Durba Ghosh. Gentlemanly Terrorists: Political Violence and the Colonial State in India, 1919–1947. Cambridge University Press, 2017
Reviewed by Disha Doshi, Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, Symbiosis International (Deemed University)
Discussion on the Indian freedom struggle is typically prefaced with Gandhi’s philosophy of Ahimsa. That the Indian National Congress led India’s struggle for independence under the guidance of Mahatma Gandhi and his ideals of non-violence, has become the conventional narrative of the Indian freedom movement. However, what is less commonly referred to or discussed are the non-Gandhian protests which were violent upsurges against British Imperialism. Ghosh’s (2017) book, Gentlemanly Terrorists: Political Violence and the Colonial State in India, 1919–1947, is a part of the recently emerging theme of placing terrorism within and as a part of India’s journey to independence. The text highlights those anti-colonial insurgent movements, categorised as “terrorist,” “revolutionary,” or “militant”, which reshaped the politics and laws of late anti-colonial nationalism in India (Ghosh, 2017, p. 10).
Revolutionary terrorism was vital to the understanding of the Indian nationalist movement because the transfer of legislative power to Indians by the British happened “alongside and in relation to, the enactment of a series of repressive laws designed to contain the threat posed by the ideals and acts of revolutionary terrorists” (Streets-Salter, 2018, p. 1). Ghosh’s book is significant because it makes the connection between the introduction of liberal policies for Indian people and a set of repressive laws such as the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act of 1919, better known as the Rowlatt Act, which is an understudied association in the Indian freedom narrative. The Indian revolutionaries –the dacoits–were instrumental to the Gandhian movement because an apparent dialectic emerged against the British: the violent and the non-violent fight for independence. As mentioned, the violent struggle resulted directly in the introduction of repressive laws. These laws led to the imprisonment of revolutionaries who called for a better body of legislation that was more liberal in nature. While the routinely accepted trajectory of the freedom movement is the linear one of Gandhi and the Congress, Ghosh (2017) claims that even though these revolutionaries were a small part of the movement and essentially failed in their mission, their role in the development of Gandhi’s popularity and the British’s responses to India was immensely significant.
The book begins with an explanation of its perplexing title. The most compelling argument of the work comes from the title itself — Gentlemanly terrorists or Bhadralok Dacoity. The Bhadralok were the most elite and educated upper-caste men, who were products of the early colonial period and claimed to have pioneered the Bengal Renaissance (Acharya, 1995). They were a class envisioned by the British to reflect their tastes, morals and ideas and act as the bridge between the savage, uneducated Indians and the civil, educated, superior British. It is important to note that while dacoity strictly translates to banditry, it is, of course, the mistranslations of British officials who translated the term to mean terrorists that Ghosh is referring to. Ghosh argues that based on the various historical accounts written by the British and Indians, the educated Bengali bhadralok embraced political violence “inspired by the readings of American and French revolutions,” the Irish struggle and the unification of Italy (Ghosh, 2017, p. 4). The book commences with the post-war reforms of 1919, with a detailed analysis of the Rowlatt report, which “mobilised the history of terrorism in Bengal as a way to advocate for the extension of security laws across India” (Ghosh, 2017, p. 38). Ghosh argues that British officials used their vast archives to rationalise the introduction of the expansive body of repressive legislation and more importantly, to continually justify the imperialist presence in India. In Bengal, revolutionaries engaged in violent attacks against the British to such an extent that the British moved their focus towards Delhi. Therefore, Ghosh insists that violence and terrorism became a permanent characteristic of state politics. In the process, the Rowlatt report – which incited widespread protests led by Gandhi – overtly characterised the violent resistance to the imperialist rule as a “disruption that threatened the progress of liberal constitutional reforms and British withdrawal” (Ghosh, 2017, p. 21), leading to the introduction of more repressive legislation. These rationalisations were intended to protect the process of constitutional reform. However, their underlying purpose was to recruit Indians of moderate political views into supporting the British government’s presence in India.
Next, Ghosh traces the history of revolutionary terrorism to autobiographies, memoirs and accounts of well-known revolutionaries, who grew in number and popularity in the 1920s. As Gandhi’s non-violent struggle took off, an alternative thread of nationalist thought developed with the goal to oust the British immediately. Ghosh analyses three texts written by Upendra Nath Banerji, Barin Ghosh, and Ullaskar Dutta, which were released soon after they were freed from prison, and the memoir of Trailokya Nath Chakrabarty with Bhupen Dutta’s accounts. These accounts added to the larger political discourse of a different idea of India. But, while it was true that these men were convicted on some violent criminal charge, they did not imagine a violent India. Such violent means were necessary means to overthrow the imperial government, after which it (the violence) had to be cleansed from Indian society. Subsequently, Ghosh traces the evolution of the repressive legislation throughout the important events of the 1920s and 1930s because despite the government’s claims that these laws were “limited in time and scope, the repressive laws multiplied, as did the number of detainees and camps built to detain them” (Ghosh, 2017, p. 177). The Government of India Act of 1935 was celebrated as a remarkable step towards a responsible constitutional government for India as provincial autonomy was provided. But despite the deplorable conditions of prisoners and detainees in detention camps, which became Britain’s most effective way to curb revolutionary terrorism (or so they thought), Indians who opposed repressive legislations did little to curb them, instead adopting some of these repressive legislative tactics of the British. As mentioned, while the primary wave of revolutionary literature came in the 1920s, there was a resurgence of this style of work in the late 1940s. Some of these works include the post-colonial accounts of Bina Das, Kalpana Dutta, Kamala Dasgupta and Trailokya Nath Chakrabarty. The role of these memoirs, autobiographies and accounts was to “broadcast the importance of those who had largely been living underground or behind bars for much of the interwar period” (Ghosh, 2017, p. 243) and challenge the government-endorsed narrative that the Indian freedom struggle was the direct result of the campaigns organised and orchestrated only by figures such as Gandhi. Ironically, the Indian government adopted and adapted colonial-era laws targeted toward terrorists, revolutionaries, and political dissidents of various kinds which were strengthened in the era post the 2001 attacks, especially through the “consolidation of government’s ability to detain those suspected of sedition” (Ghosh, 2017, p. 245).
