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“Appeal from this fiery bed …”: The Colonial Politics of Gandhi's Fasts and Their Metropolitan Reception

  • Tim Pratt and James Vernon
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1 Classically articulated in Cooper, Frederick and Stoler, Ann Laura, eds., Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (Berkeley, 1997).

2 A good recent example being Hall, Catherine, ed., Cultures of Empire: A Reader (Manchester, 2000). It is telling that Hall's own book is considerably stronger in delineating how the English shaped Jamaica than vice versa. Civilizing Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, 130–1867 (Cambridge, 2002).

3 Rather than catalog this work we suggest that this tendency is apparent in the work of one of the most energetic, thoughtful, and creative scholars of the imperial turn Antoinette Burton. See her Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture, 1865–1915 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1994), At the Heart of Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late-Victorian Britain (Berkeley, 1998), and her introduction to After the Imperial Turn: Thinking With and Through the Nation, ed. Burton, Antoinette (Durham, N.C., 2003).

4 For a metropolitan story that examines the constitution of news and its material forms see Walkowitz, Judith, “The Indian, the Flower Girl, and the Jew: Photojournalism in Edwardian London,” Victorian Studies, 42 (1998-99): 346. Chandrika Kaul's important new study of the presentation of Indian affairs to the British public via the press appeared too late for consideration in this article, but see her “Imperial Communications, Fleet Street and the Indian Empire, c. 1850s–1920s,” in A Journalism Reader, ed. Bromley, M. and O’Malley, T. (London, 1997), pp. 5886, for an outline of some of her arguments. Kaul, Chandrika, Reporting the Raj: The British Press and India, c. 1880–1922 (Manchester, 2003). Simon Potter's study of the imperial press system and the white colonies of settlement in the same period also appeared as this article went to press. Potter, Simon, News and the British World: The Emergence of an Imperial Press System, 1876–1922 (Oxford, 2003).

5 Bayly, Christopher A., Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780–1870 (Cambridge, 1996); Cohn, Bernard, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Princeton, N.J., 1996); Dirks, Nicholas B., Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India (Princeton, N.J., 2001).

6 The local and regional press continued to depend upon the national press for syndicated foreign news. A possible exception here would be those based in Dublin and Cork, which, of course, after 1922, belonged to the Irish Free State. Our focus here is on what is commonly referred to as mainland Britain.

7 On suffragette hunger strikes see Ellmann, Maud, The Hunger Artists: Starving, Writing and Imprisonment (London, 1993); Green, Barbara, Spectacular Confessions: Autobiography, Performative Activism, and the Sites of Suffrage, 1905–1938 (London, 1997); Howlett, Caroline, “Writing on the Body? Representation and Resistance in British Suffragette Accounts of Forcible Feeding,” Genders, 23 (1996): 341; Purvis, Jane, “The Prison Experiences of the Suffragettes in Edwardian Britain,” Women's History Review, 4, no. 1 (1995): 103–33. For Sikh protests against the color bar see Offer, Avner, The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation (Oxford, 1989), chap. 14; Johnston, Hugh, The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to the Colour Bar (Delhi, 1979). On the Irish nationalist case see Sweeny, George, “Irish Hunger-Strikes and the Cult of Self-Sacrifice,” Journal of Contemporary History, 28 (1993): 421–37; Fallon, Charlotte, “Civil War Hunger-Strikes: Men and Women,” Eire-Ireland, 22, no. 3 (1987): 7591.

8 Grant, Kevin, “Hunger Strikes and Fasts in Britain and the Empire, c. 1909–1935,” in How Empire Mattered: Imperial Structures and Globalization, ed. Ghosh, D. and Kennedy, D. (forthcoming).

9 The Irish Republican Terence MacSwiney would have another claim following his death after a seventy-four-day hunger strike in Brixton Prison during 1920. Chavasse, Moirin, Terence MacSwiney (Dublin, 1961); Costello, Francis J., Enduring the Most: The Life and Death of Terence MacSwiney (Dingle, 1995).

10 Arnold, David, Gandhi (London, 2001), p. 181; Alter, Joseph S., Gandhi's Body: Sex, Diet and the Politics of Nationhood (Philadelphia, 2000), p. 28.

