Ramachandra Guha Speaks To Prannoy Roy On His New Book

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  • Published On: January 23, 2022
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Historian and author Ramachandra Guha speaks to NDTV on his new book 'Rebels against the Raj: Western fighters for India's freedom', stories of seven foreign rebels who fought for India's freedom against the Imperial rule.

Here is the full transcript of the interview:

NDTV: Hello and welcome to a very special show, something that I have enjoyed preparing for a lot, and we are very lucky to have Ram Guha with us. Thank you very much Ram for sparing the time and thank you for writing this absolutely amazing book, it's extremely well-researched, very scholarly but most of all, it's very enjoyable to read, and why is it so enjoyable and makes it unusual, is the story, the mini biographies of seven people. The sub heading is 'Western fighters for India's freedoms'. The main title if of course, 'Rebels against the Raj', and you talk about the lives of seven individuals- four British, one Irish, and two Americans, and three of them are women, and they all came to India and fought for India, for India's independence and for a better India...but they all came from different backgrounds, they were from different parts of the world, different countries in Britain. So, what exactly united them do you feel?

Ramachandra Guha: I think what united them was that they were betraying their religion, race and their nationality, and I use the word betraying in a positive sense because their race, the white race dominated the world, their nationality, Britain or American were the world's greatest super powers, and Christianity was an ascent in force over other religious faiths, and yet these seven people identified with a country and culture that was discriminated against, that was supporting colonial exploitation, oppression, subjugation and it's like people are privileged having a conscience and the sensitivity to recognise that their true part lies with those who are underprivileged. In this case, people of a very different nationality, very far away, we are talking about a time when there was no Internet, no air travel so for Annie Besant to imagine coming to India was extraordinarily leap of faith, and that's what united these seven, that they all left a life of privilege, entitlement and comfort to struggle for Indians against the Raj.

NDTV: You know, I am so glad that you have written this book because a lot of us have heard these names and know little bit but no idea, but after reading this, and it is really very readable-one got to understand so much about these really great people and lot of them kind off. Your book makes it clear that their lives were intertwined in India with Mahatma Gandhi's.

Ramachandra Guha: All had. Except for one all died here. Mira Behn, one of my rebels went back to Europe and died there listening to music of Beethoven, who was her first love. But all stayed for several decades, lived in different parts of India and all had different, very interesting, complicated relationship with Mahatma Gandhi, some were devotees like Mira Behn, some had a very adversarial combative relationship, some wrote books about him like Philips Spratt, one of my favourite characters in the book, who was a British Communist, became an Indian free marketeer, and along the way wrote a very insightful book on Gandhi's personality and politics.

NDTV: His switch from communism to a total free market, right?

Ramachandra Guha: But he was fighting for freedom, Prannoy - freedom against the Raj, freedom against the license permit Raj, we might say. We are following instincts and we all change as we grow older and that's part of the evolution but Gandhi was the towering figure of the age. So they all had to, so to say, settle their accounts with him. In becoming Indians, they had to understand, relate to, often agree and sometimes disagree with Gandhi. So Gandhi is a running thread through the book.

NDTV: In fact, you do quote, I remember one bit in the book, being a poster, I just remember if. There's a quote on 10 Greatest Indians at that time...and Gandhi was way ahead of the second...I do have to add that in those 10, there were five Bengalis, right? What I'd like to do is go through each one, a short, like a one-minute story of their life and how that gives you a picture of that time in India, the history, so from the smaller stories to the bigger picture. Start with anyone you'd like to start with and something about their life.

Ramachandra Guha: So, I'll start chronologically with Annie Besant as she comes first, and she comes in 1893 which interestingly is the year Swami Vivekananda makes his great speech in Chicago, and Gandhi of course, goes out to work in South Africa. So when two great Indians are going to make their mark in the West, this Irish woman is making a reverse journey, coming to India, first as Theosophist, interested in philosophy and then moving into politics very quickly via education, she is one of the founders of the BHU and becomes, because she is Irish, she is inspired but the Irish home rule movement of the 1915-16 and starts a home rule league for her adopted country, India. She is brilliant, a fabulous orator, combative attacks disciples, but also repulses some people and gets overshadowed by Gandhi in the freedom struggle, which she takes very badly, you know, like, like many people who somebody else comes in steals their thunder, so to say, she took that very badly being eclipsed and dies, rather lonely figure in Madras.

NDTV: So actually, as you write in the book about her that she was a great orator, she went around England, you know, and became quite well known there. So, when she came here, what was the situation the larger picture in India, that she was fighting, particularly for?

