India League in a league of its own

Smita Sarkar & Anand Pillai Tuesday 17th January 2017 06:14 EST

If today the world sees India as a potential super power or a soft power giant, there are many who have contributed to India’s rise, especially the foundation of which was laid way back during the Swami Vivekananda days and the great Indian freedom struggle in which apart from Mahatma Gandhi, the India League in the UK played a pivotal role in mobilising people to fight against the British Empire and imperialism.

Indian National Movement

The Indian national movement was undoubtedly one of the biggest mass movements modern world has ever seen. It was a movement which galvanised millions of people of all classes and idealogies into political action and brought to its knees a mighty colonial empire.

A major aspect of the freedom struggle is the values and modern ideals on which the movement itself was based and the broad socio-economic and political vision of its leadership. This vision was that of a democratic, civil libertarian and secular India, based on a self-reliant, egalitarian social order and an independent foreign policy.

Indian leaders had established the principle that Indians should hate British imperialism but not the British people. Consequently, they were supported by a large number of English men, women and political groups.

Arrival of M K Gandhi

On January 9, 1915, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi returned to his homeland after two decades in South Africa. In 1917 and 1918 he led localised protests against specific grievances of peasants and workers; in 1919 he organised satyagrahas in the major cities of British India against a restrictive new legislation known as the Rowlatt Act; and in 1920 he launched a countrywide campaign of ‘non-co-operation’ against British colonial rule.

Gandhiji liked to refer to Gopal Krishna Gokhale as his ‘guru’. In 1919 the first Indian Parliament was established, but the turning point of that year was the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar. At least 800 innocent Indians were killed in the carnage. After this, even liberal Indians like Gandhiji started demanding independence for India from the British. Gandhiji became the leader of the Indian National Congress after Tilak’s death in 1920. Gandhiji led and organised three major campaigns against the colonial rule. These were the non-cooperation movement of the 1920s, the civil disobedience movement of the 1930s whose highlight was his march to the sea to make salt, then a state monopoly, and the Quit India Movement of the 1940s. 

India League

India League shaped India’s freedom movement in London.It is a nationalist organisation that was established in London to campaign for India’s Poorna Swaraj or full independence. Established in 1928 by a group of western-educated Indians and distinguished British academics, diplomats, and parliamentarians, India League originated from its parent organisation, the Commonwealth of India League, which was brought together in 1922 under the aegis of Annie Besant.

India League’s aim was to raise consciousness among the British public about the ills of the colonial rule in India under the British Raj. Nationalist speeches, conferences and meetings were held throughout Britain. The executive members of the organisation distributed pamphlets and literature that sought to highlight the injustice faced by the Indians; thereby mobilising public opinion and inspiring the Indians and British in England to protest. 

In London, the India League was spearheaded by lawyer, activist, and radical editor V K Krishna Menon. Menon politicised the organisation in London. He rejected its original objective of India being given a Dominion Status and pushed instead for complete independence and home rule.  

According to author and Delhi University’s professor of history, Suhash Chakravarty, Krishna Menon is probably the only man who worked wholeheartedly to create a public opinion in England for the independence movement. He is convinced that Menon managed to get different segments of public opinion to veer towards freedom even though there was complete unanimity in English public opinion on retaining British connections with India. This view, he feels, became part of the British psyche. Chakravarty says, “Menon was able to galvanise the Quakers, the Christian Socialists, a substantial section of the independent Labour Party, left-wing Labour party men, a few liberals, a substantial section of conservatives who read ‘Spectator’ and, of course, the communists, despite their characterisation of Indian nationalism as bourgeoise.”

The India League members were mainly elite British and Indians living in Britain; but several Indian and Ceylonese students and visiting elites were part of the meetings and campaigns from time to time. The members formed smaller, but related, organisations like the Indian Conciliation Committee of the Society of Friends, Action Committee, Communist Party, Cambridge Majlis, India Club, Fabians, Labour Party, and a Women’s Committee. Participation of women was encouraged and Brijlal Nehru was the Chairman of the Women’s Committee, with Mrs Jai Kshori Handoo, Mrs Bimla Nehru, Mrs Asha Bhattacharya, and Miss M. Nicholson as Executive Members supported by Ms Anna Pollack as Assistant Secretary of the Committee.

All the members of the Indian League worked on a voluntary, unpaid basis and were the cream of the intellectual, political, nationalist Indians and British.

