A Lesser Known Freedom Struggle

For a holistic evaluation of India’s hard and long freedom struggle from British imperialism, the crucial role of our many forgotten heroes and of some exemplary expatriate Indians cannot be denied.

From left (top row): Bagha Jatin, Bhupendranath Datta,
Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, (Bottom row):
Chempakaraman Pillai,Lala Har Dayal Singh and M.N. Roy
In this year when many Indians are busy passionately celebrating ‘Azadi Ki Amrit Mahotsav’, let me start this article by asking a simple question to the readers. How much do we know about our freedom struggle in India and also of freedom struggle of India in other corners of the world? How many of us know that we were on the verge of attaining independence more than three decades before we actually became an independent nation and the role of expatriates in it? Do we still see it through the monochromatic lens of non-violent movements that we have been taught in our schools or have we enriched our knowledge about several armed movements which immensely contributed towards our freedom from colonial rule? Thousands of freedom fighters were imprisoned in just one jail - the dreaded Andaman Cellular Jail by the British regime, many were hanged, many were killed in shootouts, 30,000+ INA (Indian National Army or Azad Hind Fauj) soldiers died fighting against the British Army, many hundreds died during Army and Navy revolt thereafter. How much do we know about them? I am sure many among you would not be knowing much about these lesser-known or often forgotten chapters of our freedom struggle for we are being fed that India won freedom by spinning yarns on the supreme guidance of a Mahatma.

A Long History of Armed Rebellion

No, I am not going to talk about details of all such events for that would take many more pages of this esteemed publication than I have been allotted to. Today I will focus our discussion primarily to the contribution of Indian expatriates in foreign land, during the turbulent political climate of World War-I, in the light of Ghadar Movement and Hindu-German Conspiracy. Long before Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s Great Escape during WW-II from his house arrest in Calcutta and reaching out to Nazi Germany for support towards India’s freedom, we had a long history of armed rebellion for freedom struggle. As a matter of fact, the army (Azad Hind Fauj) that Netaji led during WW-II against British Empire was founded by another great exiled nationalist Rash Behari Bose, in Japan. Rash Behari Bose had to flee to Japan in 1915 after British administration foiled his attempt of insurrection within British Indian Army. More of that later… During WW-II, Rash Behari Bose convinced Japan’s government to support India’s freedom movement, formed the foundation of Indian National Army and passed the resolution in the 2nd conference of Indian Independence League (IIL) to invite Netaji Subhash Bose to take charge of it. Let us go back to 1912. In that year, India’s one of the greatest revolutionaries, Jatindranath Mukherjee aka Bagha Jatin met German Crown Prince in Calcutta and got his promise to support Indian revolutionaries with money and arms if a war broke out between England and Germany. By that time, Bagha Jatin and his organization Jugantar sent multiple revolutionaries to foreign land especially in Europe, America and Canada, for higher studies and also with a hidden intent to learn military tactics, explosive manufacturing and build public opinion in favour of India’s freedom.
From left (top row): Rash Behari Bose, Sachindranath Sanyal,
Kartar Singh Sarabha, (bottom row): Raja Mahendra Pratap
Singh, Vishnu Ganesh Pingle and Tarak Nath Das

