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This article, which appeared in Past and Present in 2013, begins with a puzzle. Why did many of the leaders of the Indian nationalist movement move to London in 1908? The three principal leaders of the time were Lal, Bal and Pal – Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal. The first and third moved to London that year. The third – Tilak – was in prison in India, but his lieutenants, G. S. Khaparde and Vishnu Karandikar, also moved to London. So did Har Dayal, the Punjabi revolutionary and a host of student radicals M. P. T. Acharya, Haidar Raza, Basudev Bhattacharji, Hemanto Kumar Ghose, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, and Senapati Bapat. Most lived at or regularly visited Shyamji Krishnavarma’s student hostel “India House“, which was now led by one of Tilak’s younger protégés, the Bombay revolutionary, V. D. Savarkar. In 1909, a member of India House, Madan Lal Dhingra, assassinated the India Office official Sir Curzon Wyllie.

Of course, London had been a home for revolutionary exiles since the 1840s. At various times in the preceding decades it had housed revolutionary nationalists such as Garibaldi and Mazzini, anarchists like Malatesta and Kropotkin, and socialists including Louis Blanc, Marx, Herzen and Lenin. But their movements had been centrifugal, away from the centres of European repression. The Indians, by contrast, had moved centripetally, to the heart of the empire that repressed them. So the first puzzle is why they saw the centre of British imperialism as a haven.

A second puzzle is why the imperial authorities tolerated anti-imperialism at the heart of the empire. It did not do so in India. But there were problems in applying the rule of colonial difference at the metropole. In India, there could be one rule for the Indians, and another for the British. This racial differentiation was harder to impose in London. Although it was known to the authorities that the Indian radicals were plotting for an Indian revolution, almost nothing could be done legally to stop them.

For example, their freedom of movement to and from India was almost wholly unchecked. It was too politically controversial to restrict the rights of imperial subjects to travel freely in the empire, even if their purpose in doing so was to undermine it. The authorities also had no powers to seize funds, or prevent their use for anti-imperialist purposes. Deportation was only possible after conviction for a criminal offence, not on grounds of general “undesirability“. The Indian radicals also travelled frequently and easily to European capitals to plot with other opponents of British rule. When they settled there, they could almost never be extradited back to Britain or India.

In theory, extraditing criminals and defendants back to the colonies was easier. The 1881 Fugitive Offenders Act, which applied to the empire, had few of the protections governing extradition to foreign states and made it relatively simple for colonial officials to extradite those who had escaped their custody into another part of the empire. However, it only applied to fugitives, which meant those who had fled India after warrants for their arrest had been issued. This was not even true of Savarkar, who had not fled to Britain but simply moved there to study and plan an Indian revolution. Hardly anyone else was vulnerable. The legislation did allow non-fugitive Indians to be returned to India if they were suspected of offences which were triable both in Britain and India, but in such cases, the courts had to consider whether it would be in the interests of justice to do so. In India many legal rights – such as those concerning bail, jury trial, cross-examination, admissibility of evidence, and appeal – were suspended or qualified by the 1908 Criminal Law Amendment Act and this meant that British judges sometimes declined to return suspects there. Offences committed in Britain would therefore have to be tried in Britain. The trouble with British courts, the imperial authorities, concluded, was that they would be too soft-hearted, applying British precedents, concepts and sentiment.

Intelligence work at the metropole was also hampered. In India, the government had a network of spies to inform on political agitators. But in London, the India Office would not allow the Government of India to employ spies to gather evidence. It would provoke local outrage and probably prove inadmissible in court. The Metropolitan Police were much less heavy-handed than its Indian counterparts. Pal, indeed, wrote of their “wondrous patience“ and “scrupulous regard for the sanctities of private relations and personal freedoms”. They did not search premises without evidence, open the Indians’ letters, or harass them provided they remained within the law. Freedom of association was also protected. Political meetings on Indian questions in London could never be subject to the surveillance or bans used in India.

Freedom of expression was also mostly guaranteed in Britain. The British press was not merely free to publish what it wanted about India, but did so to a degree that would have led to prosecution for sedition in India. The Times, for example, printed Krishnavarma’s letters unedited, even when they advocated political assassination. When Government ministers complained, the editor replied that it was the paper’s policy “to give even the devil fair play”. Sedition law, which was used extensively in India to restrict even moderate criticism of the government, had effectively fallen into disuse. The India Office concluded that the Indian radicals could not be prosecuted for advocating violence, even though in India merely arguing that violence was bound to follow repression had earned Tilak a six-year sentence.

