With hearings that began in June 1929, a verdict delivered in 1933, and another six months of appeal hearings, the Meerut Conspiracy Case in colonial India turned out to be one of the most expensive legal cases in the history of the British Empire. 31 trade unionists and activists were arrested for organising strikes and charged with conspiring to “deprive the King of the sovereignty of British India”. The accused were picked up from Bombay, Calcutta, and Punjab and taken to the city of Meerut for the trial — far from the support bases of the defendants and from the trade union centres of Bombay and Calcutta. The detainees were refused bail and subjected to trial without a jury — though jury trial was the practice at the time. One defendant died during the protracted trial and most others received harsh sentences — a decade or more of imprisonment and transportation.
The case gained international attention, not least because among the accused were two British activists working on organisation of labour in India. The colonial prosecution argued that the ‘head’ of the conspiracy to overthrow the King was no less than the Communist International (Comintern), the Moscow-based organisation coordinating communist parties worldwide. The protests against the trials were also international, best illustrated by the Meerut Sketch — an adaptation of the story of the defendants performed by the London-based Hammer and Sickle group. The sketch was an appeal to anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, and anti-racist groups worldwide to show solidarity with the Meerut prisoners. It connected British imperialist oppression in the Meerut Conspiracy Case to the dire circumstances in the French penal colony, the American chain gangs, and the tyranny of Czarist Russia. It concluded with a collective call to action: “Force the release of the Meerut Prisoners! Comrades, hands across the sea! Comrades, solidarity!” The defence of the Meerut prisoners became a preeminent cause for transnational alliances between anti-imperialists worldwide.
The Meerut conspiracy case is just one of nearly a dozen case studies that Priyamvada Gopal uncovers in her recently published book, Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent. She revisits, revises and revives this episode as a critical ‘flashpoint’ in the history of Indian anticolonialism. In her retelling, the Meerut trials are transformed from a narrative of colonial oppression into one of insurgent resistance and rebellion. It is not only an anti-Empire story, but a strongly anti-capitalist one told from the point of view of colonised, working class subjects. In this one episode, Gopal brings together the diverse threads that undergird this book into one cohesive narrative of rebel agency; of “reverse tutelage” or the colonised educating the coloniser on the absurdity and violence of colonial rule; and of transnational and class solidarities forged in the course of anticolonial resistance. At the forefront of the trial are the articulate and defiant testimonies of the Meerut case accused — many of whom remained relatively anonymous — but who question the charges against them in a way that puts on trial the very system of the British government that had passed judgement on them. The unfairness of their situation sparks solidarity among British dissenters, parliamentarians and intellectuals. But this solidarity is also framed around and informed by the agency of the colonised, as are the transnational support networks formed in the process.
Insurgent Empire is a brilliant and authoritative — if somewhat daunting — archive of dissent, criticism and opposition to the British Empire, and the people involved in it. Gopal’s account spans almost a century of anti-colonial dissent, beginning with the 1857 ‘Mutiny’ in India and making its way to the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya between 1952–1960. Key to her narrative is the way in which these insurgent rebellions help uncover a history of fierce opposition to the Empire, not just in the colonies but within Britain itself. Gopal demonstrates how the 1857 Indian ‘Mutiny’, the Urabi rebellion in Egypt between 1879 and 1882, the Morant Bay rebellion of 1865 and the Meerut trials sparked oppositional tendencies and active dissent not just among white working-class and labour movements, but also eminent jurists, government officials, parliamentarians and sections of the British media — thus shattering many imperial myths and legacies.
The introductory chapter quickly sets the record straight emphasising three interconnected themes that run through the book. First, that freedom was not ‘granted’ to colonised subjects either by the coloniser’s benevolence or a self-corrective system within the imperial project. Freedom from colonial rule was ‘wrested’ by violent acts of insurgency, rather than ‘conceded’ by the coloniser. And in this process of resistance, ideas of what constitutes freedom were constantly contested and renegotiated. Second, these acts of resistance in the colonies were influential in shaping and radicalising British dissent to Empire. This book adds considerable heft to the reversal of the colonial ‘civilising’ discourse, highlighting the flow of education from the colonised to the coloniser. But perhaps the book’s strongest statement is in its third theme — that these resistance movements made possible transnational alliances and networks of solidarity not just between colonised subjects and British dissenters, but also between anti-capitalist and anti-racist movements across the world.
