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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 40, New Delhi, Sept 18, 2021

Virendranath Chattopadhyaya - Indian Revolutionary Abroad: Unknown Warrior of Freedom Movement | B P Mathur

Friday 17 September 2021, by B P Mathur


The role of Indian revolutionaries, who operated from abroad to fight for country’s freedom, has not been adequately appreciated in the history of our freedom movement. Post-1857 war of Independence, the administration of the country passed from the hands of East India Company to the British Crown, who ruled with iron grip allowing no dissent. To escape the long hand of British rulers a band of patriotic Indians found it expedient to operate from abroad, to secure for their countrymen their birthright of freedom. Some of these pioneering revolutionaries were Shyamji Krishna Varma, Lala Har Dayal, Bhikaji Cama, SS Rana, Ras Behari Bose, A C N Nambiar, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya just to name some of them. The most daring and charismatic revolutionary was no doubt Subhas Chandra Bose, who founded the Indian National Army and in close collaboration with Japan had reached India’s doorstep in North-East with a view to drive the British out of the country. Britain won the Second World War, but she was considerably weakened. A realization came to them that they cannot hold India without the support of a faithful army. The freedom movement under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, while peaceful, ignited the fire of freedom in the heart of every Indian and the British administration understood that without the cooperation of local populace they can no longer rule the country. The idea of freedom had also spread amongst the armed forces. The revolt of the Royal Indian Navy in 1946 made Britain realise that the Indian Forces cannot be relied on to serve their imperial purpose. This was an important factor which weighed with Great Britain to grant freedom to India.

In the above context, the life and times of Virendranath Chattopadhyaya which is the subject of a very insightful and revealing book by Nirode K Barooah assumes great deal of historical significance. Nirode Barooah an Indian academic, who has lived all his life in Germany has done painstaking research and assessed original German documents and the archives of Britain, Sweden and Russia for his book, Chatto - The life and Times of an Indian Anti-imperialist in Europe (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004) has brought fresh insight into trials and tribulations of revolutionaries who faced tremendous hardship and sacrificed their lives for the cause of freedom of their motherland. A companion volume to this book is Barooah’s subsequent book, Germany and The Indians- Between the War (BOD - Books on Demand, Norderstedt, 2018), as Germany being hostile to Britain during the period India was fighting for her freedom, was relatively a safe heaven for Indian revolutionaries.

 Virendranath Chattopadhyaya (born 31st October 1880 ) popularly known as Chatto came from a very distinguished and talented Bengali family of Hyderabad. His father Aghorenath Chattopadhyay was a pioneering educationalist and scientist and had earned D.Sc from Edinburgh University, one of the first Indians to do so and served as Principal of Nizam College Hyderabad. He had four brothers and four sisters. His elder sister was the celebrated Sarojini Naidu, the famous poet, and associate of Mahatma Gandhi, who had also served as President of the Congress. His youngest brother Harindranath was a well-known writer, poet, actor, and parliamentarian. His youngest sister Suhasini, who had married the revolutionary A C N Nambiar, though later they separated, and had become an ardent Communist activist. Virendranath earned his BA degree from Calcutta University and went to England in 1902, and enrolled himself in Middle Temple to qualify as a barrister. His aim was to pass the ICS examination but met with no success.

  In London Chattopadhyaya, came in contact with several Indian revolutionaries devoted to the cause of their country’s freedom and was deeply influenced by them. The patron saint of Indian nationalism in Europe was Shyamji Krishna Varma, who had started India Home Rule Society and its mouthpiece the Indian Socialist. He had founded several scholarships for Indian students to promote the cause of Indian independence and bought a house in London to be used as a hostel for scholarship-holders and other Indian nationalist visitors. Shyamji Varma’s passionate activities created great deal of hostility in England and he decided to move to Paris in 1907 to be able to work in an atmosphere free from surveillance of British intelligence. V D Savarkar was one of the India House scholarship holder and had radical views including arms insurrection to end British rule in India. One of the associate of Savarkar was Madanlal Dhingra who had completed Engineering course in London and in July 1909 took the daring step to assassinate Sir Curzon Wyllie, a British officer who had served in India. Dhingra was arrested, put to speedy trial and sentenced to death and hanged within one and half month of the murder. The murder of a British officer raised intense anti-India feeling in England and the British intelligence and police made the life of Indian revolutionaries very difficult. V D Savarkar was arrested in London in March 1910 for his alleged role in several conspiracies in India. He was deported to India, tried in a Court of Law and sentenced to transportation for life. Sensing hostile atmosphere in London, Chattopadhyaya decided to move to Paris in June 1910. Here he found himself in the company of Indian revolutionaries such as Madame Bhikaji Cama, S S Rana, Har Dayal and Shyamji Varma who had made Paris their base.

