Platform:The elephant and partition: Ireland and India

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Devalera & Fianna Fail, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2010), Volume 18

Éamon de Valera with Indian prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru during his visit to India in 1948. (Irish Press).

Éamon de Valera with Indian prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru during his visit to India in 1948. (Irish Press).

On 26 January 1950, Éamon de Valera was asked to be guest of honour at a reception in Birmingham to celebrate the declaration of India as a republic. At first glance it seemed an unusual choice. The organisers were asked why they had not chosen a fellow Indian. Their response was unequivocal:

‘We and the Irish had strong ties of friendship. We suffered under the same tyranny for many centuries. They had the Black and Tans; we had the massacre of Amritsar. They had de Valera and Casement and MacSwiney; we had Gandhi and Nehru and Bose. They had Sinn Féin; we had our National Congress. They had the IRA; we had the INA. It is not only for the smile and the shamrock we know Ireland. It is for the toughness of their leaders and for the rebellion in their hearts.’
It may surprise some readers to discover that we are in a position to devote a special issue to connections between India and Ireland. There are, in fact, so many historical connections, and such a wealth of new research, that we had to limit the scope of this issue to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There are many other stories that could have been told, from those dealing with early linguistic connections between Irish and Sanskrit to the involvement of Irishmen in the East India Company. There are also many connections between Ireland and other countries once part of the British Raj, like Burma and Pakistan (one article here looks at Bangladesh, originally East Pakistan).
The Indian–Irish narrative is not solely an anti-imperial one. In modern times Irish people both undermined and sustained the British imperial system. Some of the pieces included here tell the story of Ireland’s colonial participation in India. Our Artefacts piece notes how 50 Victoria Crosses were awarded to Irish soldiers in the British Army in the wake of the Indian Rebellion (Mutiny) of 1857. Pierce Grace recounts the career of Sir Michael O’Dwyer and his involvement in the Amritsar massacre. O’Dwyer was lieutenant-governor of the Punjab and, like many other Irishmen before and after him, was a loyal servant of the Crown in India. Michael Silvestri takes us a step further along the timeline and gives us a vivid account of the Connaught Rangers mutiny of 1920. The image he paints for us of the Connaught Rangers wearing Sinn Féin rosettes on their British Army uniforms, singing rebel songs, is quite striking. We can plainly see how, thousands of miles away and on Indian soil, the ill-at-ease ideologies of colonial and nationalist Ireland were pitted against each other.

 

 

The Hindu deity Hanuman, who is neither man nor monkey nor god but something in between. His increasingly popular veneration in today’s India is associated with change, social fluidity, compromise and connection, and he is worshipped for his skills as a facilitator, guide and entrepreneur

The Hindu deity Hanuman, who is neither man nor monkey nor god but something in between. His increasingly popular veneration in today’s India is associated with change, social fluidity, compromise and connection, and he is worshipped for his skills as a facilitator, guide and entrepreneur

Ireland and India’s anti-imperial relationship is also covered in these pages, but it is perhaps surprising to note that this is an area to which historians are only starting to turn their hand. Comparisons between the Irish and Indian nationalist movements up until quite recently were taken for granted, with little research having been carried out in the field. This has since been rectified and we now know that many Indian nationalists, such as V.J. Patel and Subhas Chandra Bose, have in fact visited our shores and liaised with Irish nationalists. Bose, who is looked at in some detail here, could easily be described as ‘the Michael Collins of India’. He was a physical-force nationalist whose unexpected death, crucially, before India gained her independence, left a country mourning a nationalist hero whose potential remained untested—although Collins, unlike Bose, does not have an international airport named after him!

 

The lives of Margaret Nobel and Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji (or Prince Ranji) provide us with contrasting but familiar narratives of people who were drawn from the East to the West and vice versa during this period. Noble, later Sister Nivedita, was initially attracted to India by the Hindu spiritualist Swami Vivekananda (see our DIB entry), while Anne Chambers tells us the story of Ranji, the Maharajah of Connemara, a wealthy and extravagant Indian prince ‘addicted to all things western’ who was the first non-white to play test cricket for England. Vivian Ibrahim rekindles the life of a one-time prominent Indian in Dublin in the nineteenth century, the Trinity College academic Mir Aulad Ali. Mir Aulad was a regular on the Dublin social scene and the story of his life provides us with an early example of an Indian who was warmly welcomed into Irish society.
Some other themes that are unfortunately common to both countries are also tackled in this issue: famine, partition and relief agencies. Cormac Ó Gráda provides us with a re-evaluation of the Bengal Famine of 1943–4, India’s last major famine, and notes how some of the accounts are morbidly reminiscent of the Great Irish Famine of a century earlier. Catherine de Courcy tells the curious story of Sir Charles Trevelyan’s rhinoceros, gifted to Dublin Zoo in 1864. Trevelyan, then governor of Madras, is better known in Ireland for his laissez-faire policy towards the Irish famine and for failed famine relief. The symbolism of the death of Travelyan’s gift cannot be ignored; his rhino died as a result of an incorrect diet of Indian corn meal. Deirdre McMahon looks at the partition of India and Irish parallels; and it is interesting to note how influential one Irish historian, Nicholas Mansergh, was in documenting the histories of partition in both countries. Kevin O’Sullivan brings the edition up to the 1970s with the difficult birth of Bangladesh; in so doing he gives us an insight into Irish aid workers’ experiences of the Indian subcontinent.
Michael Kennedy provides us with a tasty history of Indian cuisine in Ireland, a piece that focuses on more than just the other Taj Mahal, ‘opposite the Dental Hospital’! Hungry readers will be excused for taking a curry break at this point. En route, however, you should stop by the Chester Beatty Library, which has a special exhibition, Maraqqa’, devoted to delicate and evocative Indian Mughal paintings (see Museum Eye), and/or the Long Room in Trinity College’s Old Library for its ‘Irish in India’ exhibition. Both exhibitions run until 3 October 2010.
Finally, Malcolm Sen writes about another ‘West–East infatuation’, one between two cultural monoliths from Ireland and India—W.B. Yeats and Rabindranath Tagore. Sen tells us of Yeats’s initial fascination with Tagore, comparing it to a teenage love affair, intense and short-lived. He highlights how Yeats’s romantic image of Tagore, one draped in oriental mysticism, led to his never fully understanding the Bengali polymath. There are clear resonances with today’s relationship between East and West. On closer inspection, should we not challenge the perceived transient nature of contemporary Western encounters with India, the archetypal images of the backpacker or the yoga devotee? And, similarly, what of the difficulties that many Indians have when they come here—the Indian medic or IT employee who has perfect English but may experience a ‘cultural’ loss in translation? With as many as 16,000 Indians now resident in Ireland, we hope that they will become more aware of the many and multifarious connections between our two countries’ histories as a result of this special edition. Our Irish readers also will now have a flavour of the far-reaching impact of their own history on the Indian subcontinent.  HI

Kate O’Malley is Assistant Editor with the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy (DIFP) series.

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