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Fascism in British India | Vito Salierno

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FASCISM AND BRITISH INDIA | Vito Salierno
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FOREWORD
According to a logical but disarming axiom Mussolini intended to open the road to an Italian policy in India or much better to his personal policy to British India. His axiom seemed simple: India and Italy are anti-British, hence India and Italy have many common points of view. This was the heart of the matter, even if the development of such a policy was not so simple. Actually – as we shall see later on – there was not any clear policy of Fascist Italy towards British India. It was always an improvised policy which was governed not according to a programme but by situations or events, and quite often by the availability of men, sometimes ready to co-operate, sometimes reserved or against it, in the middle of personal or political interests, or even utopian projects. Besides there was not any uniformity of attitudes to British India in the same people responsible of the Italian foreign affairs, such as Mussolini, Ciano,1 Grandi,2 and their close officers, who were all influenced by their personal political ideas and by their personal attitudes towards Britain before the Second World War and towards Germany from 1940 on. Mussolini’s interest for India and her politics goes back to 1921 when he wrote a general article about the rebellion of the Muslim Moplahs of Malabar. The episode was the occasion to speak of the revolts that had been taking in India for years. A passage is worthwhile quoting:
According to a logical but disarming axiom Mussolini intended to open the road to an Italian policy in India or much better to his personal policy to British India. His axiom seemed simple: India and Italy are anti-British, hence India and Italy have many common points of view. This was the heart of the matter, even if the development of such a policy was not so simple. Actually – as we shall see later on – there was not any clear policy of Fascist Italy towards British India. It was always an improvised policy which was governed not according to a programme but by situations or events, and quite often by the availability of men, sometimes ready to co-operate, sometimes reserved or against it, in the middle of personal or political interests, or even utopian projects. Besides there was not any uniformity of attitudes to British India in the same people responsible of the Italian foreign affairs, such as Mussolini, Ciano,1 Grandi,2 and their close officers, who were all influenced by their personal political ideas and by their personal attitudes towards Britain before the Second World War and towards Germany from 1940 on. Mussolini’s interest for India and her politics goes back to 1921 when he wrote a general article about the rebellion of the Muslim Moplahs of Malabar. The episode was the occasion to speak of the revolts that had been taking in India for years. A passage is worthwhile quoting:
[...] It is clear that the position of Great Britain in India is rather difficult. We do not think of a forthcoming collapse of her domination because she will use all her means, violent and underhand, to maintain India; however, the agitation in India has started and is going to be successful. The seed has been sown, the people are ready; India’s independence is not a matter of possibility, it is a problem of time. From the shores of the Atlantic to the sea of Bengal, from Morocco to Malabar the whole Arab-Muslim world is in agitation. It is a great event: this awakening of peoples and tribes, which seemed sleepy in a fatalistic resignation, while are today ready in arms, ready to any war.3 In the years after the “March on Rome” Mussolini was attracted by Gandhi in particular. Even though Gandhi was considered a controversial figure, he was very well known in Europe more because of his strange way of life than of his ideas, which were however too vague. How was it possible to shake off the British domination with non-violence? Mussolini’s brother himself, Arnaldo, wrote in 1925 that Gandhi’s passive resistance was actually a kind of “resignation” waiting for better times.4 Later on, he modified his opinion by saying that Gandhi was the prophet of some hundred million Indians subjugated by the British “with the force of laws and arms” and by him “pushed to autonomy”.5 However, the most exhaustive description of the Indian situation was by Mario Appelius, a pro-fascist regime journalist, who went to India in 1925 for a reportage under the sponsorship of the government. In his book, dedicated to Mussolini from “the land of Gandhi,”6 the Indian revolution was seen as a revolt against the western civilization and the national movement was identified with the Mahatma. Appelius, who had interviewed Gandhi, wrote that under his leadership India had become the basis of a revolutionary movement for all the peoples of Asia. His conclusion was that Lenin, Mussolini and Gandhi were three exceptional men in modern history though each of them proposed his own particular way: Lenin the extolling of masses, Mussolini the doctrine of the Country, Gandhi the immobility and the non-violence. There was, however, a contrasting element:
Gandhi’s struggle was based on non-violent means to attain a self-government [swadesh], while Mussolini’s territorial expansion on arms and eventually wars. The problems of India and in general the revolts of the Asiatic peoples became relevant in the Italian press in the years 1930-31. The first event was the declaration of independence approved by the Indian National Congress at Lahore on 1st December 1929. On the occasion another Italian pro-regime journalist, Virginio Gayda, a sort of official spokesman, wrote that the peoples of the East were ready to shake off the British yoke and paid a tribute to Gandhi’s action.7 In 1930-31 tens of articles dealing directly or indirectly with India were published in two magazines connected with the Fascist government: “Gerarchia” and “La Vita Italiana”.8 Mussolini’s first idea to govern India after the victory of the Axis powers and the collapse of the British empire in India goes back to a sentence he had read in a book and had marked with three exclamations marks: India is the strong-room of the world. Italy must have it. What the British say is of no importance. The fascist comrades will silence them ...9 This book goes back to 1931. But when did Mussolini read this passage? Maybe in the same year the book was published. We think so on the basis of another book which was present in his personal library, an essay written by Viator under the title L’India dove va? [Where does India go] and published by the government Libreria del Littorio in Rome. The pseudonym of Viator was used by Gino Scarpa,10 who had spent many years in India and was a personal friend of Gandhi’s secretary Mahadev Desai.11 The unsigned, short introduction to L’India dove va?, attributed to a high officer of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, described the atmosphere of that period:
What does it happen in India? The news recently published in European newspapers is very interesting but confused. There has been a meeting of the Indian Congress where a full independence of India from the British Empire has been asked and at the same time another meeting was held where a possibility and a usefulness of a compromise between rulers and ruled people have been supported. The leader of the Congress was Gandhi, one of the world personalities of our epoch. Europe asks: what does it happen in India? What is the real situation? What are the possible developments of the situation in the near future? No doubt on the fact that it has moved away from the cast immobility to the western dynamism. But what will this movement take to? The author of this book gives a clear answer to all this. He is a connoisseur of men and things. His words are based on a direct witness and are going to explain all this to the Fascists, that is to explain a problem that concerns three hundred and twenty million people. The future of the British empire and most of the future story of the world depend on the solution of that problem. he last passage of the introduction reflected the attitude of the Italian government towards Britain: Some people say: even if Britain makes mistakes, we must support her because if Britain collapses, Europe’s prestige collapses too. It is right to say that Britain is responsible for the policy the peoples of Asia are going to undertake towards Europe. But this does not mean that Europe must follow Britain if her policy is wrong and if she creates separations and conflicts instead of searching for a compromise and establishing a co-operation. On the contrary, Europe has the duty of making Britain feel the responsibility of her position, a responsibility which goes beyond her particular material interests. The idea of the Empire itself is not a conception of Europe or a defence of Europe; it is a corner-stone of Britain independently from Europe and eventually against Europe. Being between the world development of the USA and the great economical unities of Europe, Britain reinforces the organization of her Empire to go on with her isolation in order not to be compelled to join continental Europe. India is an essential element of this scheme. This makes the granting of autonomy difficult for Britain because the Empire is not a system where India is interested to remain like other countries. It is an organization destined to serve first of all the interests of London, then the interests of other white dominions who are linked to London by interests of race or of defence. The time when India has the possibility to develop her economy in an autonomous manner, her interests would coincide with this system only occasionally and the system itself would therefore become a burden and a limitation.12 We must underline the fact that these ideas were expressed in a period when fascist Italy was still thinking of a possible agreement with Britain. The conclusion was, however, that Rome was in a position of mediating and would be the speaker of the international platform: If India becomes self-governing or independent, the first consequence will be the involvement of Egypt, Palestine, Iraq. The eastern Mediterranean will play the historical role it had in the