11 Gandhi, Mohandas K., Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule (Natal, 1910). The text was originally published in two installments in Indian Opinion. In what follows we quote from the fifth edition published as Indian Home Rule (Madras, 1922).

12 Gandhi, Hind Swaraj, p. 25.

13 Gangadhar, D. A., Mahatma Gandhi's Philosophy of Brahmacharya (Delhi, 1984); Parekh, Bhikhu, Colonialism, Tradition and Reform: An Analysis of Gandhi's Political Discourse (New Delhi, 1989), pp. 180–91; Paul, S., Marriage, Free Sex and Gandhi (Delhi, 1989); Kakar, Sudhir, Intimate Relations: Exploring Indian Sexuality (London, 1990), pp. 85128.

14 Arnold, David, Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth Century India (Berkeley, 1993), pp. 285–88; Prakash, Gyan, Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India (Princeton, N.J., 1999), pp. 154–56.

15 Alter, Gandhi's Body. See also Roy, Parama, “Meat-Eating, Masculinity and Renunciation in India: A Gandhian Grammar of Diet,” Gender and History, 14, no. 1 (2002): 6291.

16 Gandhi, Mohandas K., The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Ahmedabad, 1929), and Diet and Diet Reform (Ahmedabad, 1949).

17 Gandhi, Diet and Diet Reform, pp. 27–28.

18 In the chapter from his autobiography entitled “More Experiments in Dietetics” Gandhi wrote: “I was anxious to observe brahmacharya in thought, word and deed, and equally anxious to devote the maximum of time to the Satyagraha struggle and fit myself for it by cultivating purity. I was, therefore, led to make further changes and impose greater restraints upon myself in the matter of food. … Fasting and restriction in diet now played a more important part in my life.” Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, p. 157.

19 Ibid., pp. 158, 180.

20 Gandhi, Diet and Diet Reform, pp. 29–30; Alter, Gandhi's Body, pp. 20–21.

21 Gandhi, , The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Ahmedabad, 1924; reprint, 1994), 24:9599.

22 He was not alone in being neglected during other fasts, so too were the frequent hunger strikes staged by Indian and Burmese politicians and prisoners throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Only Terence MacSwiney's dramatic and fatal hunger strike in London's Brixton gaol received substantial news coverage in Britain and indeed across the world.

23 Manchester Guardian, (26 September 1931), p. 11, (28 September 1931), pp. 8–10. See, more generally, Chatterji, Basudev, Trade, Tariffs and Empire: Lancashire and British Policy in India, 1919–1939 (New Delhi, 1992); Muldoon, Andrew, “‘An unholy row in Lancashire’: The Textile Lobby, Conservative Politics, and Indian policy, 1931–35,” Twentieth Century British History, 14, no. 2 (2003): 93111.

24 Alter, Gandhi's Body, p. 47.

25 Pyarelal, , The Epic Fast (Ahmedabad, 1932), p. 101.

26 Ibid., p. 113.

27 Ibid., p. 117.

28 Ibid., p. 17, 88.

29 Ibid., p. vii.

30 News of the World (18 September 1932), p. 8.

31 Manchester Guardian (14 September 1932), p. 12.

32 The Times (11 March 1913), p. 14.

33 For Birdwood's distinguished career in India as a medic, botanist, curator, journalist, and colonial administrator, see “Sir George Birdwood,” LoveToKnow 1911 Online Encyclopedia,

34 The Times (12 March 1913), p. 12.

35 For examples of antiquarian discussions of dhurna, see Abbé, J. A. Dubois, Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies, 3d ed. (Oxford, 1906). The divisions between orientalists, administrators, and antiquarians in this context is of course problematic. Many recorders of dhurna fell into more than one category, as the examples of Maine and Henry Yule, who conducted his orientalist investigations of India alongside a career beginning in 1838 in the Bengal Engineers and culminating as a member of the Council of India from 1875 to 1889, testify. Not all highlighted the links between dhurna and its Western counterparts, but Yule and A. C. Burnell's Hobson-Jobson, a famous glossary of Anglo-Indian words and phrases, provided copious information on the lineage of any Indian customs it listed, including illustrative examples from a variety of experts. See Burnell, A. C. and Yule, H., Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, ed. Crooke, W. (London, 1886; reprint, 1968), pp. 315–16, for the dhurna entry.