Beyond the familiar
The first part of the book is a historical tour-de-force of anticolonial insurgent movements in India, Egypt and the Caribbean. In an incredibly detailed textual analysis, Gopal draws on news dispatches on anticolonial uprisings, letters and documents of insurgency, accounts by British travellers to the colonies, and books and articles penned by British officials, missionaries, and journalists, as elements which forged critical perspectives on the Empire. This approach offers insight beyond the familiar. Even the retelling of the 1857 Indian Uprising offers much more than the narrative of a military mutiny triggered by religious sentiments hurt by cartridges greased with pig and cow fat. It is told as a story of fierce resistance to structural inequalities of British rule, but also class inequalities perpetuated by Indian capitalists. This resistance becomes the catalyst for British dissidents like lawyer and jurist John Bruce Norton, Chartist leader and poet Ernest Jones, and Positivist Richard Congreve — who had earlier advocated for reforms and better governance — to call for a complete, and in some instances, immediate withdrawal of Britain from India.
What could have been a daunting history lesson comes alive through superb character sketches. Readers are introduced to Wilfrid Blunt, a British diplomat and gentry farmer who ended up in Cairo in 1882 during the British invasion. Originally sent to negotiate with Ahmad Urabi, the leader of the Egyptian uprising, the aristocratic Blunt was at first an unlikely advocate for Egyptian liberty and nationalism. But his Eurocentric liberal preconceptions were turned on their head through his encounters with leaders of the resistance movement and his study of the reformist strands of Islam. Blunt is politicised and radicalised into becoming a ‘forceful’ if ‘accidental’ anti-colonialist and emerges as a powerful campaigner for the Egyptian cause in Britain. His transformation comes not from a misplaced paternalism but from witnessing firsthand the Egyptian insurgency and an unjust British invasion. Equally engrossing is the story of Shapurji Saklatvala, a Parsi from Bombay, who is sent to Britain in his early twenties when his outspoken views against the British attracts the attention of the colonial authorities in India. He later became the third Indian to be elected to the British House of Commons and the only Communist Party MP in 1922. As British imperialist policy in India oscillated between a ‘velvet glove’ and a ‘mailed fist’ in the aftermath of the 1857 uprising, Saklatvala took up the mantle of ‘the member for India’ and became a trenchant critic of the gradual reformism advocated by the then British government. Like Jones and Congreve before him, he insisted on the need for solidarity between the British working class and subjects of the Empire given the entangled histories of colonialism and capitalism. Unlike them, Saklatvala spoke both as ‘one of the conquered and enslaved subject races’ in India and as one ‘representing the interests of his British electors’.
The second half of the book comes alive in its discussions of the networks of transnational activism in Britain, mainly London, in the 1920s and 1930s. In the chapter dedicated to the Meerut conspiracy, Gopal highlights the dialogic character of anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist activism and the depth of political interactions in solidarity organisations. For instance, the accused in the Meerut trial, like journalist Shaukat Usmani and Workers and Peasants Party member Dharni Goswami, did not just criticise the British Empire but also British capitalism. In the words of Usmani, “The sovereignty of the British Empire today belongs to the omnipotent Big Five (banks), who not only forge methods of exploitation in India but are as ruthless in Britain, too. The British working class, which is our ally, is as much their victim as the Colonial peoples.” They identified British finance-capital as the common enemy, rather than the British people. Based on their statements, questions about the length of the trial, its unsound basis, and the treatment of prisoners were routinely raised by many British MPs in parliament. British newspapers, even those which did not align with the far-left politics of the defendants, noted the tenuous nature of the evidence presented on the existence of a conspiracy, and deemed the trial ‘a long-drawn scandal of British justice in India’. Again, this solidarity put the voices of the relatively anonymous accused, that is the agency of the rebels centre stage. It was solidarity based on dialogue with colonised subjects, and not on British paternalism. Furthermore, the League Against Imperialism that arose out of solidarity activism in the aftermath of the Meerut trials centred non-white and non-Europeans in its leadership and membership, again centring the voice of the colonised.
