For the memory of “Chatto”:  Virendranath Chattopadhyaya and his anarchist tendency as a way for Indian independence

Virendranath Chattopadhyaya

The whole story of Indian independence struggle against British empire was a glamorous saga with many dedications and it epitomizes the courage held by a nation despite its people were trampled under imperial yoke. However, it seems to indicate the larger picture of Indian independence movement has been narrated from how Gandhi launched his famous Satyagraha as a mean to resist and his teachings on non-violence and the political demands of the Indian national congress. Yet, many seem to have forgotten some of the unsung heroes who pulled themselves together against the oppressive rule of British empire. In particular, the bunch of Indian students and activists located themselves in England and across the Europe in the early 20th century opted for method of sabotaging and conspiring against British interests. The name of Virendranath Chattopadhyaya or commonly known as Chatto remains in the annals of history as a decorative personality symbolized the fortitude and passion for intrigue, above all he was an anti imperial fighter to the core who ardently believed in international support as a vital factor to fight against British and he was one of pioneers in Berlin committee. His intriguing manners and nature of a revolutionary vagabond had aspired famous British Writer Summerset Maugham to carve the character called Chandralal who was portrayed as an Indian revolutionary in his short story Giulia Lazzari. However, his wandering across Europe and the United States have fret his biographers in gathering a coherent picture about his activities. Born on 31 October 1880 in Hyderabad, India, and younger brother of famous poet Sarojini Naidu, Chatto arrived in Britain in 1903 to compete for the Indian Civil Service exams and hoped to enter India’s ranks of metropolitan trained lawyers. Enrolled as a law student at Middle Temple he was not politically active, but by 1908 he had become involved with the revolutionary nationalists at “India House”, a north London hostel for Indian students. Described by pro-Empire journalist and editor of the Times newspaper Valentine Chirol as the most dangerous organization outside of India’, India House was a hub for revolutionary anti-colonial activity until former resident Madan Lal Dhingra assassinated political assistant Sir William Curzon Wyllie in London on 1 July1909.In the months before the murder, Chatto had been involved in a public dispute in the Times with Shyamaji Krishnavarma – founder-editor of The Indian Sociologist and proprietor of India House – over the radical direction of the Indians in Europe.

In the aftermath of the assassination of Curzon, his attitude towards Indian nationalist in Europe became more lenient as he wrote an article in Times justifying the motives of the assassin of Curzon which finally resulted in his expulsion from Middle Temple in 1909. The assassination of Curzon set a bad atmosphere for Indian activists living in Britain as the criminal investigation division in Scotland Yard began to keep a closer on the activities at India House. In 1910 Chatto fled for Paris and joined the Paris Indian society under “Madame” Bhikaiji Kama and he took the shared editorship of Cama’s paper “BandeMataram”. The most recent research publication by British Scholar Ole Birk Laursen has presented some historical evidence that suggesting Chatto was mainlining an affinity with French anarchist movement during his stay in Paris. However, lack of constant evidence and Chatto’s nomadic life style as a mover from place to place hasjeopardized historians to assess this charismatic character’s relationship with European anarchist movement. His association with French anarchists and other Marxian revolutionary groups in Paris brought him to the eyes of French intelligence network, especially his influence upon French anarchists was vividly impacted in publishing anti British views in France. As an example Chatto befriended famous French anarchist Jean Grave and Grave later becamea sympathizer for Indian struggle against British, he indicted the British for extracting capital from India, leaving famines and thousands of deaths in the wake, and for using Indians in capitalist wars against the Boers or the Germans. However, the activities of Indian nationalists in Paris were weaken after the deportation of Savarkar in 1910 and Chatto briefly moved to Switzerland and then to the United States. After the outbreak of First World WarChatto tookinitiative in forming Indian Independence Committee under the tutelage of German foreign office. His idea of collaborating with European anarchists for the cause of Indian independence was a notable one and in the summer of 1915, Chatto and Hafiz contacted the well-known anarchist Luigi Bertoni and his comrade Arcangelo Cavadini with a proposal to smuggle arms and poison from Germany into Switzerland to be used against the Italian cavalry and for armed insurrections later on. At that time Switzerland was also a ‘rallying ground, operational base and contact zone for various anti-colonial groups and individuals. However, as the mission of either agitating an insurrection or assassinating Italian prime minister did not get succeeded, he moved to Constantinople for another clandestine typed operation to remove some British interests.

The activities carried out by Virendranath Chattophadyaya in the troubled period of Europe during First World War shows his ardor on setting the platform for Indian nationalism or cause of freedom even though his hobnobbing with European anarchism was less compatible with his nationalist sentiments. In 1917, it was purely evident that German war machinery was at ebb and Russia was in the verge of Bolshevik revolution. Given the context in rise of Soviet state, Chatto attended Second International in Stockholm with the expectations that the issues on Indian independence would be a concern for European socialists and anarchists. However,it soon became clear that their request to discuss the colonial question and Indian independence at the peace negotiations was denied by the European socialists.

The next turning point of Chatto’s life was shaped in post war Berlin between 1921 and 1927. During this period, he became acquainted with famous anarchists like Emma Goldman and remained an anarchist for another few years as he believed it would succor his ambition of Indian independence. Having smelled his deep motive of using anarchism as a part of his anti-colonial project, Emma Godmen stated “He called himself an anarchist, though it was evident that it was Hindu nationalism to which he had devoted himself entirely”.

He spent his time as a recluse and a weary rebel in the last phase of his life and the idea of anarchism was drifted away from him as he gradually approached systematic study of Communism. He finally moved to Moscow and continued to publish several articles and monographs till early 30’s. The records remain quite obscure about his last years in Moscow and it was certain that he finally became a victim of Stalin’s purge as the Russian records have aptly indicated that Virendranath Chattophadyaya was executed on 2nd of September in 1937. The character of Chatto embodied an inner strength of an anti-colonial revolutionary figure mainly lived and fought outside India for the cause of freedom. His peripatetic travels open a window onto the prefigurative politics of Indian anti-colonialism and its imaginary futures, its contact zones and shared affinities with other forms of radical internationalism, in both content and methods.

( Punsara Amarasinghe is a PhD researcher at institute of law and politics at ScuolaSuperioreSant Anna, Pisa, Italy. He studied at University of Colombo, Sri Lanka and holds a masters in international law from South Asian University, New Delhi. He completed one-year research fellowship in Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Punsara can be reached at [email protected] )




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