This article examines the reporting of colonial violence in Britain. This is one element in the working of metropolitan anti-imperialism. For such anti-imperialism to be effective, it needed a steady stream of reliable accounts of injustice and repression on the part of the British authorities, and justifiable revolt and growing support among the nationalists. So if such a stream was choked by censorship, this may be part of the explanation of the weakness of metropolitan anti-imperialism.
Censorship of the truth, moreover, is only one possibility. It may be that the the truth was itself produced by colonialism. Rather than regulating true accounts of its violence, colonialism may have constructed its own discourse concerning violence. Such a discourse distinguished between the legitimate violence of the colonial state, needed to preserve law and order, and the illegitimate violence of those who revolted against it. It enabled the colonial state to tighten its grip every time violence was used, on either side.
The idea of the article is to focus as close to the moment of violence as possible, tracing how the words of the earliest witnesses took shape in the hands of those who recorded them - British district officers, anti-colonial nationalists, investigative reporters, travelling observers, and others. These reports could then be traced onwards, through the hands of higher officials, other nationalist leaders, politicians and newspaper editors, before they reached British readers.
What state the reports arrived in matters for an important debate in the political history of British imperialism. How much did the British know about their empire? To simplify a little, one side in this debate finds abundant evidence of everyday, cultural familiarity with empire, and concludes that the British knew and cared a great deal about the empire. The other side finds ignorance, and concludes that the British were indifferent or apathetic. So it is helpful to know how much the British knew about colonial violence. It also helps to know how they felt about it, since knowledge and feeling relate in complicated ways. The ignorant can be apathetic, but sometimes they are the most vehement, precisely because of their ignorance. The best-informed do not to be those who care the most. Their knowledge may insulate them from caring. So we also need to consider what the British felt about the reports.
The interwar period, and specifically Indian civil disobedience, is my case study. The interwar years are a good choice because this is when justifications for British rule started to rely heavily on the peaceableness of British rule, just as, at the colonial periphery, violence was being deployed against nationalist uprisings more than ever before.
OFFICIAL AND NATIONALIST ACCOUNTS
The first part of the article examines how British officials constructed an account of colonial violence which vindicated their authority. This was rarely as simple as censorship. Indeed, the British called forth accounts of their violence, often in considerable detail. But these accounts were the raw material for an exercise in assigning blame. Sometimes this blame could be directed at the nationalists for making the violence “necessary“. At other times it could be directed at junior officials of the Raj - Indian policemen, for example - who had “gone too far“. This was a long way from a “cover-up“. There was censorship, of course, but the Raj did not always want to conceal its own violence, partly because it was intended to have an exemplary effect, but also because it had a useful consolidating effect. If the violence was perceived to be legitimate, it deterred and reassured. If it was illegitimate, it justified renewed colonial rule, to protect Indians against abusive junior officials.
The nationalists also produced their own accounts of colonial violence, based on witness evidence they solicited themselves. To a degree these constituted an alternative discourse. It was designed to demonstrate the repression of the struggle for freedom from British rule. The nationalists too shaped the raw material, suppressing unsuitable injustices, such as those in which Indian communities had attacked each other, and developing injustices with anti-British potential by coaching witnesses.
However, nationalist accounts struggled to achieve authority with British audiences, because the situation was epistemically unequal. The British sat in judgement over all the Indians in the case: both the Indian junior officials and the nationalists. They could summon and compel witnesses and the nationalists could not. Their account was therefore more to be trusted. It was not, of course, a complete account. But even the unknown elements helped the consolidate the British narrative. A fully knowable colony could be governed transparently and without mistakes. One that was edged with uncertainty was hard to govern and prone to occasional, exceptional error. But when errors were made, invariably by the defective junior Indian official and almost never by British officials, the solution was reintensified British rule. The British therefore did not always need to censor rival accounts. Discursive authority did the work instead.