36 Spodek, Howard, “On the Origin of Gandhi's Political Methodology: The Heritage of Kathiawad and Gujurat,” Journal of Asian Studies 30, no. 2 (1971): 363–72; Arnold, Gandhi, pp. 12–27; Rudolph, L. I. and Rudolph, S..H., The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India (Chicago, 1967), pp. 171–73, 204.

37 Daily Telegraph (13 and 20 September 1932), p. 10; Times (13 September 1932), p. 13; News of the World (18 September 1932), p. 8; Daily Mail (27 September 1932), p. 10.

38 The Times (13 and 28 September 1932), p. 13.

39 Daily Telegraph (27 September 1932), p. 10.

40 Daily Herald (21 September 1932), pp. 1 and 9.

41 Pyarelal, The Epic Fast, pp. 50, 19–20.

42 Israel, Milton, Communications and Power: Propaganda and the Press in the Indian Nationalist Struggle, 1920–1947 (Cambridge, 1994), p. 30.

43 Ibid., p. 32.

44 Kaul, Chandrika, “Imperial Communications, Fleet Street and the Indian Empire, c. 1850s–1920s,” in A Journalism Reader, ed. Bromley, M. and O’Malley, T. (London, 1997), pp. 5886.

45 Israel, Communications and Power, p. 252.

46 Ibid., pp. 257–64.

47 Daily Herald (21 September 1932), pp. 1 and 9; News of the World (18 September 1932), p. 8. On the transformation of the content and layout of the press in this period see LeMahieu, D. L., A Culture for Democracy: Mass Communication and the Cultivated Mind in Britain between the Wars (Oxford, 1988).

48 Daily Express (13 September 1932), p. 1.

49 Brown, Judith, Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope (New Haven, Conn., 1989), pp. 262–64.

50 Daily Herald (22 September 1932), p. 2.

51 R. Tottenham, “Circular Note from Additional Secretary, Home Department, Government of India, to Provincial Governors” 18 January 1941, Oriental and India Office Collection, London (henceforth OIOC), R/3/1/290.

52 R. Tottenham, “Memorandum from Additional Secretary, Home Department, Government of India, to J. M. Sladen, Secretary to the Government of Bombay, Home Department, 6 December 1940,” OIOC, R/3/1/290.

53 See Hutchins, Francis G., Spontaneous Revolution: The Quit India Movement (Delhi, 1971), pp. 311–18, for the nature of Gandhi's motivations in launching the 1943 fast.

54 Daily Mail (4 March 1943), p. 2.

55 See “‘Very Secret’ letter from R. Tottenham, Additional Secretary, Home Department, Government of India, to J. M. Sladen, Secretary to the Government of Bombay, Home Department, 16 December 1940,” OIOC, R/3/1/290, for this press release.

56 Daily Mail (4 March 1943), p. 2.

57 Daily Telegraph (4 March 1943), p. 4.

58 Cunningham, Andrew and Kamminga, Harmke, eds., The Science and Culture of Nutrition, 1840–1940 (Amsterdam, 1995); Smith, David F., ed., Nutrition in Britain: Science, Scientists and Politics in the Twentieth Century (London, 1997); Zweineger-Bargielowska, Ina, Austerity in Britain: Rationing and State Controls (Oxford, 2000).

59 Christie, John, Morning Drum (London, 1983), p. 87. Christie was deputy private secretary to the viceroy at the time of the fast.

60 Recollections of Bill Cowley, Punjab ICS, District Officers Collection, OIOC, Mss Eur f180/66 (entitled “Peacocks Calling”), p. 116.

