London: Historian Ramachandra Guha was honoured by modern-day Brits for his book “Rebels against the Raj: Western Fighters for India’s Freedom,” which focuses on white Brits who defied the British establishment to support Indian independence. Guha received the prestigious Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography 2023 and a £5,000 cash award. The judges highlighted the book’s relevance to contemporary India, emphasizing that oppression doesn’t disappear with the end of colonial rule. Guha’s work profiles seven individuals, including Annie Besant and Mira Behn, who dedicated themselves to India’s cause and underwent personal transformations. The book sheds light on their commitment to a new way of life and their understanding of post-colonial India’s place in the world.
The annual Elizabeth Longford Prize was established in memory of the renowned biographer Elizabeth Longford, known for her works on Queen Victoria and the Duke of Wellington. Guha also received a bound copy of Longford’s autobiography. “Rebels against the Raj” joins the ranks of previous notable winners, such as David Gilmour, Frances Wilson, Charles Moore, and Julian Jackson.
Roy Foster, the chair of the judging panel, praised Guha’s deep empathy and impressive scholarship, along with his passionate regard for the book’s subjects. Guha’s research showcases how the lives of these rebels were transformed by their involvement in India’s struggle for independence, adding a fresh perspective to Mahatma Gandhi’s life. The book underscores the importance of historical biography in understanding the spirit of the times through the lens of individual experiences.
Guha’s work features lesser-known heroes, including Samuel Stokes (Satyanand), Benjamin Guy Horniman, Philip Spratt, Richard Ralph Keithahn, and Catherine Mary Heilemann (Sarala Behn). Each individual’s story contributes to a moral lesson for today’s world, marked by paranoia, nationalist xenophobia, and contempt for ideas from outside one’s own nation. Guha argues that these rebels’ experiences demonstrate that foreigners can offer valuable insights and teachings, countering the notion of unique national blessings held by certain leaders like Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and Xi Jinping.
Guha’s inspiration for the book came from Verrier Elwin, a maverick British anthropologist who dedicated his life to working with Indian Adivasis. Elwin’s influence led Guha to shift his academic focus from economics to sociology and history. Guha credits Elwin for changing his life trajectory and moulding him into a biographer. The idea for “Rebels against the Raj” originated during Guha’s research on Elwin over 25 years ago.
Now back in Bangalore, Guha reflects on the impact of Elwin’s work, emphasizing that without him, he may have pursued a mundane career and not become a biographer. Elwin’s regret of never being arrested, unlike his white contemporaries, left a lasting impression on Guha. Reading Elwin’s writings changed Guha’s life, shaping his passion for studying Indian history and writing about the lives of individuals who defied the Raj.