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V.S. Srinivasa Sastri and the Making of Liberal Internationalism
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V.S. Srinivasa Sastri was a celebrated Indian politician and diplomat in the early twentieth century. Despite being hailed as the ‘very voice of international conscience’, he is now a largely forgotten figure.

This book rehabilitates Sastri and offers a diplomatic biography of his years as India’s roving ambassador in the 1920s. It examines his involvement in key conferences and agreements, as well as his achievements in advocating for racial equality and securing the rights of Indians both at home and abroad. It also illuminates the darker side of being a native diplomat, including the risk of legitimizing the colonial project and the contradictions of being treated as an equal on the world stage while lacking equality at home.

In retrieving the legacy of Sastri, the book shows 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.

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On 12 August 1922, the readers of The Victoria Daily Times in Canada awoke to a stolid Indian face on the paper’s front page. A sharply dressed man with a receding crop of white hair, a tie knotted around the neck and upper body clad in a coat stared at them with earnest and disarming eyes. Valangaiman Sankaranarayana Srinivasa Sastri, the man in the picture, was ‘one of the most interesting and important personages to reach these shores for some time past’. This ‘distinguished visitor’ had arrived in Canada to plead for the rights of racial equality for Indians. The Canadian Prime Minister had sent his Deputy Foreign Minister, Joseph Pope, who had travelled over four days from Ottawa to receive Sastri in Victoria. Sastri’s face radiated the ‘magnetism of his eyes’ and the ‘supreme sincerity’ of his intentions, the anonymous correspondent writing for the Daily Times gushed.1

‘Sastri is a Brahmin’, who were ‘the intellectual leaders of India’, the paper emphasized. His caste status was ‘the complete answer’ to those who questioned his credentials. Added to this, ‘his eloquent singleness of mind’ made him a ‘rare jewel’ in a setting ‘corroded and discoloured by the baser elements’. Rather than opposing the ‘colourless’ British, Sastri’s preferred term for the whites, his whole life had been dedicated to the upliftment of the ‘coloured of India, the poor lethargic untouchable caste’. This made him different from the ‘fanatical types’ like Gandhi and his associates, whose motivations were ostensibly driven by the hatred of the empire and the white man. Moderate in both temperament and political views, Sastri was ‘an exact type to whom the British government thinks India must look for its ultimate liberty’.

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V.S. Srinivasa Sastri was born on 22 September 1869 in a small village, Valangaiman, along the banks of the Kudamurutti nearly 300km south-west of Madras (now Chennai). He was fourth child born to his orthodox Brahmin parents, Vaidik Sankaranarayana Iyer Sastri and Balambal Sastri. Srinivasan was preceded by three sisters and, in due course, an equal number of brothers followed. His father had inherited the family profession of teaching and reciting Sanskrit scriptures and, by all accounts, a life of rituals and pecuniary struggle awaited the eldest son. The family was very poor, and Sankaranarayana, in spite of trekking near and far in search of a dedicated clientele, earned little.

Sankaranarayana was exceedingly strict in his observation of rituals and enforced them unfailingly in his own household. He was also emotionally volatile, which meant that fatherly warmth and dramatic outbursts were both par for the course in the household. Srinivasan’s mother could not have been temperamentally any more different. Balambal was calm and composed and consequently a stabilizing influence on Srinivasan. He later recalled that his mother had ‘a melancholy and pious disposition’ and cultivated in him the trait of listening. Her ‘street expositions of scriptures’ and bountiful resources of mythological lore kept the young Srinivasan enchanted but also grimly terrified of the mystical world of goblins and ghosts.1 He found his solace in the outside world, playing marbles and digging street pits, and quickly distinguished himself as a marble player of local repute among the neighbourhood children.

Once he hit school-going age, Srinivasan was sent to the Native High School, six miles away in Kumbakonam, where he stayed until matriculation.

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‘Already feel the monotony of life’, Sastri scrawled in his diary on 30 April 1919.1 The Arabian Sea was calm; the SS Manora travelled at a leisurely pace of about 12 knots per hour on its journey towards England. This was his first trip abroad. On earlier occasions he had pointedly refused to go overseas because of his mother’s illness. Now when he had grudgingly given in, Balambal fell ill and never recovered. She passed away soon after he arrived in England.2

Anxiety about his mother’s health and recurring bouts of back pain chained him to his cabin for long periods on the ship; the motionlessness of time snoozing in sync with his body. The cabin that he shared with three other people had a porthole and a fan, making it barely tolerable. The proverbial silver lining was that he spent his days feasting on books and writing letters to family and friends. Of all of the ship’s passengers from Bombay only nine were Indians. Six of them were Indian political leaders travelling to London to present evidence on the historic Montagu–Chelmsford Reforms. Sastri and H.N. Kunzru, both from the Servants of India Society, were representing the moderates. Kunzru, younger than Sastri by 17 years, was the more experienced traveller of the two, having studied at the London School of Economics. In views as in temperament, Sastri and Kunzru were quite alike.

