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    The header above uses a photograph taken by the Victorian photographers Bourne and Shepherd of Sir Sayaji Rao, the third Gaekwar of Baroda (1863-1939). He was twelve years at the time this photograph was taken. A few months earlier he had acceded to the throne after his predecessor was accused of poisoning the British Resident and deposed by the British for maladministration. In 1911, at the Delhi Durbar, the Gaekwar famously ‘insulted’ the King-Emperor George V by half-bowing only once (three times was expected) and turning his back on him.

    The Labour Party leader Keir Hardie, who had visited India a few years earlier, took this incident to indicate a degree of anti-British hostility it probably did not convey and defended the Gaekwar in Parliament and press. Hardie had been impressed by what he had seen of Baroda on his visit, and argued that it showed that Indians could govern themselves without help from the British. Indeed, Baroda was much paraded to visitors as the most modern and enlightened of the Indian princely states. Visitors included the Radical journalist Henry Nevinson, and also Ramsay MacDonald who arrived in 1910. He was shown the modern schools, state bank and prisons, and given copies of the plans for industrial development, but he remained doubtful that western plants could ever acquire deep roots in India. ‘The West’, he wrote, ‘…is fading and rotting in the Indian heat’. Sidney and Beatrice Webb also met the Gaekwar on their visit to India in April 1912 and thought him and his wife ‘real enthusiasts for social reform’.

    In this chapter, I examined the way that these early British socialists, radicals and progressives saw India. What did they see? How did they understand it?

    A key question for all these observers was whether the kinds of social reforms they wished to see in India, such as the redress of poverty, widening educational opportunity and the growth of meaningful trade unionism were more likely under Congress rule than they were under British rule. The unreformed Raj seemed to lack the capacity to undertake such a programme. Its finances were squeezed by imperial military demands and those of an expensive European-dominated administration. It pursued agricultural policies which merely created peasant debt and famine, and industrial strategies which were haphazard. Lacking sufficient authority of its own, it was forced into compromise with the existing elites and the most socially regressive elements of Indian society, the landlords and the princes.

    On the other hand, Congress, despite its hostility to the Raj, seemed detached from the masses. Though highly articulate, its core support came from a Hindu urban high caste western-educated intelligentsia. It had little autonomous support among workers and peasants. Its primary aim was to secure its own place in the administrative work of the Raj, but social reforms, as well as religious matters, had been avoided as divisive. Land tenure and rents were rarely discussed, and the problems of Indian rural poverty were considered mainly as evidence of the ‘drain’ of resources to Britain, and rarely as a problem of internal inequity.

    This made it hard to judge progress. Judged by the criteria of home, the emergence of a rich urban associational life, characterised by ‘moderate’ politicians speaking the familiar language of western liberalism, seemed at first sight an authentic, if infant, development. Yet on closer inspection, seen in its own setting, it appeared a somewhat artificial, imitative phenomenon, lacking deep roots in Indian society. The alternative forms of mobilisation visible in ‘extremist’ politics initially offered different signs of authenticity: popular support and clear indigenous roots, and most encouragingly, self-reliance. But they were quite unlike the forms with which British politicians were familiar, relying as they did on pre-modern methods of mobilisation and on the authority of caste and class. Many of the politicians they met as heads of ‘western’ organizations in London, were, in India, leading narrower, communal organisations dominated by quite different methods of working. These were often reforming organizations of which British socialists approved, concerned with reforming religious practices such as widow remarriage, untouchability or prohibitions on foreign travel, in the light of new thinking. But they had unfamiliar modes of operation, such as the use of religious injunctions, caste sanctions, money-power and force.

    At the heart of the problem, however, was confusion over the marks of authenticity. Indian nationalism seemed to most western observers too narrow, too shallow and excessively derivative. Yet efforts to deepen and broaden it, or to ‘Indianise’ it, inevitably made it look even less familiar.

    Although, in discussions of this kind, the political development of India was usually claimed to be decades, or sometimes centuries, behind that of the west, it is very evident that a great deal of what the socialist travellers suggested projected on to an Indian canvas some contemporary and domestic concerns. Hardie wanted to bring Congress leaders face to face with the problems of the rural poor. The village council – the panchayat – was the foundation of self-government. MacDonald thought that participation in the local councils would be for Congress what parliamentary work had been for the British Labour Party, a necessary apprenticeship. For the Webbs, the Indian ‘aristocracy of intellect’ needed – contra Hardie – to be detached from the uncivilized masses, and brought into alliance with similarly progressive British officials. What each most admired in the mirror of Indian nationalism was the reflection they saw of their own ideals.


    This chapter appeared in Jose Harris (ed.) Civil Society in British History: Ideas, Identities, Institutions, (Oxford, 2005). You can find the book here.