Gandhi’s Interpreter: a life of Horace Alexander

alexanderh01pic1.jpg Horace Alexander (1889-1989) was a British Quaker who was well known within the Quaker community for his work in India. He was a close friend of Gandhi and on good terms with a fair number of Indian and Pakistani politicians. In the 1930s and 1940s he was much involved in lobbying on behalf of India’s claim for independence, and during the Cold War he was a devoted supporter of Nehru’s policy of non-alignment.

Outside the Quaker community he was little known, and this is unfortunate as his experience as an unofficial diplomat has a great deal of relevance in the conflicts and stresses of the 21st century. He collected a huge archive of letters and papers related to his work, most of which is housed in the library of Friends House in London. This has formed the basis of the biography I have completed.

He was for many years a lecturer at Woodbrooke, the Quaker study centre in Birmingham, and it was members of the Woodbrooke staff who encouraged me to undertake the project. My main qualification was that I had seen a good deal of Alexander in India in 1949-50, when I was a member of the Friends Service Unit based in Calcutta at that time. I travelled with him and observed his technique as a mediator and fact-finder at a time of great political tension, with India and Pakistan on the brink of war. I was fascinated by the quiet detachment with which he sought to detect the possibility of an acceptable solution to a ferociously contested dispute, and impressed by the deference with which the disputants attended to his opinions. His manner, incidentally, contrasted strikingly with that of his equally respected Quaker colleague Agatha Harrison, whose sense of drama and lofty speech had prompted a colleague many years before to describe her as ‘a tragedy queen’. I’m afraid that the young people in the Friends Service Unit found her rather entertaining (though her solemnity was offset by a mischievous sense of humour), but looking back on her I can see that her irrepressible belief in the integrity of those with whom she was dealing must have made a powerful impact. She died in 1954 at the Geneva conference on Indo-China, making contact with the Chinese Communist delegation. No one else could do it: she did, but the effort killed her.

alexanderh01pic2.jpg Right: Horace Alexander walking with Ghandi.

Alexander had a strong Quaker inheritance, his father being a barrister who devoted himself to two major causes. One was the peace movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which found its main expression in large international conferences. The other was the campaign to end the opium traffic, which led him to spend long periods in India and China. Horace Alexander himself was profoundly influenced by another brand of internationalism, that of the liberal ideology that prevailed in Cambridge in the years before 1914, and is associated with J.M. Keynes, G. Lowes Dickinson and E.M. Forster. They were encouraged by the work of Norman Angell, whose book The Great Illusion argued that war was no longer in anyone’s interest, so it would never happen again.

The First World War was a shocking challenge to this kind of optimism, but the Cambridge men gamely turned their attention to ways of preventing another such catastrophe, and their efforts fed into the creation of the League of Nations in 1919-1920. Alexander himself spent the first half of the war acting as secretary to a succession of Quaker peace committees, and the second half working as a schoolteacher – that being the condition imposed on him by a tribunal for conscientious objectors. He also got married, and the most engaging part of his archive is the correspondence between him and his future wife, Olive Graham, very much a modern woman with little time for conventional ideas of female propriety.

In 1919 Alexander was appointed to his post at Woodbrooke, and initiated the first course in international relations to be established in Britain. He placed great emphasis on the League of Nations, seeing it as the most hopeful way of preventing future wars. Its strength lay in the mere fact of bringing national representatives together so that they could sort out their conflicts in a rational way, much as Norman Angell had advocated. The League took it upon itself to control drug trafficking, and Alexander found himself involved in passing on a message from Gandhi to an international conference, criticising the opium policy of the British-controlled Government of India. This led him to spend the best part of a year on a fact-finding mission to South Asia, when he met Gandhi and formed a low opinion of the administration of British India. He began to see India’s nonviolent campaign for independence as something that gave more substance to aspirations after a just and peaceful world than the League of Nations could by itself.

