The Political Economy of the Pro-India Movement in 1920s America

Caroline Preston
University of Exeter

Caroline Preston is in her final year of undergraduate study in History at the University of Exeter. This post stems from an essay written for the module ‘Critics of Empire.’

Many Indian nationalists in the 1920s were angered by the coercive British enforcement of free trade in India.[1] The policy was, according to one scholar, ‘thrust by an advanced industrialised country on a nation which still needed protective tariffs to develop’.[2] This same free trade imperial policy had resulted in an economic ‘drain’ as India had to export raw cotton and import manufactured cotton goods because India’s native industries were underdeveloped and thus uncompetitive in the global economy.[3] Mass nationalist politics picked up in colonial South Asia, first in Bengal in the Edwardian era, and then across India in the 1920s.[4] This included the self-determination ‘Swadeshi’ (indigenous goods) movement, which aimed to achieve ‘swaraj’ (home rule) by establishing India’s economic self-sufficiency from Britain.[5] Swadeshi was in certain respects an anti-colonial adaptation of German-American protectionist theorist Friedrich List’s (1789- 1846) concept of economic nationalism.[6]

Mahatma Gandhi led the Swadeshi movement in the 1920s, encouraging non-cooperation and the exclusive consumption of hand spun cloth called ‘khadi’ in order to develop domestic industries.[7] In response, the pro-India movement of the 1920s arose in the United States, a network of Indian and US intellectuals who hoped to mobilise the US government and the public to challenge British imperial policy.[8] They promoted Indian independence from British rule, or at least dominion status comparable to that of Canada.

Norman Thomas

I’ve chosen two illustrative sources to explore the political economy of the pro-India movement in 1920s America. The first is an article by Norman Thomas, ‘Internationalism and India’ (June 1920) in Young India, a monthly magazine published in New York by the Indian Home Rule League of America (IHRL).[9] Thomas (1884- 1968) was an American Presbyterian minister, a pacifist, and an anti-imperialist.[10] He was a member of the Friends of Freedom for India (FFI), another key pro-India organisation.[11] Thomas was also a democratic socialist; he became formally affiliated with the American Socialist Party in 1918, and was its presidential nominee in 1928.[12] Murray Seidler has since described Thomas as the party’s ‘most influential theoretician’.[13] In the article, Thomas’s general argument was that, although he supported the Indian nationalist movement, once they obtained independence they should avoid enforcing a protectionist economic policy, believing such policies created geopolitical tensions that could eventually result in war. Instead, he advocated internationalism under a democratic socialist structure.

Jabez T. Sunderland

The second source comprises of extracts from a chapter entitled ‘American Interest in India’ by the American liberal activist and Unitarian minister Dr Jabez Sunderland (1842- 1936). The chapter is from India in Bondage (1929), which, like Young India, was published in New York.[14] Sunderland was elected vice president of the IHRL in 1918.[15] Following the collapse of the IHRL and FFI in 1922, Sunderland again became active in the Pro-India Movement at the end of the decade, largely in response to Gandhi’s ongoing civil disobedience campaign.[16] Sunderland’s India in Bondage argued for Indian Home Rule, written partly in response to Pennsylvania journalist Katherine’s Mayo’s explicitly pro-imperialist book Mother India (1927).[17] This particular chapter explained why America held an interest in what was commonly perceived to be a local colonial issue for Britain. Here Sunderland focussed on economic factors; he suggested that Britain should relinquish its imperial control over India and enable Indians to enforce their own policy of free trade. He hoped this would reduce international tensions and provide opportunities for American businessmen.[18]

These two sources exemplify the confluence of socialist and liberal economic opinions within the movement, including the commonalities and shared values of free trade and democracy that enabled them to collaborate. Both Thomas and Sunderland also emphasised the threat of war as a key motive behind their economic arguments. Continue reading “The Political Economy of the Pro-India Movement in 1920s America”