Expatriate Connection

Two of such notable leaders were Tarak Nath Das and Bhupendranath Datta (who was the younger brother of Swami Vivekananda). Datta finished his Masters from Brown University in Rhode Island, USA. He later worked closely with Ghadar leaders and went to Germany during WW-I to work in revolutionary activities. Tarak Nath Das went to University of California in Berkeley and later to Georgetown University in Washington DC, from where he earned his PhD. Das founded the South Asian magazine ‘Free Hindustan’ that eventually became a platform to voice against British imperial rule. He also worked very closely with Lala Har Dayal who was one of the founders and key members of the Ghadar Party. “Dr. Tarak Nath Das, assisted by Guran Ditt Kumar, Harnam Singh, Professor Suren Bose, and with six years of zealous endeavour, reunited some Indian migrants in North America, arousing their patriotic sensibility and informing them about their rights in the country they chose to live. This organised effort culminated with the formation of the Ghadar. Dr. Das, with his intellectual foresight, saw the necessity of a thinker like Har Dayal to create a revolutionary movement. That was the genesis of Ghadar,” explained Dr. Prithwindranath Mukherjee, a renowned historian and recipient of Padma Shri award. He also happens to be the grandson of Bagha Jatin. Anti-British sentiment among Indian expatriates was rising in the US and Canada during the second decade of the last century. Komagata Maru incident in 1914 charged the expatriate Indians even more. A group of people from British India endeavoured to immigrate to Canada in April 1914 and they went to Canada by boarding the Japanese steamship Komagata Maru. But most were denied entry to Canada and they were forced to return to Calcutta. Anti-Asian lobbies in Canada and USA were so much opposed to Chinese, Japanese and other South Asian immigration that Canada stopped immigration from India in 1908, which was followed by the US in 1910. Gross mistreatment of the passengers in Komagata Maru ship by Canadian administration and then by the British police upon their return to Calcutta caused further uproar among overseas Indian communities, especially among the Punjabis. Before I tell you the true story of how India came closer to independence during World War-I, I need to dedicate a paragraph to one more exemplary exiled nationalist, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya aka Chatto, the brother of Sarojini Naidu, whose role in this story cannot be denied. It is a shame that Mrs. Naidu disassociated herself from her brother due to Virendranath’s anti-colonial activities and wrote a letter of indignation to British authority, informing that her brother had become wayward. Virendranath or Chatto went to London to study law. He became actively involved in anti-imperialistic activities along with German, Italian and French involvements. Later Chatto built his network in Germany and made an agreement on a 15-point treaty – known as Plan Zimmermann - with the Imperial German Government. Arthur Zimmermann was the State Secretary for Foreign Affairs in German government then. That plan finally ensured arms and money supply that initially Crown Prince of Germany promised to Bagha Jatin. He eventually became one of the most hunted men by the Scotland Yard. German Kaiser himself sent a message via Indian revolutionaries to the then German Ambassador in Washington, Von Bernstorff, to sanction funds to help an insurrection in India. German consulates in New York, Chicago and San Francisco supplied money and facilities to Indian revolutionaries who were rushing to join Chatto in Berlin. In the meantime, Ghadarites in the United States, Canada and Germany made alliance with Jugantar leaders, under the leadership of Bagha Jatin. Thousands of Ghadarites started coming back to India to join the revolution.
A parade by the Ghadar Party in Stockton, California

The Stirrings of the Rebellion

As per the instruction from Jatin, Rash Behari Bose began establishing contacts in various military cantonments of Northern India (Nainital, Lahore, Peshawar, etc.) and also in Fort William in Calcutta. VG Pingle and Sachindranath Sanyal also became active in achieving diefection in British Indian Army in Benares and other cantonments. Revolutionaries got allegiance from multiple units like 93rd Burma Regiment and 16th Rajput Rifles. Jatin involved his right-hand man Narendranath Bhattacharya aka MN Roy, who later founded Communist Party of India and Mexican Communist Party, in the mission. On 7th December 1914, Bernstorff acknowledged the purchase of 11,000 rifles, four million cartridges, 250 Mauser pistols, and 500 revolvers with ammunition, for India. Further on 9thJanuary 1915, Von Oppenheim of German Foreign Office confirmed that 30,000 rifles and 5000 automatic pistols were ready to be dispatched to India.

