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Revolutionaries and their shadowy networks come alive in Tim Harper’s new book

'Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire' is an intriguing history of early 20th century struggles against imperialism

Written by Ajay Singh | New Delhi |
April 25, 2021 6:30:21 am
Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire | By Tim Harper

Discovering a thread in the nonlinear course of history is a difficult task, especially by the exacting and rigorous academic standards. Tim Harper is a rare historian-storyteller who has uncovered several interconnected strands over a large landscape. In a strange coincidence, Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire was published just when some scholars argued that the vestiges of the Empire are still shaping the world.
This unique research by Harper, a journalist-cum-academic, explores the subversive campaigns in Asia that often extended to Europe, America, Canada and other distant parts of the world in the early 20th century. Each was varied in its context, but they were all sustained and bound by one sentiment — to overthrow imperialism. The bombing at Chandni Chowk in Delhi in 1911 on Lord Hardinge’s procession to the Red Fort by Rash Bihari Bose, or, the Muzaffarpur bombing by Khudiram Bose turns out to be intricately linked to the bombings at Canton and other parts of Southeast Asia.
This wave of insurrection in Asia drew its sustenance from “a new generation of intellectuals (who) sought to weave together seemingly irreconcilable doctrines — anarchism, nationalism, communism, even religious revival — in the name of unity and opposition to Western Imperialism”. Most of the men and women involved in it were truly internationalists but driven simultaneously by the urge to create a utopia in their homelands. Tan Malaka, known as the father of the republic of Indonesia, was a Marxist guerrilla who clamoured for “100 per cent freedom” from the yoke of Dutch imperialism. Similarly, MN Roy from India was wedded to Marxism and Leninism, and travelled across the globe chasing his dream. Over a period of time, ironically, most of these activists slipped into oblivion and their footprints were washed away. “Yet, in many ways, they were pathfinders for a world without empire and for an Asian future,” writes Harper.
The first three decades of the 20th century were marked by an incredibly fast pace of political and social changes in the world. In 1905, the Russia-Japan war had conclusively disabused the notion of Western superiority in warfare. Similarly, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 conjured up the dream of an ideal nation whose philosophical moorings lay in proletarian internationalism — until it mutated into “authoritarianism of the worst kind” under Joseph Stalin. In China, Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek were fighting for the independence and reunion of a divided China. Subsequently, Chiang was driven to Taiwan by the redoubtable Communist Party of China chief, Mao Tse-tung, as he evolved a new mutant of parochial nationalism in the garb 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 hub of subversive thinking, Mahatma Gandhi ploughed his lonely furrow and stuck to non-violence and truth to dislodge the Empire. Of course, Gandhi’s political course was quite at variance with the prevalent political ideologies that either condoned or justified violence to attain a greater objective. But there is hardly any doubt that violence weaves a seductive logic that attracts younger and idealist people who were fighting for their ideas of the nation. Take, for instance, the manner in which Madan Lal Dhingra justified his act of shooting in London by saying, “a nation held down by foreign bayonet is in perpetual state of war… The only lesson required in India at present is to learn how to die, and the only way to teach is by dying ourselves.” These words found resonance in anti-colonial movements across India that compelled a section of the youth to take to violence to challenge the British Raj.
The best part of the book is that it weaves its narrative around the global events without tainting them with the author’s subjectivity. In those tumultuous times, when the boundaries of nations were not rigid and western empires were overlapping in certain parts with emerging powers such as the United States in the Philippines and Japan in China and Korea, the movement of people from one place to another was not so difficult. Therefore, the book details the pathways of three important figures of that era — Nguyen Ai Quoc alias Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam, Malaka of Indonesia and MN Roy of India. Fired by the revolutionary zeal of Marxism, they travelled to many parts of the world to forge an international coalition against the Empire. At the end of it, the deception of their dream became evident as the USSR and China started imitating the 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 he is quoted as saying, “I came to the conclusion that the civilised mankind was destined to go through another period of monasticism, where all the treasures of past wisdom, knowledge and learning will be rescued from the ruins to be then passed on to a new generation engaged in the task of building a new world and a new civilisation.” Towards the end of his life, at his Dehradun residence, he kept a photograph of Stalin on his mantelpiece, though he was shunned by the mainstream Left parties.
Interesting anecdotes propel a powerful story that lends credence to the belief that the empires were quite rattled by the audacity of these groups of men and women who could not be repressed into submission. In the Indian context, the illusion of the mighty British Raj and its administrative stranglehold over the country was substantially dispelled by these romantic revolutionaries who considered Asia to be a beacon of hope for the world. For them, the idea of the nation, instead of being a rigid concept, was integrated into internationalism without the dominance of empires. While writing a farewell note from the Andaman cell to his friends, Veer Savarkar evocatively summed up the story of those who crossed the ocean and took to revolutionary paths: “As in some oriental play sublime, all characters, the dead as well as living, in Epilogue they meet: thus actors we innumerable all-once more shall meet on History’s copious stage before the applauding audience of Humanity…” This book has truly brought alive all those characters who were either erased or faded away from memory and paid them a tribute they richly deserved.

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