BY ZAINAB AHMED
Since our country’s Independence, we have all heard innumerable stories about the brave Indian freedom fighters, who fought relentlessly against the foreign colonisers to secure our freedom. But what if I told you that among those freedom fighters were also remarkable foreigners from western countries who decided to take a stand for justice and become an integral part of the Indian Freedom Struggle.
Surprised? I was too until I heard about the Western Fighters for India’s Freedom – seven illustrious of them documented in an engaging book – ‘Rebels Against the Raj’ – written by well-known author and historian Ramachandra Guha.
Before I immersed myself in the book, I had an opportunity to attend an event organised for discussion of ‘Stories of Idealism and Sacrifice’ in the light of Guha’s book. While Alex Ellis, British High Commissioner to India, was the interlocutor for the evening, Guha was the patient scholar giving us a peek into his interesting work for the book. The event was held at Bangalore International Center in Bengaluru on February 12.
As the discussion between Guha and Ellis began, the former explained how these fighters not only stood by the Indian freedom fighters to fight the British Colonisers, but they also shed the comforts, nationalistic identities and even racial stereotypes to fight for those that their own native countries had kept bound in colonial chains.
To begin with, Guha’s book talks about seven western freedom fighters including four men and three women; four British, two American and one of Irish descent.
Ellis kickstarted the discussion with a question that was on all our minds – what motivated them to fight for a foreign people away from their own motherland?
Guha said that their motivations varied– from political, spiritual to a strong belief in humanity and equity and justice. “They found their way to India through different routes, but once here, they completely identified with our people, culture, landscape and freedom struggle. They were ‘renegades’ who rebelled against the system of imperialism, normally which they would have benefitted from,” Guha said during the discussion while setting the record straight that these western freedom fighters were different from bridge builders and ‘White Mughals’.
“While bridge builders were trying their best to spread the best from the east to the west and from the west to the east, the White Mughals whom William Dalrymple wrote about, were men enchanted by some aspects of high Indian culture and even took harems,” he said.
These seven heroes were neither- they were rebels who transgressed completely and were so radical that they were either sent to prison or deported; they were here not to propagate the best aspects of cultures but to show India the mirror of their realities. They were also far from keeping harems and leading comfortable lives – these men and women lived difficult and arduous life, fighting for gender and caste inequalities in the country while fighting against the British.
“While Subhash Chandra Bose gave up the Civil services, Gandhi gave up a prosperous law career and Nehru spent many many years in prison. These western freedom fighters also underwent multiple renunciations – nationality, race, comfortable lifestyle for a life on the margins,” he said.
What was important for me was to note how Guha said that these fighters were not blind jingoists, but shone a sharp spotlight on what was wrong with the Indian society. “They were constantly questioning Indians about how they treated women, exploited the environment and discriminated others based on people’s caste,” he said adding that their approach was just like Gandhi, who was not only fighting against the British but also fighting India – for women’s mistreatment, untouchability, sectarian violence and arrogance that some Indian carried with them.
One of the seven figures who Guha and Ellis discussed at length at the event was also Benjamin Guy Horniman, editor of The Bombay Chronicle. Interestingly, a well-known circle in Mumbai is named after Horniman, but not many knew about him. In Bombay Chronicle, the first critical report of Jallianwala Bagh was reported, soon after which he was also deported.
“Horniman was seen as a troublemaker and the Governor of Bombay and Vice-Chancellor of India did not want him back. A remarkable advocate of rights of the working class, he returned to India illegally,” Guha explained adding that Horniman’s sexuality was also in the shadows at that time.
“He was gay at a time when it was impossible to be openly gay. We are talking about 1922 when it is still impossible to be openly gay even in 2022. The British were even more prejudiced towards gay persons,” he said.
I soon learnt that these matters of identity got even more complex between 1919 and 1942 for more than just Horniman. Guha said that in 1942, leaders like Gandhi and Nehru were tormented as it was a time when they were fighting for their own freedom from the British, while the British fought a war with Hitler and the Japanese.
“Gandhi broke away from his closest Jewish English friend – Henry Pollock – at that time because Pollock thought Gandhi had lost it to oppose the British at such a time. Every British officer in India at that time had a brother, a cousin or a friend fighting the war there and it can be understood how they felt,” he said.
In fact, in Guha’s book, one can read Samuel Evans Stokes letter to Gandhi imploring him why the Congress must side with the British. The letter which has been given a well-deserved four-page long place in Guha’s book talks about how “..at the end of the war if the Nazi wins, God help India and the world. Whereas, If the British win, they will be so exhausted that they have to give up their colonial possessions.”
“He wrote the letter to Gandhi in 1939 and said how no imperial power had been as barbaric and brutal as the Nazi,” Guha explained.
The discussion also included interesting questions from the young crowd at the event that only steered the evening to a much more interactive and interesting stage.
For instance, on a question on ideals and values that opened up India to these western freedom fighters, Guha explained that this was possible because of the open-minded spirit of our freedom struggle.
“Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Tagore were not narrow-minded jingoists. The civilisational thinking of our country benefitted from their leadership. In another kind of nationalism, if a colonial power is seen as all evil, this could not have been possible. Gandhi, however, made a distinction between the system of imperialism and the British people,” Guha explained.
The audience, Guha and Ellis also touched on an interesting space about the importance of biographies, culture and environment, away from the constant political glare.
“Biographies of people is immensely helpful to outsiders. It tells a story of a place and a time,” Ellis said while Guha quipped how the digital overload makes him feel sorry for biographers of today. “I hope the digital age doesn’t kill the art of biography,” he said asking where would they find full literary archives in an age of trashed e-mails and deleted tweets.
Much more to life than politics
Guha also echoed my own thoughts about how politics has long-overshadowed other important aspects of our life.
“There is so much more to life than politics and I deplore the overemphasis of our newspapers today on politics – who is in what party or who defeated whom. Environment and culture are important aspects of our life. Even historians must not only think about political history,” he said explaining that the cultural and ecological diversity attracted foreigners to India
Guha’s thoughts reminded me of why our work with Country Squire is so important in this age and time when politics dominates every aspect of life. Culture, traditions, emotional value, better aesthetics of life – this is what we exactly hope to bring to the table through Country Squire.
Talking about emotional value, many in the audience were touched to see family members of one of the seven heroes – Philip Spratt – present at the event. It was a reminder about how history was not just limited to the books but lived amidst us – to see a hero’s family living in India as Indians speak volumes about what India meant for the freedom fighters.
It was also wonderful to notice the discussion interspersed with applause and ‘aww’s and gasps from the engaged audience.
To conclude, Guha’s stories of these foreign freedom fighters erased the racial and cultural boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’. When one explores the freedom fighter’s thoughts on their adopted motherland, as to what motivated them to fight for India and within India to rid her off of her social evils – we realise so much about our country that we had missed noticing. To end this with a quote that Ellis shared, which I feel is perfect as to why Guha’s book is well well-placed. “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us; To see oursels as ithers see us!,” Ellis said in response to Guha’s (Oh, would some Power give us the gift; To see ourselves as others see us!),” he said.
When not writing, Zainab is thinking or planning about writing. Potterhead for life, she is all about the simpler joys of existence – museums, movies, music (love alliterations), books, travel, food and culture. With a Masters in Political Science and International Relations, Zainab is also a researcher with one eye on serious defence and strategic affairs, and another one on everything Foreign Policy and diplomacy. Bio is subject to edit when she finds more joys, passions and solutions for world peace.