The Failed Attempt

Plan was already made in the Berlin Committee to send an army, which was formed using imprisoned Indian soldiers in Turkey and Middle-East. The plan was that the army would enter through Peshawar, and Ghadar leaders under Tarak Nath Das would storm through Thailand and Burma, reach Calcutta, seize Fort William, and join the invading army at Peshwar. Revolution was ready to be launched and India was a few inches away from a well-fought independence. Jatin, the Commander in Chief of that operation, scheduled 21st February 1915 as the date of the insurrection. It is also known as the February Plot. Unfortunately, the plan was sabotaged by multiple betrayals and two of those were vital. A police agent named Kirpal Singh passed the information to the British police about the army insurrection. He was recruited by the Punjab CID to infiltrate among the revolutionaries. Upon hearing the news, Rash Behari Bose tried to advance the insurrection on 19th February. But even that information was also leaked. Bose had to flee to Japan. Revolt by multiple army regiments like Baluchi Regiment, 26th Punjab, 7th Rajput, 130th Baluch, and 24th Jat Artillery were foiled. Two other expatriates, VG Pingle and Kartar Singh Sarabha, who returned from United States to lead segments of the holistic armed rebellion, put their last effort to start the mutiny in 12th Cavalry regiment in Meerut. Both of them were eventually captured and tried in Lahore Conspiracy Case. They were hanged on 16th November 1915. British regime brutally suppressed the movement by hanging 46 Ghadarites and sending hundreds of them for life-imprisonment. “Even when, under the joint direction of Jatin and Rash Behari, the All-India uprising of 21 February 1915 failed, a number of regiments, participated in the revolutionary project: the 12th and 23rd Cavalry, the 128th Pioneers, the 7th and 14th Rajputs inside India; the 5th Light Infantry and the Malaya States Guides in Singapore. The last two regiments maintained a one week state of siege, after having occupied the Singapore fort,” wrote Dr. Prithwindranath Mukherjee in his book ‘The Intellectual Roots of India’s Freedom Struggle (1893-1918)’.

Rising from Setback

Even after that major setback, Bagha Jatin didn’t waver from his conviction to free India by taking advantage of the World War-I situation. Germany already had plan to send over four thousand rifles and around one million cartridges to India, using two German vessels, Annie Larsen and SS Maverick. At that time United States did not join the war and was maintaining neutrality. Annie Larsen left San Diego port of the US in February 1915 in order to contact SS Maverick and offload the shipment to be dispatched to the Indian revolutionaries. But the British Secret Service had learned of the plot and the Royal Navy cruiser H.M.S. Newcastle shadowed Annie Larsen throughout. After almost five months of failed attempts when Annie Larsen returned to the port of the US west coast city Hoquiam, Washington, on 29th June 1915, the US Customs officials at Grays Harbor seized the ship, which was found to be carrying arms and ammunition in violation of neutrality laws. This made British Foreign Office even more vigilant and it expanded its network in American and Canadian soil. They started actively pursuing Indian students and other expatriates in the United States. British Foreign Office took help of Czech counter-espionage network run by EV Voska and planted a Czech refugee as spy in disguise of housekeeper in the apartment of some Indian nationalists in New York City. An Irish double agent and an Indian agent code named ‘C’ passed valuable information to the British authority. This quisling ‘C’ is believed to be a wayward Jugantar member Chandrakanta Chakrabarti. In the meantime, Jatin and members of Jugantar planned to receive another shipment of 9000 firearms, over four million ammunitions from German ships S Henry and SS Djember, using East-Asian route. They were planning for another insurrection on 25th December 1915, also known as The Christmas Day Plot.

