Last Sunday, four days after Russia had invaded his country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged people around the world to volunteer for an “international brigade” that would help resist the “occupiers and protect global security”.

With this call, Zelensky was reaching back eight decades to invoke the idealism that had inspired more than 30,000 people from 50 countries – including India – to join the International Brigade in the fight against General Francisco Franco’s fascists during the Spanish Civil War.

The volunteers of the International Brigade in Spain find mention on the first page of historian Ramachandra Guha’s riveting new book, Rebels Against the Raj: Western Fighters for Indian Freedom.

“In the modern world, the gold standard of loyalty is loyalty to one’s nation,” Guha writes. “Very occasionally, however, history and and morality permit, and even encourage, individuals to identify with, and devote their energies to fulfilling the aspirations of a country that is not their homeland.”

The renegades who are the subject of Guha’s book turned their eyes not to Spain, though, but to India, as it waged a battle against British colonialism. Rebels Against the Raj tells the story of seven British and American people who devoted their lives to the Indian freedom struggle – and, for those who lived to see Independence – the task of building a new nation.

Here are edited excerpts from a conversation at an event organised by Literature Live!

How did you pick the seven characters for your book?
Rebels Against the Raj is about foreigners who joined the freedom struggle. I focused on seven for whom I had interesting new material and through whose interwoven lives I could tell the story of late 19th- and early 20th-century India. Several changed their names. Some changed their religion. Two married Indians.

Each led fascinating lives, each was an activist, all of them were writers, all of them were either imprisoned or deported, all had complicated relations with Gandhi, sometimes reverential, sometimes adversarial. Though these lives, it’s a picture of India’s encounter with the modern West over a century-long period.

Who were they?
There’s Annie Besant, who comes in 1893. She’s the only one who’s middle aged: she’s in her mid-40s and has a remarkable career as a suffragette and socialist behind her in England. She had become a Theosophist and comes to India because Theosophists thought India was the land of gurus and mystics. She worked on women’s education and promoting the Theosophical Society and then became active in politics. She’s 3/4th Irish so when the Irish Home Rule movement starts in 1915-’16, she starts a Home Rule League for India. She’s arrested, becomes the first female president of the Indian National Congress, but later on is eclipsed by Tilak and Gandhi. She dies a rather embittered old lady, but after an incredibly interesting and diverse life.

My second renegade is very much a man of Bombay, BG Horniman, immortalised in the circle outside the Asiatic Society – one of the nicest parts of my favourite city in India. Horniman was an editor – an independent-minded editor, with a polemical style and fiercely committed to the freedom of the press. He was deeply interested in the lives of the subaltern classes of Bombay: the workers, particularly.

He was deported because of his editorial position on the Jalianwala Bagh massacre in 1919. He came back after seven years in England to continue his work. He was almost certainly gay, which was a very interesting and transgressive and admirable aspect of his life. He must have had Indian lovers but unfortunately, we don’t know much about that part of his life. He died in 1948, just after Indian became independent.

The third of my renegades is an American, Samuel Stokes. He came as a missionary, then left the church, joined Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement and spent several months in jail. When he came out, he was somewhat disenchanted with Gandhi’s obsessive interest in spinning: the Mahatma had made spinning mandatory for Congress membership. Meanwhile, Stokes had married a local Pahadi woman in Himachal. Stokes then pioneered the horticultural industry in Himachal. He popularised the growing of apples – which has helped sustain Himachal’s economy ever since.

By the early 30s, he becomes disenchanted with orthodox Christianity, becomes a Hindu and changes his name to Satyanand. He died in 1946.

The fourth character is probably the one who is best-known to an Indian audience. She was the daughter of an English admiral. She was born as Madeline Slade. She was a concert pianist who read about Gandhi. Then she totally flipped and became a disciple of Bapu and his adopted daughter and went by the name Mira Behn.

Parts of Mira’s story are very well known – her devotion to Gandhi, her courting of arrest in the Civil Disobedience Movement in the 1930s, her propaganda tours to the UK and USA on behalf of the Indian freedom struggle, the time she spent with Gandhi in the Aga Khan Palace in Pune (she was with him when Kasturba died in 1944).

But what is less well-known, and which I sketch out in some detail, is what happens after she leaves Gandhi and goes to the Himalaya, where she became a pioneering environmentalist. She spoke of the importance of biodiversity, warned about the impact deforestation would have on floods and the local ecology. Eventually, she went back to Europe where she influenced the making of Richard Attenborough’s film.

