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16 May 2022

Rebels Against the Raj: A morality tale for Modi’s nationalist India

A new history of the Westerners who fought with Gandhi to free India from British rule has lessons for the present.

By Soumya Bhattacharya

In this illuminating and engaging study, Ramachandra Guha, one of India’s best known historians and public intellectuals, turns his attention to seven Westerners who fought to free India from the rule of the British Raj.

All were white, five were British, and two American. Four of them were men, and three women. The first of them arrived in India in 1893, and the last died in India in 1984. All were connected to Mahatma Gandhi and together, their time in the country spanned nearly a century of modern Indian history.

Guha’s wide-ranging research and lucid narration brings to life these men and women, who came to India, lived like Indians, and gave their all – through pioneering work in fields as diverse as journalism and environmentalism – for the liberation of the country.

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Annie Besant, a theosophist born in London to Irish parents, arrived in India towards the end of the 19th century. She threw herself into the freedom movement, and was elected the first woman president of the Indian National Congress. Of the figures profiled in the book, she is the only one who had an occasionally publicly adversarial relationship with Gandhi.

By contrast, Madeleine Slade, a concert pianist and the daughter of a British naval officer, was treated by Gandhi as his daughter after she met him at his ashram. Calling herself Mira Behn, she spent her life as his disciple, spreading his teaching. She was also a key contributor to Richard Attenborough’s film, Gandhi.

Meanwhile, Catherine Mary Heilemann, British born, took the name Sarala Behn, and worked tirelessly for the environment and women’s rights in the villages in the Himalayas. BG Horniman came from London and was a campaigning newspaper editor in Bombay, siding with the independence struggle at great personal cost. Philip Spratt, a Cambridge-educated communist, was so enraptured by the Mahatma and his teachings, that he ended up a Gandhian, and battled for the rights of workers.

The two Americans profiled in the book both arrived as Christian missionaries. Samuel Stokes, a Quaker from Philadelphia, converted to Hinduism, called himself Satyanand, and helped abolish the practice of forced labour in the foothills of the Himalayas. While Dick Keithahn worked for the uplift of the poor in south India’s villages and founded a rural university and a charitable hospital.

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All the protagonists in the book were either jailed or deported by the Raj for their part in India’s freedom struggle. “Imprisonment or banishment,” Guha writes, “signified the depth of their commitment to the cause.”

The result of that commitment was that all seven rebels were active participants in the shaping and reshaping of modern India. “Their work spoke directly to what was happening on the ground. For these men and women were anti-colonial crusaders as well as nation-builders.”

Rebels Against the Raj, however, makes a larger, more important and incisive point. In the prologue, Guha calls the lives and work of these rebels a morality tale for the world we now inhabit – a world incandescent with xenophobia and jingoism, and full of contempt for thoughts and ideas that a culture can imbibe from outside its borders. He names and shames Narendra Modi and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Hindu nationalists in India, Donald Trump and the white supremacists in the US, Boris Johnson and the Brexiteers in the UK and Xi Jinping and his Confucian Communist Party in China.

In the epilogue, Guha turns his attention forensically on his own country. He makes a telling case for how much he believes nativism and xenophobia will cost India if it travels further in this direction. “Proclaim with pride that you are a Hindu such is the leitmotif that has accompanied the rise to power of the political movement known as Hindutva,” he says. “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… So many years after the last of these rebels passed on, what they did and what they said still speaks to Indians today. If only we could listen.”

Soumya Bhattacharya is a journalist and author, most recently, of the novel, “Thirteen Kinds of Love” (HarperCollins India)

Rebels Against the Raj: Western Fighters for India’s Freedom
Ramachandra Guha
William Collins, 496pp, £25

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[See also: Ramachandra Guha’s The Commonwealth of Cricket: a delightful sporting memoir]

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This article appears in the 18 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Nato