The other four politicians were going to join the veteran radical Bal Gangadhar Tilak to represent the Congress’ point of view; although it was not clear if Tilak, who was in London to fight a defamation case against the journalist Valentine Chirol, would be the leader of this delegation.

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On 26 August 1919, the South African Minister of Defence, Jan Smuts, was in the coastal town of Durban in the Natal province. Informally referred to as ‘the largest Indian city outside India’, it was, as it is now, a place abundant with South Africans of Indian descent.1 They had first arrived as indentured labour in the colony of Natal in 1860, followed a few decades later by traders, or ‘passenger Indians’. The Union of South Africa, a state formed in 1910 out of the four colonies of the Transvaal, Natal, the Cape Colony and the Orange Free State, treated its non-white subjects as second-class citizens, although the degree of discrimination differed from province to province; the Orange Free State being the most racist and the Cape Colony the most liberal.

In his address to local Indians that day, Smuts assured them of ‘fair treatment in all parts of the Union’. A frisson of excitement ran among the crowd, as Smuts summoned empire sentiment to appeal for conciliation between whites and Indians. He announced: ‘We have to live side by side in conciliation … so that we may live together and grow together. We are members of one family … the same Empire.’2

For an Afrikaner leader, let alone a former Boer War general who had fought a brutal war against the British Empire, this could seem an odd choice of words. However, Smuts was the most empire-loving of all Afrikaner leaders, and the empire loved him back. In fact, he had just returned from England after two and half years.

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Aboard the White Star Line’s magisterial ship the SS Olympic, Sastri and his team of advisers, Girija Shankar Bajpai (secretary), Geoffrey Corbett (civil adviser) and Colonel K. Wigram (military adviser), left Southampton on 26 October 1921. The Washington Conference was convened by America’s President Warren G. Harding to discuss two sets of issues: disarmament and affairs concerning the Pacific. Harding had originally invited a combined delegation of the British Empire, aware that his predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, had been criticized by the republicans for granting the units of the British Empire separate votes at the League. Three dominions – Canada, Australia and New Zealand – had direct interest in Pacific affairs and feared Japan. The dominions were more likely to be supportive of America’s plans in the Pacific so Harding wanted them to attend.1 But as we will note, they also had different interests and positions and insisted that they would sign separately on each of the agreements reached, so that each could withhold their signatures in case of specific disagreements.2 Lloyd George and Harding had to agree, and since India had a status equal to the dominions, Montagu and Sastri insisted on India’s separate representation.3

Sastri, who had impressed the Prime Minister at the Imperial Conference, and even more so with his work in Geneva, was the automatic choice for India’s representative. India’s interest in Pacific affairs may have been marginal except for the issues relating to China, but a conference like Washington was a legitimacy-enshrining platform. India’s claim to dominion status would be bolstered by its equal representation at what promised to be a defining international conference.4

The five-day journey to New York was spent in relative luxury, Sastri’s cabin was ‘a commodious little house’.

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Sastri and Bajpai arrived in London in mid-February 1922 to a hostile, anti-India public and political mood.1 Montagu and Reading were up against a wall of opposition for their supposedly soft treatment of Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement. The boycott of the Prince of Wales’ visit by Indian nationalists inflated this resentment into a full-blown rage. Reading was accused of dithering for far too long over arresting Gandhi, while Montagu faced a motion of censure in the parliament, where he was openly slammed for a ‘criminal betrayal of every white man and white woman in India’.2 The criticism directed at the two Jews came laced with undercurrents of anti-Semitic vitriol. Meanwhile, as will be seen in the next chapter, Churchill had made one of his regular about-turns on the Kenya policy and announced that the Kenyan Highlands would remain reserved for whites, effectively ruining the work done over the several months of Montagu’s negotiations with him. This prompted Charles Andrews, Gandhi’s friend and a champion of the rights of overseas Indians, to call for Reading’s and Montagu’s resignations. Montagu, who always appeared eager to step under the guillotine, had also been vocal against Lloyd George’s Turkey policy, much to the Prime Minister’s annoyance. Sastri found Montagu ‘annoyed, weary and querulous’.3

Amid all this, Sastri had a moment of personal glory; he was sworn into the Privy Council on 5 March, the third Indian to be given the honour, after Syeed Amir Ali and Lord Sinha.4 Sastri and Bajpai left for India soon afterwards, and while they were en route two events of history-shaping importance took place.