 Indian revolutionaries in Europe found that Germany as a nation, at that time was most hostile in spirit to England and felt that cultivation of friendly spirit with the powerful German nation will be of great advantage to the cause of Indian independence. With this view in mind Chattopadhyaya moved to Germany in April 1914 and enrolled himself for a doctorate in philosophy in the University of Halle.  Before the outbreak of first World War in 1914, the German officials believed that anti-British revolutionaries will be useful allies in the event of a clash with Britain. They particularly counted on Indian Muslims, whom they thought are under the spiritual influence of Turkey - Turkey being an ally of Germany. Chattopadhyaya took the initiative and coordinated with Germany’s India committee for fomenting trouble in India. He made trips to other parts of Germany and Switzerland and gathered Indians with solid nationalist background to form a group of committed revolutionaries. He was soon able to get support of the well-known Indian revolutionary, Har Dayal who had fled to Switzerland from USA where he was facing prosecution. Har Dayal had escaped India in August 1908, to evade arrest and after spending some time in Europe reached Pacific coast in USA which had a large Panjabi immigrant community. In collaboration with them, he founded the Hindustan Gadar Party in November 2013 and its mouthpiece Gadar paper, which gave a call for armed insurrection in India. In March 2014, US government arrested Har Dayal for some alleged criminal activity, but he was able to secure bail. Fearing deportation to India under pressure from Britain, he left the USA secretly and had reached Geneva.

The common objective of Germany and Indian revolutionaries was to bring about insurrection in India by taking help from Amir of Afghanistan with the military and financial backing of Turkey and Germany. They were also to make propaganda amongst British Indian soldiers stationed in Mesopotamia, Persian Gulf- Suez canal area and nearby places and recruit them for an Indian expeditionary force to invade India, besides shipping to India large quantity of arms and ammunitions. Initially, there were severe differences between German officials and the Indian revolutionaries as German officials, did not allow Indians to work independently in Turkey, which was the base of their operations. Subsequently the issue was sorted out and a Berlin India Committee was formed under Indians control with Chattopadhyaya as its prime figure and Secretary. The Berlin India Committee had several Indian nationalists as its activists such as Raja Mahendra Pratap who came from a wealthy landlord family of West- UP enjoying considerable influence amongst Indian princely states and Mohammad Barkatullah who belonged to Bhopal and was an active member of Gadar Party in USA. In April 1915 an Indo-German party consisting of Har Dayal, Raja Mahendra Pratap and Mohammad Barkatulla led by German representative Lt Werner Otto von Hentig left for Constantinople. Dayal was to stay in Constantinople and guide the Berlin Committee’s programme in the Ottoman empire. Henting was to bring other revolutionaries to Afghanistan through Turkey, Iraq and Persia. Raja Mahendra Pratap was to meet Amir Abdullah the ruler of Afghanistan and hand over him personal letter of Kaiser Wilhelm II, which he was carrying with him and persuade him to join hands with pan-Islamic and revolutionary forces to liberate India.

The Amir of Afghanistan was a shrewd diplomat and saw his interest with Britain and short of promise of opening a consular office of Germany in future did not come forward with any help. The Indian revolutionaries hung on in Afghanistan until Russian Revolution of 1917 and took a bold step of forming a provisional government of India in 1915 with Mahendra Pratap as President and Barkatullah as Prime Minister, though it served hardly any purpose. The Berlin India Committee’s plan to persuade Indian soldiers stationed in Iraq, Gulf and Egypt, particularly the prisoners of war, besides local Indians, to join revolutionary forces also could not make any progress due to numerous imponderables. The third programme of Berlin India Committee viz. shipping of arms to India also failed. The arms purchased with Germany’s help in USA could not be shipped to India due to mismanagement or were intercepted on way and seized due to very active monitoring by British intelligence. There were several other problems with this venture. Turkey viewed it mainly as an Islamic project and placed many roadblocks. Har Dayal found the atmosphere in Constantinople very unfriendly and left mid-way in frustration. The Indian revolutionaries stationed in Europe did not develop any coordination with revolutionary groups in India, in the absence of which triggering an uprising in India was a formidable task. Eventually in March 1917, Chattopadhyaya in consultation with German officials decided to wind up the work of Berlin India Committee in Turkey and the project of creating a revolt in India with foreign backing was abandoned.

