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    Problems of vicarious anti-imperialism

    In this paper written for my research project Other People’s Struggles, I examine the debate among Indian nationalists and anti-imperialists concerning the degree to which non-Indians could be involved in their struggle. This was a divisive and persistent question and yet it has hardly been studied. In the historiography of Indian nationalism, it has been assumed that reliance on non-Indians, and especially Britons, indicated an immature stage of the anti-colonial struggle. It was part of the ‘mendicant’ (or begging) approach to the British rulers favoured by Indian ‘moderates’, which was criticised by the so-called ‘extremists’ before the First World War, and abandoned when Gandhi took control of the Indian National Congress in 1920.

    In other writings, notably those produced by historians of British anti-imperialism, it has been assumed that, while the British were not always helpful anti-imperialists, the Indians were usually grateful for whatever help they got. However, I argue, Indian nationalists were never simply grateful. They regarded British help in a variety of ways: accepting it, rejecting it, seeking to mould it, working around it. Gratitude, where it was publicly offered, was sometimes privately resented. Rejection, when it occurred, was sometimes a matter of pure formality. Furthermore, the question of what role, if any, non-Indian helpers could play in the anti-colonial movement was not resolved in 1920. On the contrary, it persisted as an unresolved question up until Indian independence in 1947. Although Gandhi insisted on Indian self-reliance (swaraj), he also thought it important for the Indians, and vital for the British, that the latter remained engaged with the Indian struggle.


    But what form was this engagement to take?  As is well-known, the early Indian National Congress stated its demands in the form of petitions, as loyal British subjects of the Crown.  British rule, in its present form, was wrong for India, they argued, but it was also wrong for Britain. It was ‘un-British’ and ‘illiberal’.  This has often been regarded as a laughably weak way to make demands, properly superseded by more confrontational approaches which were made as Indians. In my view, however, the question of engagement was more complex. 

    The claim that rule in India was ‘un-British’ could carry some anti-imperialist charge, but its capacity to do so was caught in a paradoxical dependence on British validation.  The claim could be made  could be made conjointly or disjointly. It could be made disjointly from outside Britishness, in naming the ways that British rule failed to live up to the standards that the British had set themselves to respect. The characteristic charge was one of hypocrisy: that the British had let themselves down.  Alternatively it could be made from within Britishness, in demanding as British subjects the same privileges for Indians that the (white) British accorded themselves.   The characteristic, and sharper, charge was betrayal: that the British had broken faith with their own people. 

    The trouble with demands made from outside was that they could only prompt self-criticism on the part of the British. They invoked obligations the British had imposed on themselves, which might or might not trigger an enquiry by the British into their own behaviour. Such appeals were not hopeless: they required the British to effect some sort of reconciliation between the claimed and displayed manifestations of Britishness. But these were – in the terms I have used in Other People’s Struggles – relatively unambitious claims. They could only be phrased as reminders, suggestions, urgings or pleas, and not as demands.  The only demands that could be transmitted were those which resonated well with self-critical Britons, which in turn meant those which nested easily within an assimilating Britishness.

    The trouble with demands made from within was that they meant wresting Britishness away from the (white) British at precisely the time when Britishness was coming to be defined in more racial terms.  When makng demands from outside Britishness, the Indians only needed white allies who were prepared to criticise the British government in India on their behalf.  Of these self-critical Britons there was never any shortage.  But when making demands from within Britishness, the Indians required  something much rarer: white allies prepared to recognise the Indians as no less British than themselves.

    If Britishness could not be claimed on equal terms, then perhaps liberalism, which in principle belonged to everyone, might be?  Liberal argument could be used to justify certain basic freedoms in India, such as a free press, appointment to posts by competitive merit, the rule of law, and responsible government. Such arguments sometimes managed to put the British on the back foot. But the Indians struggled to achieve co-ownership. Liberalism, British thinkers believed, could not be mechanically applied in settings so different to those for which it had been devised.   It had to be interpreted, translated and adapted.  This was work which the British reserved to themselves.  They would be the judges of good and bad adaptations, of permissible and impermissible adjustments. No matter how close the British Indians got to the judicial bench, it remained slightly out of reach. Like their command of the English language, their claim to interpret liberalism was ruled inadequate either through its imperfections, or through the imperfection of its perfection.