Prof Omprakash Mishra, an active member of All India Congress party and professor of international relations, says: “Activities of India League in London provided an intellectual backdrop to the growing collaboration between the Indian nationalists and sympathetic and progressive sections of British elite.”

India League Campaign

Krishna Menon started by working aggressively towards removing founder members like Annie Besant who established the Home Rule for India League in 1916 to impart India with Dominion Status. He side-tracked her ideas and by the early 1930s, managed to rope in UK-based Indians and influential British from all the major cities and towns, including Birmingham, Cardiff, Hull, Bournemouth, Dublin, Leeds, Manchester, Wolverhampton, Sheffield, Leeds, Bristol, Southampton, Newcastle, and Lancashire.

Through these people and the various sub-committees, Menon crusaded and urged for the cause of India’s home rule and independence on various platforms. Its parliamentary committee members petitioned to members of Parliament where many executive members of India League highlighted the issues concerned. 

Executive members arranged for Indian leaders to address the House of Commons to discuss policies concerning India. The League worked tirelessly with different groups, organisations, and even appealed to the common people throughout the country, thereby stirring public opinion in favour of India.  

Prof Mishra says: “Even while the visiting Indian leadership could use and utilise a platform to air their views and press for their cause, India League facilitated a more direct connect between the British sympathisers and the severity of the situation in India.

“Qualitative intervention by the League helped change the narrative of the ‘benevolent’ Empire to the one that was distasteful to the sensitivities of the enlightened group of men and women who valued freedom and independence.” 

The League worked along with its counterpart, the Congress party in India. This could be attributed to the friendship between Nehru and Menon – both educated in London and strong nationalists who were deeply influenced by Western political ideals. They believed in resolving issues through dialogues and debates – using the path of passive resistance through non-violence.

For them, the pen was mightier than the sword. Menon formed a delegation with the likes of Monica Whately, Ellen Wilkinson, and Leonard Matters in 1932 to examine the situation in India. 
Indian National Congress edition of ‘Condition of India’, an incisive report on the situation as it obtained in India under the ordinance rule in 1932 following the failure of the Round Table Conference in 1931 and the incarceration of Gandhi in early 1932. Prepared by the delegation to India sponsored by the India League, it is based on its findings during an extensive on-the-spot investigation all over India. The volume was published in 1934 despite a good deal of opposition from official quarters and was promptly banned in India.

The report emphasised that the ordinances were directed against an unarmed and non-violent people irrespective of age or gender and led by a frail but determined leader with a unique vision. The rule gave rise to an official ordinance mind, at once arrogant, authoritarian, repressive and callous and the ascendancy of a brutal police force as the principal executive authority. The civil disobedience movement had been extended to rural India and was enriched by an extensive participation of women, peasants and working class. The Indian National Congress had become a mass movement and, at places, adopted socialist aspiration and reiterated its democratic character.

The League vehemently crusaded against the jailing of Gandhi and Nehru during the “Quit India” movement in 1942 and the horrific Bengal famine in 1943.

The League published leaflets, dissertations, and articles in journals and newspapers that contradicted the British publicity and distortion about the plight of Indians under British rule. News India and Information Bulletin were two such publications.

According to Dr Anuradha Ray, Professor of history at Jadavpur University, “The campaign in London did not remain restricted to ‘moderate’ methods of Dadabhai Naoraji, but branched out into various paths of supporting Indian cause: Theosophy, Home rule movement, militant nationalism, even women’s movement. Names like Shyamji Krishna Varma, Annie Besant, Bhikhaiji Cama, Vinayak Savarkar as key figures of one or more of these movements are indeed well known.”

In retrospect, Prof Mishra says that the League was ahead of its time and ideological orientation and its India-centred articulation and advocacy was a shining example of primacy of ideas as an agent of change.

“The quality of League’s intervention was positive, contributing its bit to the stream of endeavours that brought about independence and freedom to the British colony,” says Prof Mishra.

India League after India’s independence in 1947

Menon was a socialist and realised that they needed to approach the working class and the Labour Party to attract more support and encompass the issues concerning the Indian labour class in Britain. To this effect, the League established its East End branch in the early 1940s. 

The organisation continued to function even after independence aiming at strengthening links between India and Britain. Its struggle was not just confined to India, but was geared against imperialism and towards liberating people from countries across the world.

The League continued to publish articles about India, with the help of a dedicated group of journalists and academics like Dr Taapada Datta, Premen Sen and others. The Indian Journalists’ Association was formed in 1947, with a bunch of independent-thinking reporters from leading Indian newspapers. Amongst the founding members were the fearless and legendary journalist Dr Tarapada Basu who continued with the India League journal for nearly four decades. 

