Sunday, March 28, 2004

American role in India’s freedom struggle
Jaswant Singh

What America Did for India’s Independence
by Col M.N. Gulati (Retd). Manas Publications,
New Delhi. Pages 248. Rs 595.

What America Did for India’s IndependenceTHE cause of India’s fight against the British received support from several countries such as Japan, Germany, France, Italy, the Soviet Union, China and the USA. Some gave moral and political support while some others extended even material aid. This book by an Indian Army officer, who saw active service against the Chinese in 1962 and against Pakistan in 1965, deals with the support that India’s freedom movement received from the USA. While the official US policy followed an uneven course, the US Congress, the media and the public remained steadfast in support of India’s cause.

The end of World War I saw a large number of Punjabi Sikh farmers and ex-soldiers migrate to the USA. The US Government, impressed by the industrious Sikh farmers, encouraged their migration. Today, people of Indian origin constitute 0.3 per cent of the total population of the USA. The pioneer Punjabis also succeeded in getting the American immigration laws changed to enable the Indians and other South Asians to reap the benefits of opportunities in the USA.

However, such interaction between the Americans and Indians was not one-sided. American missionaries started arriving in India in the early 19th century. But they became known for their non-evangelic work. They concerned themselves more with education, healthcare activities and the care of widows. They tried to achieve their evangelic objectives by spreading education and offering healthcare facilities to the deprived population of India. Some of them even condemned the British misrule and supported the nationalist freedom struggle. Some Americans got together in the USA to form Indo-American National Forum to work for self-rule in India and to help Indian students in the USA.

These Protestant missionaries, however, abhorred social ills such as child marriage, the Devdasi system, which they described as ‘temple prostitutes,’ and also the sexually explicit carvings in some ancient Indian temples. This bias was further accentuated by Katherine Mayo who wrote Mother India after a brief visit to some parts of India. This book, which became a bestseller, led to some sweeping generalisations in the American mind, as if every woman in India was maltreated and every man was a sex maniac. Fed on such diet of bias, the American public mind came to regard India, rather the whole of Asia, as the "white man’s burden."

However, visits by eminent Indians such as Swami Vivekanand, Rabindranath Tagore, Lala Lajpat Rai and Jayaprakash Narayan tended to correct the imbalance in American mind and also widened the scope of contacts between India and America.

The book also recalls the Komagata Maru episode, which was an attempt by some Indian ex-soldiers and others to assert their rights. It also records how the Ghadarites, who spread into India from Canada and the USA, failed to ignite an 1857-type uprising in India.

Coming to the days of World War II, the book recalls that although the USA maintained an anti-colonial and anti-imperialistic policy, the British persisted with their mindset of empire builders. They resisted any attempt to loosen their grip over the colonies. In the House of Commons, Churchill’s oratory carried the day but American reaction to his harangue was that of dismay.

The US administration was not prepared to support the British colonial rule over India for all times. The pressure of US opinion, the anti-imperialist stand of the Soviet Union, and Chinese support for the cause of India’s freedom (China was then ruled by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek) and the course of the war finally forced the Viceroy, Lord Wavell, and the Secretary of State, L.S. Amery, to agree in principle that transfer of power to India was ‘sine qua non’ at the end of the war. Churchill had to announce the visit of Cripps Mission to find a solution to the political deadlock in India.

However, he remained firm in his belief that he had not become the First Minister of His Majesty’s Government to preside over the liquidation of the empire. These and several other aspects of the American approach to India’s freedom since the days of the East India Company to the end of World War II have been discussed with a researcher’s concern for historical perspective.

With a good amount of material already available on the subject, it could have been called one more attempt to analyse American contribution to India’s freedom. But the way Col. Gulati has succeeded in relating the happenings in India to international trends and events makes the work different from the earlier attempts.