The Final Battle

Bagha Jatin after the final battle. Balasore, 1915
The plan was to take control of Fort William in Calcutta and execute simultaneous revolt by Ghadarites in Burma (Myanmar) and Siam (Thailand). The United Kingdom already dispatched majority of the British Indian forces outside India to fight World War-I. A smaller number of regiments were there to guard India. Jatin knew this was the right opportunity to defeat them. Jatin sent MN Roy to Batavia (part of current day Indonesia) to implement the plan of getting German ammunitions from SS Djember. As MN Roy later recounted the events, "The plan was to use German ships interned in a port at the northern tip of Sumatra to storm the Andaman Islands and free and arm the prisoners there, and land the army of liberation on the Orissa coast. The ships were armoured, as many big German vessels were, ready for wartime use". Orissa’s Balasore coast was selected for the final drop of the arms. But act of the Czech spy in the United States, and of the Baltic-German double-agent codenamed ‘Oren’ in Batavia foiled that plan as well. Berlin Committee had to abandon the shipment. Not knowing about that betrayal, Jatin with his followers already arrived at the Balasore coast, only to be countered by the Deputy Commissioner of Calcutta Police, Charles Tegart, on 9th September 1915. They fought a heroic battle of gun-fight that lasted for 75 minutes; some of the fellow revolutionaries died and Jatin was captured, mortally wounded. Finally, Jatin died the next day on 10th September in Balasore hospital. Before the battle, his followers told him to flee. He did not. He said in Bengali “Amra Morbo, Jagat Jagbe” which in English can be roughly translated as “We will die to awaken the nation.” Even after the demise of Baga Jatin, Ghadar maintained its momentum for some more time. Berlin Committee (or Indian Independence Committee) was successful to form a provisional government of India in exile, in Kabul, Afghanistan on 1st December 1915, with the support from the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria). Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh served as the President in that government. Later in November 1917, United States started the Hindu-German Conspiracy Trial in the District Court of San Francisco. It lasted for five months and many of the Ghadar leaders among other Indian revolutionaries were convicted on the charge of waging military action against Britain while taking advantage of American neutrality during the initial phase of World War-I.

Not Just a Failure

Apparently, it may seem that the rebellion failed to liberate India. But we should remember every revolutionary activity snowballs into another. The next generation of revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh was highly influenced by that struggle. When Jugantar organized Bagha Jatin’s 8th death anniversary from Calcutta to Lahore on 9th September 1923, young Bhagat Singh participated in it. And the feeling of patriotism and nationalism that the rebellion fostered by Bagha Jatin with passionate support from expatriate leaders brought within the British Indian Army during WW-I can be observed during WW-II with the formation of INA/Azad Hind Fauj. I think this feeling took culmination during the Naval Revolt of 1946. Even though the significance of the 1946 Naval Revolt is unfortunately not given its due recognition in our mainstream history, it was lot bigger than that. In fact, there were multiple revolts in the Royal Indian Navy between 1943 and 1945. During the 1946 revolt, multiple army barracks supported Navy revolters. In one instance, when British army officials ordered Gurkha regiment in Karachi to fire on the navy personnel, they refused and British empire realized that they lost control over the Indian armed forces and it was time to leave India. In a seminar in 1967, for the 20th anniversary of Independence, the then British High Commissioner, John Freeman, marked Naval Revolt as one of the key factors for Britain leaving India. He said, “the British were petrified of a repeat of the 1857 Mutiny, since this time they feared they would be slaughtered to the last man.”

Do We Remember?

Known as Hindu-German Conspiracy, the above described armed rebellion envisaged by Bagha Jatin was our one of the most significant wars against the imperial British Empire that brought us on the verge of freedom, three decades before we actually got it. An American publicist of Czech origin, Ross Hedvicek, later wrote, “Had EV Voska (the Czech spy who betrayed the plot) not interfered in this history, today nobody would have heard about Mahatma Gandhi and the father of the Indian Nation would have been Bagha Jatin.” Jatin’s adversary, the Commissioner of Police, Charles Tegart later said, "Bagha Jatin, the Bengali revolutionary, is one of the most selfless political workers in India. If an army could be raised or arms could reach an Indian port, the British would lose the war." It was a war of independence where expatriate Indians took a critical part. However, the immense sacrifice of Bagha Jatin and his group of committed revolutionaries, which included a few exemplary people from Indian diaspora, has been neglected by our mainstream history and consequently have been long forgotten from our popular culture. This is our collective shame as a nation.

This article was first published in www.namastebharatmagazine.com

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