Sign up for Our Newsletter

The British Left and India

Review by: Aarti Bhalodia, The University of Texas at Austin

Owen, Nicholas, The British Left and India: Metropolitan Anti-Imperialism, 1885-1947, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Nicholas Owen’s monograph examines the relationship between the British Left and India’s primary nationalist organization, the Indian National Congress. The book starts in 1885, the founding year of Congress, and ends with Indian independence. By focusing on linkages between anti-imperialists living in England and India, Owen’s work makes a valuable contribution to the fields of both British Imperial and Indian history. Owen examines the formation of alliances between Indian nationalists and British liberals or leftists. He argues that cultural differences prevented metropolitan anti-imperialists from forming a lasting partnership with their Indian counterparts. The British Left, with its ideas of progress, development, and modernity, wanted the Indian political system to develop along British lines. Under Mohandas Gandhi’s leadership, Congress adopted the goal of self-rule through indigenous means, a development that excluded the British Left from the Indian nationalist movement.

While most of this book deals with Labour anti-imperialism, the first two chapters focus on Liberal anti-imperialists, especially members of the British Committee from 1885-1910. A liberal organization in London that was sympathetic towards moderate Indian nationalism, the British Committee consisted primarily of Britons who were retired Indian Civil Service officers and a few Indian expatriates such as Dadabhai Naoroji and W.C. Bonnerjee. The British Committee received little support from nationalists in India who did not want to give the appearance that London controlled the Congress. Gandhi in particular believed that the British Committee would always expect Indians to be deferential to their British counterparts. Such a relationship would have been fundamentally incompatible with Gandhi’s goal of self-rule through indigenous means. Owen contends that this insistence on self-reliance represented the largest barrier between the British Left and Congress.

The Labour Party proved no more successful than the Liberals in fostering a relationship with Indian nationalists. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Labour leaders such as Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb visited India and returned unimpressed. All of them found the Government of India to be incompetent and inefficient, concluding that Indians were incapable of self-rule. Indian leaders attempted to overcome this negative impression by actively courting the Labour Party during the 1920s and 1930s. Yet, as with the British Committee, Congress’ attempts to reconcile the two groups failed. During the Round Table Conferences in the early 1930s, Labour leaders met Gandhi in London and were alarmed by his anti-industrial views. They were also concerned about the favoritism shown within Congress toward capitalists and land owners. Labour leaders felt that such a condition could leave emerging peasant and working-class movements on the outside looking in. Jawaharlal Nehru, during his mid-1930s visit to England, was able to assuage some of Labour’s fears, particularly over Gandhi’s leadership of Congress. The anglicized Nehru spoke a language that the British Left understood and succeeded in winning over some members to the Indian nationalist cause. This tentative alliance between the Labour Party and Congress broke down in 1942 after Gandhi launched the Quit India Movement (over Nehru’s objections). The Government of India’s decision to arrest all Congress leaders was supported by Labour, putting further strain on its relationship with Congress.

In addition to Liberals and Labour, Owen examines various leftist groups in London that supported Congress for short periods of time: Theosophists, Communists, and British Feminists, among others. He points out the reasons behind their support for Congress and their failure in speaking directly for the Indian cause. These groups usually tried to incorporate the Indian cause into the British one, but the reverse was not carried out, thereby limiting the scope of metropolitan anti-imperialism.

The major contribution of Owen’s book is his explanation of the insurmountable problem faced by the British Left in dealing with Congress. While the Left appreciated familiar qualities of ideas and progress among Indian nationalists, they recognized that these ideals were only shared by a small group of Indians. However, encouraging Indian nationalists to adopt an ideology attractive to the Indian populous would make Congress “too Indian” and unfamiliar to the British Left. Gandhi, through his use of cultural and religious symbolism, went farther than any other in proving this belief. Another hindrance to a successful alliance was the different frameworks within which the Gandhian Congress and British Left sought to operate. Gandhi envisioned the Indian nationalist relationship with the British Left as one where two equal parties could exchange ideas and work together, but the British Left did not consider Indian politics advanced enough to be treated in such a manner. Labour was willing to help those Indian leaders who sought their advice, but they did not know how to deal with Gandhi, who spoke a language that was “too Indian” and sought to engage with Labour as an equal.

Overall, Owen’s book is a valuable contribution to the fields of British Imperial history as well as Indian history. It is of particular interest to those who want to understand the aims and objectives of anti-imperialists in England and India and the limits on alliances between these groups.

This entry was posted in Book of the Month. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.