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.