The British Empire Library

Imperial Violence and the Path to Independence: India, Ireland and the Crisis of Empire

by Shereen Ilahi

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
The theme of British government in Ireland as a template for British policy and governance in India has long been recognised. British theories of the origin and principle of land tenure and property rights in the 19"' century were commonly based on supposed similarities between the 'peasant economies' of India and Ireland. Measures of land reform in both Ireland and India drew on the parallels. Scholarly studies have focussed on the links between Irish and Indian radicals. Bengali revolutionaries have been compared to the Irish revolutionary nationalist movements of the IRA and Sinn Fein. Erskine Childers, president of Ireland in the 1970s had 20 years earlier identified an influence of Irish nationalism on India's freedom movement. His more famous father, the writer and radical nationalist - also Erskine Childers - had been executed for possessing an illegal weapon, not, incidentally by the British but in the Irish civil war that followed the establishment of the Irish Free State. The Indian-Irish Independence League, formed in 1932, set out to promote the independence of both countries through a boycott of British goods and a propaganda campaign. In drawing up India's post-independence Constitution of 1950 some provisions were based on the 1937 Irish Constitution. More whimsically it was not the Bengalis or other Indian nationalities but the Burmese who used to be known as 'the Irish of the East', on the stereotypical and in modern terms perhaps 'racist' grounds that both peoples were supposed to be influenced more by sentiment than reason. No one was offended by the comparison, certainly not the Burmese.

Shereen llahi's deeply researched and excellently written study of the British use of armed force and collective punishment in the face of revolutionary extremism is anything but whimsical. She takes two key events, one in India and one in Ireland, where British troops used what today is almost universally acknowledged as excessive force to establish order in the face of a real or imagined threat. Both of them provoked liberal and nationalist outrage and vocal conservative support at the time, and this book recalls vividly the stormy debates that they caused in England, Ireland and India. The Jallianwala Bagh shootings in Amritsar in 1919 radicalised much Indian opinion at the time. In Ireland in the first of the notorious Irish 'Bloody Sundays' at least 16 people were killed in a crowd at a Gaelic football match at Croke Park outside Dublin in November 1920. Although the casualties did not approach the 400 or more killed in Jallianwala Bagh, the Croke Park incident had a similar effect of galvanising political protest and opinion against the use of armed force - or 'violence' - to quell or suppress political protest. This with the second 'so called Bloody Sunday' in 1972 came to figure so large in Irish nationalist memory and civil rights protest through the 20"' century.

Shereen Ilahi does not argue that in either country these were unique events nor does she adopt the position that all state force should be characterised as violence. She thinks British imperial violence was not as bad as German, French or Japanese. But she argues that these two incidents did more than any other to undermine the British belief, or as she puts it the 'myth', of benevolent British intentions, and the feasibility of a peaceful path towards independence. The reaction to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, the controversy that surrounded General Dyer's motives and personality, the contested verdict of the Hunter Commission which reported on the incident, had shown the weakness of attempts to put the blame on a single commanding officer rather than (as Dr Ilahi argues), the inherent violence of the imperial system. She argues that Punjab was not on the brink of a general uprising, as some supporters of General Dyer had argued. The general revulsion against the massacre weakened Britain's moral case for maintaining its rule in India.

In the case of Croke Park the shooting looked suspiciously like an act of reprisal, following as it did immediately on a spectacularly successful operation masterminded by the IRA leader Michael Collins in assassinating a dozen British intelligence agents. There was no doubt that the IRA were a violent and effective opponent of the British state.

But the longer term lesson was that trying to suppress a nationalist movement by force was counter-productive. This book's account of the press and parliamentary debates illustrates the dilemmas which were recognised and argued at the time. Today there are few people who would wish to turn back the clock on Irish freedom or Indian independence though there may be many legitimate regrets about how they came about. They are the same dilemmas for countries which face a terrorist threat today. But was this really the 'crisis of imperialism' as Dr Ilahi maintains?

State violence continued in the Irish civil war after the 1922 Treaty with even greater casualties than when the Irish police, the British army, or the hated British auxiliaries - the Black and Tans were the enemy. In sovereign India in 1984 the storming of the Golden Temple in the face of a real Punjabi Sikh armed insurgency was as violent as any act of British imperial power, but deemed necessary for the protection of the state. In India and Ireland a common feeling of having been victims of British imperialism today probably arises more from the shared trauma of partition than a shared radical ideology. It is noteworthy that Mahatma Gandhi did not think that Ireland was a useful model for India's struggle for independence. When Sinn Fein adopted violent methods Gandhi rejected them as an example for India's freedom movement to follow. But it is a great merit of this book that Dr Ilahi does not require us to believe in villains and heroes. The debates on how much force, or violence to use in combatting acts of armed resistance remain lively and relevant today.

British Empire Book
Shereen Ilahi
First Published
Review Originally Published
Spring 2017 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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