    Despite the implications of their name, the Indian extremists did not seek to intensify pressure at the same points as those singled out by the British Indians.   They aimed to broaden support in India to reach social groups hitherto untouched by elite politics.   Their tactics were demonstration, boycott, social ostracism and in some cases, political violence, rather than petition. They aimed to mobilise and harness popular movements concerned with the defence of traditional Hindu cultural and religious practices against British intrusion.  

    The British had always been prepared to recognise difference, as a means of rebalancing support for their rule. But the extremist politicians wanted more. Recognition assigned Indian difference to a subordinate place within the larger scheme of British rule, rather than acknowledging that it constituted a civilisation in its own right. Indian civilisation must therefore be protected from British influence either by withdrawing from it, or – the polarised alternative – violent confrontation. Indians must, however, firmly reject any middle course of explanation or negotiation. For this reason, the extremists had almost no interest in adherents. They were prepared to sacrifice intelligibility among adherents for the greater support and integrity they expected to derive from re-indigenising the struggle.

    For those who favoured violent confrontation, the nationalist virtues were those of the ksatriya, the male, upper-caste warrior defined to counter the colonial stereotype of the effeminate Bengali intellectual.   The ksatriya exhibited daring, which the extremists contrasted with the deferential mendicancy of the British Indians. Even if concessions could be won by asking (which the extremists doubted), this would not amount to real freedom, which had to be seized rather than passively received at the hands of others.  For those who favoured withdrawal rather than violence, on the other hand, the necessary sacrifice would be a self-sacrifice, and their corresponding ideal was not the military ksatriya but the monkish sanyasi, whose bravery took the form of self-denial.

    British adherents were not only unnecessary for this form of struggle, but positively dangerous. They embodied the force-field from which nationalists had to extricate themselves.  For some, this meant a firm break with all things British, including the severing of the ties of friendship that had grown up between the British Indians and self-critical Britons. The extremist strategy of dissociation – the refusal or breaking of social ties with the British, no matter how apparently sympathetic – immensely distressed the British ‘friends of India’.  Violence confused them even more.  The British understood why the ‘uncivilized’ might resort to force. But they were flummoxed when western-educated Indians turned to violence.  The 1909 assassination in London of the official Sir Curzon Wyllie by the engineering student Madan Lal Dhingra was inexplicable to those who thought that Wyllie’s primary official responsibility – that of integrating elite Indians students into British life – made him the least likely target imaginable. The British Indians in London, and their British friends, tied themselves in knots trying to explain the assassination away as an aberrant consequence of madness or intoxication, rather than what it was: the conscious refusal of British influence which others had expressed through dissociation.

    The extremists’ strategies meant a break with the metropole and towards adherents located there.   As the British Indians pointed out, this meant giving up leverage in Britain.  When the authorities in India moved firmly against the extremists, subjecting them to censorship, harassment and harsh sentencing, they got, nor sought, help from British allies.   Doing without adherents, however, left the extremists exposed to the full coercive force of the raj. 


    One consequence of the dangerous friendliness of the British adherent was that ambitious anti-imperialists largely abandoned the metropole after the First World War.   The principal struggle took place, of course, in India, but there were also other possibilities for adherence beyond her shores, somewhere other than Britain. Two other approaches to adherence proposed themselves.  First, there was the global anti-colonial network of lateral connections excluding or marginalising the British.  Secondly, there was Gandhism. Both of these strategies sought to break free of the mutual attractions and repulsions of Britain and India and replace them with a different field of forces.

    In the global network, India’s adherents would be other presently- or formerly-colonised peoples, with the addition of some supporters from the non-colonised states, especially Britain’s imperial rivals. Hope for such alliances drew Indian anti-imperialists to world cities where they could build links with other non-British opponents of colonialism. Berlin, Geneva, Paris, Tokyo, Moscow, and New York were all examples. The global cities were bases free of British control for winning support and funds, for thinking, writing and planning, all without the distorting complications of Britishness.[ Better still, they afforded the chance to meet and interact with other opponents of colonialism, drawing on their experiences, beliefs and strategies. 

