Rebels Against the Raj: Western Fighters for India’s FreedomRamachandra Guha
496 pages|₹ 799
Ramachandra Guha (Photo: Getty Images)
THE TERM ‘public intellectual’ is used rather too casually in today’s public sphere. But few people deserve it as richly as Ramachandra Guha, author of close to a dozen books, on subjects as diverse as cricket to the environment to the national movement. The term that perhaps fits him best is ‘maven,’ from the Hebrew ‘mebhin’, which literally means ‘one who understands’. Guha’s understanding of the world is born from a rare combination of passion, rigour and research. In his most recent book Rebels Against the Raj: Western Fighters for India’s Freedom (Allen Lane; 496 pages; Rs 799), Guha emerges as the Indiana Jones of Lost Archives. He unearths details about well-known figures from Indian history like Madeleine Slade, better known as Gandhi’s adopted daughter Mira Behn, and tells us the less known stories of Philip Spratt and RR Keithahn. The seven Rebels in this book—four men, three women, five from Great Britain, two American—were fighters for India’s freedom. And “by doing what they did in India, for India, they were calling their British compatriots to their better selves.” And the Americans in this story “saw themselves as acting in the anti-imperialist tradition of their homeland”.
Speaking from Bengaluru, Guha, who is as animated onscreen as he is lively on page, describes conjuring to life his seven Rebels namely; Annie Besant, BG Horniman, Mira Behn, Samuel Stokes, Philip Spratt, RR Keithahn and Sarala Behn.
Excerpts from an interview:
Your book is dedicated to [Belgian-born Indian welfare economist] Jean Drèze. Is he today’s rebel against the ‘raj’?
Well, he’s one of them. There are others too. Someone whom I could have made the joint dedicatee was Gail Omvedt, the American-born sociologist who died recently and had done important work on the feminist movement, on the origins of the Dalit struggle, and so on. People like Jean and Gail Omvedt were foreigners who’ve not just become Indians but have struggled for dignity and justice against oppression, often at great personal risk.
What is your definition of a rebel? An “avowed law-breaker”?
We’re talking about people who go against the grain and the seven individuals in my book, belong to the ruling race. All were white, four were British, one was Irish and two were American, so they were born to privilege and authority and a sense of superiority. That’s what most Americans and British people at that time adhere to, and they’re going against it. They are going against the privileges of race, religion, nation and social class, and these are seven different lives, united by obviously a passionate idealism, and the fact that they worked in India.
You could extend it to other rebels against privilege. In my view, Gandhi as the Savarna Hindu battling for an end to untouchability, or Ambedkar as a male fighting for gender equality is also going against his inherited privilege. In Gandhi’s case caste, and in Ambedkar patriarchy, so I’ve been attracted to people like this, and this was obviously a constellation of seven who all had something in common. The joy and the excitement was to flesh out these divergent lives, all united by a common cause.
The common cause or the common attraction is essentially Gandhi? They all have some connection with him.
I realised that only while I was writing the book. To me, the common cause was they were all arrested or deported. And as I say, right in the epilogue to the book, this is a kind of a long-delayed sequel to my biography of Verrier Elwin [Savaging the Civilized]. And Elwin’s abiding regret was that he never went to prison in India. And he would have. When he comes to India in 1927, he throws himself into the national movement. He’s very close to Gandhi. He spends time in Sabarmati Ashram. Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s secretary is a particularly close friend, of his. Elwin is sent to the Northwest Frontier Province to write about the operation of the Khudai Khidmatgar. There he writes a track called Christ and Satyagraha, saying Gandhi is the new Christ. And then in 1930-31, he goes to England to be with his mother and while he is there, the British make him sign an undertaking that he could return to India only on condition he doesn’t indulge in political writing. By this time, he regards India as his home. So he signs that undertaking. Originally, I thought, let me look at people who did what Elwin could not do. And then these seven people came to mind, and I did research on them and found materials on them.
I didn’t start with the idea that they all had interactions with Gandhi. In most cases, reverential interactions, in some cases combative and adversarial interactions. For me it was these were seven white people who became Indians, not just politically but emotionally, culturally, and in some cases romantically, by having Indian partners.
And only while writing the book I realised that Gandhi was something that linked all of them.
In a chapter on Annie Besant, you have mentioned the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti and his differences with Besant. He has famously talked about how patriotism is poison and nationalism is glorified tribalism. Do you think their divergent views on patriotism proved to be a sticking point?
