Sam Dalrymple

Rejecting the Raj: Gandhi’s acolytes in the West

Ramachandra Guha discovers a forgotten chapter of Indian history concerning a group of largely British renegades who devoted themselves to Gandhi’s cause

Rejecting the Raj: Gandhi’s acolytes in the West
Mira and Gandhi on a visit to Villeneuve in 1941. [Alamy]
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Rebels Against the Raj: Western Fighters for India’s Freedom

Ramachandra Guha

William Collins, pp. 419, £25

Madeleine Slade, born in 1892, was a typical upper-class Victorian daughter of empire: a childhood riding around her grand-father’s estate in Surrey was followed by years of rejecting suitors and performing Beethoven on the piano. Occasionally she would sail across the world to visit her father, the commander-in-chief of the East Indies Squadron, who was responsible for Britain’s fleet in the Indian Ocean. But in 1923, a trip to Switzerland to visit the Nobel laureate Romain Rolland in the hills of Villeneuve would change the concert pianist’s life forever. Rolland had recently written about an Indian civil rights activist called Mahatma Gandhi. ‘You have not heard about him?’ he asked in amazement. ‘He is another Christ!’

Rolland’s book convinced Madeleine that she needed to meet the Mahatma. She moved to India, changed her name to Mira (to make it easier for Gandhi to pronounce), learned Hindi and within two years had become the Mahatma’s adopted daughter. Tasked with looking after his spinning wheel, peeling his fruit and even recording the minutiae of his bowel movements, Mira firmly established herself in Gandhi’s inner circle, along with the likes of India’s future prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. By the end of the decade, Gandhi’s disciple had become a fully-fledged revolutionary, imprisoned in Bombay’s Arthur Road Jail for civil disobedience. On her release, Gandhi sent her to lobby the president of the United States and create pressure for Britain to grant India’s freedom. ‘The East and West have met before,’ she told a surprised young journalist in New York. ‘To say they have not met is to deny Christianity, for Christianity came from the East.’

In Rebels Against the Raj, Ramachandra Guha explores the largely forgotten story of seven white-skinned rebels who fought for India’s freedom. Transgressing racial boundaries, these anti-imperial renegades joined secret societies, dodged deportation and were imprisoned for their fight against empire. They are an eclectic bunch (four British, two American, one Irish), their lives united by, and interwoven with, the life of Gandhi. Some adopted Indian names, others Indian faiths, or took Indian spouses. Samuel ‘Satyanand’ Stokes brought up his Anglo-Indian children without a word of English, only speaking to them in Hindi and Pahadi.

Guha threads together these lives in a narrative of startling originality. He recently told Outlook magazine that he had never enjoyed writing a book as much as this one, and his excitement at discovering a forgotten chapter of Indian history is contagious. What is remarkable is how important these rebels were. They weren’t just minor allies of the freedom movement, but historical figures whose decisions shaped the histories of both Britain and India. Take the Irish theosophist Annie Besant, who was elected president of the Indian National Congress and ultimately launched the Indian Home Rule movement. She was an inspiration for Gandhi, who later remarked: ‘I have no doubt that she has popularised Home Rule in a manner no other person has.’

Benjamin Horniman was a journalist and art critic who dodged arrest to print the first reports on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. When his newspaper, the Bombay Chronicle, became the leading mouthpiece for the Indian Freedom struggle, the British government deported him and revoked his passport. This triggered a national debate similar to the more recent case of Shamima Begum on whether the government had the right to revoke a British citizen’s passport for associating with what was deemed an extremist movement abroad. It was only after the likes of H.G. Wells, along with 19 members of parliament, protested the decision that his passport was reissued.

Today we scarcely remember these renegades who straddled the line between colonialists and freedom fighters. Indeed, many found themselves fading into obscurity in their own lifetimes, rejected in Britain for being too Indian but losing relevance in an India that was moving away from Gandhian ideals. Catherine Heilman, from London’s Shepherd’s Bush, found her movement in the Himalayas restricted after India’s devastating war with China. Mira went into self-imposed exile after falling out with the new ruling class of independent India.

But remembering them is important. Guha’s book emphasises that Britain’s culture wars are not new: that empire was as controversial then as it is now, and that many Britons risked their lives for its downfall. And it shows that the daughter of an imperial naval officer could become one of empire’s most important and vocal opponents. As discussions of Britain’s colonial legacy become increasingly polarised, we are in ever more need of nuanced books like this one.