    There were three approaches to networking. Some of the networkers were ‘clandestine’ Indians who simply wanted to hide their Indianness from others while they regrouped in secret. Although they moved globally, their aims were not really global at all, but rather to repatriate Indian revolution from foreign settings.  They hoped to exploit inter-imperial rivalries between governments, such as those between Britain and France before 1905, for example, and later on between Britain and Germany, the USA, Japan, and the Soviet Union.  However, although Britain’s rivals were prepared to turn a blind eye to anti-imperialists, or even offer some rhetorical endorsement of their struggle for freedom, substantial help proved harder to extract.  In peacetime, the British used their diplomatic weight to persuade the Indians’ hosts not to assist them, as well as organising a global intelligence operation to keep them under surveillance and at a safe distance from India’s borders. In wartime, Britain’s geopolitical rivals were not so much interested in assisting the nationalists to a quick victories, as in tying the British up for as long as possible with irksome military commitments.

    The second ‘networking’ approach was to work not with foreign governments but with other victims of colonialism. With them, the Indians could share experiences, tactical choices and analytical perspectives. Anti-colonialism would be formed laterally between seeming peripheries, rather than reflected from a metropolitan source in the manner favoured by the British Indians, or made in isolation, in the manner of the extremists.  The hope of these networkers was to build multiply-stranded, web-like, non-hierarchical networks, which framed their struggle in a manner which did not implicitly devalue those of other colonised peoples. However, since national struggles rarely aligned well, collaboration was more a matter of reconciling the pulls of distinct causes.

    The third networking approach, and arguably the most successful, was co-operation between itinerant Indian nationalists and fellow Indians already settled overseas. Relations of trust were almost always more easily established among fellow-Indians than they were with the British or other foreigners. This was especially true of those Indians who had settled settled elsewhere than Britain or the ‘British world’, and thereby managed to avoid the gravitational field of Britishness. The most successful functioned as small, concentrated cells of professional revolutionaries, linked by common ethnic identities and experiences, and suspicious of adherent ‘friends of India’ whom it was harder to trust. Such networks of compatriots were also less vulnerable to betrayal from within to the authorities.

    On balance, however, we should be sceptical that networks, rather than nationally-rooted mass freedom movements, were central to the global force that anti-imperial ideas came to carry. Networks that ran through the metropole were almost always weakened by it, and an anti-imperialism networked around the periphery seems to have suited the British officials quite well. They believed that the networkers could do little harm provided they could neither make it back to India undetected, nor persuade a powerful foreign government to back them. As a consequence, many networkers treated their foreign locations as places in which to hide, or contact fellow Indians, rather than working openly so as to draw on local support. Whatever gestures of mutual friendliness they made to foreign adherents, they kept them at a distance from what mattered. The most telling evidence is that nationalists in India very rarely saw much worth their support in the networks, which would be an odd error if they were full of resistant potential.


    The fourth and final approach to adherence was the Gandhian one. Gandhi’s position on the contribution that adherents, and especially British adherents, might make was distinct from all three of the positions so far examined. He differed from the extremists in his openness to external influence. Gandhi held that all cultures were equally worthy, but imperfect, and therefore needed to learn from each other through unconstrained interaction. He did not practise dissociation and incorporated many European writers’ ideas into his own thinking. Anyone, from anywhere (including Britain) could be a fellow searcher for Truth (a satyagrahi).

    However, Gandhi disliked representation, because it denied the unexpressed truth that was in other people. This was his principal difference from the British Indians. Where the British Indians had wanted the Indians to learn Britishness, Gandhi argued the British must learn Indianness. The British were open to appeals to their good nature, but also slow to see any need to change themselves. They believed themselves the most politically advanced nation. Their anti-colonialism would naturally be the most advanced too. They had no idea that civilisation and politics might be Indian strengths. Gandhi therefore wanted to dislodge self-critical Britons from the position they had assumed at the head of every struggle for freedom. Colonialism had impoverished them too. Gandhi therefore rejected the British Indians’ deference, and the extremists’ hostility and indifference.

