Politics: Learning the tricks of the imperial secession trade: Irish and Indian nationalism in the ’30s and ’40s

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

De Valera talking to Nehru and Lady Mountbatten during his visit to India, 1948. (Irish Press).

De Valera talking to Nehru and Lady Mountbatten during his visit to India, 1948. (Irish Press).

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century many household names from the Indian nationalist movement came to Ireland. Keen friendships developed between a variety of Irish and Indian agitators, embracing many of the leading political and literary figures of the day from both countries. As a result of their shared imperial histories, comparisons and connections influenced the respective revolutionary activists.

V.J. Patel and the Indian–Irish Independence League

In the pages of An Phoblacht on 30 July 1932 there appeared an article announcing the formation of a group calling itself the ‘Indian–Irish Independence League’. The League would operate ‘with a view to work by every possible means to secure the complete independence of India and Ireland, and to achieve the closest solidarity between the Irish and the Indian masses in their common struggle against British imperialism’.

The formation of this group was the brainchild of some formidable figures from both countries’ independence movements. On the Irish side, Maud Gonne MacBride, Charlotte Despard, Frank Ryan and Peadar O’Donnell were founder members, and the Indian politician most prominent was Vithalbhai Javerbhai (V.J.) Patel. Patel was the ex-president of the Indian legislative assembly and the older brother of the ‘Iron Man of India’, Sardar Patel, who went on to become Nehru’s right-hand man once India gained independence. V.J. Patel had in fact travelled to Ireland four times throughout the 1920s and ’30s. He was a keen follower of the Irish independence movement. The British intelligence services, in the form of its Indian Political Intelligence (IPI) section, kept track of his movements and contacts in Ireland. They were clearly anxious that Ireland was providing Indian nationalists with pertinent revolutionary precedents. The IPI was headed by an Irishman and Trinity College Dublin graduate, Philip Vickery, and also had amongst its ranks another loyal Irish servant of the Crown and one-time Trinity man, Charles Tegart.

Patel took part in some public ceremonies while in Ireland. An Indian–Irish Independence League meeting in College Green during his 1932 trip attracted as many as 3,000 people. Patel was also with de Valera in St Stephen’s Green on 3 July 1932 at the unveiling of the Countess Markievicz Memorial. We are told by the Irish Press how, ‘a white-clad, grey-haired figure, in a square white Gandhi cap, Mr Patel looked quite at home in this Dublin crowd, who pressed round to shake hands and wish India God-speed’.

Throughout his time in Dublin Patel encouraged Irish people to copy the boycott of British goods that was proving so successful in India. Such tactics had, of course, been adopted in Ireland at the beginning of the ‘economic war’, and a few months after Patel’s visit An Phoblacht carried advertisements for a new shop, the Indian Stores on Dame Street, that would facilitate those wishing to boycott British goods in their entirety. An advertisement stated: ‘Tea direct from India. Buy Irish first, then buy Indian.’

While in Ireland, Patel befriended a prominent republican family, the Woods of Donnybrook. Mary (Mollie) Woods became heavily involved in the Indian–Irish Independence League. One of her sons, Tony Woods, was in the Four Courts during the civil war. Her daughter Eileen married Tripura Dey, an Indian studying in Dublin who had become involved in the League and was being monitored by the IPI. In November 1932 Patel undertook a propaganda tour of America. It is believed that the final incentive to embark on this trip came from de Valera, who not only assured Vithalbhai that he would assist him with his plans but may have helped to draw up the programme for his visit.

Commenting on the Patel–de Valera friendship that had developed as a result of his trips to Ireland, one British official noted: ‘It rather emphasises that fact that many of us have urged, that the Congress Party are largely founding themselves on the methods by which the Irish Free State secured practical independence of Great Britain’. Patel died soon after, in Geneva in 1933, with another famous Indian radical, Subhas Chandra Bose, at his bedside.
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose

Subhas Chandra Bose, portrait taken in Dublin in 1936. (Netaji Research Bureau)

Subhas Chandra Bose, portrait taken in Dublin in 1936. (Netaji Research Bureau)