There are two varieties of nationalism; patriotism and jingoism. Jingoism is xenophobia, my country is right, the other country is wrong. Jingoism is you’ve defined your nationalism on the basis of religion or language. Patriotism is you will love your country, but you are not blind to its faults and defects, you love your country, but you’re willing to learn from the cultures and thought processes and institutional structures of other countries. And to me Indian nationalism, of the Gandhi, Tagore or Ambedkar variety, was patriotism and not jingoism.
In the concluding pages of India After Gandhi (2007), I say no one can be a world citizen. Krishnamurti may have thought he is a world citizen, but you have to be at that level of privilege. All of us are born in a particular context and we can’t escape our national surroundings, and no one can be a world citizen. But you can be a citizen who demands accountability from your state and holds your political leaders to the highest ideals of that state or nation. And in that sense, I’m a patriot, not a jingoist, and I think these seven people were attracted by the fact that the Indian freedom struggle, at least then, was not that narrow minded inward looking xenophobic kind of struggle, but while fighting for freedom from colonial oppression, was willing to embrace the best of the rest of the world. That’s the spirit in which all of these people were acting.
Each of these rebels shone a spotlight on some of the darker aspects of Indian society, which still endure and hence their legacy is important,” says Ramachandra Guha, author
Share this on
One of the characters in your book, Sarala Behn does think of herself as a global citizen. Is that a misconceived notion?
Essentially, there is no world community, there are national communities, which are internally divided in different ways and states police their boundaries rigorously and you have to work within the boundaries. If you’re fighting for something specific, like justice for women, justice for low caste, if you want to promote certain forms of livelihood that are sustainable, you have to work where you are.
Your characters are embedded in the local. They immerse themselves in the lives where they are at.
Absolutely. And that gives them their credibility. [Satyananda] Stokes was recognised as a Himachali because of the work he did there over several decades. Sarala Devi settled in Kumaon, started a school for the girls of Kumaon and became a revered figure in Uttarakhand. Keithahn lived in Tamil Nadu and learned Tamil. There are still people alive in Bangalore who remember Spratt. Horniman is synonymous with the life of Bombay, and the fact that there’s a circle named after him shows how deep was his identification with that city. They were grounded individuals, and that’s what gives them their credibility.
Talking about BG Horniman [British journalist and editor of The Bombay Chronicle] it’s interesting how newspapers played an important part as a voice of dissent. Can we talk about the importance of the media at that time?
Horniman was a full-time journalist, but others were part-time journalists. Annie Besant was running a newspaper New India, which was a vehicle of the Home Rule League. Spratt wrote for newspapers, then worked as editor of MysIndia, which was published from Bangalore. He saw the press as a vehicle for debate, argument, information and wrote a great deal. Mira Behn also used Gandhi’s publications, Harijan and Young India to promote her views. Later on, she wrote a lot for the Hindustan Times in the 1950s, which was edited by Gandhi’s son Devdas Gandhi.
So yes, newspapers and periodicals were used as a vehicle for radical or dissident ideas to promote debate, argument. It was a way in which they participated in the public life of British India and then independent India. Popular communication, in newspapers and magazines, was for these Rebels a very important part of their life.
It’s interesting how English is the language of dissent. You even mention how Annie Besant didn’t know an Indian language, but becomes president of the Indian National Congress. That wouldn’t be possible today!
No, it won’t be possible today.
But during the freedom struggle, English was a language through which people communicated across different linguistic spaces. So, Gandhi wrote in Gujarati, for his Gujarati audience, but when he wanted all of India to read, he would write in English. Ambedkar had a Marathi newspaper but when he made larger political or constitutional arguments, where he wanted Tamil intellectuals and Bengali intellectuals to respond, he wrote in English. So, this is a time where English is very much an Indian language used to communicate across provincial boundaries. Even Tagore, the greatest Bengali writer of his time, when he wrote nonfiction, he liked to write it in English. All his creative work was in Bangla. But when he wanted to write political essays, then he often chose English.
In that sense these people fitted in, given how important English was to the public discourse of that time. It wasn’t seen as elite and rarefied as it is now. It was seen as a medium through which the emerging nationalist intelligentsia of different parts of India could communicate with one another.
You’ve mentioned how for you the joy in this book was in the research. You talk about Mira Behn and her unrequited infatuation with the revolutionary Prithvi Singh. What was it like reading her letters to him?