After India gained independence on August 15, 1947, Menon was appointed as India’s High Commissioner to the UK who provided useful guidance and assistance to the members of the League. He was followed by Vijay Lakshmi Pandit who also continued the good work done by her predecessor.

In the mid-eighties, the Indian Community Organisations evolved and began arranging important events, especially for British politicians, budding Indian entrepreneurs, and professionals, as well as an increasing number of British Indian Community.

The Gandhi of Tavistock Square

Nearly every square has historical associations, but Tavistock Square in Central London is uniquely significant. At its centre is one of the most moving of all statues of Gandhiji. The statue, by Polish sculptor Fredda Brilliant, was gifted to London by the Indian High Commissioner in Britain in 1967, and unveiled by then Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

It was indeed in Tavistock Square that one of the four bombs blew apart a bus, taking 13 of the 52 innocent lives on July 7, 2005.

The Gandhi represented here is a seated figure, ponderous and meditative, not the more familiar Gandhi with the walking-stick. The hollow pedestal was intended, and is used, for people to leave floral tributes to the peace campaigner and non-violent resister to oppression in South Africa and British rule in India.

The square is now owned and administered by the London Borough of Camden.

Every year Indian High Commission in association with the India League organises a function at Tavistock Square to commemorate Gandhi Jayanthi on October 2 and the Nirwana Diwas on January 30. The event, that is open to public, is usually attended by the Mayor of Camden, local Councillors, Asian MPs and Peers, community leaders and organisational heads. The Indian High Commissioner, Chairman of the India League and Mayor of Camden address the gathering.

The current chairman of the India League is Mr C B Patel, the Publisher and Editor of Asian Voice and Gujarat Samachar.

Notable India League members till the 1950s

Harold Joseph Laski was the President of the Committee for Action between 1930-1942. A professor at the London School of Economics, he met Menon in 1926 at the LSE and joined the India League. He negotiated with Gandhiji and Aga Khan on the future constitutional status of religion.

Bertrand Russell was the Chairman of India League’s Committee for Action between 1932 to 1939. The political campaigner and journalist presided over meetings and wrote the preface of the report ‘The Condition of India’.

Asha Bhattacharya, an Executive Member, ran education classes for Indian students from the East End branch, along with Dr H J Handoo’s wife, Mrs Jai Kishori Handoo. Mrs Handoo was actively involved in raising funds for the Committees. 

The daughter of the owner of an affluent woollen mill in Mumbai, Bhicoo Batlivala was an active member of the India League and proved to be a charismatic and articulate speaker who had campaigned and given lecture tours in Washington and different parts of Europe.

Henry Noel Brailsford was an Executive Member, a political journalist, and a critic of British imperialism. He was an active supporter of home rule for India.

Fenner Brockway started working as a journalist at the age of 16. He met Nehru in 1911 when he was studying law and visited Oxford to hear Brockway speak on India’s independence struggle.

V K Krishna Menon (May 3, 1896 – October 6, 1974)

Hailing from the historic city of Calicut (Kerala, India) where Vasco da Gama landed in 1498, Krishna Menon was the founder of India League. He lobbied with key Labour MPs in Britain and self-funded most of the meetings, events, investigations, and discussions to expound the socio-economic and political situation in India. He supported the strikes by the lascar (and their British counterparts) as a Labour councillor for the Borough of St Pancras (from 1934 to 1939 and from 1944 to 1947).

According to late Justice V R Krishna Iyyer, former Justice of Supreme Court of India: “As an Indian who was a subject of the British Empire, Krishna Menon remained in Britain and fought for India’s independence against the British Empire. He went to Britain and there became a remarkable figure in organising a freedom movement for India’s liberation. Many people had fought for independence for India but very few people you can find fighting for India’s independence from the country which held India under subjection i.e. the British Empire.”

According to Lord Swaraj Paul, Menon had sown the seeds of India’s freedom movement. Lord Paul says: “Both Nehru and Krishna Menon, they were really the original people who worked for India’s freedom, especially Menon in Britain. Krishna Menon’s contribution to India was remarkable – his setting up of the India League, bringing in British parliamentarians, British opinion farmers, etc. is almost a legacy and a history which no Indian can afford to forget.”  