Chattopadhyaya felt that he should develop a new strategy and work towards internationalizing the issue of India’s freedom. With this end in view he shifted to Stockholm in May 1917, a neutral country, accompanied by his old associate MPT Acharya, while still enjoying German support and protection. The two proceeded in a very systemic way and learnt Swedish and poured over books and relevant literature in various libraries so that they become knowledgeable about latest Indian and global developments. The objective was to equate the issue of Indian independence with other burning issues of national self-determination then threatening world peace. The campaign included: publishing brochures and pamphlets in Swedish and other European languages containing criticism of British imperialism in India by prominent public men in India, Britain and USA; contacting influential public men and getting them interested in Indian affairs and issuing refutations about ‘English lies’ about India. As a result of his activities there was extensive coverage of evils of British imperialism in India, in the Swedish press. The British government was alarmed and launched counter- propaganda in Sweden to refute Chatopadhyaya’s charges. Under influence of Britain, the Swedish police in March 1919 prohibited Chattopadhyaya from any political activity while on their soil. Meanwhile Chattopadhyaya was confronted with another disquieting development. In June 1919, the Swiss authorities convicted him for two and a half years in prison and a fine of 1000 Francs for his alleged involvement in an anarchist plot. He was also banned from entering Switzerland. He was in Switzerland in 1915 and in touch with some anarchist groups, who wanted to assassinate some prominent political leaders in Italy and Greece. Chattopadhyaya denied he was part of the conspiracy and claimed he was not even in Switzerland in July 1915 when the incident took place. Chattopadhyaya’s conviction by Swiss authorities was due to pressure from British intelligence, as they expected Sweden to deport him, so that they can get hold of him and arrest him. However, Swedish extradition law was in Chattopadhaya’s favour, as it did not recognize crimes which were political in nature and he continued to stay in Sweden. After these developments Chattopadhyaya became very cautious and undertook only non-political occupations- he opened an export-import firm and a translation bureau to transmit non-political news. However, the British government continued to pressurize Swedish authorities and he was not granted return visa when he went to Berlin in March 1921 on a business trip. Thereafter, Germany again became his place of residence.

Post-first-world-war the situation in Germany had completely changed and no longer friendly to Indian revolutionaries. Germany was defeated in the war. Britain as dominant power in the world wielded considerable influence on German officials and wanted them to restrain the activities of Indians, which they were more than willing to do. Germany also had strong commercial interests, as she was looking forward to the lucrative Indian market for exporting her products, which they could do only by British goodwill. These factors made the life of Chattopdhayaya very difficult and he faced great harassment in Germany. At Chattopadhyaya’s initiative an Indian News Service and Information Bureau ( INSIB) was established in Berlin in 1921. Its objective was to disseminate news about Germany in India, publish a commercial journal - Industrial and Trade Review of India (ITFRI) and promote Indo- German friendship. INSIB was also to help Indian students and businessmen coming to Germany. The British Government in India didn’t like forthright views expressed in ITFRI and banned its circulation in India, which choked its funding. The combined hostility of both Germany and Britain eventually resulted in closure of INSIB, though it resulted in loss of a useful forum of promoting Indo-German cooperation and understanding.

