by Vineet Thakur
24th August 2021

India gained independence 74 years ago this month. The staple narrative of the Indian anticolonial struggle romanticises the role of Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. Indeed, those who differed from Gandhi and the Congress are remembered harshly in public memory. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the ‘father of Pakistan’, is a reviled figure in India, for instance.

However, if derision is one form of contempt, historical erasure is another. The latter is accorded to political leaders who identified as ‘liberals’. Dismissed as the ‘advertising agents of the British’, they appear neither in public memory nor in our history books.

V.S. Srinivasa Sastri, the subject of my diplomatic biography, is one such figure. Although all my upbringing and formal education had been in India, my first acquaintance with Sastri’s name was in Durban a few years ago. While on a postdoc in South Africa, I had travelled to see Mahatma Gandhi’s Phoenix Ashram, a few miles outside of Durban. However, in the city, I discovered another monument whose historical weight for South African Indians would be comparably significant – if not equal – to Gandhi’s ashram. This is a secondary school, the first such school for Indians in segregated South Africa, named Sastri College. Why was this individual commemorated in South Africa, while completely forgotten in his homeland, I wondered? This query led me to writing this book.

Born in 1869 in a small hamlet in the Madras Presidency, Sastri was a school teacher until he heeded a call by a prominent Indian liberal leader, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, for youth to dedicate themselves fully to the country’s service. Moved by the noble ideals of Gokhale’s Servants of India Society, Sastri left his job for a life of political service and subsistence living. He quickly became Gokhale’s confidant and after the latter’s demise in February 1915, the Society’s President.

He was a founding member of the National Liberal Federation, a party that splintered from the Indian National Congress in 1918. He made important contributions to a number of initiatives of political reform, including the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919 and the first two Round Table Conferences of 1930–31. His contributions, however, were even more significant on the international stage. In the early 1920s, as the British Empire strived to turn itself into a ‘Commonwealth’, he was a key protagonist in exposing the racial hypocrisy of the white empire. His advocacy on behalf of the rights of overseas Indians took him to various parts of the empire, to Canada, Australia and New Zealand. He was also India’s plenipotentiary at the Washington Naval Conference of 1921–22. At the 1921 League of Nations Assembly, he was widely hailed as ‘the very voice of international conscience’. In retrieving the legacy of Sastri, I argue that liberal internationalism is not the preserve of Western powers and actors – where it too often represents imperialism by other means – but a commitment to social progress fought at multiple sites and by many protagonists.

In 1927, Sastri was sent as India’s Agent to South Africa, a country with hardwired racial prejudices, and tasked to deal with a government that had officially declared the Indian as an ‘alien element’. It was a first-of-its-kind diplomatic post not just between India and South Africa but also within the then emerging British Commonwealth. This was perhaps the hardest task of his career and one that he performed with admirable skill. His 19-month tenure is remembered for a significant easing of government hostility towards South African Indians.

Sastri had taken up the South African post at the urging of his fellow Gokhale disciple, Gandhi. Both shared a relationship of deep love and trust, but disagreed vehemently on politics. Taking a liberal position, Sastri advocated using constitutional means for securing political advance. Gandhi, in contrast, would often call for total withdrawal from the colonial state. To Sastri, Gandhi’s politics of non-cooperation and civil disobedience sacrificed the substance of politics for its sublime theatricality. Indeed, the Congress would make drastic turnarounds in the 1920s and 1930s, often starting with complete boycotts of political institutions but eventually it would not only accept to participate in them but also dominate them through the strength its electoral mass-base. Frustratingly for the liberals, this ‘politics of locomotion’ – as a key liberal leader called the Congress’s somersaults – delayed the reforms. Liberals believed, naively at times, that dominion status would have been achieved far earlier if the Congress hadn’t repeatedly put a spanner in the works.

Sastri also had deep ethical concerns about Gandhi’s satyagraha. It was meant to appeal to the reason of the opponent to convert them. But when applied to mass movements, Gandhi’s satyagraha was pure moral coercion — ‘whitemail’ as Sastri called it – where all elements of coercion, except physical force, were involved. ‘[T]he opponent is frightened, his patience wears out, his good name is spoilt and his life is made a burden on him’, he wrote. More worryingly for him, Gandhi’s movements also led to more violence and repression by the colonial state. Further, if the purpose of satyagraha was to reform the moral character of the opponent as Gandhi claimed, could the Mahatma suggest that his methods had ‘improved the moral and political stature of the British nation’?

Sastri staunchly opposed Gandhi’s idiosyncratic insistence on a ‘spinning franchise’, his antiscience views, and use of fasting as a political tool. These may be ‘innocent fads of a great man’ but they did ‘violence to the fundamental liberty of the individual’, he argued. Making these the basic conditions of a political movement was dictatorship pure and simple.

Historical subjects are often distorted in rear-view. But a key issue with our anticolonial narratives is that binaries often take a sensationalist but trite approach of turning historical protagonists into either champions of resistance or duplicitous bootlickers of the colonial regime. The benefit of writing individual biographies is that, in all their complexities, they have an amoeba-like aversion to ideological encasing.

As a diplomatic historian, my limited skills meant that I could only write about a part of Sastri’s life that I hold some expertise on, i.e. his stint as India’s roving ambassador and in that capacity, his contributions to the making of the liberal international order. But his life, as with several other Indian liberals, remains one that is not only insufficiently told but also injudiciously assessed.

Vineet Thakur is University Lecturer at the Institute for History at Leiden University. 


India’s First Diplomat cover

India’s First Diplomat: V.S. Srinivasa Sastri and the Making of Liberal Internationalism by Vineet Thakur is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £60.00.

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