Tribune and the Struggle for India’s Freedom

In its early years, Tribune offered a rare platform for those making the case for Indian independence in the British press – and featured a regular column from anti-colonial leader Jawaharlal Nehru.

Labour, which is anti-Fascist, must also equally be anti-Imperialist. It must stand for the ending of empire. It must clearly declare for the Independence of India.

Jawaharlal Nehru, anti-colonial leader and future president of the Indian Republic, made a visit to Britain in 1938 at a moment of palpable international crisis. During this visit he contributed an article to a fledgling left-wing publication which, he felt, shared his perspective on world affairs.

Founded the previous year to support the Unity Campaign for an anti-fascist uni-ted front between the Labour Party, ILP, and Communist Party, Tribune’s international coverage at this juncture was oriented around an anti-fascist politics which was understood to involve opposition to imperialism and support for anti-colonial movements. Throughout these early years, and the world war that followed, Tribune’s commentary on colonialism in India emphasised the moral and practical urgency of self-determination not just for the sake of the Indian people but as part of a global struggle for democracy and against fascism.

Tribune’s support for Indian independence was galvanised by the engagement of many of its writers with the representatives of Indian anti-colonialism in Britain at the time. The India League, working to champion the cause of independence among progressives in the imperial heartland, organised closely with the British anti-colonial left including several of Tribune’s contributors, with its secretary V. K. Krishna Menon regularly featuring in the magazine.

The League also acted as a link for Tribune with representatives of the Indian National Congress, hosting Nehru during his visits to Britain. Through these connections Tribune served as a vehicle for discussion between Indian radicals and the British left at a time when relatively few existed. The magazine featured various perspectives on Indian politics, but generally aligned itself with the Congress Socialist Party and wider left, supporting the call for an independent, united, secular, and socialist India.

Fascism and Imperialism

Through the fevered final years before 1939, Tribune’s editors took an increasingly internationalist focus. They devoted extensive coverage to events in Spain and Czechoslovakia, as key European front lines in the anti-fascist struggle, but also turned their attention to China and India as growing forces in the emerging anti-colonial world.

The paper reported on India’s 1937 provincial elections, and the mass strikes and hunger marches throughout the ensuing constitutional crisis, describing the initial boycott of office by Congress after its electoral victories as a position for which it ‘has a right to expect the backing of the British Labour Party’. This exposition of Congress’ politics and support, framed by Menon and others as a mass struggle against British imperialism, was complemented by Tribune’s coverage of state repression in the Raj.

A discourse around ‘colonial fascism’, influenced by the writings of Pan-Africanist journalist (and frequent Tribune contributor) George Padmore, appeared on the British anti-colonial left throughout these years. It rejected the distinction between the repressive methods of ‘fascist’ and ‘democratic’ imperial powers with regard to their subjugated populations, often characterising colonial rule, including that of Britain in India, as commensurate to, or simply constitutive of, fascist tyranny.

In fact, Tribune’s coverage of the treatment of political prisoners in India referred to ‘British Fascism at Work’ and ‘Nazi Methods’. An address by Nehru to a mass meeting in London, reproduced in Tribune, represented a clear distillation of this register: ‘You are deeply shocked by Fascism … you are fighting Fascism; but Fascism is near akin to imperialism. Unless you are also condemning imperialism by words and action there is not much use condemning Fascism.’

Condemnations of British rule in India continued in Tribune during the war, depicting Britain’s denial of Indian self-determination as part of the complex of unfreedom that a world democratic mobilisation should sweep away. Harold Laski, foreseeing the ‘repression’ that would be visited upon the Congress leaders for their civil disobedience campaign, contended that until Britain acceded to their call for Indian self-determination its presence there would be representative of ‘what we are fighting against in Europe’.

While Britain denied freedom to India, he contended, its war on the home front amounted to a fight ‘against a German-Italian attempt to impose Imperialism of the kind we practice in India upon Europe.’ Two months following, Reginald Sorensen, chairman of the India League, condemned Nehru’s imprisonment in the intervening months and its justification by Leo Amery, secretary of state for India, as an ‘emulation’ of the ‘practice’ of the ‘Nazi government of Germany’. Even George Orwell, far from uncritical of Indian nationalism in his wartime Tribune contributions, observed that ‘quite manifestly the battle against Amery and the battle against Hitler are the same.’

India and the Second World War

As Nehru made clear in Tribune, the struggle against fascism could only be truly democratic if it meant liberating colonised peoples; a choice between democratic and non-democratic systems in the imperial countries themselves was not enough. ‘India wants freedom and security and peace, and believes in a system of collective security … collective security cannot be based on imperialism. The two are incompatible, as democracy and imperialism are incompatible.’

Praising the example of the Spanish Republicans, Nehru argued that fascism ‘can only be checked by encouraging democracy everywhere and placing our reliance on it.’ Freedom for the colonised was not merely a moral imperative, but a practical one. ‘To combat fascism only a free and democratic India can help democracy elsewhere,’ he wrote, ‘a subject India dominated by imperialism will be a burden which ever grows heavier and thus weakens the democratic front.’

As the Second World War progressed, British government intransigence to independence demands led to a deepening of the anti-colonial struggle. Congress’ policy of civil disobedience, for which its leadership faced imprisonment, followed the collapse of talks with the imperial administration over the extent of present and post-war concessions to self-government.