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In the first weeks of 1923, Nairobi was pregnant with ominous rumours. Local Portuguese settlers, it was rumoured, had been instructed to wear badges on their arms to differentiate themselves from Indians. Up-country white settlers were spotted in town recruiting their racial kin for a militia.1 While the chatter spread in urban Nairobi, the countryside simmered with rage. The local European associations were ‘blowing upon the ambers of revolt’ against the Crown Colony government,2 as E. Powys Cobb, a legislative councillor, and Phillip Wheatley, a veteran artillery officer, toured the country, urging local associations to ‘set [the country] alight’. A second Ireland was in the offing, or so some local associations threatened. In Nakuru, a town situated in the Rift Valley, the largest meeting of a local settler community was held, in the presence of key settler leaders including Lord Delamere, who had been secretly designated as the first president of the future provisional government.3 Here, the crass messaging of the other local European associations was jettisoned for a more polished, yet very targeted, resolution that promised to ‘take such action as [the settlers] may consider proper and necessary’.4

Stirrings of a coup whirled around the country. Wheatley was appointed as the military leader of the proposed rebellion. With the slogan of ‘For King and Kenya’, recruiters for local vigilance committees emphasized that rebelling against the local government would be the highest form of duty to the crown. Kenyan Indians, feeling gravely under threat, appealed to the colonial government. But the Kenyan government, under the South African-born Governor, Robert Coryndon, watched passively from the side-lines, dismissing their fears of violence as ‘much exaggerated’.

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Sastri returned to public life in early 1924 after a few months’ rest. The Kenya decision had broken his faith in the British parliament, but only temporarily. In December 1923, the Conservatives were handed a major drubbing in the elections. The Ramsay MacDonald-led Labour Party formed a minority government with the support of the Liberal Party. Sydney Olivier, one of the famed ‘three musketeers’ of the Fabian Society along with Sidney Webb and George Bernard Shaw, took over as the Secretary of State for India.

The Labour Party had been historically supportive of the Indian cause, and in February 1924, Oliver released Gandhi from prison after having served only one third of his prison term. Given the state of unrest in the country, all Indian political parties agreed that the country could not wait for ten years (from 1919) to pass before the next set of reforms. A major group from within the Congress, the Swarijists led by Chitranjan Das, who had entered the assemblies to wreck them from within, demanded an immediate round table conference to discuss dominion status. Annie Besant appealed for a national convention of Indian leaders to draft a new constitution in order to present it to the British government.1

Sastri welcomed these winds of change and appealed to the Indian leaders to give the Labour government a chance. He led the dominion status demand from within the liberals, but preferred a new election, instead of a National Convention, to precede the framing of India’s demands. He argued that in a democratic set-up, however rudimentary, an altogether new demand must only come from the people.

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On the morning of 28 May 1927, Sastri arrived in the summer capital Shimla for an appointment with Lord Irwin in his official residence. Architecturally inspired by the English Renaissance, the Viceregal House (now the Indian Institute for Advanced Studies) is reminiscent of Scottish castles with its grey stone exterior. It sits atop Observatory Hill, a watershed that cleaves the Indian subcontinent into two. On its one side waters fall into the Arabian sea and on the other into the Bay of Bengal. Each summer since 1888, when the Viceroy retreated with his government’s entourage from the sweltering heat of Delhi to the hills of Shimla, figuratively, India’s governmental and geological centres merged. Sastri had arrived in Shimla to officially take charge as India’s first Agent to South Africa. While he had served earlier in government delegations in a non-official capacity, this was his first appointment as a full-time official of the Indian government.

Two days later, John Tyson, an Indian Civil Service officer, joined as his official secretary. A First World War veteran, Tyson had entered the ICS in 1920 and shot into the public limelight recently on account of his progressive judgements as the officiating chief presidency magistrate in Calcutta. The young magistrate was brought to the notice of the Home member in the Viceroy’s Council, Alexander Muddiman. When asked if he would go to South Africa, Tyson jumped at the opportunity to escape a provincial life and immediately set off for Shimla.1

The third official member of the delegation was the Office Superintendent, Claude Stanley Ricketts. At the time employed at the Viceroy’s Office, Ricketts had also served in the Paddison and Habibullah delegations.

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