A revolutionary from across the seas

Taraknath Das. Illustration: P. Manivannan  


He was the voice of the Indian freedom struggle in the U.S. but little is known about him. Based on research for a forthcoming book, a profile of Taraknath Das, best known for his debate with Leo Tolstoy on non-violence.

Several noteworthy aspects arise from a study of the Indian intellectual presence abroad during the early 20th century. Britain remained a favoured destination for the Indian literati from the upper strata of society. Aspirants to England pursued higher education in law, literature, agricultural, medical, engineering and hard sciences. A few went for the coveted ICS. Many others, especially the nationalistic-minded fugitives from the British, aimed for the shores of Japan, Europe and North America ostensibly for education but essentially for seeking avenues for national liberation.

The story of Taraknath Das illuminates our understanding of Indian settlements in North America. It explains the nature of the Indian intellectual presence abroad and the Indian freedom struggle in the West.

Born into a middle-class Bengali family, Taraknath Das (1884-1958), joined the Anushilan Samiti, an anti-British secret society in colonial Bengal. He fled to the United States, via Japan, and reached Seattle on July 16, 1907. Initially working as a farm hand to support himself, he enrolled for a while in the University of California. He then secured employment by the US Immigration and Natural Service in Vancouver. Commanded to report against his compatriots, especially from eastern India, he aided the poor and unlettered immigrants and the Sikh population of British Colombia. In 1908, he started a monthly magazine called Free Hindustan as well as a school for the Indian immigrants that taught English and legal rights. Urged by his mentor Jatindranath Mukherjee (Bagha Jatin), Taraknath joined the Norwich Military Academy in Vermont, U.S., in 1908 to train himself for armed insurrection in India. However, his plans were aborted when he was expelled for his anti-British activities.

Back in Seattle, Taraknath completed B.A. in Political Science and with the help of Edward Holton James, a Seattle lawyer, obtained his post-graduate degree. Records in the University of Washington show that, during 1908-1915, there were nearly 20 students of Indian origin, including Taraknath, at the university.

Taraknath was closely associated with the Gadar Party led by Har Dayal, a fiery intellectual from Delhi who came to the U.S. in 1911. Dayal, who taught Sanskrit and Philosophy at Stanford, was forced to resign because of his outspoken criticism of the British. Another close associate, Vishnu Ganesh Pingle (Pingley), was arrested in India in March, 1915, and hanged on November 16, 1915, along with 28 other men as accused in the Lahore Conspiracy Case.

Taraknath realised that, for his purpose, an American citizenship would be an essential requisite. After several efforts, he succeeded in becoming a U.S. citizen. In 1914, he ‘took part in an unsuccessful Indo-German Mission to destroy British controlled railway along Suez Canal’. Journeying to the Far East, he studied ‘Japanese Expansion and its Significance in World Politics.’ In 1917, this treatise appeared in the form of a well-cited book entitled Is Japan a Menace to Asia? Recalled to the U.S., he was convicted in the Indo-German conspiracy case in 1917, and sentenced to two years' imprisonment in Leavenworth, Kansas.

After release, Taraknath went back to studies. However, he was disenfranchised in 1923, thanks to a new regressive legislation enacted by the Supreme Court. This did not deter him. His book India in World Politics, a brilliant study dedicated to the ‘Cause of World Peace with Justice and Liberty of all Peoples’, was published by B.W. Huebsch, New York, 1923, with an introduction by Robert Morss Lovett. Two years later, Das received the first Ph.D. from the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University. With Mary Keatinge Morse — founding member of the ‘National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’ who became his wife — Taraknath set up ‘The Mary Keatinge Das Fund’ in 1935 to help promote educational and cultural ties among nations. It still exists today at the Columbia University as Taraknath Das Foundation, New York []. With a restored citizenship in 1946, Das continued to speak for India — though he was greatly disillusioned by Partition — in the West till his passing in 1958.

The centre stage of this eventful life was clearly the debate Taraknath carried out with the celebrated Russian writer, pacifist and internationalist, Leo Tolstoy, in 1908. Tolstoy’s essay on the necessity to adopt peaceful methods for Indian independence, and Taraknath’s spirited rejoinder appeared serially in the 20th Century Magazine. Each side wrote with passion and conviction, each relied on documented facts, their language characterized by razor sharp wit and erudition.

Tolstoy’s essay “A Message to Young India’ remains central to texts of this kind. Quoting Indian scriptural literature liberally, especially the Bhagavad Gita, Tolstoy maintained: “The absence of true religious consciousness and the sustenance of conduct flowing from it … lies the chief if not the sole cause of the enslavement of the Indian people by the English.” Citing three justifications for violence invoked by the dominant minority, Tolstoy wrote: “If the English have enslaved the Hindoos, it is just because Hindoos recognized coercion as the main and fundamental principle of their social order.” He saw only one answer to this problem, namely Love: “The law of human life is the law of Love cherished by all humanity from the most remote antiquity.”

Taraknath’s elaborate reply was given in four parts, under the title “Young India’s Reply to Count Tolstoi”.

Taraknath cited statistics from western and Indian sources to prove the point that tyranny under any guise can never be justified. “Non-violence is an absolute Dogma …violence and benevolence are measured by relative value of the actions and the motives underlying them.” He added in unambiguous terms: “We are believers in universal fellowship but we are intolerant of any action of exploitation of any nation, race, society, family or individuals by others.” Invoking Magna Carta of King John in 1215, he concluded: “Love is God but at the same time … divinity is best represented in humanity, and resistance to despotism is first of all human duties.” [Emphasis in the original]

The debate between the two clearly threw up questions that are deeply philosophical in nature. There have been no conclusive answers then or now regarding the ethics of violence and non-violence. Tolstoy’s conversation would later continue with Mahatma Gandhi until the former’s death in 1910. Gandhi himself was deeply influenced by Tolstoy’s notion of passive resistance and non-violence.

Like many of his associates, Taraknath Das cherished a life of courage and idealism. Although he had differences with Indian Marxists, he enjoyed intimate friendships with several liberal intellectuals, socialists and communists in the West. As Prithwindra Mukherjee, son of the legendary Jatindranath Mukherjee and the author of one of the most comprehensive works on militant freedom struggle in India, told me in a recent e-mail from France: “Taraknath introduced his friend Professor Sailen Ghosh to Agnes Smedley.” Agnes, one of the most outstanding feminist revolutionaries of the 20th century, was later a close companion of the talented Viren Chattopadhyaya (Chatto), brother of Sarojini Naidu. Both lived in Germany and strove for the Indian freedom struggle until Agnes broke away from the relationship and devoted her energies to the communist revolution in China under the leadership of Mao. Her ashes lie buried in a memorial in Beijing.

Another legendary revolutionary — a one-time associate of V.I. Lenin and a leading light of the Communist International — who followed Taraknath to the United States was Narendranath Bhattacharya, who was reborn on Stanford campus as M.N. Roy. In his autobiography, Roy speaks very highly of the role of ‘veterans’ like “Bupendranath Dutta (brother of Swami Vivekanada) and Taraknath Das before the latter went over to Germany on the outbreak of the war.” [M.N. Roy’s Memoirs, Allied Publishers, 1964.p.31.]

As we approach the second decade of the new millennium, we need to reflect upon the many lives Taraknath Das lived as an intellectual, revolutionary and internationalist. Perhaps there are lessons here for a strife-torn world.

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Printable version | Mar 28, 2017 9:34:41 AM |