Number Five is a fascinating character called Philip Spratt, who is a Cambridge Communist who comes to blow up India. He was based in Mumbai for a long period, mobilising the working classes, along with people like SA Dange and SH Jhabwala. He was arrested in the famous Meerut Conspiracy Case and spent several years in jail. While in prison, he started reading Gandhi and was cured of communism.

He went on to become a journalist in my hometown of Bangalore. In fact his press was right behind where I now live. He was editor of a magazine called Mysindia, standing for Mysore India, a Southern alternative to the then very popular Illustrated Weekly of India.

Spratt married a Tamil woman. One of the great delights of my research was finding their correspondence, which is incredibly rich and moving. They had several children. He stayed on in India, became a passionate free-marketeer and an analyst of the Hindu personality. He died only in the 1970s.

Then there was another American missionary, like Stokes. He was called Richard Keithahn, who worked in Madurai. Like Stokes, he was unhappy with the sahib-like life of the missionaries. He became close to Gandhi, was deported for his support to the Quit India Movement, came back after Independence and played an important role in setting up the university in Gandhigram. His followers are still active in rural work in southern Tamil Nadu.

The last person is an Englishwoman named Catherine Mary Heilman, who adopted the Indian name Sarala Devi and set up a pioneering girls’ school in Uttarakhand. She was also jailed during the Quit Indian Movement and then came out to set up this school in an incredibly patriarchal and backward part of India. Among her wards in this school, called the Lakshmi Ashram, were future leaders of the Chipko Movement.

The most dramatic journey, philosophically, was that of Spratt. What elements of his life drew you to him?
There was possibly some self-projection there because I was a youthful Marxist. I was cured of my Marxism not by meeting Gandhi but by meeting the Gandhian leaders of the Chipko movement. I haven’t gone to the other extreme like Spratt did.

I had all these images that people had given me about him. My mother-in-law, for instance, used to attend his talks at the Institute of World Culture in Bangalore. He loved books. An elderly journalist friend PK Srinivasan was totally intrigued by this Englishman who would travel by cycle, get off at a small restaurant and eat an idli and vadai as he read Freud.

Reading those letters that he wrote to the woman who would become his wife, Seetha, which the family graciously gave me, was very moving. The letters are very revelatory because Spratt was a very shy man. And many shy people often like expressing themselves in correspondence.

It’s a joy to read unpublished correspondence for a biographer and to come across letters that are so revelatory, so moving, so insightful, so funny and also self-deprecatory: the humour is very English so he’s often mocking himself. So yes, Spratt is certainly a most intriguing and fascinating character.

You also paint a vivid portrait of BG Horniman, a man who clearly believed that journalism mattered a great deal – and of his disputations with the management of the Bombay Chronicle, which had the reputation for being a great nationalist newspaper.
The Bombay Chronicle was started in 1913 as the nationalist alternative to the pro-establishment Times of India. It was started by liberals like Pherozeshah Mehta and they recruited Horniman, who was already in India as an assistant editor with The Statesman in Calcutta.

The paper quickly came to be identified with Horniman because of the power of his own writing and because of the young journalists he nurtured. Among them were Pothan Joseph and SA Brelvi – one from Kerala, the other from the United Provinces, who became noted editors in their own right.

There were others in his stable. There was a remarkable Bengali sports writer called JC Maitra, who vigorously campaigned for justice to be given to a family of Dalit cricketers, the Palwankar brothers.

The paper became his: he was running it, orienting it towards the freedom struggle and offending the moderates who had started it.

After Horniman was deported by the British in 1919, he became a cult figure in India. When he returned in 1926, Brelvi told him to take over the paper again. But Horniman wanted a seat on the board, which the businesspeople at the paper would not give him. He left, started something else, came back to the Bombay Chronicle and eventually ran an eveninger called the Bombay Sentinel.

His story presages many battles between editors and their boards, not just in our country. I think what was remarkable about Horniman was his commitment to his staff. He started the first trade union of working journalists. He had a great interest in working-class people. Though he was a sahib, he wrote a lot about textile workers. He often gave speeches in chawls.

After Independence and the deaths of Horniman and Brelvi, the Chronicle lost its raison d’etre. The British had gone and there was no need for an adversarial paper like that. But it was not just interesting for its politics. It was very important for its coverage of film and sport and everyday social life,

I hope some young scholar reading about Horniman decides to use the Chronicle to map the cultural, political and social history of the city of Bombay from 1913 to 1956, which is the paper’s lifespan.

