History revisited

The story of the Englishman who stayed back as a judge in India (and what it tells us about Nehru)

Having come to India in the service of an imperial power, William Broome died an Indian.

Justice William Broome is not a well-known figure today. But he lived an exciting and inspiring life.

He came to India as an imperial official, but defied British prejudices by marrying an Indian woman and devoting his life to India. He received Indian citizenship with the assistance of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and heard the early stages of Raj Narain’s challenge to Indira Gandhi’s 1971 election victory. He was unusual even among those British officials who stayed on in India after Independence. But his life still contains important lessons about what it can mean to be Indian.

William Broome was born in 1910 in London. He was appointed to the Indian Civil Service in 1932. He served in what was then the United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh). In 1937, he married Swaroop Kumari Gour, the daughter of the lawyer, politician and academic Sir Hari Singh Gour.

This marriage was remarkable. Even though Broome served in the Indian Civil Service during a period of Indianisation, British rule in India was still characterised by racial hierarchies and segregation. The maintenance of colonial control involved the preservation of racial divides, aloofness and detachment from the Indian populace. Even India’s Anglo-Indian population was stigmatised and excluded by the English-born.

In marrying Gour, Broome defied these prejudices. He raised his children as Hindus (Broome was an atheist), learned numerous Indian languages and developed a strong interest in Indian culture.

Being Indian

Broome was appointed as a district and sessions judge in 1941. His independence in that role was legendary. When the chief secretary of the United Provinces declared that too many detainees under the Defence of India Rules were receiving bail, Broome responded by threatening the chief secretary with contempt of court.

Unlike most British judges and civil servants, Broome stayed in India as a judge after Independence. By 1958, Nehru was able to write of Broome that “I have seldom known any Englishman who has so Indianized himself in various ways as he has”, and that “he is as much as Indian as anybody can be who is not born in India and indeed probably more so than many people born in India”.

In that year, with Nehru’s assistance, Broome renounced his British citizenship and became an Indian citizen. He was appointed to the Allahabad High Court, where he served until his retirement in 1972. His judgments in this role demonstrated a strong concern for civil liberties, even going further than the Supreme Court of that time.

One of Broome’s final cases as a judge was to hear the early stages of Raj Narain’s challenge to Indira Gandhi’s 1971 election from Rae Bareli – the challenge that ultimately led to the Emergency. Broome had known Nehru and had once enjoyed a friendly relationship with Indira – he and his wife were even invited to Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi’s wedding reception. But he nonetheless made important procedural rulings in Narain’s favour. (Although Broome’s friendship with Indira Gandhi seems to have ended after this case, it is striking that no effort was made to delegitimise his decisions by referring to his foreign birth.)

Broome died in Bengaluru in 1988. Having come to India in the service of an imperial power, he died an Indian.

A noteworthy life

Broome was unusual. Although thousands of British citizens remained in India after Independence, few British officials or judges did so. Of those officials, Broome was one of the few who devoted himself to India not just as an administrator, judge or scholar but as a citizen. The fact that he embraced India until his death, and was embraced in turn, must be weighed against the departure of so many other British citizens, whether at Independence or upon their retirement, and the alienation of many Anglo-Indians from the new independent nation. His life was not necessarily representative of how other people of British descent in India felt or acted after Independence.

But Broome’s life is still noteworthy.

He was retained as a judge by the independent Indian government partially through pragmatism: despite the long struggle for independence, free India kept many of the institutions and officials that had governed (even subjugated) colonial India. But his life also reflected important, idealistic aspects of the new Indian state.

Broome came to India as an official of an occupying colonial power. He served as an official and a judge in a regime that imposed various rigid classifications: between races, between religions, between governors and governed. Broome rejected these classifications. After achieving Independence, the government of India did so too.

In the current age of escalating intolerance and xenophobic nationalism, Jawaharlal Nehru’s idea of India remains a powerful alternative to those who would make the nation great again by slicing away undesired pieces of it. Nehru refused, as Ramachandra Guha puts it, to “reduce India or ‘Indianness’ to a dominant religious or linguistic ethos”. Nehru himself described Indian unity as encompassing “the widest tolerance of belief and custom…every variety acknowledged and even encouraged”. Nehru’s idea of India was, as he put it, a nation of “enduring capacity to absorb other people and their cultural accomplishments”, drawing upon and enriched by ideas and faiths and traditions from around the world. Even though this vision failed to attract or keep many, even most, of the British people who had lived and worked in India under the colonial regime, it did allow Broome to be accepted as an Indian.

The fact that Broome was seemingly one of a kind demonstrates that this vision has not been completely honoured in practice. Broome was married to the daughter of a very distinguished Indian, held important offices and was seen to have “Indianized himself”. He may have been easier to accept as an Indian than someone without these characteristics, thus demonstrating limits to Indian tolerance.

There is hence a gulf between Nehru’s vision of India and how that dream has been fulfilled. But the vision is still important and still inspiring today.

Douglas McDonald-Norman is a researcher in Indian law, politics and history and a contributor to Law and Other Things. For more information on William Broome, see Douglas’s article for the Indian Historical Review, “Becoming Indian: William Broome and Colonial Continuity in Post-Independence India”.

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