation.” Whether he moved Churchill on this point is unknown. What we do know now is that it is unlikely. The historical record is clear that when it came to India, Churchill was not the statesman and freedom fighter he is often portrayed as, nor was he moved to address India’s political problem. In recent books Panigrahi, Makerjee and Toye portray Churchill’s attitude toward India as “ill-informed,” “totally prejudiced and biased,” “imperialist” and predicated on a commitment to “stamp out” India’s “legitimate aspirations for freedom and democracy.”

It was against this backdrop that Hyat-Khan, the First Lion of the Punjab, reacted so strongly, when Churchill stated that the Atlantic Charter’s principle of self-determination did not apply to India. Hyat-Khan took Churchill to task for the statement which he described as an “embarrassment.” He demanded that Churchill provide a clear and reasonable timeframe for India to achieve full Dominion status, and to create a representative committee to draft a Constitution. The following day, British Secretary of State Leopold Amery took to the floor of the House of Commons, apologising for Churchill’s statement.

Hyat-Khan was unable to see the War to its conclusion or to press Churchill further on Indian independence because just months after their Cairo meeting, at the age of 50 and in good health, he died mysteriously in office.

As the latest films on Churchill confirm, in the ensuing decades the British Bulldog’s legacy has continued to grow. Unfortunately, the legacy is decidedly biased. Neither film shines much light or truth on the other side of this man. The one who, even while fighting Nazism and Fascism, still believed that Queen Victoria was right to say “I think it is unwise to give up what we hold.” The one who told Lord Archibald Wavell to “keep a bit of India.” The one who did not act in the face of mass starvation of millions in Bengal. The one who, as Indians fought and died on the battlefield in World War II, stated that the Charter did not apply to the states that formed the British Empire.

Leaders like Churchill are difficult to depict in a film that is two hours long. That said, Hollywood can and should do better. The numerous nominations that this film received give pause. It would be one thing if the depiction were forthcoming about the many different sides of this man. Unfortunately it is not. The question is: why, then, was it held up for celebration?

Jeanne Zaino, PhD, is Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Iona College, NY, USA. She is currently writing a book on Sir Sikander Hyat-Khan. She can be reached at or on Twitter at @JeanneZaino