Indian Nationalists In London: A City Trail

By Mimi Romilly | 06 June 2007
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photo shows man in indian dress speaking at foot of nelsons column

Ali Mohammed Abbas speaks at a meeting in Trafalgar Square on 23rd March 1946. From the pamphlet by Muhammad Yousuf Akhtar. All efforts have been made to contact the copyright holders.

When India was a British colony, many ambitious young Indians came to London as a route to good careers in their own country. But once here, they gained not only qualifications, but also a political conciousness. Many trained as barristers, settling in Camden to be close to the Inns of Court.

In the heart of Empire, they campaigned for the independence of India - and many who first arrived here as very young men eventually returned as leaders, making high-level political demands.

As India prepares to celebrate 60 years since independence, we go in search of traces of the lives of these nationalists in London. Coming from many religions, castes and shades of opinion, these men were by no means politically united, but all became eventually convinced of the importance of self rule.

photo show leaflet cover with abbas face

Ali Muhammad Abbas

Ali Mohammed Abbas

Lived at 33 Tavistock Square 1945 - 79

The son of a poor Bengali farmer, he was educated and brought up by his wealthier maternal grandfather, who gave him a higher education that only one in thousands of Bengalis could afford at that time. He became the secretary and president of several student organisations, and joined the All India Muslim League, becoming well known in student circles for his eloquent oratory skills, as well as his fire and conviction.

He decided that the progress of the All India Muslim League depended on them having someone to represent them in London. Like many other Indian nationalists, he came to London to study law, just as the Second World War was ending. In London he edited newspapers ('Our Home' and the 'Voice of Pakistan') lobbied and organised meetings.

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Abbas' Blue Plaque, marking his home which became the unofficial "Pakistani Embassy" during his time there. Photo: K Smith

He was the leader of the Muslim League in London, and appeared in the House of Lords as part of a successful legal career - becoming the first Asian barrister to appear in all the levels of court in England.

On 14th August 1947 his dream was realised with the creation of Pakistan. Naming his flat at 33 Tavistock Square 'Pakistan House' it was used as an unofficial Pakistani Embassy until an official one was built. With the help of local councils, Abbas set up 28 schools all over England which enabled over 30,000 Pakistanis to speak, read and write in English.

He never accepted the establishment of Bangladesh in 1971. He used to say "I am Pakistani, I mean East Pakistan, West Pakistan, andt he entire Kashmir, without these, Pakistan to me is incomplete."

painting shows middleaged indian man in suit and glasses


Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar

Lived at 10 King Henry's Road, Chalk Farm 1921 - 22

Dr Amedkar was born into the Untouchable Mahar caste. Nevertheless, because his father and grandfather were in the British army, he was able to receive a good education.

His experiences as an Untouchable at school were cruel and inhumane. For instance, he was not allowed to drink water unless it was poured into his mouth by someone else, and nobody, including his teachers, would touch his schoolbooks. Only two teachers at his school showed him any kindness - he took the name 'Ambedkar' because it was the surname of one of them.

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These Indian caste heads were brought to London by Frederick Horniman in 1894 when he visited Jaipur. They represent the different castes found in Rajasthan at the time. Courtesy of the Horniman Museum.

As an adult he came to London to study law at LSE, becoming a barrister in 1924. Although he was a brilliant academic, his achievements meant nothing in India because of his caste. Ambedkar started to help the Untouchables, campaigning for equal treatment. He was unimpressed by Gandhi who would not reject the Hindu caste system. In 1927 he was invited back to London to attend a conference on the oppressed classes. In 1932, he signed the Poona Pact with Gandhi to the advantage of untouchables.

photo shows blue plaque

Ambedkar's Blue plaque says "Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar 1891 - 1956 Indian crusader for Social Justice lived here 1921 - 1922. Photo: K Smith

In October 1956, at Napur in India, he attended a ceremony, along with 200,000 Untouchables to embrace Buddhism. He died peacefully in his sleep, as a convert to Buddhism, soon after. There is a commemorative plaque to Ambedkar at 10 King Henry's Road, Chalk Farm where he stayed during 1921 -22. The plaque is inscribed "Indian crusader for social justice."

painting shows portrait of jinnah

Jinnah. Photo: K Smith. Courtesy of Lincoln's Inn.

