Westerners Who Supported Indian Independence

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Western Fighters for India’s Freedom
By Ramachandra Guha

“A foreigner deserves to be welcomed only when he mixes with the Indigenous people as sugar does with milk,” said Mohandas Gandhi, as quoted in this insightful book by the eminent Indian historian Ramachandra Guha. Guha chronicles the lives of seven Westerners, each of whom left Europe or the United States to assist India’s independence struggle against the British Raj.

Guha calls them “rebels” and likens them to the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, but this wrong-foots the reader since no soldiering awaited these travelers to India. Subhas Chandra Bose, who raised an army to violently challenge the Raj, is barely mentioned here. Rather, Guha’s chosen subjects in “Rebels Against the Raj” were mainly inspired by Gandhi’s nonviolent satyagraha protests.

The result is a curate’s egg, with some biographical portraits proving more engaging than others. Those of the featured rebels who witnessed the drama of the independence struggle serve up more captivating tales than those who ran ashrams in postindependence India, posthumously honoring Gandhi’s message.

One of the more engaging stories is that of the social reformer Annie Besant, who saw a common cause between India’s independence struggle and Ireland’s travails with the British Empire. “Once she had chosen to become an Indian, she would be an Indian all the way through,” Guha writes. She was older than Gandhi, which makes her interactions with the up-and-coming Mahatma particularly fascinating.

Another romantic soul among Guha’s cast of characters is Samuel Stokes, a Quaker from Philadelphia who identified with Gandhi’s cause, settled in India, changed his name to Satyanand Stokes and converted to Hinduism. In a long letter written before the outbreak of World War II, Stokes challenged Gandhi’s view of nonviolence by offering reasons for Indians to take the side of Britain against Germany and Japan. “Britain and her allies represent the earlier wave of imperialism as opposed to the new one that threatens the world,” Stokes told Gandhi. Unlike the British, he said, the Nazis “have shown themselves capable of the utmost ruthlessness.” When Gandhi replied two months later, in June 1939, he explained his philosophical differences with Stokes but, Guha writes, “did not respond to what was perhaps the greater question raised by Stokes — the fundamental difference between German imperialism and British imperialism.”

One rebel who may be familiar to wider audiences is Madeleine Slade, known as Mira. She came from Britain, was treated by Gandhi like a daughter and became his disciple during the independence struggle. Many decades later, aged nearly 90, she was consulted by Richard Attenborough as he researched his Gandhi biopic, and was shown in the film playing a key role at Gandhi’s side.

More obscure was the British Communist Philip Spratt, who arrived in India in 1927, helped found India’s Communist Party and was jailed by the British authorities. Many readers may find Spratt’s early conspiratorial activities interesting, but his later life as a writer on socialism in India is rather less compelling.

Guha’s previous works have distinguished him as an exceptional chronicler of India’s modern history. His latest volume provides fresh perspectives on the independence struggle that will appeal to those seeking more obscure eyewitness accounts. And since the book’s main figures were born outside of India, “Rebels Against the Raj” may strike a chord with contemporary outsiders who themselves have been seduced by India’s history and culture.

But the book also has a broader message: Guha is dismayed by India’s current turn toward Hindu-majoritarian nationalism. He writes: “Hindus, it is now said, are destined to be the world’s Vishwa Guru, teachers to the rest of humanity. They have apparently nothing to learn from or gain from the world in return.” For Guha this is a total misconception: It ignores just how much the outside world has given to modern India.


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