Ramachandra Guha: So, it was education, for schools and colleges and for greater rights for Indians.

NDTV: You mentioned she started Banaras Hindu University.

Ramachandra Guha: Yes, she was one of the founders, arguably the second most important founder of the university. But her appeal, she was a great orator. But it was limited by the fact that she could not speak any Indian language. So the people who flocked to listen to her, were English speaking upper caste men, Indians, who are lawyers and doctors and professors, and Gandhi's great advantage, that why you have people like Gandhi and Tilak, who essentially, you know, overshadow her was that they spoke in the vernacular, this book Hindi, Gujarati or Marathi, Punjabi. And actually, she played a very important role in mobilizing the educated middle classes, but she could not penetrate more deeply in the social structure, because essentially, however Indian she could be in spirit and in mentality, her language is still English, you know, and that's, of course, a very contemporary question today. Our Indians who speak English, you know, truly Indian. So that's, that's something which is often raised today as well. But in catalysing The Home Rule movement, in encouraging women to enter politics. In 1917, she became the first female to be president of the Indian National Congress. At a time, when there were no women in British or American or French or German politics in 1917.

NDTV: Very important, as you say, extension from her life to the larger picture about the role of women. She really galvanised that to some extent, right?

Ramachandra Guha: But inspired people who came after her like Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay, Sarojini Naidu, thought that women can play a role in public life and not just homemakers and mothers, they can reshape society, so I think she was an inspiration.

NDTV: Move on to the next person, you choose the order you'd like to speak, to introduce each one.

Ramachandra Guha: So the next person who comes is BG Horniman, an Englishman who was the fearless editor of the Bombay Chronicle, which was a Swadeshi alternative to the establishment-oriented Times of India writing searing editorials on Jallianwala Bagh, is deported, and somehow finds his way back breaking the passport rules set by a British.

NDTV: Deported by the British because they couldn't stand his writing?

Ramachandra Guha: Absolutely, deported by the British because they couldn't stand an Englishman saying Indians deserve the same rights as English people back home, and he is still remembered in Bombay in the Horniman circle which is a beautiful park in southern Mumbai. Many people don't know who he is, they may think he is a Parsi you know, Nariman, etc. But he actually was an English editor greatly revered, also by the working classes, you know many of his speeches talking in book were given in Chawls because he was someone who fought for the rights of workers and peasants. So he was, you know, a kind of a left-wing Democrat who adopted India. And also, this is the part of the story which is very interesting, not completely fleshed out because of lack of evidence, he was also gay. So he was also in some senses a sexual revolutionary going against the mores of his time, so he is the next person whom I feature in the book.

NDTV: What you write about him about his writing his journalism, his editorials, it was revolutionary at the time, because you couldn't, most newspapers were not free to write anything, right. That was the big picture. He was really fearless in what he did.

Ramachandra Guha: Yeah, he was fearless in criticising the Raj, but he was also fearless in criticizing the inequality in Indian society. So the abolition of untouchability was a passion with him, the rights of workers and better treatment for the textile workers of Bombay was something he repeatedly turned to in his writings. He talked about landlords exploiting peasants in Gujarat. So, you know, his love of justice did not merely extend to political freedom, it was also about social freedom. So he was a very admirable character. And he was often in court, defending himself against all kinds of accusations of libel, blasphemy, because, you know, people try and stem... people today try and stem the freedom of expression through litigation, and Horniman was a pioneer. Because he braved it all. He provided a better defense than we could encode. That was one of his attributes, that he will stand up for himself.

NDTV: I hope we're not learning the wrong lessons from him over the last 25 years here in India. But anyway, let's move on to your next person. I mean, wrong lessons in suppressing the media, yeah.

Ramachandra Guha: Next person who comes is Samuel Stokes, who was an American missionary who comes to Himachal not far from Shimla. Leaves the church, marries an Indian girl, goes to jail in the non-cooperation movement and later plants, the first apples in Himachal. So he lays the foundations of what is a flourishing economy, you know, a multi-million dollar economy, promotion, education of women, and then they late in life converts to Hinduism, because he says, to identify truly with the Hill people as a Christian, I'll always be an outsider, and a person of great principle reflection, and also a wonderful writer, you know, someone who all my seven were writers, which attracted me to them that they had left behind a corpus of work, which I could, you know, rehabilitate.

NDTV: So in addition to switch into Hinduism, marrying locally becoming basically Indian at heart, he was constantly fighting against the British Raj, right?

