End note: The Contribution of Agnes Smedley

Agnes Smedley played a tremendous part in helping the Ghadarites in every way, especially in fighting against their deportation to India and certain death. When the Indians were accused by US intelligence officers of being German spies, she replied rightly: ” No – no more than Benjamin Franklin was a French spy”.

She was arrested and manhandled, kept in a dirty cell, denied warm blankets and even drinking water on some occasions, and she was repeatedly threatened with grave consequences, but she faced all this bravely. At the end of the war she was set free.

She, along with Robert Morse Lovett, a teacher of English literature, and some other progressive American intellectuals, organised the Friends of Freedom for India (FFI) to wage a successful campaign against deportation of Indian revolutionaries from the US to India. The FFI galvanised American workers and democrats to support the anti-deportation movement. It secured the support of the AFL (American Federation of Labor) and, through it, enlisted the support of workers in several trade unions, thus managing to frustrate the attempts of the Labor Department of the US government, which had the jurisdiction to decide on the question of deportation, to deport these patriots, so paving the way for them to be given rights of asylum.

She was hounded by British and American intelligence for the rest of her life because of her involvement with, and defence of, the Ghadar Party programme. They went to the length of threatening her with exposure of her personal life in the press if she failed to inform them of the activities of the Indian revolutionaries (See Professor Steve MacKinnon, ‘Agnes Smedley: a working introduction‘, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, 7, no.1 (January-March 1975), Arizona University Press, Arizona, p.6.)

She was highly praised for her tireless and selfless work at a conference held by the Ghadarites on 18 December 1919 and replied to Gopal Singh thus:

Your letter of 8 December is quite overwhelming and embarrassing. I thank you and the conference for your good thoughts and your generous beliefs about the value of the work which I have done. I wish I could feel for a moment that I deserve all that you say. I spent some time, thought and energy, to be sure, but it is not of my own making. You men were the source of my beliefs and my courage, as you call it. The credit is due to yourselves. And back of you lies India, which is the source of all our courage and idealism. What we are and what we have done, finds its origin there, and we are not responsible for any goodness contained in us. You must thank your idealism which is centered about the fight for the freedom of India, not me. In that struggle I am not even a drop in the bucket.”

She continued: ” The time which I have given the work has been short and I have not fulfilled my duties as I should have done. You must judge my efforts not by what I seem to have done but by the amount of work there is to do. And that amount is wonderfully big. I have not touched it” (Quoted in Josh Vol 2, pp. 168-9).

She made a study of Indian history and society. She admired Nehru very much and he was to remain “a political idol for her”.

In a letter dated 16 December 1920, she informed her friends in the Ghadar Party that, since the fight against deportations had been successfully concluded, she had resigned from the FFI.

In view of her political activities, and time served in jail in the cause of India’s freedom, that country would have appeared to have been her natural destination, but the British authorities prevented her from visiting it. But she continued to serve India through her writing. She met Nehru in 1926. He was much impressed by her work on behalf of India. After Indian independence he invited her to visit the country but by then she was in China, busy studying and writing about the Chinese liberation struggle.

In 1927, on discovering that her close friend and fellow activist Santokh Singh had arrived in India and founded the Punjabi monthly Kirti (‘Worker’), she started contributing articles to that publication.

Apart from publishing several articles written by her, the management of Kirti also published her booklet India and the next war. Her name figured in the Meerut Communist Conspiracy case as one of the 51 conspirators beyond the jurisdiction of the court.

From 1921 to 1928 she lived in Berlin. She was one of 14 delegates who attended the 1921 Congress of the Communist International and was the driving force of the delegation (see Professor MacKinnon, op. cit., p.8). She visited the Soviet Union in 1921, 1928 and 1933-34.

In 1928 she went to China where she made her mark by writing the following famous books: China’s Red Army marches; China fights back; An American woman with the Eighth Route Army; Battle hymn of China; The life and times of Chu Teh.

She helped in establishing the Chinese Red Cross. Her letters to the US brought Norman Bethune and other western doctors to China, whereas her personal appeal to Nehru was instrumental in a team of five Indian doctors with medical supplies going to China.

Her sympathies for communism came under attack during the McCarthyite witch hunt and she became a natural target of the anti-red hysteria and was spied on. US libraries were cleansed of her books.

On 6 May 1950 she breathed her last, having expressed the wish that her ashes should be with those of the dead Chinese revolutionaries. And so they lie in the Beijing cemetery of honour, with the stone reading “Agnes Smedley, Friend of China”.

We conclude this little resumé with the following tribute made to her by Josh:

She lived the life of a great warrior, fighting for the emancipation of the oppressed and the enslaved, living for and with them through thick and thin throughout her life. She was a marvellous woman who left her indelible mark on the history of India and China ” (Vol 2 p. 172).