The influence of the Indian radicals over Indian students in Britain was especially worrying to the British authorities. But the universities and the Inns of Court refused to make Indian students a special case or subject them to surveillance. They and the British officials agreed that it would be “politically disastrous” for British universities to close their doors to Indian applicants. Indeed, the India Office wanted to keep them open in the wider interest of imperial unity.

Indeed, besides the stubborn attachment of the British to liberal principles, which they refused to alter to make an exception for Indians, wider imperial interests prevented any revision of these rules. British officials in India often wished that they could block the traffic of anti-imperialists between India and the metropole. They disliked metropolitan visitors from London almost as much as they disliked the way that Indian radicals escaped to London and worked there against them in safety. The trouble was that liberal imperialists refused to stop the traffic. To them, empire was only justified if it extended opportunities for the colonised to learn the skills necessary for self-government. This meant that ideas, print and individuals must flow.

Even less liberal imperialists found themselves obliged to agree. They feared that India might get forgotten in plans for the closer integration of the white dominions through tariff reform and imperial federation. Since India was not itself a destination for economic migrants from other parts of the empire, they had to make it easier, not harder, for educated Indians to travel. Even the arch-imperialist Curzon therefore wanted students and journalists to move easily between Britain and India, though some of them used these opportunities to attack British rule.

So it proved impossible to draw a border between Britain and India. The solution, therefore, was to try to draw a border between Briton and Indian. Such a line could not be crossed unless identities themselves dissolved. The Indian radicals would carry it with them wherever they went.

Moreover, this colonial difference was defined not simply in terms of racial identity, but in terms of behaviour or conduct, and required that special attention be paid to judging it. The effect was to make citizenship possible for Indians, but a matter of a protracted – even indefinitely deferred – probation, rather than entitlement. It positioned them as candidates, distinct from both the “self-disciplining” British citizenry and also the externally-disciplined colonial subject.

Such differentiation, however, could not be carried out by the state alone. Policing an indelible geographical or racial border could be attempted by a suitably competent state. But differentiation on the basis of character and conduct was not the same as policing a border. It could not be done by the state alone, because it required expertise, judgement of nuance, and attention to innumerable, repeated, everyday transactions. The state therefore relied on British civil society – its universities, editors, writers, intellectuals, public figures, charitable trustees, among others – to make judgements of character and conduct. It was these figures, as much as state officials, who applied the modified rule of colonial difference.

In London, the radicals therefore encountered a world quite unlike India. Power was concentrated not in the hands of the state, but dispersed among many non-state institutions, actors and associations, who stood apart from, though still in a certain relation with, the state. The most relevant for the Indians were the parliamentary lobby, the press, the Inns of Court and the legal profession, and the universities and the public intellectual arena. The autonomy of these spaces was considered essential to a liberal mode of governance, in creating and shaping self-governing individuals, in permitting supposedly natural social and economic processes to occur without distortion, and in providing locations from which a critique of the state and its actions could be made. Although the state did not control them, they were nonetheless governed by internally-enforced codes of behaviour. They defined for themselves what constituted fair use of the freedom they possessed, thereby controlling the practical delivery of civil liberties. Being a “reasonable litigant“ in court, a “respectable lobbyist“ at Westminster, a “responsible journalist“ in Fleet Street, or a “good chap“ at university was a necessary condition for equal treatment. Furthermore, full entitlement to civil liberties could not be obtained by Indians directly, but only via British intermediaries whose right to them was undisputed. These were the people who mattered: the MPs who might raise their cases in Parliament, the editors who might publish their letters and articles; the college tutors who might protect them against the India Office; the lawyers who might admit them to the Bar, or take their cases. A very large part of the radicals’ activities and correspondence was directed towards these people, in terms that ranged from formal lobbying to begging letters.

Almost all such efforts failed. The Indians, as I argue in more detail in the article, therefore abandoned the metropole, and took their struggle back to India, or to dispersed, diaspora locations. They left the metropole not because of state power, but because of the unwillingness of these intermediaries to align in solidarity with them.

