In 1906, when Taraknath Das first arrived in the United States, he didn’t quite fit the profile of a stereotypical “Hindu immigrant”. Most migrants from India were in search of better opportunities. They came from the Punjab, were soldiers and farmers, or in rare cases, students and preachers. Das was none of those – he was a rebel on the run from the British police.
Das had been drawn to Anushilan Samiti, an organisation that preached revolutionary violence against the British, soon after he left home, aged 19. He followed the Samiti first to Dhaka and then Mymensingh, before bolting to Brindavan disguised as a yogi, under the assumed name of Tarak Brahmachari. His campaign had put him squarely in the crosshairs of the British. So, to escape persecution, he sailed to Japan in 1905, and a year later, travelled as Jogendranath Das to Seattle, Washington.
This was a time of heightened xenophobia in the West. There were numerous Asian Exclusion Leagues in the US as well as Canada whose principal object was to curtail immigration. They didn’t want their governments to let in Indians, or any other Asians, because they felt their habits and demeanour were strange.
Das witnessed first-hand the indignities heaped upon immigrants after he cleared the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s examination for the job of interpreter. Stationed in Vancouver, Canada, he saw that Indians’ unfamiliarity with English made them a target of anti-immigrant rhetoric, and he readily helped them by coaching them on the complex world of immigration rules.
In 1907, after riots against Indians in Bellingham and Vancouver, Das founded the journal Free Hindustan, in which he railed against the British rule in India. An early associate, Guran Ditt Kumar, helped translate the publication into Urdu and Gurmukhi, to ensure wider reach among Indian immigrants.
In an early issue of Free Hindustan, Das, listed as the journal’s manager, wrote:
“The policy of the British government is to plunder Hindustan and oppress the people by keeping them in utter ignorance.… We advocate India for the Indians, and (it) must be governed by them. We implore the aid and sympathy of our friends all over the world to help our educational movement. Education alone can change the condition of 300 millions of people in Hindustan.”
Free Hindustan caught the attention of the authorities, especially an Anglo-Indian officer named William Hopkinson, who had been deputed by British intelligence to monitor rising Indian radical activity in Europe, the US and Canada.
What also stirred interest was Das’s debate with Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. In 1908, Tolstoy wrote an essay titled A Message to Young India, in which he insisted that “peaceful methods” should be adopted to achieve “Indian independence”. Das disagreed. His response in four parts, titled Young India’s Reply to Count Tolstoy, stressed that “tyranny under any guise could never be justified” and that “resistance to despotism is [the] first of all human duties”.
In 1908, Das resigned from Immigration Service to focus on Free Hindustan. He found help in publishing it from New York-based Irish nationalists John Devoy, and George Freeman, who had their own radical paper, the Gaelic American, which supported the cause of Irish republicanism. A few months later, he was accepted at Norwich Military Academy in Vermont. But with the British on his trail here too, his superiors were compelled to grant Das an “honorary discharge”.
Back in Washington, Das was associated for a while with the student body Hindustan Association. He completed a bachelor’s degree in political science, and then a master’s degree, as he researched employer liability law. In 1914, he became one of the first Indians to be granted citizenship by a court in Seattle, on the grounds that as a “high-caste Hindu Aryan”, he was a Caucasian under the US Naturalization Act.
All through his activist life, Das laid great stress on education, and on establishing links between students across countries and cultures. This made for some awkward politics, especially from the late 1920s, when he flirted with Fascism and collaborated with its active defendants, the German proponent of lebensraum Karl Haushofer and Giuseppe Tucci, the Italian Indologist and professor of Buddhist studies.
His involvement in the Hindu-German Conspiracy of 1915-1917 to violently overthrow the British Raj earned him a 22-month sentence in Kansas’ Leavenworth prison.
Das’s role in the Ghadar Movement was more complex and ambiguous. His plan to reach out to “white allies” led many within the Ghadar Party to brand him a traitor and coward. In 1915, as directed by the Berlin-based India Independence Committee, Das travelled with others to Turkey and Egypt. Their intent was to meet with the Turkish military leader Enver Pasha in the hope of building a united Muslim front against the British in World War I. Separately, a plan was hatched to destroy the British-controlled railway along the Suez Canal. The plan fizzled out, but the days spent in the desert heat, amidst frequent sandstorms, took a toll on Das’s health.