As a result of their friendship with Patel, the Woods family went on to host another famous Indian nationalist—Netaji (meaning ‘great leader’) Subhas Chandra Bose. Bose represents the lesser-known story of the radical, aggressive and revolutionary road to Indian independence. His is a story that is the antithesis of the world-renowned Gandhi-inspired non-violent struggle against the Raj. He died unexpectedly and relatively young. He was the one leader of India’s freedom movement who dared to fight the British with the sword yet was not implicated in the creation of Pakistan and the partition of his country. (There are parallels with the premature death of Michael Collins, someone whom Bose himself admired greatly during his own lifetime. In the same way that Ireland has been bedevilled by the never-ending Collins versus de Valera debate, Bose left the Indian people with equally divided loyalties—Gandhiji or Netaji?)

Between 1933 and 1936 Bose was a roving ambassador for Indian independence in Europe. It was a role not unlike that of de Valera’s in America in 1919–20—a propaganda campaign to place India’s cause at the forefront of the European press, as well as an opportunity to meet with and mobilise influential Indians already resident on the continent. Europeans who were possibly favourable towards Indian independence were also courted with considerable aplomb. These included de Valera (as we shall see) but also Mussolini and Nazi officials, who were somewhat less responsive.

Bose arrived in Cobh on 31 January 1936. He was persona non grata with the British authorities and was told that he would not be allowed into the UK owing to his radical credentials. De Valera was well aware of this and so he deliberately courted the Indian revolutionary under their very noses. After visiting the MacSwiney family in Cork, Bose made his way to Dublin and arrived there on 2 February. The next day was the busiest in his crammed schedule. He was received at government buildings by de Valera and later in the evening at the Mansion House by the lord mayor, Alfie Byrne. That night he was the guest of the Indian–Irish Independence League at a reception in the Broadway Restaurant, where Maud Gonne MacBride, president of the League, welcomed him.
On 5 February he listened to proceedings in the Dáil from a seat in the visitors’ gallery. He had interviews with the minister for defence, Frank Aiken, the minister for finance, Seán MacEntee, and the minister for industry and commerce, Seán Lemass, as well as with the Labour Party leader, William Norton, Fianna Fáil TD P.J. Little and the secretary of the Department of External Affairs, Joseph Walshe. On the evening of 7 February he was received by the executive committee of the Dublin Trades Union Council. He also attended a meeting of the Women’s Prisoners Defence League at Cathal Brugha Street. His last engagement was perhaps the most elaborate and eventful. A reception was held in his honour in the Shelbourne Hotel, where he was in fact staying. Bose himself addressed the meeting, where speakers also included the prominent left-wing activists Peadar O’Donnell, Seán Murray, Frank Ryan and Seán MacBride.

Bose’s ‘Impressions of Ireland’

The Woods/Dey family c. 1930s—(standing, left to right) ‘Baby’ Woods; H.L. Dey, father of Tripura; Mollie Woods, co-founder of the Indian–Irish Independence League; Enda Woods; and (seated) Andy Woods; and Tripura Dey. (Lal Wright, née Dey

The Woods/Dey family c. 1930s—(standing, left to right) ‘Baby’ Woods; H.L. Dey, father of Tripura; Mollie Woods, co-founder of the Indian–Irish Independence League; Enda Woods; and (seated) Andy Woods; and Tripura Dey. (Lal Wright, née Dey

We have an accurate picture of Bose’s reactions to his Irish visit from a statement that he released on 30 March 1936 entitled ‘Impressions of Ireland’. It seems that his meetings with Irish ministers were most worthwhile:

‘Besides having prolonged discussions with Mr de Valera, I met individually most of the Fianna Fáil ministers. All of them are exceedingly sympathetic, accessible and humane. They had not yet become “respectable”. Most of them had been on the run when they were fighting for their freedom and would be shot on sight if they had been spotted. They had not yet [become] hardened bureaucratic ministers and there was no official atmosphere about them.’