In his review of Ghosh’s book, Arnold notes that Ghosh “does not devote much time to analysing the social and psychological origins of this violence beyond noting the impact of the 1905 partition of Bengal” (2018, p. 1351). He surmises that Ghosh “delivers a landmark study of political violence and the colonial state” (Arnold, 2018, p. 1352). In consonance, De’s essay flags how “gentlemanly terrorists” utilise “understudied archives, including the accounts of women and visual sources, to rethink India’s independence movement” (Elam et al., 2019, p. 3). This “politics of impatience” (Ghosh, 2017, p.22) stands out as a response not only to the British government’s false promises of a “slow, liberal lurch towards independence, but also against Gandhi’s seemingly infinite ‘experiments with truth’ and his assertion of politics without guarantee” (Elam et al., 2019, p.4). In her response to these comments, Ghosh (2019, p.7) situates her work within a ‘revolutionary turn’ in South Asian studies and in conversation with a multi-generational body of scholarship on liberalism in the British Empire. As for the importance of Ghosh’s work, Silvestri (2019, p.12) argues that it demonstrates how these revolutionaries were far from marginal in the trajectory of Indian nationalism and were much more influential (than was previously thought of) among nationalist politicians. Further, while Ghosh’s tone in the book indicates her sympathetic nature towards the revolutionaries, she is not ignorant of the unrealistic nature of their campaign and does not fall prey to romanticising violence (Copland, 2019). Ghosh also agrees to the critique that the bhadralok revolutionaries were exclusive and of an elitist nature, even going as far as asking to be fed separately from the common folk in jails. Throughout the book, Ghosh illustrates how repressive legislation found its place with the newly created Indian nation-state. For Copland, this raises the question of “how much really changed with the coming of freedom” (2019, p. 1446) for India.
Ghosh’s book is a well-constructed endeavour aimed at bringing together seemingly unrelated and misunderstood aspects of the Indian freedom movement. While the book does not romanticise the violent actions of the Indian revolutionaries, Ghosh’s tone is seemingly sympathetic, not to their cause, rather to the manner in which repressive legislature has been used in postcolonial India to target revolutionaries and dissidents. At the same time, the book does not endorse this violent aspect of the movement. It is a unique addition to the ongoing discourse that traces the growing popularity of the Gandhian and the Indian National Congress led freedom struggle against the backdrop of revolutionary “terrorism”. But the book does more than prod at this line of inquiry through just conjecture. Ghosh traces this trajectory through written accounts, important movements and specific legislations, bringing them together to support her primary thesis asserting a relation between repressive and liberal legislation and “terrorism.” However, this book is not important merely for the connection it proves. Rather it is the implications of these connections that makes one take a second glance at the work. Since 1935, India’s adoption of British tactics to curb “terrorism” with the use of repressive legislation, is abundantly apparent today. Drawing power from the facade of popular support and majority-appeasement, there has been increasingly arbitrary and violent repression of dissent and peaceful protest in India, which was abundantly evident during the abrogation of Article 370, the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019 and the famer’s protests against the introduction of the Farm Bills in 2020. Today, the onslaught on civil liberties is being carried out through the misuse of repressive, colonial-era legislation to curb dissent and it must be studied thoroughly.
* I would like to thank the entire Board of Editors of Confluence: Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, especially Dr. Shirish Kavadi for guiding me through the process of writing of this book review.
Acharya, P. (1995). Bengali ‘Bhadralok’ and educational development in 19th century Bengal. Economic and Political Weekly, 30(13), 670-673. https://www.epw.in/journal/1995/13/perspectives/bengali-bhadralok-and-educational-development-19th-century-bengal.html
Arnold, D. (2018). [Review of the book Gentlemanly terrorists: Political violence and the colonial State in India, 1919–1947, by Ghosh, D]. The English Historical Review, 133(564), 1351-1352. https://doi.org/10.1093/ehr/cey265.
Copland, I. (2019). [Review of the Book Gentlemanly terrorists: Political violence and the colonial state in India, 1919–1947, Ghosh, D]. American Historical Review, 124(4), 1445-1446. https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/rhz824.
Elam, D., Choudhury, R., Banerjee, M., De, R., Maclean, K., Silvestri, D. & Ghosh, D. (2019). New histories of political violence and revolutionary terrorism in modern South Asia. South Asian History and Culture, 10(3), 340-360. https://doi.org/10.1080/19472498.2019.1649942
Ghosh, D. (2017). Gentlemanly terrorists: Political violence and the colonial state in India,1919-1947. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/ehr/cey265.
Streets-Salter, H. (2018). [Review of the Book Gentlemanly terrorists: Political violence and the colonial state in India, 1919-1947, by Ghosh, D]. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=50845.