“Action” and Interpretation: Political Violence, Terrorism, and Revolution in Interwar India

Thursday, January 2, 2014: 1:20 PM
Washington Room 5 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Kama Maclean, University of New South Wales
The Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) was a peripheral but significant organization that orchestrated violent ‘actions’ aimed at British targets in interwar India. In post-colonial India, as several political interests vie to claim the HSRA’s legacy, there is debate about what the HSRA intended to achieve through violence. In nationalist historiography, they are seen as anti-colonial actors who sought to challenge Gandhian nonviolence to achieve independence. Others counter this, pointing out their revolutionary aims and positing their Marxist influence, manifested most clearly in the prison diaries of Bhagat Singh. There are many other political claims besides.

Rather than adjudicate this debate, I wish to problematize the interstice between revolutionary action and interpretation in the 1930s. This begins with a reading of the dynamics within the HSRA. There was some disagreement within the organization about what political violence – discursively construed as terrorism by the British – might achieve. Then there is the interpretation of actions by the members of the Congress, the British and by the targets themselves.

I will focus on the HSRA’s attempt to assassinate the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, in 1930, just days before the annual Congress in Lahore. This particular ‘action’ was planned by the HSRA’s central committee, but subsequently cancelled when it was realized that it would place undue pressure on the annual Congress at Lahore.  The Lahore Congress was to consider escalating the nationalist demand from dominion status to complete independence, and to embark upon a program of civil disobedience.

A faction of the HSRA proceeded with the plot, keen to pressure the Viceroy and demonstrate to the Congress (especially Gandhi), the support that the revolutionaries enjoyed. The public interpretation of the ‘action’ provided an additional layer of analysis, as did the reaction of the Viceroy, who maintained an exemplary stiff upper lip throughout.