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When the Indian National Congress was founded in the 1880s, one of its purposes was to seek to influence the British Raj not only directly, in India, but by going over its head to lobby government ministers, MPs and the public in Britain. The dual structure of imperial power – a Viceroy in India ultimately subject to a Secretary of State in London, in turn responsible to an elected Parliament – provided leverage. It was a heavily qualified leverage. The Viceroy had considerable autonomy, and the civil servants in the India Office and the Council of India, dominated by retired Indian officials often made it hard for the Secretary of State to get his way, even if he was well-disposed to Indian pressure. Parliamentary powers of scrutiny were restricted, and there was an understanding among MPs that they might criticise government ministers, but not take sides with the Indians.

Nevertheless, there was some scope for criticism, which could invoke arguments, especially liberal ones, which were more readily heard in London than in India. Such criticism was exercised through the British Committee of the Indian National Congress. This had not been the first choice of the Indians. They had begun in 1888 with an agency arrangement: paying a political agent and sympathetic MPs who were willing to raise Indian issues in Parliament for cash. However, it proved hard for the Congress to collect the money for such distant work, so the agent’s activities were subsidised by private parliamentary work for other rich Indian clients. This work – which sometimes aired Indian scandals – threatened to discredit the Congress and its parliamentary allies. Instead, therefore, the Congress set up the British Committee, made up of Liberal MPs and a few Indian politicians resident in London. The British Committee was unpaid, unlike the agent, but it reserved the right to make India’s case in its own way. The best symbol of its approach was its journal India. This was ostensibly a newspaper provided to make India’s case in London, but was actually written by British Liberals and exported to India to inform Indians, whose subscriptions paid for it, what they thought and felt. The various points of difference between the British Liberals and the Indians – free trade, for example, which the Liberals insisted upon, but which the Indians disliked for its effects on home production – therefore never became the source of open disagreement . Instead the Indians grumbled privately and withheld their subscriptions.

The form of metropolitan agitation favoured by the British Committee was an appeal to shared liberal values. These appeals had mixed success. On the one hand, British Liberals were vulnerable to being criticised on precisely the grounds on which they now justified empire: its capacity to produce self-government. Where empire seemed to be impeding progress along these lines, it could be effectively criticised, using arguments grounded in claims the British Liberals had already acknowledged. The Indians could demand consistency between liberal principles held at home and their application in India. On the other hand, the Indians struggled to acquire sufficient authority to challenge the buried assumptions of liberalism – its single model of development, its undervaluing of other cultures – let alone rework its principles for themselves, stretch them, bring them to crisis or reject them. British liberalism was shared with Indians, but not commonly owned.

The organizational outgrowth of this asymmetric relationship was the British Committee itself, with its reliance on British sponsors to validate Congress grievances and guide its political strategy. This explained its successes, especially its work on civil liberties, which British liberals cared deeply about and which enjoyed unquestioned authority. But it also explained its failures: its inability to connect with emerging movements of Indo-centric struggle and self-reliance, and the hidden grumbling and footdragging this aroused in India. The Committee, the radical Indian critic Bipin Chandra Pal wrote bitterly (though for Indian eyes only) in 1905, ‘vitiates the very root-springs of our own political life and activities, by leading our best and ablest men to view Indian questions through British Liberal spectacles’.

For this reason, political radicals like Pal who wanted to build more challenging, self-reliant movements in India also needed to reverse the relationship of dependence on British Liberals in London. Their chosen method was for Indians themselves to seek to persuade the British public, without the complications of British Liberal intermediaries. Shyamji Krishnavarma’s Indian Home Rule Society, based at India House in Highgate was the best example. Unlike the British Committee it was open to ‘Indian gentlemen only’. Its newspaper, The Indian Sociologist, was a counterweight to the moderate coverage of India.

This mode of agitation had a brief flowering in Edwardian London, which I have explored at greater length in another article, called The Soft Heart of the British Empire. It took advantage of the extent of freedom available at the metropole for anti-British agitation. As police repression of Indian extremism grew, indeed, London proved a useful haven for the agitators. Many of them moved there, including Pal himself. For reasons I explore in the article, the experiment was shortlived.

This left the British Committee in command of the field in London, but increasingly resented in India. It experienced financial crises and drifted into irrelevance. After the First World War, the Committee was finally disbanded. This is usually explained as the consequence of its slow decline in effectiveness. In fact, however, the Committee had undergone a revival, stimulated into action by the upsurge in Indian nationalism in 1917. The leading figure in this upsurge, B. G. Tilak, insisted that the British Committee must henceforth take instructions from the Congress in India rather than decide for itself what was best. The new arrangements also included more secure funding from India, a professionalised press campaign, and an alliance with the Labour Party.

Following his takeover of Congress in December 1920, however, Gandhi unilaterally abolished the British Committee. His explanation was the necessity for Indians to be self-reliant. The struggle was to be waged in India, not Britain. The old reliance on British public men, who expected deference to their expertise, and whose priorities were set by British left-wing politics, was therefore too dangerous a temptation.

publication
Material from this paper appeared in Nicholas Owen, The British Left and India: Metropolitan Anti-Imperialism, 1885-1947 (Oxford, 2007).

IMAGE CREDIT: KING GEORGE V GRANTING HOME RULE TO BHARAT MARA (DETAIL) (c.1920) INDIAN PAINTING.