This finding has implications for the way we see metropolitan anti-colonial resistance. The people who applied the rule of difference included many of those usually seen as the metropolitan allies of the colonised. They were the advocates, but also the probation officers of those they wanted to help. Each in his own way discriminated according to a rule of colonial difference. And because colonial rule at the metropole held out the possibility of acceptance, however conditionally, it placed Indians in a dilemma too. Even those who came to London to oppose the empire therefore found themselves subject to temptation.

The experience of the Indian radicals also throws an sidelight on the debate concerning the relationship between nineteenth century liberalism and a co-emerging, even co-existent, imperialism. It is now broadly accepted that liberalism was not in any simple sense a tool of empire. Its principles could be invoked by advocates of an expansionary, missionary imperialism, but also by their opponents. Liberalism was used against the British in India. But this proved hard to achieve in London. The Indian radicals did invoke liberal authorities, and even approached some of them in person for help and advice. But they were never allowed to be co-makers of liberalism. Liberalism, British thinkers insisted, was the product not just of abstract rational reflection but of a particular socio-historical experience, which had, not by chance, happened first in Britain, and had yet to happen in India. Perhaps liberalism in time could stretch to include everyone, but this did not mean that it belonged to everyone. True, some Liberals wanted to find out what was going on in India, and especially whether liberal ideals were taking root in Indian soil. They were also prepared to be critical of the Raj, often precisely for its failure to nurture liberalism. Yet this was combined with a strong sense that whatever India had to learn of liberalism, liberalism had little to learn from India.

Anti-imperialist Indians were able to take advantage of the tolerance for refugees, even though they were refugees from the British Raj. However, this tolerance was not proffered by the state freely. It was extracted, sometimes without its knowledge, and often without its approval, as a consequence of existing commitments, some of them intrinsic to imperialism itself. The routes that empire needed to keep open in order to sustain itself were pathways along which anti-imperial ideas and actors could be smuggled, or even travel freely.

Nonetheless, despite its many legal freedoms, Britain had turned out to be more a stifling than supportive place. The Indian radicals were shaped and directed by soft power, exercised in multiple and dispersed ways, and only loosely co-ordinated, if at all, by the state. It worked through a diverse group of Britons, including many who were not regarded as wielders of imperial power. In Britain, civil liberties were not enforceable rights, but privileges which, for their full value, required endorsement by British intermediaries. Parts of British civil society were prepared to offer such endorsement, but it came at a price: submission to the moulding processes by which the British made themselves. This acceptance was, moreover, always provisional and revocable, and the codes under which it was offered reserved final judgement to the British intermediaries. The Indians were therefore not excluded on grounds of race, but were admitted as such.

The value of liberalism, whether in justifying or criticising empire, was thus not just a matter of what its complex and meaning-laden texts said, but also who got to interpret them. It was a matter of textual belonging, as well as meaning. Indians could appeal to liberal principles, but they did not get to define or apply them, and increasingly that was what mattered most.

For the Indian radicals, the colonial metropole was not simply a nexus of useful interconnections, as “junction box” theories have proposed. It was also a troubling place, made so not through coercive policing and surveillance, but the temptations and shapings that it exerted on those to whom it offered probation. The friendship of British allies was therefore a mixed blessing. The fact that the strongest mode of metropolitan anti-imperialism was self-criticism – of the British by the British – and that this was essential for it to be effective with British audiences, weakened the possibilities of a friendship of equals.

However, this meant that the metropole was also a place for decisions and breaks of trajectory: a critical juncture more than a junction-box. Several important crises were resolved there. For some of the Indian radicals, the freedoms of the metropole were surrendered in favour of a straight fight with the more obviously coercive state in India. Others left for international work largely free of the complications of British freedom. Gandhi – a visitor to India House in 1909 – departed from Britain to imagine an India free not merely of British rule, but of British concepts of freedom. As a consequence, the metropole was, in the last decades of imperial rule, strangely quiet, isolated in certain ways from the collapsing empire of which it believed itself the centre. It was thereby deprived of the political convulsions and reassessments that might have been forced by a confrontational anti-imperial challenge at its heart. Instead, Britain formally decolonised with surprisingly little metropolitan reappraisal, the challenges mostly occurring far away, leaving – battered but still standing -the complex mix of attitudes to freedom, difference and government which had sustained empire.