Revolutionaries and their dark networks come to life in Tim Harper’s new book
Finding a common thread in the non-linear course of history is a difficult task, especially by demanding and rigorous academic standards. Tim Harper is a rare historian-storyteller who has discovered several interconnected strands across a vast landscape. By a strange coincidence, Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire was released just as some researchers argued that the remnants of Empire still shape the world.
This unique research by Harper, journalist and scholar, explores the subversive campaigns in Asia that often spread to Europe, America, Canada and other remote parts of the world at the turn of the 20th century. Each was varied in context, but they were all supported and bound by one sentiment: to overthrow imperialism. The bombardment of Chandni Chowk in Delhi in 1911 during Lord Hardinge’s procession to the Red Fort by Rash Bihari Bose, or the bombardment of Muzaffarpur by Khudiram Bose is found to be closely related to the bombardments of Canton and other parts of the South East Asia.
This wave of insurrection in Asia was nourished “by a new generation of intellectuals (who) sought to weave apparently irreconcilable doctrines – anarchism, nationalism, communism, even religious renewal – in the name of unity and opposition to Western imperialism â. Most of the men and women who participated were true internationalists but at the same time driven by the desire to create a utopia in their country of origin. Tan Malaka, known as the father of the Republic of Indonesia, was a Marxist guerrilla who demanded â100% freedomâ from the yoke of Dutch imperialism. Likewise, MN Roy of India was married to Marxism and Leninism and traveled the world in pursuit of his dream. Over time, ironically, most of these activists fell into oblivion and their footprints were washed away. âYet in many ways they were pioneers for a world without empire and for an Asian future,â writes Harper.
The first three decades of the 20th century were marked by an incredibly rapid pace of political and social change in the world. In 1905, the Russo-Japanese War had definitely disillusioned the notion of the West’s superiority in warfare. Likewise, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917 evoked the dream of an ideal nation whose philosophical foundations rested on proletarian internationalism – until it turned into “authoritarianism of the worst kind” under Joseph Stalin. . In China, Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek fought for independence and the reunification of a divided China. Chiang was subsequently driven to Taiwan by the formidable leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Tse-tung, as he developed a new mutant of parish nationalism in the guise of a communist revolution.
In this global context, Asia was indeed the battleground for revolutionary ideas. Despite his London education and familiarity with India House, the center of subversive thought, Mahatma Gandhi dug his lonely furrow and stuck to non-violence and truth to dislodge the Empire. Of course, Gandhi’s political course was very much at odds with the dominant political ideologies which tolerated or justified violence to achieve a larger goal. But there is little doubt that violence weaves an alluring logic that attracts younger and idealistic people who fought for their ideas of nation. Take, for example, the way Madan Lal Dhingra justified his act of shooting in London by saying, “A nation held by a foreign bayonet is in a state of perpetual war … The only lesson required in India at the present time is to ‘learn to die, and the only way to teach is to die ourselves. These words found an echo in anti-colonial movements across India which forced part of the youth to resort to violence to challenge the British Raj.
The best part of the book is that it weaves its narrative around world events without tainting them with the author’s subjectivity. In these tumultuous times, when the borders of nations were not rigid and Western empires overlapped in parts with emerging powers such as the United States in the Philippines and Japan in China and Korea, the movement of the people from one place to another was not that difficult. Therefore, the book details the journeys of three important figures of this era – Nguyen Ai Quoc aka Ho Chi Minh from Vietnam, Malaka from Indonesia and MN Roy from India. Driven by the revolutionary zeal of Marxism, they traveled to many parts of the world to forge an international coalition against the Empire. In the end, the disappointment of their dream became evident when the USSR and China began to emulate empires in their worst form.
Roy returned to India and spent his last days as a radical humanist, having become politically irrelevant during his lifetime. The book paints a poignant picture of the revolution when it is quoted as saying: âI have come to the conclusion that civilized humanity is destined to go through another period of monasticism, where all the treasures of wisdom, knowledge and learning from the past will be saved. ruins to be passed on to a new generation engaged in the task of building a new world and a new civilization. Towards the end of his life, at his residence in Dehradun, he kept a photo of Stalin on his fireplace, although he was shunned by the main left parties.
Interesting anecdotes propel a powerful story that gives credence to the belief that empires have been shaken enough by the audacity of those groups of men and women who could not be quelled into submission. In the Indian context, the illusion of the powerful British Raj and his administrative hold on the country was considerably dispelled by those romantic revolutionaries who saw Asia as a beacon of hope for the world. For them, the idea of âânation, instead of being a rigid concept, was integrated into internationalism without the domination of empires. While writing a farewell note from Andaman’s cell to his friends, Veer Savarkar evocatively summed up the story of those who crossed the ocean and took revolutionary paths: âAs in some sublime oriental pieces, all the characters, the dead as well as the living, in Epilogue, they meet: thus countless actors we will find on the copious stage of History in front of the applauding audience of Humanityâ¦ âThis book has truly brought everyone back to life. these characters erased or erased from memory and paid tribute to them they well deserved.
Ajay Singh is press secretary for the President of India