Henry Polak: The Cosmopolitan Life of a Jewish Theosophist, Friend of India and Anti-racist Campaigner

Abstract Henry Polak (1882-1959), a British-born lawyer, journalist and editor of Indian Opinion, campaigned with Mohandas Gandhi against restrictions on South African Indians and against the indentured labour system. Founder of the Indian Overseas Association in 1920, he worked with Indians across the diaspora against racism and discriminations. Most in tune with Indian political liberals, he worked with them for Indian independence. His life of border-crossings and his affective cosmopolitanism were inspired by his spiritual cosmopolitanism. His reading across cosmopolitan thought zones saw his embrace of Theosophy and universal equality. He drew strong links between Theosophical beliefs and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Keywords Spiritual cosmopolitanism • Affective cosmopolitanism • H.S.L. Polak • Indian Overseas Association • Cosmopolitan thought zones • Theosophy

Henry Polak (1882-1959), a British-born lawyer, journalist and activist, campaigned on behalf of Indians across the British Empire against racism and discriminations, in the first half of the twentieth century.1 Beginning with an intimate friendship and collaboration with Mohandas Gandhi in South Africa and in India during the years 1903-1916, Polak built a life of ‘innovative border-crossings’.2 His career spanned the period from the © The Author(s) 2017

J. Haggis et al., Cosmopolitan Lives on the Cusp of Empire, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-52748-2_3

struggle against the erection of the ‘Great White Walls’ around settler colonies in the pre-World War 1 years, through the strengthening of anticolonial movements in the 1920s and 1930s, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and beyond.3 He died in 1959, still involved with antiracist struggles, now against apartheid.

From his youth Polak read religious texts from a number of different traditions, which laid the basis of his spiritual cosmopolitanism, belief in human equality and the necessity of comity. During his life he built friendships and collegial relationships with many Indians, in the sub-continent and across the diaspora. His spiritual cosmopolitanism and his affective cosmopolitanism were productive in practical terms. They nourished his political activism and sustained his commitment to work for legislative change.

This chapter begins by examining the personal, social forces and ethical imperatives, which led him to move beyond British society, culture and Judeo-Christian traditions to involve himself deeply in the struggle of others. The chapter discusses the rich and complex nature of his career and achievements and explores the role offriendship, and the written word in his activism and cosmopolitanism. Finally, it raises questions about the limits to his cosmopolitanism.

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