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  • Gentlemanly Terrorists: Political Violence and the Colonial State in India, 1919–1947 by Durba Ghosh
  • Kama Maclean
Gentlemanly Terrorists: Political Violence and the Colonial State in India, 1919–1947. By Durba Ghosh (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2017) 275 pp. $89.99 cloth $29.99 paper $24.00 e-book

After 9/11, studies in the history of Indian anticolonialism began to examine the occurrence of political violence—construed by the British as terrorism—that accompanied nonviolent campaigns. Gentlemanly Terrorists is the first major contribution in this recent wave of scholarship to focus on Bengal, described by the British as a “hotbed of terrorism” in India. Ghosh explores the rise of violent political protest in Bengal following World War I and British attempts to counter it with repressive legislation. She demonstrates that the slow process of political reform in India was shadowed by the gradual extension of repressive powers. The [End Page 186] government aimed its policies at rewarding and punishing political energies, pushing them into “constitutional channels” of negotiation and concession seeking, and away from acts of subversion and violence. This dialectic produced a framework for “good” and “bad” citizenship, creating the perverse scenario “in which patriotism requires political agreement with the state” (245).

Existing studies of political violence in colonial India try to demonstrate how assassinations and bombing played into, and helped to deliver, independence; Ghosh’s contribution is to demonstrate how methods of repression adopted by the British shaped the postcolonial state. In making this larger argument, she exposes several fascinating narratives about under-researched elements of anticolonialism, providing details about the Chittagong Armory Raid and about protests conducted from prison, as well as examining ideas of what constituted suspicious behavior (including, but not limited to, riding bicycles and posing as a Muslim, 160).

Ghosh’s account is primarily a carefully researched archival history, drawing from recently declassified intelligence records, which were subject to restriction (some of her notes were redacted, and some of her files disappeared). She also draws from revolutionary autobiography for evidence of an alternative viewpoint. Early examples of autobiographies published in the 1920s and 1930s served as handbooks for future activism. Later accounts, published from the 1950s, met with resistance from the postcolonial state partly as a way to mute Bengal-centric narratives, but also to project the exceptionalism of nonviolence. Ghosh takes her cues from observations of postcolonial political culture and Bengali public histories, particularly grassroots activism by former revolutionaries. These activists were, in the 1970s, eventually given state recognition, in the form of statues and monuments, and the endowment of pensions and other benefits. Although men dominated the revolutionary movements in Bengal as elsewhere, the narratives of women feature prominently in Ghosh’s account.

In Bengal, political violence emerged from an educated middle class (bhadralok) that the British themselves had created but failed to incorporate effectively into systems of governance. The idea that bhadralok prisoners stood a good chance of rehabilitation formed the basis of a fascinating dynamic established between successive governments in Bengal and convicted political prisoners.

The other major contribution of this book is its attention to marginalized national activists like the detenus—political prisoners held on suspicion but without charge. The practice of preemptive detention was highly developed in colonial Bengal, with province-specific legislation crafted for the purpose. Importantly, the conditions in which detenus were held had to replicate their home environments, keeping their bhadralok status in mind. Ghosh describes the lengths to which successive British governments went to fulfil these demands, including the provision of appropriate foodstuffs and access to books, letters, and odd games of tennis—all within a liberal framework. [End Page 187]

Gentlemanly Terrorists is an enthralling book that brings revolutionary anticolonialism and political violence to the center of the historiography of modern India. The interdisciplinarity of the book lies not so much in method per se but in the use of political theory to elaborate the illiberal nature of preventive detention and repressive legislation. These emergency provisions, which were always supposed to expire, were regularly extended, creating a perpetual state of exception in Bengal. As Ghosh pithily notes in the introduction, “The emergency seemed to never end” (18). The book...


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pp. 186-188
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