In 1930 India was in turmoil because of the Congress Party’s campaign of civil disobedience against British rule. Thousands were in gaol, including their leader Gandhi. In Britain the legitimacy and effectiveness of the foreign government were fiercely debated, not least among the Quakers. Alexander’s father-in-law John William Graham was deeply antagonistic to Gandhi’s ‘subversion’, and thought the Indians quite unprepared for self-government. At the Quaker Yearly Meeting in May there was an address by Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel prizewinning poet. He was supposed to speak about his educational work at Shantiniketan in Bengal, but instead he launched into an attack on British rule in India. The intervention of this immensely impressive reincarnation of an Old Testament prophet rather stunned the thousand or so Quakers present, and John William Graham was particularly outraged. But the meeting agreed to send a representative to India to see if some reconciliation could be effected between the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, and Gandhi himself. The task was assigned to Alexander, and the story of his attempts at mediation is one of frustration and depression. He managed to see all the relevant people, but with no clear result. However, somehow or other Gandhi and the Viceroy did subsequently reach an agreement that allowed Gandhi to come to the second Round Table Conference in London, on the future of India.

Alexander was released from his duties at Woodbrooke to help with the organisation of Gandhi’s time in Britain, and towards the end of the conference a group, mainly of Quakers, set up an organisation to maintain contact with Gandhi and his associates. This was the India Conciliation Group. Agatha Harrison was appointed secretary, and the ICG was tireless throughout the 1030s and in the early years of the Second World War in trying to persuade the British Government of the validity of Indian aspirations. Harrison was skilful in her handling of civil servants, while Alexander exploited his friendship with R.A. Butler (the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the India Office) to influence politicians. When in 1942 the Friends Ambulance Unit offered to go to Calcutta to assist in organising civil defence against threatened Japanese air raids, Alexander was appointed leader because of his good relations with Indian nationalists, who might otherwise have been uncooperative. He managed to persuade Leo Amery, Secretary of State for India, that it would be all right for him to meet Gandhi and other ‘old friends’. There was some feeling in the India Office that Alexander might persuade Gandhi to think again about the offer brought by Sir Stafford Cripps on behalf of Churchill’s government. The offer was based on the granting of independence after the war, and had been rejected earlier in the year. Amery, perhaps deliberately, failed to mention this to the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, who was not best pleased when Alexander unexpectedly walked into his secretary’s office in New Delhi. Nor did the Linlithgow appreciate Alexander’s well-meant efforts to dissuade Gandhi from persisting in his demand for the British to ‘Quit India’. An embarrassed Amery admitted that, well, yes, he had agreed to Alexander’s being in touch with Gandhi, a confession that probably saved Alexander from deportation. And after the Congress leaders were locked up there wasn’t much harm he could do anyway. So Alexander remained, and helped organise efforts to deal with the terrible Bengal famine of 1943-44. Returning to England in 1943 to promote an appeal for funds for famine relief. He also did his best to inform the British public of the current state of Indian politics, writing a ‘Penguin Special’ paperback entitled India since Cripps.

Alexander was on good terms with British officials in Bengal, but New Delhi was a different matter and he had always irritated the Viceregal staff. The irritation was mutual, and if we can believe Alexander’s secretary at the time, Dorothy Hogg, the first drafts of India since Cripps contained passages of such ferocity that they took her breath away, and she told him he couldn’t possibly publish such things. On reflection he moderated his tone, and the published book is a temperate and objective analysis of the situation which still reads well today. It certainly showed how well qualified he was to play the part he did behind the scenes in the Cabinet Mission negotiations of 1946.

When a Labour government was elected in 1945, independence for India became official policy, and in the summer of 1946 three senior Cabinet Ministers were sent to India to negotiate the arrangements for achieving this. The three were the Secretary of State for India, Lord Pethick Lawrence, Sir Stafford Cripps and A.V. Alexander. The negotiations proved to be extremely difficult. All parties in India distrusted the British, doubting whether they really meant to withdraw, while Congress and the Muslim League were fundamentally at odds with each other, Congress insisting on the unity of India, and the Muslim League insisting on the creation of an independent Pakistan in Muslim-majority provinces.

