Reverend who had Conan Doyle on his side

Indians in Britain
March 30, 2001

The first Indians to reach Britain appear to have arrived in the 1840s. Between 1880 and 1930, the number arriving in Britain to gain qualifications and to be exposed to western life markedly increased. But South Asians have not featured much in studies of black British history.

Shompa Lahiri's book redresses the balance. She considers the phenomenon from both sides of the imperial dynamic. Her jargon-free language is illuminated by citations from contemporary diaries, letters, newspaper and journal articles and literary fictions of the Raj, although she restricts herself almost entirely to sources in English.

The book's focus is on Indian students. It practically omits princes, soldiers, ayahs , lascars (sailors), petty traders and legal appellants. No doubt sizeable numbers of them were students coming to study for the Indian Civil Service examination.

Lahiri does not state why she chose the period 1880-1930, rather than the more obvious 1840-1947. Sadly, it excludes letters from Indian students of the 1930s and 1940s such as the Nobel-laureate astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who studied in Cambridge from 1929.

The increasing number of Indians at British universities after 1900 predictably kindled racial prejudice and undermined the 19th-century efforts of people such as Dwarkanath Tagore and Friedrich Max Muller to build cultural understanding. For instance, the wrongful conviction of a Parsi gentleman, Reverend Edalji, an Anglo-Indian Christian convert, intrigued Sir Arthur Conan Doyle so much that in 1906 he took up Edalji's defence and had him released from prison after three years. Conan Doyle proved that the Staffordshire police had fabricated forensic evidence and had suppressed information.

Lahiri shows how Indian students grappled with the concept of being educated in the West, while remaining loyal to eastern ideals. They either resorted to reinventing themselves as brown sahibs or became aloof from British society. As a result, they were often objects of suspicion and ridicule, both among other Indians and native-born Britons.

The students posed a problem for the British authorities, too. "The educated Indian occupied an ambiguous position within the imperial British psyche," Lahiri observes. He was thought insufficiently westernised to uphold British standards but not Indian enough to be regarded as a true Indian. He was an ineffective intellectual and a moral hybrid. But, at the same time, many Indian students were found to be unusually clever, sensitive, keen and industrious. After 1905, when the Indian students became increasingly politicised, Scotland Yard began surveillance of them, including postal interception. Sedition in India was believed to have roots in Britain. The British authorities tried to deal with this situation by restricting Indian numbers in Britain, appointing guardians and a financial guarantor, and requiring character certificates, which further alienated the students.

In a postscript, Lahiri notes the similarities in experience between the Indian students of an earlier period and the Commonwealth immigrants of the 1950s, 1960s and after. Both groups were racially discriminated against, socially excluded and institutionally underrated. In both cases, there was a growth of ethnic consciousness and, for many, the need to re-identify with South Asian heritage and culture. The history described in this book, besides being a useful resource for historians of the period, will be valuable in developing a deeper understanding of post-colonial Britain.

Krishna Dutta is a scholar specialising in the history and culture of Bengal.

Indians in Britain: Anglo-Indian Encounters, Race and Identity, 1880-1930

Author - Shompa Lahiri
ISBN - 0 7146 4986 4 and 8049 4
Publisher - Cass
Price - £42.50 and £17.50
Pages - 249

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