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Keir Hardie Knew the Ills of British Rule in India

Famed for his commitment to socialism and the founding of the Labour Party, Keir Hardie was also a vehement critic of the British Crown in India.

19 November, 2021

Illustration by Zeyd Anwar; New Politic

This article is part of Project Empire, an editorial series designed to explore the history of the British Empire. See the full collection here »

The following is an extract from Insurgent Empire, a book on the British Empire which explores resistance to British rule. The book can be bought here.

In November 1907, Aurobindo Ghose wrote a piece that began in characteristically implacable fashion, noting that, while quite happy to hear tales about Russian tyranny, “Englishmen were utterly impervious to hearing home truths about England’s dominion in hindusthan.” There were, he believed, a few exceptions to this rule, “some truly noble men who hold humanity far higher than Imperialism”, but who are either refused a hearing or “contemptuously ignored” in the councils of the Empire. Yet one voice now had the “ear of the civilised world”, breaking through the unspoken moratorium: that of the Labour politician James Keir Hardie. He was, therefore, received with Anglo-Indian dismay:

“The hasty, hideous, indecent, savage yell that has been raised by the whole of the English Press against Mr Keir Hardie because he has dared to tell the truth about the present situation in this country is a striking confirmation of what we have said above…They are bursting with rage because their long and unscrupulously kept-up fiction of a just and benevolent Indian rule has been exposed in all its ugliness at last by one who happens to be an Englishman (oh the sting of it!) and an Englishman of power and prestige too, who easily has the ear of the civilised world.”

Aurbindo was referring to the stir caused in Britain by statements made by Hardie, the working-class Scot who was one of the founders of the Labour Party, in the wake of his visit to India in 1907; the Times reported him as ‘Fostering Indian Sedition”. Long associated with a small group of more radical voices on India in parliament, Hardie had already garnered some notoriety for his views on India. In July 1906, coached by the visiting Congress leader, G.K. Gokhale, Hardie had made a speech in the House of Commons attacking conditions in the Raj, from the rising death rate to low wages in textile factories and the exclusion of Indians in administrative posts. 

When he finally visited India in 1907, the Labour leader toured Bengal under the guidance of Tilak and other Swadeshi campaigners, giving supportive speeches to their followers. One biographer notes: “Exactly what he said in his speeches was subject of fierce dispute; but there is little doubt that he gave every encouragement to the Congress’s movement’s campaign for Indian home rule.” Hardie was blamed for the outbreak of riots, and there were calls for him to be deported, leading Vladimir Lenin to comment happily that “the whole of the English bourgeois press raised a howl against the ‘rebel’”. It is this uproar that Aurobindo finds vindication for his own uncompromising stance against mendicancy, noting that the attempts to drown out Hardie’s “disengaged” voice makes clear that “England will not give us anything unless we can force her to her knees, this is the only moral to which the present outrageous clamour of the English press points.”

Based on articles he wrote for the Independent Labour Party’s paper, the Labour Leader, Keir Hardie published a volume entitled India: Impressions and Suggestions, which, despite its indeed impressionistic mode, embodies some of the shifts and tensions I am talking about here. Though a socialist, this Labour Party pioneer was not — as indeed most British socialists at the turn of the century were not — a natural born critic of the British imperial project. India: Impressions and Suggestions moved symptomatically between a deep-seated paternalism which urges liberal treatment of colonial subjects in the interest of empire, vouching repeatedly for their loyalty, and a more sombre sense that the disaffection with imperial rule is deep-rooted enough to warrant greater convulsions. Published jointly by the ILP and the Home Rule for India League, the book was influential, one of Hardie’s biographers notes, making “a considerable impact” and playing “a major role in educating British liberal opinion on Indian affairs.” 