past. Rome will be the place where East and West shall meet again.13 All the more or less official contacts of the Italian government with representatives of the intelligentsia of India were made from the above mentioned point of view, of course Gandhi being on the foreground. However, under the support of Indian nationalism, Mussolini cherished a dream: to make Italy a great power by expanding it to south (Africa) and to east (Asia). He had made it clear at the second five-year assembly of the regime on 19th March 1931.14 Later on, Africa was the object of a military conquest (Ethiopia), which created a crisis in the Mediterranean area and a dissension with Britain; India became apparently only the object of an economic expansion. We have said apparently because we now know that Mussolini, without informing anybody, had planned since 1935 a surprise attack (similar to the later Japanese attack to Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941) by the Italian Navy against the British naval bases of Malta and Suez and against the French naval bases of Biserta and Toulon, extending it to Aden in order to reach the Indian Ocean. On 2nd September 1938, at the eve of the meeting of Munich of 28th September when Chamberlain announced “peace in our time”, the plans for the simultaneous attacks were ready. On 10th September the head of the Italian Navy, admiral Domenico Cavagnari, sent them to his officers with a recommendation: “Be ready. The orders come from above”.15 We must not forget that in the same period the fascist government, after the Ethiopian crisis, had tried to come to terms with the British. On 2nd January 1937 the two governments signed a Gentlemen’s Agreement about the freedom of the Mediterranean: [They] recognize that the freedom of entry into, exit from and transit through the Mediterranean is a vital interest both to the different parts of the British Empire and to Italy, and these interests are in no way inconsistent with each other. And on 16th April 1938 there followed an Anglo-Italian Agreement concerning good neighbour relations in East Africa, the evacuation of Spain and the Naval Treaty of London. Of course, these agreements were signed to the purpose of developing commercial relations between Italian East Africa and the United Kingdom, India, and British colonies and protectorates. However, they had a political implication and were meant to keep the road open in case the alliance with Germany did not work. Besides sponsoring Tagore’s, Iqbal’s and Gandhi’s visits to Italy, with which we shall deal in detail later on, the Consul General in Calcutta, Gino Scarpa, planned in the 1930s an Italian cultural mission to India. In 1933 he happened to meet Vittorio Macchioro, an archaeologist and historian of religions, to whom he proposed an assignment as visiting professor in some Indian universities. According to Scarpa, Macchioro, who had been to America for a series of lectures on Orphism and Greek religion, was the right person to speak on a subject near to the Hindu mentality. With the approval of Gentile, Macchioro reaches Benares in early 1934; there, with the help of the vice-chancellor Pundit Malaviya, an important nationalist leader, he planned his lectures for the new academic year; instead of speaking of Orphism and Greek religion he was convinced of delivering lectures starting from the Italy of Renaissance to the modern Italy of Mussolini both at Benares, Delhi and Calcutta universities. In the span of a year Macchioro realized that his Indian and Italian sponsors were only interested in their own political problems and that he had been exploited for political reasons. Disenchanted and disappointed, Macchioro gave up; in one of his letters, dated 5th May 1935, wrote: “I ask myself what is the purpose of my ‘mission’? [...] I think that at the bottom there is a sort of wrong and absurd vision, a fruit of the imagination of Scarpa, who has seen who knows what in the spreading of the Italian culture in India and has communicated these dreams to high-up where they are always ready to accept bizarre ideas which create great sensation and give occasion to theatrical attitudes”.16 It is another demonstration of an unplanned foreign policy, dependent on situations and men. During the war this interest for the Indian Ocean was stated in two lectures by admiral Giuseppe Fioravanzo at the IsMEO on 21st January and 3rd February 1941: though the lectures were too general and too vague, they were written to make a clear propaganda to the action of the Italian Navy. However, the Foreign Office had never ignored Mussolini’s real attitudes towards Britain. Since 1923, at the time of the crisis of the occupation of Corfu by the Italians, Lord Curzon was aware of the fact that some Indian revolutionaries entertained contacts with Mussolini, who receiving them in Rome on 27th February had assured them of his assistance as his task was to expel the British from the Mediterranean. Of course, he had added he would do it with the greatest care so that the Italian government was not involved in it.

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Fascism in British India | Vito Salierno

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