It would be reasonable to assume that these meetings consisted of nothing more than the Irish ministers articulating their adherence to the principle of Indian independence, as well as expressing in general terms their sympathy for Bose’s position. This was not the case, however. According to Bose:

‘With the minister for agriculture I discussed how they were trying to make the country self-sufficient in the matter of food supply. It was interesting to know that wheat and sugar-beet were now being cultivated in large areas and the development of agriculture was making the country less dependent on cattle-rearing and therefore less dependent on the English market. I also discussed with him the question of restriction of jute-cultivation in India and he gave me valuable suggestions as to how he would tackle the problem if he were put in charge.’

Bose stated how, on the whole, he found the work of the Irish government of interest and of value to Indians, who would soon have to tackle the problem of nation-building through the machinery of state themselves. Pragmatic and profitable exchanges abounded between the two parties. Helping Bose look to the future and providing tips on self-government were done behind closed doors, in contrast to the public rhetoric, which centred on both countries’ shared history and experiences with the treacherous Empire. In the wake of his visit to Ireland Bose continued to write and receive letters and press cuttings from his fond friend, the left-wing republican Mollie Woods.

De Valera visits India

De Valera’s high-profile anti-partition tour in 1948 (in the aftermath of losing his first general election in sixteen years) took in the newly independent India. India had just been partitioned and, as in Ireland, this was carried out along religious lines and coincided with the transfer of power from Britain—the similarities were uncanny. De Valera already knew Patel and Bose, but he would now meet the newly appointed prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, whose career reflected many aspects of his own. Having recently adopted constitutional nationalism at the expense of partition, the one-time revolutionary was preparing a warm reception for the one-time Irish freedom fighter who had inspired so many Indians over the years. The visit was the beginning of a fond friendship between the two men.

The decision to include India on his world tour was met with some apprehension in London, evidenced by the large file that the Dominions Office kept on the visit. De Valera’s continuing influence on Indian nationalist thinking, this time in relation to Commonwealth membership, was a source of much concern, more so than his utterances about partition. An India outside the Commonwealth could prove problematic for Britain, and taking advice from the author of the External Relations Act was not exactly top of their preferred list of methods to elucidate the situation. The Commonwealth relations office warned the high commissioners of both India and Pakistan in advance of de Valera’s visit that it might have the effect of encouraging ‘yet further examination in India (and perhaps Pakistan) of the possible applicability of a solution on lines similar to those adopted in Éire to the problem of the future position of India and Pakistan in the Commonwealth’. As it happened, within a year India would become the first Commonwealth republic and, much to de Valera’s chagrin and amid controversy, the first inter-party government would declare Ireland a republic outside the Commonwealth.

De Valera and Frank Aiken arrived in Calcutta on the morning of 14 June 1948. From there they travelled to Delhi, to Government House, where they stayed for the next two days with Nehru. The following day de Valera spoke on Indian public radio. His speech was full of the type of rhetoric that would have greatly pleased his Indian listeners. He told them how

‘. . . for more than 30 years many of us in Ireland have followed with deepest sympathy the fortunes of the people of India in their efforts to secure freedom. We regarded the people of India as co-workers and allies in a common cause and we rejoiced exceedingly when India’s right to independence was fully acknowledged.’

Nehru held a dinner in honour of de Valera and it was attended by several cabinet ministers as well as by Lord and Lady Mountbatten. The Mountbattens reciprocated and had de Valera and Nehru as their lunch guests the following day. It was in fact one of the viceroy’s last official functions in his capacity as governor-general of India, as he was succeeded a week later by Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari. It was poignant, though clearly not orchestrated, that de Valera was one of the viceroy’s last guests, given the part played by Ireland in the breakup of the British Empire.  HI

Kate O’Malley is an assistant editor with the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents in Irish Foreign Policy series.

Further reading:

S.K. Bose & S. Bose (eds), S.C. Bose: Netaji collected works, volume 8: letters, articles, speeches and statements 1933–1937 (Oxford, 1994).

T. Foley & M. O’Connor (eds), Ireland and India: colonies, culture and empire (Dublin, 2006).

L.A. Gordon, Brothers against the Raj. A biography of Sarat and Subhas Bose (New York, 1990).

K. O’Malley, Ireland, India and empire. Indo–Irish radical connections, 1919–64 (Manchester, 2008).



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