    Satyagrahis had to be called to action by their inner voices, and Gandhi expected that this would normally direct them to work in a fixed locality. This was the principal difference between his position and that of the Indian networkers. Gandhi favoured the small laboratory community of the ashram, linked to the outside world by visitors, journalism and postal correspondence, but also living its own local, deep conjointness. Contrary to what is sometimes suggested, he did not recommend, let alone adopt, the nomadic practices of the cosmopolitan Indian networkers. He did not travel much outside India himself, especially once his politics had matured after 1917. He also thought that satyagrahis should stay where they were, addressing the local problems that their search for truth had raised for them and those they knew. He did not want his British satyagrahis to become Indian, but to become better Britons. Facing such exacting demands, the British satyagrahis were never numerous, despite Gandhi’s hopes. He probably underestimated British self-confidence in the universal reach of its civilisation and its consequent refusal to submit to any tests other that those it set itself.


    Metropolitan anti-imperialism cannot be understood simply as the degree to which the British could rouse themselves to engage in other people’s struggles. It was also the creation of those the British intended to help. The colonised stimulated metropolitan anti-imperialists, by challenging them to new understandings of their nation’s actions. But they also checked and subdued them. The British adherents were not permitted to go wherever their sympathies took them, but only where the colonised let them. The boundaries were set according to the various perspectives the colonised adopted on the nature of their struggle, especially concerning its orientation and ambition.

    Because the British did not appreciate this partitioning of the space, they thought it was more generally open to them than it was. They therefore tended to blunder around in it, and were puzzled and hurt when their sympathies hit unseen boundaries: when, for example, they unaccountably failed to win people over, or were rebuffed. This felt like a rejection of friendship because they could imagine no other obstacle to the irresistible – it is tempting to say imperial – reach of their sympathies. Since sensitivity to getting these things wrong was also a function of the orientation and ambition of the struggle, the offence could be very great, or artificially exaggerated; internally suppressed, or furiously explosive.

    One consequence, common whenever these sympathies encountered the ambitious, was a bruised retreat from ‘difficult’, or ‘overly sensitive’ Indians. Perhaps British and Indians would never understand each other sufficiently to be friends; perhaps ‘not now, not yet’. Those who thought of themselves as ‘friends of India’ were puzzled by the hatred and anger their nation seemed to have attracted from some Indians. They put it down to the racism of cruder imperialists, and the personal slights that nationalists had suffered at their hands. Indeed, as is so common in the history of adherence, one of the most maddening qualities of the ‘helpers’ was that they denied the ‘helped’ the full range of positionings they claimed for themselves. The British friends might be roused or calm, cautious or rash, and, whichever of these they were, judicious. The sensibilities of the colonised, by contrast, were damaged: they could only be dissatisfied, hurt, sullen and angry and swayed by animus (and of course, understandably so).

    But the various stances taken by the colonised towards their helpers did not have much to do with friendship. They grew logically out of work in different orientations and ambitions. The extremists did not hate the British because they had been slighted. It is quite possible to imagine them moving as friends among the British as freely as had the British Indians. But dissociation was necessary for the kind of work they had in mind. Similarly the networkers, for the most part, did better without the British, and best of all with their own compatriots. The British Indians, in contrast, found adherents more easily, especially among the self-critical white British, but only for disjoint work of a relatively unambitious kind: the pursuit of the crystallized interest of home rule, within the empire, through structures the white British dominated. British ‘friends of India’ were prepared to allow ‘parasitic’ support right up until independence in 1947. It too sufficed provided anti-imperialists were prepared to redescribe their struggle in someone else’s vocabulary. Only Gandhi managed to combine ambitious work with conjointness. But outside India, and especially in Britain, the numbers he could attract as true satyagrahis were never large.