Quaid-l-Azam, Mohammed Ali Jinnah

Lived in Hampstead, a member of Lincoln's Inn

Mohammed Al Jinnah, also known as Quaid-I-Azam, meaning "the Great Leader" was born in Karachi on 25th December 1876. Jinnah came to London to study both law and the political system, often visiting the House of Commons. He helped the elderly Parsi, Dadabhai Naoroji to become elected as MP for Central Finsbury - the first ever Indian to become a member of Parliament in Britain.

For many years Hindus and Muslims united together against the British. Jinnah built up Congress before the arrival of Gandhi and took the lead in pursuing Hindu-Muslim unity. But by 1920 he had left Congress, and opposed Gandhi's non-co-ooperation movement. He led an independent party in the Legislative Assembly from 1923 - 1930.

photo shows large victorian hall built in a medieval style

The Great Hall at Lincoln's Inn containing the mural of the lawmakers. Photo: K Smith

He returned to London in 1930, starting a practice at 11 Kings Bench Walk and living in Hampstead. Jinnah was a handsome and stylish man. He spoke perfect English, dressed impeccably (acquiring over 200 handmade Saville Row suits during his life) and was driven to his chambers daily, by his chauffer, in his Bentley. At the same time, he joined the Fabian Society, and lobbied unsuccessfully to become a Labour MP. (One Labourite was heard to say 'we don't want a toff like that'). After three years he returned to India, but in 1946 was back in London, taking part in direct action, and a protest march to Trafalgar Square.

Jinnah's portrait hangs at Lincolns Inn in Central London. Lincoln's Inn has a huge mural of great lawmakers above the door in the Great Hall, which includes a picture of the Prophet Mohammed in a green robe. It's said that Jinnah chose Lincoln's Inn because of this picture.

He became first Governor-General of Pakistan in 1947, but died the following year of lung cancer. The Aga Khan, who was in awe of him wrote: "Pakistan was a going concern fromt he outset. Part of the genius of the Quaid-I-Azam was that, like the prophet himself, he attracted into his orbit able and devoted people, and Pakistan has been served throughout her brief existence, by men and women of the highest moral and intellectual character."

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Dadabhai Naoroji. Courtesy of Islington Local History Centre

Dadabhai Naoroji

Britain's first Asian MP. Naoroji Street in Finsbury is named after him.

Dadabhai Naoroji was born in Bombay in 1825. He was the son of a poor Parsi priest, who died when Naoroji was only four, but was educated through charitable grants at Elphinstone College in Bombay. As an adult he became interested in both politics and commerce, and this brought him to England in 1855. He subsequently spent more than half of his long life in England, and was president of the London Indian Society, which he set up in 1865.

He became a leading Indian nationalist, and a critic of British rule and its economic policy in India. Writing many papers including Poverty in India (1876) he argued that India' wealth was being drained away to England, thereby keeping Indians themselves in continual poverty.

photo shows detail of goddess and peacock on carved wooden box

Detail from the carved wooden box given by the people of Bombay to the people of Finsbury. Courtesy of Islington Local History Centre.

As a speaker, he was much admired by Gandhi, who attended all his 1888 meetings. In 1892 he became the first Indian member of the British parliament, representing Finsbury Central (now the borough of Islington). His supporters included Florence Nightingale, Gladstone, Charles Bradlaugh and Henry Fawcett. He died in 1917.

Islington Local History Centre today holds memorabilia associated with his life. One of their most treasured possessions is a finely worked wooden box containing an album of photographs of Bombay. The box was a gift from the people of Bombay to the electorate of Finsbury - expressing their gratitude to, and solidarity with the London borough.

There's an exhibition of the box and the photographs at Islington Local History Centre from 19th July - 30th September 2007.