His next destinations were Japan and China, partly to ensure the safe passage of arms and revolutionary propaganda material to India. The visit rekindled his early interest in Japan, and its status as a pioneering Asian nation in its embrace of modernisation. In Japan, he met Rash Behari Bose, the Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen, as well as influential cabinet members Inukai Tsuyoshi and Okuma Shigenobu.
Das strongly believed that there should be a pan-Asiatic association of Japan and India, both countries that had been kept isolated by European powers in their quest for imperialist domination. He explained his belief in his 1917 book Is Japan a Menace to Asia?, which was incidentally cited as evidence of his conspiratorial activities after he was detained by the US authorities. His arrest was part of a big sweep when the US, assisted by British intelligence, arrested Ghadar operatives and German consular officials in the Hindu-German Conspiracy to overthrow the Raj.
The American prosecutor trying the case, John Preston, however, levied several other charges on Das. Preston described Das as a “despicable Hindu” and a “dangerous character” who knew of the murder of police informant Harnam Singh in Shanghai by Ghadar associate Atma Ram. Among other things, Preston accused Das of being a “ladies’ man”, for having no compunction in inveigling foreign women to join his cause. Preston produced letters written by Das to the Swiss American Frieda Hauswirth, in which he addressed her as a “magnet” and a “superwoman” and implored her to join the Indian cause for freedom. Camille de Berry, to whom Das had passed on a “bomb manual” for safekeeping, was tracked down to Nevada, to give her deposition.
Flirting With Fascism
Das’s ordeals did not end with the 22-month prison term. In mid-1919, he was accused of violating the Espionage Act of 1917. As the threat of deportation hung over his head, he completed a PhD from Georgetown University, married Mary Keatinge Morse (13 years his senior and a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and battled a court case when his citizenship and that of 67 other “Hindus” was rescinded on account of the verdict in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923).
The threat of his repatriation ended only after a California court allowed an Indian-born lawyer, Sakharam Ganesh Pandit, to retain his American citizenship on the grounds that its revocation would impinge on the right to life and the right to make a living.
Between 1927 and 1934, Das began teaching at Catholic University in Washington DC. In later years, he taught at the universities of Columbia and New York, and continued to do so till his death in 1958. With his wife, he set up the Taraknath Das Foundation to provide lectures and fellowships to students in India and the US.
From the late 1920s to 1934, with his wife, Das travelled often to German and Italy. At first, he defended Nazism as the “rise of popular sentiment against a weakening state power”. In 1928, with Karl Haushofer, he set up Indisches Ausschuss, the Indian institute of the Deutsche Akademie. The racism evident in Nazism, following Hitler’s ascent to power, soon discomfited him, and he advised Indian students then studying in Germany to stay away from politics.
His relationship with Italian Fascism has been documented by historians Marzia Casolari and Maria Framke. Das was an active figure at the Institute for Middle and East Asia and in 1931, he coordinated, in large part, the itinerary of the visiting leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, BS Moonje. He wrote a series of articles in Modern Review highlighting Italy’s rise (in necessary opposition to British imperialism), its military modernisation, and controversially defended its invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935.
Das’s involvement with Fascism was a far cry from his early radical days in Washington and California, and yet his concern, as Casolari shows in Das’s revelatory exchange with Moonje, was to remain politically relevant. He bemoaned the fact that Indian leaders who regularly visited Europe ignored him, and that he depended on his wife to support his activism.
The one consistent thread in his life was his vehement anti-British stance. He was also an astute and sympathetic interpreter of the Indian political scene. In 1930, he wrote of the “social revolution” in India following Gandhi’s emergence, and the popular embrace of his message of non-violence.
Note: This essay is drawn from primary sources – newspapers, and books and articles written by Taraknath Das. Secondary sources include works by Tapan Mukherjee, Neilesh Bose, Benjamin Zachariah, Kris Manjapra, Marzia Casolari and Maria Framke.
This is the tenth part in a triweekly series on early Indians who blazed a trail in other parts of the world. Read the rest of the series here.