Ramachandra Guha: For the first part of his career, because he fought against also the system of forced labor, you know, in the hills, If a white man was going for Shikaar, the villagers had to give him milk and eggs and meat for his provisions, you know, they had to carry his supplies, all free, that was part of how the Raj was done, absolutely futile. He got it abolished, he started a movement to get it abolished. But he was also a very mystical, spiritual kind of person seeking bridges between Christianity and Hinduism, again, again, someone whose message of interfaith tolerance, that you may subscribe to a particular faith, but that does not mean you hate or have antagonistic relations towards a faith that is not a rule. That said, he was very grounded in his religious pluralism and tolerance. He was very Gandhi.

NDTV: Again, a lot to learn today from that. Now moving on to the fourth person. You see, what I love is that these, these, this whole, I mean, nobody knew that much about his horticultural path, the apple orchards, we knew he fought, but these were lovely things and also the fact that they're here to go to jail. And that he is interfaith, that, you know, respect a person of another faith. Wonderful to know that and it's so relevant of that time and today.

Ramachandra Guha: To be included in this book, you had to either go to jail or be deported. So, I, I had regretfully to exclude people like CF Andrews and Sister Nivedita, who, of course did a great deal for intercultural relations, but I thought I'd restrict myself to true rebels. The fourth is a person pretty well-known Mira Behn, who was Gandhi's adopted daughter, but I think to shed light on some of the lesser-known aspects of her work, particularly her work after Gandhi died in the 1950s, promoting environmental conservation and forest management in the Himalaya, starting an organic farm, criticizing some of Nehru's development policies for being insensitive to the rights of villagers. She was an early critic of the kind of urban industrial bias of India's economic policy and the destructive aspect it had on the social fabric and on the environment. And she also played a role as a document in my book, a very important role in inspiring and encouraging Attenborough to make his Oscar winning film. So right till the end, although she went back to Europe, right to the end, she was taking the message of Gandhi as she understood it.

NDTV: So foresighted to be so involved with the environment, environmental issues at that time, right?

Ramachandra Guha: Yes, yeah, absolutely. And you have several people who she worked with later, were part of the Chipko movement as opposed to one of the characters. So let me talk about Sarala Behn because she's another English woman who goes to the Himalaya, is arrested in the Quit India movement, spent two years in jail. And then after coming out of jail in 1946, starts the first women school in rural Kuma, extremely patriarchal, backward part of India, Uttarakhand where women never went to school, and she started school and the graduates of their schools become some of the leaders of the Chipko movement. She also is an early environmentalist and writes, you know, very important tracks on the importance of harmonizing nature, you know, human needs and human greed, and absolutely devoted to this country, dies in Kausani 40 years after she goes there. And while she is running the Lakshmi Ashram, nurtures a group of younger social workers who carry out the work. I was in Kausani, just before the lockdown, and I was inspired by how her legacy carries on.

NDTV: Amazing. And reminder, remind everybody of her Western name.

Ramachandra Guha: Her western name was Catherine Mary Heilmann and then she became Sarla Devi.

NDTV: Okay, let's go on to the sixth and seventh and I want to ask you a little bit about the broader picture, etc. But these stories are just you know, so easy to read, and you can read they're all integrated in their own right, and you can read them one at a time. It's just wonderful. The sixth one you'd like to talk about?

Ramachandra Guha: I've already mentioned Philip Spratt, who came as a communist, tried to blow up India, was jailed. In the middle of conspiracy case in jail, started reading Gandhi, was cured of his communism. Just before he went to jail, he fell in love with a Tamil girl called Sita and the love letters between Sita and Spratt are incredibly moving and richly detailed and formed the kind of core of the first time I checked about him. He comes out of jail, becomes a journalist in, in Bangalore, in my hometown, not actually his press was not far from where I live now. And then boom, steadily rightwards, ideologue of the Swatantra Party and also along the way writes up pioneering study of the Hindu personality, he is one of the first people to use the analytic framework of Freud and Jung to understand Hindu family life. But devoted to India, marries a Tamil girl, they have four children, the grandchildren are still working in, in Bangalore. One child became Inspector General of Police in Haryana, you know. So completely indigenized himself as a fighter for freedom, for political freedom, economic freedom, a wonderfully fluent writer. And as I said, his book on Gandhi and his book, Hindu culture and personality are still read and referenced by scholars.

NDTV: One thing that you said which I think we really need, which we have learned from against the license, Raj, right license permit Raj.

