India was not just the crown jewel of the British Empire. It was also the cockpit where the very concept of Empire was most hotly contested. In the first half of the last century, as the Indian nationalist movement took off, the fight against the iniquity of imperial rule galvanized tens of thousands of people in the West: liberals, radicals, communists, evangelicals and many others. . They sided with India. Most were British, championing a colonial freedom movement on the homeland, but the cause resonated in the west far beyond British shores and even beyond the English-speaking world.
The motivations of these men and women were varied – sometimes shaped by religion or ideology, but also born out of a deep sense of shared humanity and a belief in fairness and justice. The case of India has been strengthened by its deep civilizational and spiritual heritage, the vigor of its nationalism and the enormous moral authority of Mahatma Gandhi who, along with Nelson Mandela, is the most inspiring political figure of the 20th century, surpassing away Lenin, Mao and Winston Churchill.
Rebels against the Raj tells the story of seven such “Western India freedom fighters” – and Ramachandra Guha sets the bar high to be worthy of inclusion. The seven did not only support India’s cause; they embraced India and made it their home – indeed, all but one died on Indian soil. More than that, all were imprisoned, deported, interned or expelled by the British Raj because of their support for India’s claim to nationhood.
Guha is an outstanding historian and a leading public intellectual. Retrieving these personal stories gave him access to papers in family vaults and some of the lesser-visited libraries, as well as turning to those two beacons of scholarship, the British Library in London and the Nehru Memorial. Museum and Library in Delhi.
He wants to tell the story of people who went against the grain, pulled away from family and friends, and embraced a foreign country and culture because they believed it was right. At a time when self-interest and the easy option prevail all too much in public life, it is reminiscent of a time when ideals and values ruled, at least for some. And it reminds us that while the freedom of India was of course mainly ensured by the Indians, they had precious allies to help them on their way.
Of Guha’s seven chosen ones, four are male and three are female; four are British, two are American and one is of Irish descent; four are obvious candidates for inclusion, while for three the case is less clear.
Annie Besant is a complex figure who was already in her forties when she first set foot on Indian soil in 1893. From a disastrous marriage to a bigoted rural clergyman, she turned to atheism, radicalism, women’s rights, trade unionism and – most outrageous of all at the time – public defense of contraception. Then a new turn in her life took her to Theosophy and to India, where she embraced the nationalist movement, established educational institutions and generally got things done with an energy and sense of purpose that is almost frightening. . Like so many stubborn public figures, she made friends and enemies – but the sincerity of her commitment to India was unquestioned. She was, among many landmark achievements, the first woman to become President of the Indian National Congress and one of the founders of the Hindu University of Benares. Not bad for a foreigner!
Madeleine Slade, who took the name Mirabehn, was the English daughter of a naval officer – again, both brash and determined – who became one of Gandhi’s closest associates. She was at the heart of the Gandhian enterprise, devoted to both man and movement and almost as ascetic in her lifestyle as her mentor. In her late 60s, ill health prompted Mira to return to Europe, but her heart remained with India – and almost her last act of kindness helped pave the way for Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi (she was played in the film by Geraldine James), who brought her message to a new global audience.
BG Horniman, after whom the Horniman Circle in Mumbai is named, was the most highly regarded newspaper editor of his time who developed the Bombay Chronicle as one of the most effective platforms of nationalism. He was to journalism, says Guha, “what Annie Besant was to public affairs: a born-free white person who had made it his mission to ensure that Indians were given the same rights of liberty and liberty as the English. took for granted”. The Raj was so afraid of him that he was expelled from India and not allowed to return for seven painful years.
Philip Spratt, a Cambridge-educated communist, came to India to help build the Party and foment revolution. He was the main defendant in the notorious Meerut conspiracy case in the early 1930s, when imperial authorities tried to crush India’s nascent communist movement and the militant trade unions they led. He later became a supporter of MN Roy and later still an obsessive Cold War anti-Communist who sought to draw parallels between left-wing and right-wing totalitarianism. “Spratt’s analysis of how even right-wing parties are inspired by Leninists,” Guha comments moodily, “speaks directly to how the Bharatiya Janata Party has wielded power in India today.
The other three ‘rebels’ must take the author’s trust. Samuel (later Satyanand) Stokes and Dick Keithahn were both American; Catherine Heilemann, who took the name Sarala Devi, was British. All three were active in the establishment of ashrams and educational institutions and in the exploration of Indian spirituality, as well as in the fight against forced labor and untouchability and in the pursuit of environmental sustainability.
At the center of this seven-sided canvas is Gandhi – as you would expect from a historian who wrote so masterfully about India’s founding father. For Annie Besant, Gandhi was as much a rival as a colleague, although his more militant, mass-based style of politics soon replaced the constitutionalism of Besant’s Home Rulers. To others of the seven he was a guide and a guru, and a friend too. Even Spratt, who as a communist was not an admirer of nonviolent resistance, was touched when Gandhi visited the prisoners at Meerut, and decades later wrote a generally admiring book to his topic.
Rather than seven successive potted political biographies, Guha opted for a more chronological approach. Each chapter focuses on one of its chosen groups, but their stories are sliced and diced. It sometimes feels like you’re repeatedly heading down the same track.
A more substantial caveat is Guha’s insistence on describing these rebels – an honorable term – as “renegades”. It’s a pejorative word that implies betrayal. The women and men that Guha so clearly admires have not betrayed their native nation. On the contrary, they believed that the Empire and the grotesque racial inequalities on which it was founded were a betrayal of the values to which Western democracies were nominally committed.
It is a powerful and important work of history, a gripping account of exceptional people. “These individuals came to India at different times, with very different backgrounds and very different motivations,” Guha writes in conclusion.
What unites them is first of all the courage and fearlessness they show in their personal lives; second, the depth and duration of their commitment to their new homeland; and third, the contemporaneity, even the timelessness, of what they lived and fought for. So many years after the death of the last of these rebels, what they did and what they said still speaks to Indians today.
If only we could listen.
Thanks to Guha’s scholarship, we can all now listen and learn.
Andrew Whitehead is an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham in the UK and a former BBC India correspondent.