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The Colonial Trap

US President Joe Biden knew what British Prime Minister Clement Attlee knew in 1947: Once you make local elites dependent on the power and money of a foreign occupier, it becomes almost impossible to leave without causing mayhem. And the longer the foreign power stays, the worse the mayhem often becomes.

NEW YORK – On February 20, 1947, Clement Attlee, the socialist British prime minister, informed parliament that India would become independent no later than June 1948. Attlee could not wait for the British to withdraw from a country whose leaders, Muslim and Hindu, had long been clamoring for independence. But India was seething with violent unrest. Muslim leaders were afraid of Hindu dominance. Worried that a civil war might land the British in an uncontrollable situation, Attlee decided to end the British Raj even earlier.

Indian independence began on August 14, 1947. Pakistan broke away. Horrendous violence between Hindus and Muslims claimed a half-million lives. Many more lost their homes. The wounds of partition are yet to heal.

Attlee was widely blamed for getting out too soon and leaving the former colony in chaos. If only a better police force had been organized. If only the army could have kept order. If only the British could have left once the country was stable.

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