Ramachandra Guha: Yeah. So I mean, he was an early advocate of entrepreneurship and the free market, and Roger G, the founder of the Swatantra party recognized, this attributed him and persuaded him to shift from Bangalore to Madras where he worked as an editor for Swarajya. The last person I briefly mentioned was an American. The second American after Stokes was a man called Dick Keithahn, who came as a missionary like Stokes, left the church. Again, new Gandhi, was deported during the quit India movement of 1940-43 because he was working with students in Mysore and the Maharaja of Mysore did not want this independent minded American hanging out with impressionable young students. So he goes back and comes back again. Once India becomes independent, and helps start the Gandhi Rural University, which is one of the pioneering educational efforts in rural education and development, and several of his followers are still active. One of his followers is a remarkable woman called Krishnammal Jagannathan when he was in the 90s, who got the Padma Bhushan last year, as you recognize Keithahn as the inspiration for our work in rural development. So he is the last person to die. He died in 1984. Besant comes in at 1893. So, it's a century of Indian history through these seven extraordinary lives.

NDTV: And it does say a lot about India at that time, but in fact, Gandhi, you quote Gandhi saying how we should accept these people if they are ready to be with us and mingle with us, like sugar mixes with milk I think you mentioned right. And he accepted them and, you know, looked up to them because of their work.

Ramachandra Guha: Yeah, I think that's the part of India I think, again is part of our freedom struggle was they were patriotic without being xenophobic. They were proud of what India was, could be wide open to the rest of the world and what they could learn from the rest of the world and absolutely welcoming of people who became Indians despite their nationality or religion or skin color. And the book is dedicated, I should say, to Jean Dreze, a Belgian-born Indian economist, just as Spratt was a British born Indian journalist, likewise with Horniman, open minded, pluralistic, Catholic tradition of Indian national movement, that these people are not xenophobic.

NDTV: We were fighting the British but we open to the best ideas from everywhere. That's changing the world today, right change in India and in many other countries.

Ramachandra Guha: Absolutely. Of course, this book is in my mind a very long time from, at least for 20 years, and suddenly come together now getting material in the archives all these years. But I realize now that I'm glad, I believe it's writing and publication, because we live in a world riven by xenophobia, paranoia, jingoistic nationalism, not just in our country, but in Turkey, in Russia, in Britain, in the USA, every in China Xi Jingping's hostility to the outside world is dogmatic. Only China knows best China will tell you what to do. So, I think this kind of narrow minded, insular and ultimately destructive xenophobia that is sweeping the world, to that these lives offer a kind of salutary example, they tell you, we can match.

NDTV: The timing is perfect, because we can learn so much from it, which, at this time is so important.

Ramachandra Guha: Yeah, absolutely. But I hope the lessons are secondary, it's the caliber and quality and interestingness of these lives that is private, you know, they are seven extraordinary stories.. Lessons come later, look this is not a work of advocacy, your political philosophy.

NDTV: Yeah, when you read their lives, you get the bigger picture. One last question. If they were all alive today, what would they what would they be doing in India? Would they still be in India with the...

Ramachandra Guha: I think they will all leave India because all of them had chances to go back and neither of them took that up.

NDTV: Realize the US Indians, we are special.

Ramachandra Guha: For all of them, India was special. Several of them had romantic relations, one I should mention is Mira Behn, also fell in love with an Indian revolutionary, unfortunately, not marry him, but the deep and abiding friendships with particular Indians. It was not romantic, or, or sexual or whatever, you know, I think they rooted themselves here. They, most of them work in your languages. They grappled with real problems. You know, it's not like, it's not like you're occasionally you have foreigners who come to India and marry at the absolute top of society. You know, some really big industrialist in Bombay might have had a foreign wife, you know, so all the General of the army may have married, you know, an American lady, and they live in bungalows and live like Memsaabs but you have corporate heads of you know, when growing up in Calcutta, you will have British people smoking a pipe and going to the bingo club and playing golf... But these seven Westerners Declass themselves, not only Denationalized themselves, but the Declass.

NDTV: It is just a fabulous book, it's very easy to read. Do not get put off by the size because they're like seven different wonderful stories and it's so important for us to know at this day and age and I tell you one thing I think they recognized a view and I've been around the world Indian people are the warmest loveliest most open people and we need to we need to value that and hold on to it so it's great to read this book gives us a lot of hope and you learn a lot thank you.

Ramachandra Guha: Thank you.

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