Contradicting the colonial claim that only the educated Indian middle-classes were challenging the Empire, Hardie quickly came to the conclusion that resistance was not confined to any particular class or community, and that there was in fact a widespread dissatisfaction with British rule underlying the boycott movement. “Everything in India is seditious”, he noted accurately, “which does not slavishly applaud every act of the Government.” The extent of agitation also becomes clear through the depth of repression. Publishers were convicted of sedition for merely noting that Europeans who murdered Indians were given very slight sentences, and the likes of Lajpat Rai, the “agitator who voiced the grievances of the heavily-burdened peasants”, deported without trial to Burma. In this siege like context, “The Swadeshi movement grows and spreads on every hand.”

If Hardie also propagated the familiar colonial claim that Indians were largely loyal to the Empire — it remains unclear what he based it on, unless he was deliberately misled by the Swadeshi activists who guided him through his travels — the agitation he witnessed was serious enough for him to understand the situation in terms of the breaking of “limits even to Hindu endurance” among the “loyal, patient and long-suffering”. (We might recall here Douglass’s famous assertion that the limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress). A great deal of Hardie’s narrative is take up with registering what he had perhaps not anticipated: the beath of “resentment, deep and bitter, against the partition.” 

Criticising the familiar colonial canard that only the anglicized “Babu” was involved in agitation, Hardie points to the long-suffering tenant farmers or ryots who had been agitating against unfair revenue settlements and taxes and the conscription of labour. Although Hardie ostensibly offers his suggestions towards India being pacified and kept loyal to the Raj, a great deal of his narrative is in fact devoted to showing “that the condition of the Indian peasant has worsened” under British rule, and that, despite being “slow to anger”, the rural poor have been agitating against their conditions. Travelling in India — from Bengal and Madras to Bombay, Poona, Delhi and the Punjab — and witnessing disaffection at first hand brought Hardie to the realization that the situation had little to do with individual colonial administrators or their goodwill, which he never doubts. It was “the system now at work”, which had produced grinding conditions “Everywhere these kindly, simple people are full of discontent; they find themselves in the grip of a set of circumstances which they do not understand and which they cannot break through.” 

Scandalously, for colonial bureaucrats, “the people of India are but so many seeds in an oil mill, to be crushed for the oil they yield.” As Jonathan Hyslop notes, Hardie’s early Christianity had sown in him a “profound moral commitment to a sense of human equality” which underlay his ethical socialism, but it is clear from his narrative that the scale of both suffering and resistance in the Raj was not something he had reckoned with. Like Blunt some years earlier, Hardie avers that the answer to the “gathering storm of unrest” must lie in self-government — “the solvent to which we must look for dissolving a difficulty rapidly becoming unbearable.”

In the final analysis, Hardie’s narrative does not resolve the tension between insisting that India and Indians (Hindus in particular) have “no higher ambition in life than to live loyal under the British flag” and, given the wider context of insurgency in Asia, worrying that “if unrest spreads throughout India a conflagration may one day break out in China, Japan, or even nearer home, which will set India ablaze and burn up the last vestige of British rule.” In other words, although the idea of a full and immediate break for India from the British Empire eluded him, as it did other metropolitan critics of the empire, it certainly took the form of a violent possibility.

Hardie ends his narrative with a clear sense that there can be “no real pacification, no allaying of discontent”, failing some effective form of self-government, and it was this partisan conclusion to his dispatches in India that had Punch satirizing Hardie wearing a Scottish miner’s suit and waving a firebrand labelled “sedition”. In the wake of Hardie’s visit, one biographer avers, “public attention had been focussed on the question of government of India as it had never been since the days of the Mutiny.” In this limited and somewhat muddled way, Hardie also brought into the frame the question of India’s long history of achievement — indeed, its “historical precedence over Western civilization”. 

This, despite some patently absurd “racial nonsense” on shared Aryan heritage, did “put him firmly at odds with the emphasis on Indian incapacity which permeated contemporary British political discourse.” Those who followed him so India, like Nevinson and McDonald, would pick up the question of India’s capacity for ruling itself, identifying the cultural resources the nation-in-waiting could draw on to do so.


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