You can also read more about Naoroji here

photo shows statue of gandhi legs crossed in meditation pose and surrounded by trees

The statue of Gandhi in Tavistock Square Photo: K Smith

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

Stayed at Kingsley Hall, Bow in 1931

Gandhi came to London during two significant stages of his life. He first arrived as an 18 year old law student. During his first stay Gandhi was a member of the London Vegetarian Society, and frequently attended the meetings of Dadabhai Naoroji. He was called to the bar in 1891, and worked in the capital for two years before returning to India.

When he returned in 1931 he was an international figure. After 20 years of defending Indian workers rights in South Africa, he had returned to India and become the recognised leader of Indian nationalism. Like many others mentioned here, he had been finally alienated from the British by the massacre at Amritsar. From December 1931, the British held conferences in London to consider the constitutional future of India.

Gandhi's principal of simplicity made him avoid living in a grand hotel in London. Instead he stayed at Kingsley Hall Community Centre in East London - a place run by two pacifist sisters. He lived in a simple cell on the roof of the building for three months. The cell is still open for visit and meditation - the HQ of the Gandhi Foundation has a peace library next door, including all of Gandhi's writings.

Read more about Gandhi In The East End here

Vengalil Krishnan Krishna Menon

Lived at various addresses in Camden

Menon lived in Camden for many years, and as a councillor founded an arts festival, and organised the beginnings of the Borough library service. He was also a committed Indian nationalist, who toured Britain tirelessly, making the case for independence. When India became independent in 1947, he left Britain to become part of Nehru's government.

You can read more about him and the memorial to him that was twice stolen from Fitzroy Square here

photo shows nineteenth century indian youth in Harrow uniform

Nehru as a schoolboy at Harrow

Jawaharlal Nehru

Attended Harrow School, returned to London many times as an Indian campaigner and leader

Jawaharlal Nehru was born into a wealthy Kashmiri Brahmin family. His father Motilal was a successful lawyer. In 1905, Nehru was sent to England to be educated at Harrow public school. He then went to Cambridge, and became a lawyer in Inner Temple in 1912. But on returning to India, Nehru and his father both became motivated by their Nationalist ideas. Like Tagore, they were deeply affected by the Amritsar massacre, and in 1920 joined Gandhi's non co-operation campaign. Father and son were imprisoned in 1921. Jawaharlal returned to prison on many occasions spending a total of nine years in gaol. Many of his books were written whilst under detention.

Nehru returned to England many times, often staying with his friend Krishna Menon. The Nehru Centre, which presents Indian culture in London, is named after him

Shows a photo of an curved sword and decorative scabbard

The sword of Maharaja Ranjit Singh at the Wallace Collection. © Wallace Collection

Maharajah Duleep Singh

Lived in Covent Garden and Kensington

Maharajah Duleep Singh was the fifth and last king of the Kingdom of Lahore, and was the son of the fabulously wealthy Sikh royal family who were the rulers of the Punjab.

As a ten year old, and one of the richest Maharajahs in India, the British government, under Queen Victoria, deprived him of his kingdom, as well as the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond, which is now part of the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London. He later referred to Queen Victoria as "Mrs Fagin" declaring "for she is a receiver of stolen property."

During the spring of 1882, the Maharajah visited the reading rooms of the British Museum every day to look at papers and correspondence relating to his family, the Sikh wars, and the annexation of his former kingdom, the Punjab. He studied the papers intensely in the hope of finding some way of claiming his kingdom back, but to no avail. He formed the League of Indian Patriots, with himself as the president. The League's objectives - to take back India - were never achieved, but he was extensively spied on by the British, and embroiled by the Russians and others in conspiracy.

The British government gave him a pension which was a fraction of the value of his kingdom. He was brought to England, and led the life of an English country squire at his home Elvedon Hall, Suffold. He also acquired other houses paid for by the government at 34 King Street in Covent Garden, and 53 Holland Park Kensington.

His daughters lived in grace and favour apartments at Faraday House, Hampton Court Palace. They were involved in the suffragette movement.