Very moving and very sad. I would sit in Teen Murti Library and there would be these handwritten letters and I would take notes. She expressed her anguish and devastation at much greater length. What I’ve given you are just bare excerpts to tell you how awful and desperate she felt. The agony and the pathos of those letters that Mira wrote, it was deeply moving and saddening to read them because they’re completely new to me. I’ve been a biographer of Gandhi. I’ve written on the national movement. I saw Mira Behn in a one-dimensional kind of way—as Gandhi’s follower, admirer, devoted slave. And then all this comes out. Of course, there’s a third dimension, which I was much happier to discover, which is her pioneering environmental work in the Himalayas, in the 1950s, which is also relatively new to me.
Can we talk about Sarala Behn and her environmental work?
She was already in her 70s, when the Chipko movement started. The Chipko Movement was pioneered by a man who’s not really got his just deserts for multiple reasons—Chandi Prasad Bhatt. He is the founder of not just the Chipko movement but of modern Indian environmentalism. Once the movement started, Sarala blessed it and was inspired by it. She, Mira, and Keithahn in Tamil Nadu, could justifiably be counted as pioneering environmentalists. Environmentalism is a theme that kind of runs through much of the book.
You’ve spent decades researching and writing this book. What has been the fun part for you?
Normally the research is more enjoyable than the writing, or at least historical research, essentially, is exciting because you’re finding new material. But when you’re finding it, it is just transcribing. I generally take notes. I don’t take photocopies and I don’t take pictures on my camera. I just write, as I find I assimilate much better.
Obviously, writing can be arduous and complicated, but with this particular book I really enjoyed writing because of the sheer interestingness of these lives, and their diversity.
What is the importance of your Rebels today?
Each of them in different ways, shone a spotlight on some of the darker aspects of Indian society, which still endure and hence their legacy is important. They are individually and collectively a challenge to xenophobia and jingoism. And this xenophobia and jingoism is prevalent not only in India but in many other parts of the world. Look at Xi Jinping and his promotion of the idea that China is the centre of the world. Look at the Brexiteers in Britain, who shut out the rest of Europe, look at the white supremacist under Trump.
This bridging of cultures, this ability to appreciate and understand and contribute to another culture, and for that culture to welcome what you’re giving them, that’s something which, I hope people take away, but eventually it’s a story of seven remarkable people. It’s a biographical work. It’s not a work of political polemic or moral philosophy. Readers can read whatever lessons they want to read in these lives. It’s a story of seven extraordinary people,
at a very tumultuous junction in modern Indian history and what they did and how they grappled with it.
You write about Horniman in Bombay and how you see him feeding birds and composing an editorial in his head. Did you see your characters inhabiting certain neighbourhoods?
Yes. But I am one of those who doesn’t fictionalise a biography and nor do I personalise it. I don’t put myself in it. Nor do I believe in going beyond the sources. A biographer is an artist under oath. Unlike a novelist, he can’t make up. But clearly while writing it, I was thinking of some of these cities, which I know well.
In the epilogue you mention the importance of editors to your work. Having written books for over two decades, what is your relationship with them?
My first editor to whom I owe an enormous amount was Rukun Advani. It’s interesting that this may be the first book of mine in which he’s not thanked because I’m now old enough to write a book without him. He was one of the world’s great editors, not just India’s. I make this judgement with some gravitas, because I worked with many editors in India and there has been no finer editor ever produced in English language publishing in India than Rukun Advani.
With Sonny Mehta, another great editor, I had long conversations about the craft of biography. How do you blend biography and history? How do you bring in Gandhi as the global figure? The mark of a great editor is also one who has no hubris and arrogance. He said, ‘I will read your book, but I will also assign it to a very good editor in my company who knows nothing about India.’ He gave it to Dan Frank, (my Gandhi book) and Dan cut out 80,000 words! So Dan shaped and reshaped the book through his editing by pencil.
The standards of editing have precipitously fallen in India and globally. I read books published and I cringe at the errors and the infelicities in the first page itself. One of the real scandals of English language publishing in India—and this is true of every major English language press in India today—is that they publish serious works of history, biography and non-fiction without an index. It is a disgrace.
You mentioned earlier how you never put yourself in the story, can we talk a little more about that?
There is an old tradition of biographical writing, where your quest becomes very important. Historians stay away from it. I would put it in my footnotes. If you read my footnotes, and if you read my epilogue or acknowledgments, you may get some sense of the diversity of sources on which my book was based. In the acknowledgements to this book, I say, that unlike my previous books, this is based a lot on private papers held in private hands, not private papers held in archives. But mostly I haven’t described how I found material on Keithahn for example, or Spratt. It was very interesting and thrilling.
One day I might write a personal memoir of a biographer’s journey. But that is the place for this kind of stuff. In the narrative you must be respectful of the time you’re writing about and the subject you’re writing about and give them pride of place.