Tribune’s wartime India coverage featured several perspectives on this breakdown in negotiations, with some including pro-independence Indian writers Ranjee Shahani and Mulk Raj Anand voicing criticisms of Gandhi and the ‘Quit India’ movement with which he was associated. The strongest criticism of Congress to appear in Tribune, printed upon the author’s request after the magazine had published a strong rebuke to its contentions by the Bengali poet Rabindrath Tagore, was the social reformer Eleanor Rathbone’s ‘Open Letter to Indians’.

Rathbone condemned the Indian national movement for ‘hating yet aiding Hitler’, likening the Congress leadership to ‘the Men of Vichy’ and castigating their non-cooperation with Britain as ingratitude after their having ‘drunk deeply at the wells of English thought’. Most Tribune writers, however, maintained an assuredly anti-colonial politics.

The magazine did not share Rathbone’s view that it was Congress, rather than the British government, that was at fault for the impasse. The antipathy of British statesmen to Indian self-determination featured heavily in most analyses of the deadlock — Raymond Postgate as editor described Churchill as ‘a grand bigot on India’ and expressed ‘no doubt that our dismal record there is down to him.’

Freedom Now

With the defeats inflicted upon the British colonial presence in Asia by fascist-allied Japan, the resolution of this disjuncture between Indian nationalism and the Allied war effort attained new urgency in Tribune’s coverage. Emblematic of this fissure was the siding of Subhas Chandra Bose, who as Congress president had written for Tribune in 1938, with the Axis powers against Britain as head of the Japanese-allied Indian National Army.

The willingness of Bose and his supporters to align with fascist imperialism against Britain in Asia was referenced in Orwell’s ‘Letter to an Indian’ , published in 1943, criticising the Indian national movement while maintaining that British ‘domination in India is indefensible.’ Other interventions stressed the necessity of intercepting Japanese influence upon the Indian people through incentivising support for the Allies. To keep the ‘subject races’ of Asia from supporting the Japanese against a prospective British restoration of the colonial ‘status quo ante bellum’, Padmore wrote, it was necessary to mobilise them behind the Allied cause with the promise of ‘what they most desire — Freedom Now.’

This was also the argument of Laski’s ‘India Must Be Given Freedom’, published three years earlier. It called for India to be made a ‘willing partner’ in the war through the establishment of a democratically-accountable ‘All-India Cabinet’ tasked with preparing a constitutional convention for an independent India upon victory. That sentiment was echoed in Tribune across succeeding years, including by critics of Quit India. K. S. Shelvankar, contending that the Indian people would not support a war for a democratic Atlantic Charter which would ‘not apply to them’, extolled the need for a national government pledged to post-war independence which could ‘rally the masses’ behind the Allied cause.

Feeling that the ‘political situation in India’, had become ‘highly dangerous’ for the ‘success’ of the war against fascism, Aneurin Bevan also voiced his support for this position, saying that Congress ‘regards the independence of India as a necessary precondition to the successful organisation of defence, and who will say that Congress is not the best judge on such a matter?’ For Tribune throughout the war years, the view prevailed that ‘India can still be saved for the cause of the United Nations, but not for the British Empire.’

Notable in Tribune’s India commentary throughout this conjuncture was its reporting on the devastating famine that struck the region of Bengal during the war. Featuring an article by Charles Andrew Gladding in July 1943 on India’s ‘great agri-cultural crisis’, Tribune, claimed another contributor on the famine that October, ‘was the first British journal … to publish a full and reliable eye-witness account of the Indian food crisis.’

Many explanations of the precise origins of the mass starvation appeared in Tribune, emphasising various factors, but all were in consensus with the conclusions of one contributor that ‘the present famine in India is artificial’ and represented ‘a damning indictment of British rule in India.’ The famine’s enormous mortality was linked to the negligence of the colonial government towards its Indian subjects, with London’s unwillingness to ‘release Gandhi and Nehru and to enrol them for the gigantic task of coping with the famine consequences’ coming in for particular criticism.

After the War

Ultimately, British rule in India held on to the war’s end. However, with the popular uprisings which overturned Axis occupations across the world, the relationship between the defeat of fascism and the cause of Indian freedom remained one of which Tribune was convinced. A letter by Shridar Telkar to the viceroy Lord Wavell condemning Britain’s record in India, published in the week of the deaths of Mussolini and Hitler, concluded with a prediction of how India would feature within the contemporary global moment of liberation:

We, on our part, are not pessimistic. Every-where in the world vast forces of resurgent masses are on the move. In the ricefields of India and China the peasants are awake and no longer contended with being beasts of burden. Yesterday’s dictators, who have made whole nations tremble at their feet, have been thrown into the dustbins of history. India, too, will be free.

Tribune recognised the end of British rule in the Indian subcontinent when it came two years later as a world-historic moment. The paper’s coverage was not blind to the problems that resulted from the form independence had taken, reporting on the inter-communal and inter-state violence that followed in the wake of Partition  — with the split of the Socialists from Congress indicative of the tensions around economic and communal questions within Indian politics.

And yet, Tribune’s commentary on the subcontinent remained broadly optimistic. The magazine had long situated its support of Indian independence within a wider universal struggle for freedom. Marking the first anniversary of independence, the writer D. V. Tamhankar recounted the complexities of the past year — achievements cast alongside horrors — but also expressed certainty in the significance of India’s independence: ‘By her victory over imperialist rulers India has made herself the torch-bearer of freedom for the enslaved millions of Asia and Africa. She has set them on the march to freedom.’