Find out more about Sikh history in London here

photo shows old man with long white beard

Sir Rabindranath Tagore, the most famous Bengali poet, painted by W. Fearon Halliday. Copyright National Portrait Gallery.

Rabindranath Tagore

Lived at 3 Villas on the Health, Vale of Heath, Hampstead, NW3

Born into an intellectual and wealthy landowning Hindu Brahmin family in Bengal, Tagore was sent to England in 1877, to study law at University College, London. His grandfather, Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, having already financed two of the first Indians to study medicine at University College, and his uncle Ganendra Mohan Tagore, being the first Indians to teach there.

Of London, he wrote "There can hardly be a more cruel Winter; the sky turbid, the light lacking lustre, like a dead man's eye.

He was a prolific writer of stories, poetry, essays, music and songs and wrote the Indian national anthem. He mostly wrote about life in rural Bengal, but it was the English translation of his book Gitanjali that brought him to worldwide attention.

Tagore had a conflicted relationship with the British Empire. Awarded a knighthood in 1915, he became Sir Rabindranath Tagore. His portrait was painted around this time by Halliday Fearon - it's now held by the National Portrait Gallery. However he later rejected his knighthood because he was so incensed by atrocities committed by the British on 13th April 1919 at Amritsar

Readings from Tagore's work were used by Indian nationalists in London to keep India and its political situation in the public conciousness.

Ravi Shankar gives a poignant account in his autobiography of the affect that Tagore had on him when they first met. "Even after I had seen so many remarkable people around the world, throughout my life, I still have not come across such a personality as Tagore. It was like looking at the sun; he was so dazzling. To me, who had read his poems, novels and essays, and sung his songs, he was already a myth, a legend. Seeing him was like seeing the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal."

You can read more about Bengalis in London here

photo shows demonstrators in London

Demonstrators on their way to Downing Street on a 'Direct Action Day' called by the All India Muslim League. From the booklet "Ali Muhammad Abbas". Abbas himself is in the foreground dressed in black.

Indian Students in London

These famous men were backed up by many Indians in London who attended meetings and protests. Often these were students. Papers now held at the British Library describe the monitoring of some of these students by the British government. Though you can only see the originals by appointment, they are available online here

The Moving Here website also describes earlier Indian student activity in London, especially around 1905 when the partition of Bengal by Lord Curzon aroused great hostility.

photo shows woman in check shirt

photo shows Noor Inayat Khan. Courtesy of the Princess Noor Appreciation Society.

Postscript: Noor Inayat Khan

Though not herself deeply involved in the nationalist movement, Noor Inayat Khan is worth a postscript because of her family's complex relationship with the British. Her great, great, great grandfather was Tippu Sultan, the 'Tiger of Mysore' - a formidable opponent of British rule in India. He was quoted as saying "it is better to live one year as a tiger, than a thousand as a sheep."

Tippu Sultan was forced to give up his two sons, aged eight and ten, to be held in British custody as surety. Presumably one of these sons was Noor's ancestor. As Tippu Sultan was killed fighting the British, it was unsurprising that one of his sons was present at a meeting at the Freemason's Hall in 1839, at the launch of the British Indian Society whose aim was to advance the the prosperity of their own country - and probably rid India of British rule.

Khan herself was an undercover radio operator for the British in France during the Second World War,. Her biographer, Shrabani Basu suggests that she was influenced both by her long residence in France, and because she had been engaged for six years to a Jewish man. She was eventually captured by the Gestapo. She did not crack under torture and was executed at Dachau in 1944. Basu says:

"Though she firmly believed that Britain should give Indians their freedom, Noor was convinced that Indian leaders should not press for independence when Britain had its hands full fighting the war. She felt that if the Indians backed Britain and won many gallantry medals it would create a sense of confidence in them, and the British would readily grant independence to India...."

Most of Congress in this period were a little more cynical, prepared to back the Allies war against Fascism, but wanting concrete concessions from England in return.

This article is based on the poster exhibition Notable Asians In Camden. It remains available for display in schools and libraries - contact or for details.

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