Pandit Shyamji Krishna Verma (1857-1930)

With the coming of the 20th century, the freedom struggle went ahead on foreign shores. Shyamji, a Sanskrit scholar and Oxford graduate, took active part in it. On February 18, 1905, he formed the Home Rule Society in London, a rallying call for securing Home Rule back in India. There the need for an Indian newspaper too was felt. “The Indian Sociologist” was launched as a cry for India’s freedom in countries all over the world. Shyamji was its Editor and it cost a penny. Place of publication was Queen’s Wood Avenue, Highgate, London North. From 1905 to 1927 the newspaper kept making waves. In London restrictions were placed. The newspaper was shifted from London to Paris. From France the newspaper found its way to Geneva where Shyamji spent his last years.

India House

In 1905 was born the India House, the historic fountain of India’s struggle. A three-storied building on Highgate, a ‘mystery house’ for Britishers but a shrine for India’s warriors for peace. For students coming from India, India House functioned as hostel accommodation. It was inaugurated by British nationalist Hyndman. Barrister Sardarsinh Rana, Madame Cama, Lala Lajpatrai and Dadabhai Navroji too were present. India House became associated with unparalleled events in history. It was here Gandhiji met Shyamji. With a letter from Tilak, Vinayak Rao Savarkar reached London and then there were brilliant happenings. The 1857 half centenary year was celebrated with fervour. Contact with Lenin took place. Here Savarkar chronicled 1857’s history. Homage was paid to Indian martyrs. A youth Madanlal Dinghra publicly gunned down the oppressive British official, Sir William Hutt Curzon Wyllie, and was hanged. Savarkar was caught in London itself. He was sentenced to two life imprisonments in India. Adhering to the decision taken at India House in 1907 Madame Cama unfurled the first national flag at the International Socialist Conference in Stuttgart.

Shyamji’s last years too were devoted to relentless efforts for independence. He inspired students in the fight for freedom. He set up institutions abroad. He also created scholarships for Indian students to study in Britain from 1905, on the condition that they would not work for the British Government.

Shyamji got together selfless groups that strived for political freedom in London. He kept contacts alive in Russia, Japan, America, Egypt, China, Afghanistan, Ireland and constantly kept writing for the Indian Sociologist. In March 1930 revolutionaires all over the country were transforming India’s destiny. Gandhiji was on his Dandi march. And in Lahore jail waiting to kiss the noose were rebels Sardar Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. And in those very days in a foreign land the Father of the Indian Revolution, Shyamji, was on his last legs. Shyamji was moved to Geneva Hospital. Bhanumati was looking after him. Shyamji breathed his last there. Shyamji’s last wish was “His ashes be brought back to a free India”. In 2003 then Gujarat CM (now PM) Narendra Modi returned from Geneva with his ashes to Gujarat. In Mandvi (Kutch), Shyamji’s birthplace, the urns were kept forever.

India League Reins

Among many notable names, Michael Foot was chairman of India League. Foot campaigned for the Socialist League with Krishna Menon, and joined his India League, heading, in the early 1940s, a campaign for the inclusion of India in the application of the principles of freedom set out in the Atlantic Charter, and speaking at numerous League meetings. 

India League had a publication later on in 1947 called India Weekly. It was a sister publication. They also bought a club called India League Trend. At that time there was no other organisation in the UK except Zoroastrian Association which was founded in 1861 in Kensington, London. According to Ralph Hinnells it was the first Asian religious association founded in Britain.

And in 1932 the Maharashtra Mandal was established in London at the suggestion of Gandhiji. At the 1930-31 Rountable Conference Gandhiji suggested “why don’t you start the Maharashtra Mandal?” and that’s how it came into being.

But India League was the flag-bearer for the independence of India and even after 1947 to establish links with the British establishment. There was a need and justifiable demand that why don’t they install a statue of Gandhiji at a central place in London. It was unthinkable in those days. Today we have statues of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square and many more, but in 1960 when the campaign started, thanks to the Labour government of Harold Wilson and Camden Council, the location for the installation of the statue was assigned at Tavistock Square.

Thanks to British people India League was almost run by the British, though Indians were at the helm. It is they who convinced the British establishment that it is right and proper to give independence to India. Americans were the ones who told Britain that you can’t subjugate India and talk about help from America for the World Wars.

India League, a movement that started under the able guidance of the forgotten luminary, V K Krishna Menon, has come a long way and is now under the safe hands of Mr C B Patel, the Publisher and Editor of Asian Voice and Gujarat Samachar.

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