Equally fascinating is what happens to these figures after Independence. They continue to fight for the India for which they have given up families and gone to jail. They continued to fight for Bapu Raj.
Of my seven protagonists, Annie Beasant died in the early ’30s, Stokes died in 1946, just before Independence, Horniman in 1948. The four others continued to do creative and important work.

Mira Behn continued to promote environmentally oriented practices in the Himalaya, quarelling with her former jailmate Jawaharlal Nehru for his insensitivity to agrarian and ecological interests. Keithahn did similar things in South India. Spratt became a fighter for economic freedom, turning into a vigorous campaigner against the Licence Permit Quota Raj. Sarala Behn nutured an ethic of social work and women’s emancipation in the Himalaya.

They all contributed in creative and important ways to a democratic India, working outside the state system. Many nationalists joined the government, becoming ministers and MPs. Others went into the political opposition – Kriplani and Rajaji and Lohia among them.

These four rebels were in civil society. They were working with ordinary folk. They were not seeking political power or political influence as they worked towards social transformation and consciousness raising.

Besides, they all left a corpus of writing. They observed, documented, analysed and provided a record of what they saw from which you can tell a larger story about India’s move from a colonial to a post-colonial nation and society.

You’ve dedicated the book to your friend the Belgian-born Indian economist Jean Dreze. What kind of rebel is he?
He’s very much carrying on in the tradition of these people. This book’s original title, under which it’s been travelling for more than a decade, was Renegades. The subtitle was always Western Fighters for Indian Freedom. It turned out about five or six months ago, the American publisher of this book discovered that Barak Obama and Bruce Springsteen were publishing a book called Renegades, so I’d have to change the title of mine. I chose this fallback title, which was fine.

But I also had to change the dedication. It originally read: “For Jean Dreze, a renegade of our times.” Now it just says blandly, “For Jean Dreze.”

My friend Jean is a true renegade. He gave up his nationality, his religion, he lives in India, he’s married an Indian and speaks flawless Hindi. He’s travelled to many more parts of India than you and me combined. No one understand the lives of ordinary Indians in northern and eastern India better than him. He’s travelled in second-class trains, in buses, he’s walked from village to village.

I don’t always agree with him on economic and social policy but he’s an adornment to our country. He works in the tradition of the seven renegades I write about.

You’ve devoted a considerable part of your life to writing biography. There’s your magnificent work on Elwin and your magisterial work on Gandhi. What is it about biography as a form that attracts you as a writer – and a reader?
A biography is the closest thing you get to literature in history writing. It’s about relationship, emotions, the struggles of ordinary human beings or sometimes extraordinary human beings.

I came to biography writing by accident. It was because I got so intrigued by the figure of Verrier Elwin, who had played such an important role in my life: it was because of reading him that I moved from studying economics to sociology and then to writing history.

As a sociologist, I would write about structure, as a historian about process. As a biographer, I had to learn to write about personality without completely forgetting structure and process – the broader social, historical, political background had always to be there.

One of the new things about this book is that it’s the first time I’ve written about women. It gave me the opportunity to flesh out the lives of these three women characters. It was a new experience for me. I can’t say whether I’ve succeeded in entering their minds and their emotions and their sentiments and their feelings but it was an enjoyable experience.

In your prologue, you say that the lives of these individuals constitute a morality tale for the world we now live in.
We live in a world driven by xenophobia, jingoism and hyper-nationalism. That isn’t true just of our country. Populist politicians come to power saying, our country, our culture, our civilisation has all the resources required to solve our present problems and those who want a more open-minded approach to the world are anti-national. They are betraying the essence of our culture or our religion.

I find this way of thinking deeply repugnant. It’s also contrary to the traditions of our freedom struggle – people like Gandhi and Tagore and Ambedkar and Nehru embraced the world.

Of course I didn’t write this book as a moral science lesson or a political science lesson. I wrote this book to evoke a period in Indian history in which these seven characters were able to play important roles. But I realised as I was writing it that it speaks to the world today and not just to India.

I hope that this book is read not just in India but also elsewhere as a story of how people, regardless of their national or racial or cultural origins, can identify with another people – and so completely.

Rebels Against the Raj: Western Fighters for India’s Freedom

Rebels against the Raj: Western Fighters for India’s Freedom, Ramachandra Guha, Allen Lane.