Decades before the Federation of Indian Associations was formed, there was a group of influencers from India and the U.S. which could informally be called “The India Lobby.” A bunch of charismatic Indian leaders living in the U.S. and Americans sympathetic to the cause, waged a battle on American soil, inside the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration and outside it in the critical years before 1947, when a deeply divided India was born to independence Aug. 15.
The history of these few years of remarkable political activism by Indian leaders demanding citizenship rights but also lobbying for India’s independence in Washington, display the courage and confidence of Indians abroad, particularly in the United States, on behalf of their motherland.
Before embarking on the individuals who played a part, one cannot forget the role of the Ghadar Party, formed in November 1913, in San Francisco, by Indian “revolutionaries” for a free India, including Sikhs, Hindus and other Indian ethnic groups. Its flagship paper, Ghadar, in its first issue, declared, In its inaugural issue, the paper boldly declared that, “today there begins in foreign lands, but in our country’s language, a war against the English Raj . . . What is our name? Ghadar. What is our work? Ghadar, Our name and our work are identical.” Worth reading is a May 8 article this year in the South Asian American Digital Archive (saama.org), Professor Seema Sohi of the University of Colorade, Boulder, tracks the expansion of the Ghadar Party into “dozens” of branches across the world, and the circulation of its publication in Gurmukhi and Urdu to India, China, Japan, Manila, Sumatra, Fiji, Java, Singapore, Egypt, Paris, South Africa, British East Africa, and Panama.
Later research also revealed how Americans fell afoul of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s intransigence so far as allowing an independent India.
Among these is a little known junior State Department official Robert Crane, whose name was revealed only in 2008, who leaked the devastating memos from then U.S. envoy to India, Ambassador William Phillips, to President Roosevelt, criticizing British policy in India. Professor Emeritus of University of Virginia, Harold Gould, named Crane the “Deep Throat,” who sped up the process for independence by leaking the memos to journalist Drew Pearson.
All this makes for the colorful and detailed account in Professor Gould’s 2008 book, “Sikhs, Swamis, Students, And Spies: The India Lobby in the United States 1900-1946.”
“The British insisted that the Indians show a willingness and ability to get together, yet they are holding incommunicado the Indian leaders, Gandhi and Nehru, the two spokesmen of the All-India Congress Party, the most important political part in the country,” Phillips said in a memo in 1943, quoted in Gould’s book. “The news from India as read in England, gave the impression that no agreement was possible between Hindus and Muslims. Yet it was the British themselves who were permitting the impasse to continue rather than using their good offices to bring the opposing parties together, “Phillips added, having speedily grasped the situation on the ground, including the economic exploitation of India.
Numerous Phillips’ memos bring to light the hope that Indians placed in U.S.A.’s own independence struggle to mean something for them. While Roosevelt did not budge from his support for Britain’s policy in India, the memos leaked by Crane to Pearson, further drove the nail of India’s independence into the ground.
A 2002 article in the Economic and Political Weekly “Mahatma Gandhi’s Dialogues With Americans,” by Professor Leonard A. Gordon of the City University of New York, speaks of the influence Gandhi had on Western intellectuals and the civil rights movement.
Though he never visited the U.S., Gandhi’s “numerous” interactions with Americans helped strengthen the pro-Indian independence base being built up here by other Indians. “They were dialogues which involved a range of important subjects including the universal viability of non-violent resistance, religion/ religions and the question of conversion, the use of modern technology in India, the nature of the relation between India and the West, fascism, birth control, prohibition, and comparisons between the plight of Afro- Americans in the United States and the oppression of the untouchables in India,” Gordon says in his EPW piece and in an interview with Desi Talk.
Gordon is a historian of South Asia who has written several books, including “Brothers Against the Raj” about Subhash and Sarat Chandra Bose, “Bengal: The Nationalist Movement 1897-1940,” and even “A Syllabus of Indian Civilization.” He is also the director of the Taraknath Das Foundation in the U.S.
In his upcoming book on India-U.S. relations from the 1900s to the present, of which he has already written some 600 pages, Gordon told Desi Talk, he speaks of the several organizations being formed and then dying off and being revived to fight for India’s independence in the years before 1947.
“There were a dozen or so Indians active here for India’s independence, Gorton said in an extensive interview with Desi Talk. They included the likes of Haridas Majumdar, Krishnalal Shridharani, the youngest person to join Gandhi’s Salt March, and according to Gordon, writing an early definitive work on Gandhi, his Ph.D. thesis at Columbia University; J.J. Singh, an entrepreneur who reinvigorated The India League in America; and Anup Singh, a political activist, who was a friend of Gordon’s advisor at Harvard.
Others included Kumar Goshal, who came to the U.S. to become an actor and even performed on Broadway, but later became a journalist; Taraknath Das, fiery leader of the early 1900s, involved in the “Hindu Conspiracy Case” and imprisoned in 1917 for allegedly trying to send arms to India; Syed Hossain, who had a colorful history with Vijayalakshmi Pandit, sister of Jawaharlal Nehru, who came to the U.S. and was “very effective” in drumming up support for India’s independence in speaking around the country, including at the San Francisco conference on the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, as part of the “alternative delegation,” Gordon recounted.
The earlier organization, “Friends of India’s Freedom” started by Lajpat Rai (later Lala Lajpat Rai) with American supporters during World War I, made “good contacts” as they agitated for Indian self-rule. Others tried forming similar organizations but they did not last long, Gordon says.
Apart from Pandit and Rai, other effective advocates from India included Sarojini Naidu, and Vithalbhai Patel (Sardar Vallabhai Patel’s brother), and numerous others, who made critical contacts in the U.S. to further the goal of independence.
American fellow-activists sympathetic to India, such as Mary Keating, Das’s wife, both of whom since World War 1, gave scholarships to needy Indian students coming to America; and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who invited Pandit to the White House, as well as author Pearl S. Buck and her husband Richard Walsh, Frances Gunther, Paul and Eslanda Robeson were also active for India’s freedom.
There was Clare Boothe Luce, later ambassador to Italy, (wife of Time magazine publisher Henry Luce), who fought alongside the Indian lobbyists to make the 1946 law granting Indians the right to U.S. citizenship a reality; and Emmanuel Celler, a Congressman from Brooklyn who served in Congress for 50 years from 1923 to 1973, who was also instrumental in bringing in the citizenship law favorable to Indians.
Gordon names others joining the voices for India’s independence, including Roger Baldwin, A.J. Muste, Robert Morss Lovett, John Haynes Holmes, Will Durant, J.T. Sunderland, and some British and American Quakers, the list being too long to name each one, and the danger lying in missing some important ones.
“The Indians here were focused on three things – India’s independence, citizenship for Indians in the U.S., and supporting Indian students,” Gordon told Desi Talk.
Gandhi meanwhile, had made deep impressions upon the American mind. “Showing that satyagraha had a great potentiality, he helped to awaken some of the best in American traditions, and by his explicit connection to Christ and Thoreau, he made some Americans feel that these teachings were not so foreign,” Gordon says in a January 2002 article in the Indian publication, Economic and Political Weekly. Gandhi, Gordon says, “enlisted as his allies in the quest for positive public opinion all kinds of supporters both Indian and foreign, some American, in India and abroad, who would help him in this task.”