Book Title: Anarchy or Chaos: MPT Acharya and the Indian Struggle for Freedom
Author: Ole Birk Laursen
Utopian Socialism, Fabian Socialism, Communism, Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, Trotskyism, Maoism, Syndicalism, Anarchism… with the decisive rightward turn the world has taken, do any of these ideologies even matter anymore? Capitalism (or at best capitalism-cum-welfarism), with the market as the supreme arbiter of human destiny, has triumphed everywhere, and most young people today would not know or care about the differences among those who once sought less-exploitative alternatives — differences which dominated discourse through much of the last century and often led to violent settling of scores.
Worse, in India, followers of all these ideologies are now lumped together as ‘anti-nationals’ or members of the tukde-tukde gang; some are even in jail. Had freedom fighter and revolutionary anarchist MPT Acharya, the subject of this book, been living in current times and espousing the same views he did a century ago, he might well have suffered the same fate.
Even so, this biography is important as it illustrates, as author Ole Birk Laursen, research fellow at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient institute in Berlin, puts it, “the multifarious nature of India’s struggle for freedom” and its links with “the global anti-colonial movement”. It shows that Indian freedom fighters not only sought liberation from British rule, but also had very diverse ideas about the kind of political structure they wanted to usher in thereafter.
The Congress party, the dominant organisation that fought for India’s freedom, itself embraced a wide variety of ideologies, but there were many individuals and organisations even outside it pursuing the same goal. Their contributions are far less known, though there have been a number of books lately exploring these fringes, such as Sanjeev Sanyal’s ‘Revolutionaries: The Other Story of How India Won Its Freedom’, P Sainath’s ‘The Last Heroes: Foot Soldiers of India’s Freedom’ or (published in 2012) Maia Ramnath’s ‘Decolonising Anarchism: An Antiauthoritarian History of India’s Liberation Struggle’. Birk Laursen’s biography adds to the literature.
Anarchism is a political philosophy which believes that the full human potential can only be unleashed by having minimal or no government, doing away with most institutions and allowing people to voluntarily form their own associations to govern themselves. It may seem impossibly idealistic today, but it is not too distant from the Gandhian concept of near-autonomous village councils — and Acharya admired Gandhism, while disapproving of Gandhi’s personality cult — or the Marxian ideal of the state withering away.
Acharya arrived at anarchism in stages. Born in Madras in 1887 into a Brahmin Iyer family, he began by editing a nationalist newspaper in 1906. After his cousin was jailed for writing articles the British considered seditious, he shifted office to Pondicherry, then under French rule. But soon the British government began pressuring the French to deport Indian freedom fighters hiding there, forcing Acharya to flee, first to Marseilles and then to London.
Going overseas dramatically widened Acharya’s outlook; he turned into a supporter of anti-colonial movements worldwide. In 1909, he rushed off to Morocco, hoping to help the Rif tribals in the mountainous north fight off the Spanish invasion; he worked with Egyptian nationalists in Paris and Brussels; he spent a year in Constantinople, where the Young Turk revolution had just occurred. He wanted to return but was informally told that he would be arrested the moment he disembarked. Instead, at the suggestion of other exiled revolutionaries he had grown close to, such as Madame Bhikaji Cama and Virendranath ‘Chatto’ Chattopadhyaya, he moved to Berlin where he worked as a tea salesman and tried to set up a revolutionary society among Indians there.
From 1912 to 1914, he was in the United States, working with the Ghadar Movement, where he first encountered anarchism, meeting the celebrated anarchists Alexander Berkmann and Hippolyte Havel. With the outbreak of World War I, he returned to Berlin, hoping to get German help for India’s freedom struggle. And indeed Germany did help; the Auswartiges Amt (AA) or German Foreign Office secretly funded a number of his subsequent endeavours. These included a trip to Egypt trying to sabotage the then British-owned Suez Canal, and a daring — if in hindsight, harebrained — attempt to stir up revolution in India after entering through Afghanistan. Both efforts failed, and Germany lost the war as well.
By then, however, an event had occurred that enthused revolutionaries of all shades worldwide — the communist revolution in Russia in October 1917. By June 1919, Acharya and his comrades were in Moscow, where they met Vladimir Lenin, and the following year, set up the Indian Communist Party (ICP) in Tashkent. This was different from the Communist Party of India (CPI), set up in Kanpur in December 1925, which later spawned the CPI (M) and CPI (ML). But within two months, in December 1920, Acharya fell afoul of the ICP boss and Lenin’s favourite at the time, MN Roy, and was expelled.
The expulsion crystallised Acharya’s commitment to anarchism and his disillusionment with the Russian revolution. Soon, he fled to Berlin again, where he stayed for the next 12 years. In Germany’s Weimar Republic, he was relatively secure, setting up the League Against Imperialism (LAI) and producing copious amounts of anarchist literature, but in 1935, with the rise of Nazism, he had to flee once more. This time, he finally returned to India, to Bombay, where he remained till his death in 1954.
Acharya’s life is a spellbinding story, but sadly, it is not well told. The writing is uniformly flat, with the drama underplayed rather than highlighted, the significant detail and the quotidian one intermingling in almost every sentence. Proceeding in strictly chronological order, without any thematic unity, Birk Laursen bombards the reader with a wearying plethora of proper names and unfamiliar acronyms. Some academics set greater store on expounding abstract concepts and getting the minutiae right rather than even attempting readability. Birk Laursen seems to be one of them.