A dramatic development took place in Chattopadhyaya’s personal life at the end of 1920. He met Agnes Smedley an American lady who was a born rebel and a feminist with a strong personality. A young woman of 28, she was attracted towards the Berlin Indians revolutionary programme and came to Berlin from United States, travelling in a cargo ship, where she took the job of a stewardess. She met Chatto and was irresistibly drawn towards him, with whom she shared a common passion and political goal. The two started living together as husband and wife. They couldn’t be formally married as Chatto’s earlier marriage to an English Catholic girl, who had become a nun, was not dissolved. Agnes had a checkered past. She came from a poor family background but had great craving for learning and self-improvement. She came in contact with Lala Lajpat Rai when he was in New York and became sympathetic with India’s freedom movement. She later met Indian revolutionaries MN Roy, Shailendranath Ghosh and Taraknath Das and participated in anti-allied propaganda during first world war, in what was known as Hindu-German conspiracy. This attracted the attention of American intelligence and she was arrested and put behind bars. Through the effort of her benefactors she was released and became an associate of Margaret Sanger who had launched birth-control movement and turned into a staunch feminist and wrote extensively in the press. Her marriage with Chatto was tumultuous. It was love-hate relationship and they would frequently fight and then patch-up. Agnes had frequent bouts of depression and mental illness and was admitted in sanatorium several times. Gradually, Agnes recovered from her illness. She found that a good deal of her problems were due to her relationship with Chattopadhyaya and decided not to live with him anymore. Thereafter, she started devoting herself to intellectual pursuits such as writing, lecturing and publishing. She would frequently write and give lectures on India and her articles were published in various journals including Modern Review (Calcutta). Around 1928 she wrote the famous autobiographical novel The Daughter of Earth which acquired a celebrity status for the feminist movement. In 1930s she moved to China and filed groundbreaking reports as the first Western journalist to cover the march of communists, much to the discomfort of Chinag Kai-shek and the American leadership. She came in close contact with the Chinese communist leadership including Mao. She returned to USA in 1941 and continued to write and speak about Chinese communists. In 1947 she was accused of espionage by Gen Macarthur, though there was no substantial evidence. Feeling hounded in USA, she came to UK in 1949, where she tragically died in 1950, after an unsuccessful surgical operation. It is worth mentioning that Chattopadhyaya’s relationship with Smedley damaged him emotionally and politically. He permanently lost his prestige and stature as India’s foremost freedom-fighter abroad.

Around 1925, Chattopadhyaya’s political orientation took a new turn and he came in close contact with Willi Muenzenberg, a media baron and communist member of the Reichstag ( German Parliament). He was the driving force behind founding an organization to fight against colonial oppression and imperialism. In pursuance of this objective, a conference called Foundation of League Against Imperialism was held at Brussels in February 1927. It was attended by a large number of delegates and representatives of organisations with similar objectives, from 37 countries, which included India, China, Indonesia, Korea, Japan besides many European countries including Britain. Chattopadhyaya’s deep commitment for India’s independence, persuaded Jawaharlal Nehru to accept the invitation on behalf of the Indian National Congress and he addressed the conference on the opening day. Following the conference’s deliberation, a permanent body called League Against Imperialism was established. Its main objective was to fight for national liberty of all people and equal rights of all races, classes and individuals. Its international secretariat with headquarters at Berlin was headed by Muenzenberg but the burden of day today running of the central office of the secretariat fell on Chattopadhyaya. Many distinguished people initially joined the League, but were later disappointed with its working and left. Chattopadhyaya had no sympathy for Gandhiji’s peaceful civil disobedience movement for India’s independence and felt Nehru is subservient to him. He wanted Nehru to take an independent, more radical and aggressive position as a leader of Congress party. Nehru completely ignored Chatopadhyaya, as he had no knowledge of ground reality in India and in due course of time, Indian National Congress withdrew its affiliation with the League. Gradually the League Against Imperialism had metamorphosed into a communist organization and an organ of Comintern. Its secretarial was shifted to Paris in 1931, as Germany was turning hostile to its activities due to anti-communist stance of Nazi party, which was emerging as a dominant force in national politics. Chattopadhyaya had been barred from entering France and he resigned his job as League’s secretary.

In early 1930 Chattopadhyaya’s political belief took a new incarnation and he turned communist. Upto this time he was primarily anti-imperialist, passionately involved in India’s freedom movement. His political career was that of a revolutionary, one can even call it of an anarchist. Conversion to communism, meant embracing the theory of class struggle and the dictatorship of the proletariat and abandoning the policy of gradual economic and social change and faith in democratic process. In August 1931 he left Germany and moved to Soviet Union. Initially, he was given work in Comintern, in its editing and publication division, which included revision of English edition of Selected Works of Lenin. However, in the middle of 1932, he was suddenly removed from Comintern, for some inexplicable reason. Later he was given an assignment at the Institute of Anthropology and Ethnography (IAE) at Leningrad and made head of India section. Chattopadhyaya had an interest in languages and philology from his boyhood days. Although he had yet to acquire good knowledge of Russian, which he later did, he had already working knowledge of German, Swedish, French, Italian, Persian besides English and Urdu and several Indian languages. He was a quick learner and his intellectual ability made him soon a respected figure at IEA. Chattopadhyaya’s field of research was the origin and development of family, group marriage, and exogamy. In June 1935, the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences conferred on him the degree of Candidate of Sciences, an equivalent of Doctor of Philosophy. He was also granted Russian citizenship and he started writing his name as Virendranat Agornatovich Chatopadaya, in typical Russian fashion.