61 Daily Mail (13 February 1943), p. 2.

62 Rev.Wynn, Walter, Fasting, Exercise, Food and Health for Everybody (London, 1928); Layton, Alfred, Fasting for Perfect Health (London, 1928); MacFadden, Bernard, Fasting for Health: A Complete Guide on How, When and Why to Use the Fasting Cure (New York, 1935); Vandereycken, Walter and Deth, Ron Van, From Fasting Saints to Anorexic Girls: The History of Self-Starvation (London, 1994).

63 News Chronicle (15 February 1943), p. 2.

64 Daily Express (1 March 1943), p. 1.

65 News Chronicle (1 March 1943), p. 4.

66 New Scotland Yard Report No. 240 Extract, 3 March 1943, OIOC, L/P&J/12/455, pp. 2–3. It is interesting to note here the implied withdrawal of Communist Party support during the fast, which probably related to a long-standing suspicion of Gandhi's relationship with elements of the Indian capitalist classes, combined with hostility to his seeming pacifism in the face of fascist aggression during the war. Sonya Rose's admirable new study of issues of race, nation, and empire in wartime Britain underplays such tensions within the British left in relation to India. The Town Crier, Birmingham's Labour Weekly (which Rose quotes to support her argument that the government's Indian policy generated considerable opposition in Britain) thus endorsed the India Week activities in its issue of 23 January 1943, but remained silent on the fast for its duration. Rose, Sonya, Which People's War? National Identity and Citizenship in Wartime Britain, 1939–1945 (Oxford, 2003): pp. 277–80.

67 Worboys, Michael, “The Discovery of Colonial Malnutrition between the Wars,” in Imperial Medicine and Indigenous Societies, ed. Arnold, David (Manchester, 1988); Arnold, David, “The ‘Discovery’ of Malnutrition and Diet in Colonial India,” Indian Economic and Social History Review, 31, no. 1 (1994): 126.

68 McCarrison, Robert, Studies in Deficiency Diseases (London, 1921).

69 Gandhi, Diet and Diet Reform, p. 18.

70 Ibid., p. 26.

71 Aykroyd, W. R., “The Nutrition Laboratories, Coonor” in The Work of Sir Robert McCarrison, ed. Sinclair, H. M. (London, 1953); Gangulee, Nagendranath, Bibliography of Nutrition in India (Oxford, 1940); Indian Research Fund Association, Nutrition Advisory Committee, 1941–46, OIOC, V/26/830/8.

72 The Bengal famine was in fact only beginning to develop at the time of Gandhi's 1943 fast to capacity, reaching the terrible heights of social and economic devastation later in the year and in 1944. However, when considering the political power of Indian hunger in the imperial metropole, it is salutary to note that the imperial information regime successfully withheld details of the horror unfolding in Bengal from the British public for some months after it became widely known in India. See Stephens, Ian, Monsoon Morning (London, 1966), chaps. 13 and 14. Thus, even if Gandhi had timed his fast to coincide with the height of the tragedy, it cannot be assumed that it would have been depicted any differently to a British audience.

73 Hutchins points out that correspondents for the American press were deeply frustrated at the censorship of their coverage of the fast by the government of India in 1943. Hutchins, Spontaneous Revolution, p. 314.

74 The government of India attempted to lay down stringent restrictions on the maximum dimensions of articles covering the fast in the Indian press. Hutchins, Spontaneous Revolution, p. 314. See the coverage afforded by Amrita Bazaar Patrika for an example of the positive reception of the fast in the nationalist press, full of praise and wonder for Gandhi's fortitude and endurance, and the Star of India for a more cynical interpretation, heavily influenced by its adherence to the Muslim League. Kamtekar, Indivar, “The End of the Colonial State in India, 1942–1947” (Ph.D. diss., University of Cambridge, 1988), pp. 7576.

75 For an analysis of the critical role of this fast and Gandhi's subsequent assassination in countering the violent turmoil at the heart of the partition process and the birth of modern India see Pandey, Gyanendra, Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism and History in India (Cambridge, 2001), pp. 142–46.

76 Manchester Guardian (19 January 1948), p. 4.

77 Daily Mail (15 January 1948), p. 1.

78 Daily Mail (17 January 1948), p. 1.

79 Manchester Guardian (31 January 1948), p. 3; Daily Mail (31 January 1948), p. 1.

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