A timely study
This is an important book for many reasons. Gopal makes use of a vast array of established and little known sources — speeches, pamphlets, anthologies and news dispatches on individual rebellions and revolts. She reviews and revises existing readings of these sources to reveal the histories that lie hidden beneath Britain’s enforced amnesia around Empire. This amnesia surfaced in pro-Brexit assertions that Britain had no reason to apologise for its colonial past, likened Brexit to the emancipation of slaves, or conferred on Britain the status of a colony in the European Union. In each case study, Gopal pays attention to speeches, texts, and letters by British dissenters that agitated against the brutal repressions of these rebellions. In doing so, she dispels the myth that there was ever a consensus, even in Britain, on the so-called benevolence of Empire.
The one significant omission in this extensive archival work, as Gopal herself acknowledges in the book, is the absence of the voices of black and Asian women in these resistance movements. In fact, the only two women who appear prominently within these pages — Nancy Cunard and Sylvia Pankhurst — are both white. Gopal attributes this omission to the fact that active contributions of women of colour in anticolonial movements rarely made it into the archives, making the task of recovering their missing voices a painstaking — if not impossible — one. And so, undoing the near invisibility of women of colour in historical records is once again deferred for the future.
Nevertheless, Gopal’s book is a critical and timely intervention on what it means to decolonise, and what the history of anticolonialism can tell us about how to do the work of decolonisation in the present context. It invites us to think about decolonisation as a “sustained unlearning” of “colonial mythologies” aimed at undoing the lethal legacies of empire — the concentration of wealth, income inequality, resource grabbing, and exploitation of cheap labour. The book is therefore in and of itself an important contribution in that work of decolonisation; it changes the way the Empire is written about.
The book also comes amid widely polarised debates on Brexit and pushback against calls to decolonise the curriculum and is an obvious response to them. Gopal herself points out in the acknowledgement that the book was provoked by a BBC interview she was a part of, along with Niall Fergusson, who she describes as the “media face for British imperialism”. She recalls finding herself a largely lone voice in challenging his “bullish assertions about the greatness of Britain’s imperial project and the benevolence of its legacies”. She, along with other scholars, has pointed to an amnesia within Britain of colonialism’s brutal legacies and the return of more sympathetic attitudes to Empire in the wake of Brexit. The 2016 referendum in which the majority of British voters supported leaving the European Union was itself intricately connected to Britain’s colonial amnesia. Nadine El-Enany, a senior lecturer in law at Birkbeck College in London suggests that it was nostalgia for the days of the Empire that motivated Britain’s desire to exit the European Union. This was also evident in the policy attempts made, following the Brexit vote, to strengthen economic ties with the group of Commonwealth nations — a grouping of Britain’s former colonies in which it found itself the first among equals instead of the EU where it was an equal among member states.
Calls from within the UK academia to decolonise the curriculum are up against this nostalgia for the Empire. They are calls for greater representation of non-European thinkers and scholars within the curriculum, but also calls for acknowledgement of the historical context in which knowledge has been produced. This school points to the need for more diverse voices in a curriculum, overwhelmingly dominated by white Western academics. But decolonisation is not only about access to other textbooks and other narratives, but also about reframing the stories inherited through Empire and how to think about them differently. On both fronts, it has received considerable pushback from within UK academia. Its detractors (unfairly and baselessly) reduce it to a call for the removal of white philosophers from reading lists, thus foreclosing the possibility of thinking about alternate narratives.
The reception of Gopal’s book in the UK has to be read against this backdrop. A review of this book was commissioned and then spiked by the London Review of Books with little explanation. This at a time when the UK-based journal has already faced criticism over its lack of representation of women and people of colour. As Gopal points out in a blogpost, the book has also been ignored by the Times and the Telegraph, with the Guardian among the few UK publications to publish a review. There can only be so many ways to read what seems like a deliberate refusal to make space for this critical intervention that tells the story of Empire from the point of view of the former subjects of the Empire. One such reading could see this as a present-day pushback against the reverse pedagogy that Gopal writes about in the book, a reinstatement of British exceptionalism that still takes pride in the British Empire as a benevolent mission. This exceptionalism is challenged by the main argument of Insurgent Empire — that there has always been a tradition of fierce opposition to the imperial project, starting in the colonies but percolating into the very heart of the Empire. This oppositional tradition speaks of the bloody wars waged by the British to suppress resistance and the countless loss of lives across swathes of Africa and Asia. More provocatively, this oppositional tradition tells us that many in Britain who disagreed with the imperial project and stood in solidarity with the colonised subjects. All of which makes this an unwelcome narrative. It is especially unwelcome since it is written by a Southasian academic who hails from one of Britain’s former colonies. The formerly colonised is both the subject and the narrator of this story, thus diluting the one-sided hold of the coloniser on the narrative. Within the current context, therefore, this narrative is a cause for panic.
