Lord Archibald Fenner Brockway: An Englishman with an Indian Soul

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Archibald Fenner Brockway died almost exactly 30 years ago on the 28th of April, 1988, six months short of his centenary. Just before his demise, he had completed his last book titled Ninety-nine Not Out! A Pacifist, he opposed imperialism. He opposed Gandhi’s arrest in 1930 and was suspended from the British parliament. The author had met him on his 98th birthday. Prof. Ashoka pays a tribute to Lord Brockway, on his death anniversary, exclusively for Different Truths.

Indian struggle for independence from British imperialism had attracted several people from the British Isles whose contribution was by no means insignificant. They appealed to their fellow citizens to appreciate the fundamental amorality of imperialism and it would not be erroneous to state that this narrative was responsible for the support among the British population for Indian freedom. 

Some like Annie Besant abjured their country of birth and relocated to India where she actively collaborated with Balgangadhar Tilak and other leaders of the Indian Home League. There were others like William Wedderburn who passionately believed that his Liberal instincts could never support the proposition of imperialism. He was a very close collaborator of Gopal Krishna Gokhale and also served as the President of the Indian National Congress. There was Charlie Andrews who believed that his religious calling could not but make him a passionate supporter of Mahatma Gandhi. I shall not include Dadabhai Naoroji in this list. While appellated the Grand Old Man of Indian politics, who also represented Finsbury Park in the House of Commons, he always identified himself as an Indian even during his British sojourn.

But none was as colourful and passionate about this cause as Archibald Fenner Brockway, who died almost exactly 30 years ago on the 28th of April, 1988, six months short of his centenary. Just before his demise, he had completed his last book titled Ninety-nine Not Out!

Fenner, as he was commonly addressed, had strong atavistic links to India. He was born on the 1st of November, 1888, to missionary parents in Calcutta, where he had his early primary education. His parents were devout missionaries.

He was profoundly influenced by the Indian ethos and remained in touch with his contacts even when his father was transferred back to the British Isles. At the age of 20, he became a committed vegetarian and remained so for the rest of his life. 

His religious upbringing convinced him that imperialism was an abomination and pacifism was the only means to eliminate human fanatism. He only suspended his pacifism when he supported the International Brigade struggle against Franco but reverted back to it after a short while. He was imprisoned several times during the First World War because of his pacifist leanings.

Leaving school at the age of 16, he held on to a variety of jobs before becoming a journalist, working for the daily news where he interviewed figures like George Bernard Shaw and H.G.Wells. After joining the Labour Party, he was entrusted the editorship of their periodical, Labour Leader. He then became the editor of the journal, India, in which he vehemently opposed British imperialism in India. 

By this time, he had come in contact with Mahatma Gandhi and become his admirer. Gandhi invited him to attend the Indian National Congress sessions where he became acquainted with and close friends with almost all the senior leaders. In 1928, he was made the Chairman of the League against Imperialism. Having become a member of the House of Commons, his opposition to Churchill and other imperialists was very effective. 

His stances earned him the wrath of the establishment, which resulted in his suspension from the parliament when he opposed Gandhi’s arrest in 1930. He would also be remembered for wearing a Gandhi cap in the parliament as a mark of protest against the arrests that were taking place in India for donning that attire. The top British public schools like Harrow, Eton, Winchester, and others banned him from entering their campuses. He was one of the prime figures who supported Krishna Menon when the latter campaigned for total independence over dominion status.

In addition to his opposition to wars, he has a diehard opponent of nuclear weapons and remained so until his death. He was a prolific writer and authored many books on his philosophical leanings and experiences. He was made a life peer in 1964 and continued to promote his passions. Labour Party under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan had adopted a multilateralist stand vis-a-vis nuclear weapons and this often put him at odds with his leadership but he continued to enjoy unalloyed support and veneration of not just those in his party but across the political spectrum for his integrity and humanism. His report on prisons is till referred to in all the debates.

I had first learned about him when I read Dr. Rajendra Prasad’s autobiography. In 1985, I was invited to attend his 98th birthday celebrations and consider myself most fortunate to have had the opportunity of having interacted with him. He shared many thoughts on the occasion and publicly declared Gandhi as the most notable figure of the century. He, in an address, revealed that in 1911, he had made an address demanding freedom for India. A young man in an immaculate Saville Row suit walked up to him and stated that he was going too far. He introduced himself as Jawaharlal Nehru, who later on became his firm friend.

The most interesting moment of the occasion was when a reporter walked up to him and said, “Lord Brockway! I hope I am going to be around when you celebrate your centenary!” He looked at him straight in the eye and said, “I think that can be arranged! You look healthy enough to me!”

A thousand pities that this remarkable man was not able to complete 100 years! And that too by such a short margin!

Sad that not many in India are aware of this great man and his seminal contributions!

©Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Photos from the Internet

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Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.