How the Indian independence movement suffered from Swiss neutrality during the First World War

Indian revolutionary, Virendranath Chattopadhyay when he was arrested by Swiss police in the Zurich bomb plot. (Courtesy of the Swiss Federal Archives)

Photo: now digital mirror

New Delhi: Popular English playwright and short story writer William Somerset Maugham published a collection of short stories in 1927 as Ashenden: Or the British Agent. There was a character in the book, by the name of Chandra Lal, whose protagonist, a British spy, said: “He is the most dangerous conspirator inside or outside India. He did more harm than all the rest put together.
Chandra Lal, the book’s beloved character, was based on India’s iconic freedom fighter, Virendranath Chattopadhyay. But what does this have to do with Switzerland and the First World War?
In the years before the war, Switzerland served as a sanctuary for Indian revolutionaries fleeing British persecution in Europe.

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At the time, Indian anti-colonial activists were drawn to Switzerland because of its neutrality and lax attitude towards them. The Swiss government was proactive in preventing clashes over colonialism from spilling over into its territory, making it difficult for the British and French to bring these rebels under control.

However, many of these anti-colonial activists had the support of Germany, which wanted them to incite revolutions in British- and French-ruled areas.

Indian anti-colonial revolutionaries gathered and stayed in Geneva, Switzerland, at places like the Bristol Hotel and the Café de la Couronne. The proximity to France was a significant asset for the city, especially after the outbreak of the First World War.

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According to some historians, Indian revolutionaries snuck into France from Switzerland and distributed leaflets to Indian soldiers fighting on the Western Front in an attempt to persuade them.

Everything changed for Chattopadhyay with the Zurich Bomb Plot.
Indian students and political activists had formed the Indian Independence Committee or, as it was then called, the Berlin Committee during World War I. Chattopadhyay carried out activities against the British with the help of the Germans during the First World War.

In order to carry out operations that would end the war, these revolutionaries were asked to smuggle bombs, ammunition, poisons and biological weapons into Italy in 1915. The militants abandoned their smuggling attempt because they believed that British intelligence was watching them. .

Instead, the weapons cache was given to Italian anarchists who lived in Zurich and intended to deploy them in Switzerland at the opportune time for a revolution.

In 1917 Swiss authorities found the stockpile and everyone involved was put on trial, as the Swiss wanted nothing to do with the war and the need to preserve cordial ties with the colonial powers prompted the Swiss authorities to finally take action against the revolutionaries. like Chattopadhyay.

German weapons found in Switzerland sparked a national outcry and led to tighter controls on foreign agents and Asians.

Revolutionaries were no longer protected in Switzerland since they were seen as German spies and troublemakers. The Swiss authorities cracked down on them harshly for fear that their actions would drag Switzerland into World War I.

Most Indian revolutionaries suddenly lost hope in the west and moved to Berlin and eventually to Moscow. The chapter of India’s independence struggle in Switzerland has come to an end, but India’s association with communist Soviet Russia has begun.

Chattopadhyay was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison. He later went to the USSR and was even received by Lenin with Bhupendra Nath Datta and Pandurang Khankoje.

Even though the Indian revolutionaries’ alliance with the Germans was not successful, they managed to convince the British to be a serious threat, as they operated in Switzerland.

Thelma J. Longworth