The third part of the article considers the difficulties of investigative journalism in deciding between the British and nationalist accounts. It uses the example of the journalist H.N.Brailsford, who was commissioned by American newspapers and a British publisher to investigate repression in India. Lacking Indian languages, Brailsford was forced to rely on Congress guides to take him around the countryside, and solicit and question peasant witnesses for him. They also translated the answers. Since the Congress guides also wielded organizational, economic and social power over those whose testimony they provided, it was fairly easy for the British officials to discredit Brailsford’s findings. They did this rather than censor them.
THE MANCHESTER GUARDIAN
So rival accounts were available in Britain, and the British press had a choice whether to report neither, or both, or choose between them. In the article I examine this choice as it was made by the Manchester Guardian. The Guardian was not the most-read paper in Britain, but did, unlike better-read papers such as the Daily Herald, retain Indian correspondents. It also had a readership interested in imperial questions, and willing to hear criticism of British actions. Its mission, captured in the motto of its editor, C.P.Scott, that “comment is free, but facts are sacred“, was to report the truth without fear or favour. It had done so, at some cost to itself, over British atrocities in the South African War, and over “black and tan“ repression in Ireland.
It is therefore intriguing that The Guardian reported little of the news it received regarding repression in India from Brailsford and others. There were several reasons for this. First, although The Guardian retained an Indian correspondent, it was not until the late 1930s that it employed an Indian in this role. Before then, it employed liberal-minded British ex-officials, who treated Indian accounts with scepticism. The principal expert was a retired district magistrate called J.T.Gwynne, who told Scott that Indians were not to be trusted. “Many of the victims of “repression“, he wrote, were “silly asses or conceited asses who don’t deserve much sympathy“. Another correspondent, the writer G.T.Garratt, was also an ex-official, and told Scott that Congress allegations of atrocities were mostly cooked-up.
When The Guardian received reports from a British missionary, Verrier Elwin, alleging police-led murders and punitive house-burnings, it was thrown into a quandary. Here was a British witness with an apparently sincere account. Scott’s son Ted, now running the paper, felt instinctively - a true Guardian moment - that “the truth must lie somewhere in between“ - and therefore dispatched a new correspondent, the ex-missionary and literary critic Edward Thompson. Thompson was a complex man, and his position with respect to Indian nationalism was a strange mixture of assertiveness, deference, and prickly self-regard. He travelled to check Elwin’s story and spoke to both sides, and concluded that Elwin’s account had been exaggerated. The nationalists had provoked the repression, and Elwin had swallowed their stories too readily. He had, Thompson wrote to Ted Scott, yet to realise “how much real moral character can exist in India alongside … indifference to truth of fact. He believes what people he finds attractive tell him“.
Elwin’s reports would have been spiked, had it not been for another recruit to The Guardian, Malcolm Muggeridge. In the weeks following the unexpected death of Ted Scott, Muggeridge had a brief inter-regnum as assistant editor and repeated Elwin’s allegations.
Even so, neither Elwin’s reports nor Congress accounts achieved wide circulation in Britain. This was less a consequence of censorship, than the reservations of publishers and editors. Indian accounts, where they did get through, had to be endorsed by trusted British public figures. Indian writers could not be commissioned to write on Indian subjects unless a British expert, almost always an ex-official, had given his approval. Indian speakers at public meetings had to be introduced by British chairmen. Even the BBC’s commitment to balance did not extend to Indian voices. When it planned a series of talks on Indian politics, it accepted the India Office’s view that the voice of Congress should not be heard directly, but given by Gandhi’s British friend, C.F.Andrews, or the Labour Party leader, George Lansbury.
State censorship was not the most important means by which information was regulated. It was hard to do, and it almost always failed to block rival accounts from reaching Britain. At least some part of the British press - The Guardian in this case - heard these two accounts, and made its own, independent judgment between them, based on attempts to verify the story through investigative journalism and the use of foreign correspondents.
What mattered was not censorship but the effects of this judging and verifying. This was not for the reasons often proposed to explain why distant violence has little impact on western societies, such as indifference to troubles far away, or the dulling effects of political consensus, or unthinking patriotism or disempowerment. None of these applied much in the case of The Guardian. It was not complacent about India, and it sought out more information than could be obtained from official pronouncements. It was suspicious of the unquestioning consensus that imperialists sought. It acknowledged duties that went beyond the nation, and loyalties to the nation that were not simply loyalties to its government. It did not feel disempowered or unqualified to speak out. On the contrary, it accepted the responsibility to know and to criticise, and urged it on its readers.