At IEA, Chattoadhyaya came in contact with a very charming Russian lady, much younger to him, Lidiya Karunvoskaya who was head of the Indonesian section of the Institute. The two became friendly, which soon blossomed into romance. Karunsvoskaya was already married, but her marriage was drab and unhappy and she separated from her husband. Subsequently, in 1933, she married Chattopadhyaya and the two were enjoying a very happy and fulfilling life. Suddenly in July 1937, a catastrophe fell on them. Their apartment was raided by the Soviet Secret Police and after a short interrogation, Chattopadhyaya was whisked away. He became a victim of Stalin’s infamous purges. He was sentenced to death by the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR on 2nd September 1937 and the sentence was carried out the same day by a firing squad. Two months after Chattopadhyaya’s arrest Karunsvoskaya herself was dismissed from the Institute, although later after a gap of two years she was reinstated. She was never informed of the fate of her husband, although she kept on making desperate enquiries. What could be the possible reason for Chattopadhyaya’s purge? While in Soviet Union he was under investigation for ‘political dishonesty’, but it seems the accusation was dropped. According to his biographer Nirode Barooah, Chatopadhyaya was purged due to his closeness to Kirov, who was a very popular leader, second in command in the Soviet Union, and posed a threat to Stalin. He was assassinated in December 1934, allegedly at the behest of Stalin, though he made a huge public expression of his grief. The fate of Chattopdhyaya after his arrest and disappearance was unknown for more than fifty years, although it was widely believed that he was eliminated as a result of Stalin’s purges. It was only after liberalization in 1990, that KGB archives confirmed that he was executed on 2nd September 1937. As political gamesmanship by the Soviet leadership, he was later rehabilitated. In the commemoration volume on Soviet scientists published in 1998, his biography gives the following tribute, ‘The name and scientific activity of V A Chatopadaya deserve respect and acknowledgment of his colleagues.... [He] had certain influence with the study of the system of relationship and the development of Soviet ethnographic Indology’.

The execution of Virendranath Chattopadhyaya at the hands of Soviets was a tragic end to a bold, adventurous and colourful life. He was a doggedly anti-imperialist freedom-fighter like no other and never compromised with British rulers. For his cherished cause, he suffered great hardship and privation, even starvation, as sometimes he didn’t even have money to buy food. Except for the period before first-world-war, when Germany was fully supportive of Indian revolutionaries, he under pressure from Britain, faced a hostile environment in France, Switzerland, Sweden and post-war Germany where he lived, but continued carrying on his revolutionary activities with great zeal and enthusiasm. The British police and secret service kept a constant watch on him in Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, and wherever he traveled and made strenuous effort to capture him or kill him. It is unfortunate that the life and work of this great revolutionary is largely unknown in the country. It is necessary that the government as well as our historians bring out authentic material on his life, as well as life of other prominent revolutionaries and make it compulsory reading in our schools and colleges, so that our younger generation knows the sacrifices which have been made to get our country, her freedom. We should also create museums and memorials and develop publicity material so that people in general know about the struggle and hardship undergone by our freedom fighters. There is a famous adage, ‘those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it’. The political freedom that we won in August 1947, has real meaning only when we enjoy complete sovereignty in our policy making- foreign, domestic and economic and are not under the influence of Big Powers. This is possible only when, we as a nation, particularly our youths, are fired with the burning spirit of patriotism and nationalism. This is a pre-requisite to make India a prosperous, strong and vibrant nation, which can confidently meet the challenges of living in a troubled world.

(Author: Dr B P Mathur is a former civil servant and has served as Deputy Comptroller & Auditor General and Director National Institute of Financial Management. He is presently engaged as an author, social activist and spiritual seeker.)

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