Alexander and Agatha Harrison knew Cripps and Pethick-Lawrence well, and the Congress negotiators saw in them people who could be useful intermediaries. So when the negotiations moved from New Delhi to Simla, British India’s summer capital, the two Quakers were invited to join the Congress team. Alexander and Harrison both left vivid accounts of their experience, which make clear how difficult it was to convince Gandhi and his colleagues of the good faith of the British mission. The Viceroy, Lord Wavell, was extremely irritated by their presence, for it made it look as though Congress had better access to the mission than the Muslim League, so that Jinnah, difficult enough already, became impossible. Wavell was right there, but on the other hand without the two Quakers Congress might have been impossible too.

Alexander witnessed at first hand the huge violence that developed in the Punjab and elsewhere in the year between the Cabinet Mission and the eventual transfer of power in August 1947. He also witnessed the extraordinary skill with which Gandhi managed to prevent a blood-bath in Bengal, being present with him in Calcutta at the time of independence. He was strenuously involved in efforts to limit the violence in the Punjab, acting with his FAU colleague Richard Symonds in a joint observation team to brief the two new governments on the situation and on the measures needed to cope with it. The experience he acquired here he applied in the 1950 Bengal crisis, where I was able to see him in action.

Alexander stayed on in India to see the first stages of its efforts to establish itself as an independent nation. He did a great deal to keep in touch with his contacts in Pakistan, realising that Nehru’s ambitions for the building of a just and peaceful world order were jeopardised by bad relations between the two countries. In the mid-1950s he settled in England again, and devoted himself to countering ill-informed hostility to Nehru’s foreign policy. His first wife had died in 1942, and in 1958 he married Rebecca Bradbeer, an American Quaker. After ten years they moved to Pennsylvania, where he spent the last twenty years of his life, indefatigably supporting peace activities. He was consulted about the early stages of Richard Attenborough’s film commemorating Gandhi, which was finally released in 1982. He repeatedly insisted that the scripts he saw undervalued the remarkable people around Gandhi, and he was downright furious about the way John Gielgud played Lord Irwin as a stiff English aristocrat. But Ben Kingsley’s performance in the title role delighted him, and he was moved by the response of audiences to the film (he saw it four times), invariably remaining quietly in their seats while the credits rolled, as though they could not bear to leave.

The biography has a kind of subplot in the story of Fritz Berber, who had been a student in Woodbrooke and after the Second World War became a Professor of International Law in Munich. Although denounced by Nazi legal authorities as an unreconstructed liberal, he was protected by Ribbentrop, who believed him well-informed about Britain. Berber survived, precariously, as a member of the Nazi bureaucracy until 1943, when he was seconded to the International Red Cross in Geneva. Alexander greatly overestimated his influence on German policy, but Berber’s situation throws some unfamiliar light on Nazi Germany, and the man was himself a fascinating character.

We live in a world where governments spend so lavishly on military hardware that it is almost impossible for the human imagination to comprehend what is being squandered. But there is a reaction against this, for environmental reasons particularly. That reaction has much to learn about alternatives to the military mode. The experience of people like Horace Alexander offers models of action too little appreciated in the big world, though whether a publisher can be found who will believe that the biography of an unknown Quaker can serve as a corrective is far from clear. What I can say with total conviction is that Alexander’s archive is full of entertaining material which often presents a fresh insight into several aspects of twentieth century history.

The author was Reader in English Literature at Edinburgh University until he retired in 1994. His publications include Robert Southey and his Age (1960) and, with John Butt, Volume 8 of the Oxford History of English Literature, The Mid-Eighteenth Century (1979). He contributed the entries on Horace Alexander and Agatha Harrison to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

© Geoffrey Carnall 2006


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