The problem was partly mechanical. The Guardian refused to employ Indians as Indian correspondents, and its reliance on British ex-officials as guides seems almost certain to have led to distortion. Ex-officials like Gwynne and Garratt believed as an article of faith that Indians were - if not actually mendacious - less to be trusted than British witnesses. In judging Indian accounts, The Guardian‘s demand for written proof in a society still largely illiterate also seems naive, and its preference for simple and honest accounts seems oddly insensitive to the likelihood that true accounts of violence would be confused and traumatised.
But the larger problem was epistemic. The Guardian editors believed that they would always publish the truth, no matter how painful it was. Professional commitments to truthfulness in reporting and scepticism about unchecked power were important guiding principles and led to a refusal to line up uncritically with the government view. But The Guardian‘s manner of separating truth from falsehood in rival accounts, and of identifying the voices of authority, exhibited certain biases.
These were a matter of who was trusted, which was in turn a matter of shared and unshared identities. There was scepticism about the statements of the Raj, unlike the tendency of other parts of the British press to print these as though officials were impartial experts rather than parties to a conflict. But the officials were believed by The Guardian unless there was evidence to the contrary. On the other hand, the evidence of Indians was generally discounted in advance as partial, unless there was evidence to the contrary. This helped the Raj because it did not need to produce a watertight account of its own, but merely doubt concerning rival accounts.
When pushed into doubt, the editorial response of The Guardian was not to take sides, but to seek to bring the parties together. The round table - the political strategy of the Raj in this period - was also The Guardian‘s approach. All men of goodwill might gather round it, to seek a solution together. With respect to the dispute itself, The Guardian offered a kind of permanently suspended judgment. It practised a journalism of detachment. Its editorials insisted on the tractability of every conflict; the essential unity of opinion among reasonably minded men concerning its solution; the inexhaustible supplies of “hope” that might be squeezed out - “easily, smoothly … like brushless shaving cream from a full tube”, as Muggeridge described it, to reconcile the disputants. Elwin’s journalism of attachment looks very different. Made in advance of proof, without guarantees, it took sides. This was why The Guardian could not print it.
These findings throw some doubt upon the idea of a moral disarmament of empire. Knowledge of the violence practised by colonialism did not necessarily lead to anti-imperialism. Indeed, my account suggests that an ethical case could be made for imperialism that was actually strengthened by exposure of its violence. Perhaps, therefore, the moral disarmament of empire came later, and not through liberal or humanitarian anguish at colonial violence, but through the interaction of more marginal European philosophies and the direct experience of colonialism.
We might also reflect on the role of the metropolitan press and publishing world as an advocate of anti-imperialist ideas. It did not silence Indian voices in the 1930s. On the contrary, it brought them forward more enthusiastically than ever. But it did so firmly framed by British endorsements. While this helped colonized voices to be heard and published in Britain, it came at a price. British support for the Indian struggle became at best vicarious in character, and at worst self-undermining, unconsciously reproducing in itself the asymmetries of power it ostensibly wanted to overturn.
Finally, my account has implications for views of the reach and significance of the empire in British politics and society. To simplify: one view in this debate has been since people knew about the empire but did not much protest, they must have been imperialists. The other has been that since they did not know, they cannot have been imperialists. My account offers a third possible relationship between knowledge and empire: that it was in the not-knowing that imperialism resided. Ignorance was not a blank space, but a construction in itself, which took discursive work to achieve. Such work arguably made it possible for the British to believe in an empire quite distinct from the one their colonial subjects knew by direct experience. The way the competing stories mutated, as I have traced them almost from the originary moment of violence in India to The Guardian editorial, helps us to see how that might have happened.
The article was published in the Journal of Modern History in September 2012. The journal is published by the University of Chicago Press, and you can find my article here.