Why These Westerners Disavowed Imperialism to Fight for India’s Independence

Western historians may recall the Spanish Civil War’s creation of the International Brigades. The news that democratically-minded volunteer from another country has been reported to the Ukranians. There may also be Asian resonances. I am thinking in particular of the remarkable, but sadly forgotten story, of the British and American fighters for India’s freedom. Since the 19th centuryTh Century onwards, several exemplary people disavowed citizenship of imperialist, powerful white nations in order to join the struggle of Indian sub-continental peoples.

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These rebels are barely remembered in India, where they were mostly highlighted by landmarks that bear their names. In 1995, a coalition of two nativist party came to power in Maharashtra’s major state. One of their first actions was to name Bombay, the capital of the state, Mumbai. This was in keeping with the Marathi names of the city, and also to honor a female god, Mumba Devi, which had been obscure at the time. Another wave of renamings came soon after. The city’s main railway station, a magnificent Neo-Gothic building known as the Victoria Terminus, and its main public repository of art and sculpture, known as the Prince of Wales Museum, were both now named for Shivaji, as was the city’s airport itself. The joke was that one flew to Chattrapathi Shivaji to board a train at Chattrapathi Shivaji Terminus in order to see the Chattrapathi Shivaji Museum. Although Shivaji is the most prominent beneficiary, roads, squares markets, buildings, and other structures that had been named for British colonial officials or Muslim rulers were now given new monikers based on a Marathi pantheon including social reformers, politicians, writers, musicians, and even poets.

Only a few among Bombay’s great landmarks escaped this purge. These included an important arterial road that runs through the center of Bombay, still known as Dr. Annie Besant Road. A lovely shaded park is located opposite the beautiful building, built in 1902.ThCentury that is home to the Asiatic Society. It was also known as The Horniman Circle. The names were so honored that even the Shiv Sena could not alter them.

Annie Besant might be a name some historical-minded readers may still recognize. Time. A third-quarter Irishwoman, and an activist and suffragette in British youth, she converted to the now popular Theosophy faith, which was created by Madame Blavatsky (a Russian mystic who claimed to be in close communion with Himalayan Sages). Her embrace of Theosophy inspired Annie Besant’s move to India, where she helped establish girls’ schools and a major university, before becoming a leader of the Indian Home Rule movement. Besant, a 1917 Indian National Congress female president was elected.

Annie Besant
Theosophical Society Annie Besant giving a lecture to a group after she was released from interment

B. G. Horniman is the Englishman who gave Bombay its name. While most Indians don’t know him, he was a prominent figure in Indian history. He was the editor of a large newspaper. Bombay ChronicleIt strongly supported Gandhi, the struggle for freedom. Horniman, who was radical and fought for the rights for peasants and workers, also founded the first Indian trade union for journalists. He was gay and loved Indians in particular, but the current climate meant that the latter preference must be hidden.

Besant and Horniman are two examples of people who complicate the narrative about nationalism. It is a story that depicts brave Indian women and men resisting oppressive British racism and men. India will mark the 75th anniversary later in this year.ThIndependence from colonial rule. There would have been much chest-thumping anyway—but now, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, this is going to take on a hyper-nationalistic and even xenophobic tone, with much bragging about how Indians alone, and perhaps Hindus most especially, have enabled the past, present and future glories of our country. This is where the historian needs to remember those outstanding foreigners who had renounced their race and their nationality, as well as their religion. They were deported from India to England (as Horniman) or arrested by fellow whites.

Although I mentioned the two rebels against Raja, others were just as impressive. Samuel Stokes, an American Quaker, lived the first forty decades of the 20th century.Th century in the villages around the imperial summer capital, Simla; where he courted arrest in Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement, led a struggle to abolish forced labour, married a local girl and raised a family with her, converted to Hinduism (changing his name from Samuel to Satyanand), and—not least—promoted the cultivation of apples, laying the foundations of what is now a thriving agro-horticultural industry that has benefited tens of thousands of peasant families. Philip Spratt was a Cambridge University Communist who came to India in 1926 to foment a Soviet-style revolution , was arrested and spent a long period in jail, where reading Gandhi’s writings cured him of Marxism. Like Stokes, he too married an Indian lady, raising a family with her in Bangalore, where, after the country became Independent, Spratt edited an influential weekly magazine that campaigned against the State’s stifling of entrepreneurial energies through the imposition of a ‘license-permit-quota-Raj’, while somehow finding time to write an important and still-cited study of the Hindu personality from a psychoanalytic perspective.

Next, consider a British female duo that worked alongside Gandhi before becoming pioneering environmentalists. Madeline Slade, the daughter of an admiral from Britain came to India in 1926. She changed her name to Mira and spent many years in jails at the Raj for her association with the freedom movement. She moved to the Ganges watershed in the 1940s to work on deforestation and warnings about the effects of chemical agriculture on soil. Her compatriot Catherine Mary Heilemann came to India in the early 1930s to teach in a school in Udaipur; changing her name to Sarala, she went to jail in the Quit India movement of the 1940s before establishing her own school for girls in one of the most backward and patriarchal parts of the country—the hill districts abutting India’s borders with Tibet and Nepal. The wards of Sarala’s school became admired social workers in their own right, and several played a leading role in that most celebrated of environmental protests, the Chipko movement. Sarala was killed in 1982. She published her book, “The Resonant Title” two years earlier. Save our Dying Planet.

Some of these rebels like Annie Besant or Satyanand Stokes died during British rule over the subcontinent. Some others remained active for many decades, holding their country’s government and state accountable. Apart from Spratt, Mira and Sarala, these white-skinned conscience-keepers of independent India included R. R. (‘Dick’) Keithahn, a Midwestern American who came out in the 1920s as a missionary, was expelled by the Church as well as deported twice for his proximity to Gandhi, returning each time to renew his commitment to land reform, sustainable agriculture, and the abolition of caste and gender distinctions. Keithahn wrote thoughtfully on the similarities between race and caste. He even briefly corresponded to Martin Luther King. His entire life was spent in Tamil Nadu. He died in Oddanchatram in 1984 in a fellowship facility he founded.

This 75ThIndia needs to know more about the brave, sometimes dangerous boundary-crossers who made India independent in the year 2000. You can also find them in other countries. The morality story of this world is based on the actions and lives of those individuals. This is a world governed by paranoia and nationalist xenophobia, with the rise of jingoism in country after country, and a corresponding contempt for ideas and individuals that emanate from outside the borders of one’s nation. Narendra Modi and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh in India, Donald Trump and the white supremacists in America, Boris Johnson and the Brexiteers in England, Xi Jinping and his Confucian Communist Party in China, Vladimir Putin and his revanchist regime in Russia—all see themselves as uniquely blessed by history and by God. They believe that no foreigner can ever teach them anything. Besant and Horniman’s stories, as well as those of their company, prove otherwise.


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