Notes to the formerly colonised
That said, the decolonial thinking of the book is relevant not just for former colonisers, but also postcolonial nation states. Almost every case study in the book bears critique not just of the coloniser, but also capitalists within the former colonies (seen as British collaborators) and even mainstream nationalist movements, for failing to be inclusive or replicating colonial structures. This is manifested in the descriptions of the attacks on Indian zamindars and moneylenders during the 1857 Indian Uprising. It is also evident in Saklatvala’s public debates with Gandhi, where the British MP is apprehensive of ‘Gandhian restraints’ in not allowing poor peasants, tribals and industrial workers to mobilise in the anticolonial cause. He also criticises Gandhi for his “injurious method of encouraging submission to his own influence”; similar arguments regarding Gandhi’s own paternalism towards the ‘untouchables’ were also made by Ambedkar. The Meerut defendants, in their testimonies repeatedly pointed to mainstream Indian nationalism’s limitations in dealing with Western imperialism, precisely because of its entanglement with capitalism. These testimonies encapsulated a warning that moving from the colonial to the postcolonial, without an effective decolonised thinking, would inevitably risk reproducing colonial structures and systems of oppression and transfer power to an equally oppressive homegrown elite.
That these warnings went unheeded is acutely evident in postcolonial India — a once anticolonial nation, that has repeatedly turned on itself in lethal ways.
Today this is most obvious in the Indian government’s violent oppression of Kashmir: in a state of permanent military occupation since the 1990s, Kashmir has been under a virtual lockdown for more than a 150 days since the Union government, in August 2019, decided to unilaterally strip Jammu and Kashmir of statehood and its special status; putting political leaders under house arrest, banning political assembly in the Kashmir Valley, turning off the internet and stifling the voices of dissent, all without ever consulting its people or political representations. It can be seen in the Supreme Court’s directive to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam that has resulted in selectively and methodically rendering stateless close to two million people in the state, by demanding proof of citizenship from some of the state’s poorest, for whom securing documentation of identity is next to impossible. Undeterred by the trauma and distress that the process caused, the Narendra Modi-government now plans to extend the NRC to the rest of the country. This is made yet more pernicious by the introduction of a new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which has, for the first time in the history of postcolonial India, introduced a religious criterion in the granting of citizenship. The Act will provide asylum to all non-Muslim “persecuted minorities” from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan — effectively Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Christians; by default, those ineligible under the CAA will only be Muslims.
Already, the current government’s militant Hindutva ideology came to a head in the recent Ayodhya verdict delivered by the country’s highest court, paving the way for a Hindu temple to be built on the disputed site where a mosque was demolished by a Hindutva mob in 1992. With the CAA, the ‘othering’ of the Indian Muslim community, particularly the poorest among them, is virtually complete.
India, as Gopal has pointed out elsewhere is in a state of “arrested decolonisation”, repeating the same colonial oppressions that it was itself once subject to. The conversation on decolonisation will, thus, be incomplete if it does not scrutinise postcolonial, militarised nation states which reproduce repressive regimes, structures, and ideologies of colonialism. The archive of dissent and resistance in this book thus serves as a blueprint to think about decolonisation in postcolonial contexts. Through it, we arrive at the questions that need to be asked of domestic or indigenous colonisers, the alliances and solidarity networks that need to be forged and find alternate formulations to the once emancipatory concept of independent nation state which has itself turned into an instrument of oppression.
There is also a broader point that Gopal is making through this extensive archival work — that unearthing and archiving genealogies of dissent and resistance is crucial because it inspires, informs and sustains future dissent and resistance. In this, archival work has transformative potential. It offers us hope for a future solidarity, based on the knowledge of joint struggles and resistances of the past. It bears lessons for present-day decolonial activists trying to resist and forge transnational ally-ship amid imperial legacies and postcolonial oppressions.
This review essay was originally published in Himal Southasian.
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