CHATTO – an anti-colonial and anti-imperialist revolutionary

Presentation by Harpal Brar to the Stalin Society in London on 20 December 2015.

Virendranath Chattopadhyaya 1880-1937 was popularly known as Chatto.


Chatto was an uncompromising anti-imperialist and Indian nationalist, who attempted to use German imperial power against British imperialism on the principle that an enemy of my enemy is a friend.

In his quest for India’s freedom from colonialism, with tireless energy he involved himself in several anti-British and anti-imperialist forces in Europe such as:

Ÿ the German Foreign Office

Ÿ the 1917 Stockholm peace initiatives of the Socialist International

Ÿ the Bolsheviks

Ÿ the League Against Imperialism, and

Ÿ the Communist International.

The potency of his anti-British propaganda in the foreign press, as well as his political activities in Europe before, during and after World War 1, were a constant thorn in the side of British imperialism, and the British secret service made strenuous efforts right until 1931, in Switzerland, Sweden and Germany, to capture or kill him.

In the late 1920s, as Secretary of the League Against Imperialism (LAI), he was instrumental in radicalising Jawaharlal Nehru, and in the 1930s, in the Soviet Union, he gained a reputation as a social scientist and university teacher.

Yet this distinguished personality, fascinating and fiercely patriotic, communist in the end, is not known in Europe or India. The purpose of this presentation is to bring to the working-class movement an awareness of the work and activities of this remarkable person of demonic energy, filled with passionate patriotism and ardent anti-imperialism – and finally his conversion to the cause of communism.

I owe almost all my knowledge about Chatto to the well-researched (except on one point to which I shall refer at the very end) biography of him by Nirode K Barooah published in 2004.

The centenary of Chatto’s birth in 1980 passed unnoticed in India, without even a token of remembrance, such is the fate met by Indian revolutionaries at the hands of the Indian ruling class.

Oppenheim’s ‘India Committee’, which initiated the so-called German intrigues in India, had come under the control and management of Indians by the beginning of 1915. These intrigues are therefore properly called Indian intrigues, albeit supported by Germany.

The failures of the India Committee are mainly to be attributed to aggressive British diplomacy, espionage and on-the-spot executions of suspected ‘seditionists’, in the face of which the amateurish Indian revolutionaries stood no chance.

In spite of the failure of the India Committee (IC) to revolutionise India, Chatto was able to extract material support from the German Foreign Office for a vigorous anti-British press campaign in Sweden in an effort to internationalise the India question. For this purpose he made skilful use of pro-German neutral Sweden. With the support of left socialists, he countered the pro-British Empire Socialist and Labour International.

His sojourn in Sweden also saw the first Indo-Bolshevik contacts.

As almost all other west European countries shut their doors on him, Chatto had to remain in Germany after the end of the First World War, though he was asked to remain non-political as Germany had decided to cultivate friendly relations with Britain in order to gain access to the Indian market.

During this difficult period following the war, Chatto met Agnes Smedley (1892-1950). Though they loved each other dearly, living together had an emotionally ruining effect on both of them – notwithstanding a great deal of commonality in their political pursuits.

Anti-imperialism and the freedom of India from British colonial rule were the hallmarks of Chatto’s life. Nevertheless, his methods and means of fighting imperialism underwent changes over time. Starting as a nationalist revolutionary, Chatto ended up as a communist internationalist. After Smedley’s departure for China in 1928, he became increasingly involved in communism.

A short but fruitful friendship with Nehru, when both were involved in the LAI, kept him in touch with Indian affairs. But later, as the League came to be perceived as an instrument of the Comintern, Nehru left it, and thereafter Chatto lost his connection with the Indian National Congress.

Anticipating the Nazis taking complete control of Germany, Chatto left for the Soviet Union in 1931 where he lived the last four years of his 6-year stay there as a distinguished academic in Leningrad. He displayed great erudition and rigorous scholarship in the fields of ethnography, anthropology and linguistics, and a deep understanding of the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin. He wrote incisive articles in Soviet academic journals.

This much troubled and restless individual at last found some domestic happiness, peace and tranquillity in the company of his last wife, the Soviet Lidiya Karunovskaya.

Early years

Chatto was born on 31 October 1880 in a very distinguished Bengali family of Hyderabad – the second of eight children of Dr Aghorenath Chattopadhyaya, professor of science and principal of Nizam College. The eldest of the children, Sarojini, is much more known because she was a trusted follower of Gandhi during the Indian independence struggle. His sister Suhasini, the youngest of his siblings, became an ardent communist activist.

Chatto travelled to Britain in 1902 to sit the Indian Civil Service examination and to study law. Although unsuccessful in his Civil Service examination, Chatto enrolled himself in the Middle Temple to study law.

At the beginning of 1905, Shyamji Krishnaverma (1857-1930), the wealthy Indian scholar and patron of Indian revolutionary nationalism in Europe, founded the Home Rule Society in London. He awarded scholarships to Indian students and leaders devoted to the cause of Indian independence and bought a house in Cromwell Avenue, Highgate, London, to be used as a hostel for scholarship holders and distinguished Indian nationalists. The place came to be known as India House.

Tilak’s disciple, V D Savarkar (1883-1966), who came to London in June 1906 as one of Krishnaverma’s scholars, transformed India House into a hotbed of Indian nationalists, willing to free India through armed struggle. Collecting arms and sending them to India, learning bomb-making and practising revolver shooting were the new activities undertaken by the India House group in 1908-9.

Through his friendship with Savarkar, Chatto met Har Dayal, Madanlal Dhingra, VVS Aiyar and MPT Acharya.

Chatto was not involved in any of the activities of Savarkar and his followers, for he then believed in the evolutionary path to Indian freedom. At the beginning of 1909 he even polemicised against Krishnaverma for the latter’s incitement of violence and preached resistance to British rule within the limits of the criminal law. He regarded British occupation of India as a necessary phase in the advancement of India.

Yet, towards the end of 1909, Chatto had been forced by events and political developments (partly inspired by Dhingra’s sacrifice for the cause of Indian freedom) to discard his pacifism and turn into a full-blooded revolutionary. In the December 1909 issue of Madame Cama’s journal, The Talwar, Chatto fiercely criticised the British practice of characterising Indian aspirations for independence as anarchist:

But if it is anarchism to be thoroughly ashamed of being ruled by a handful of vile alien vandals, if it is anarchism to wish to exterminate them with the noble desire of establishing our national freedom upon the basis of popular sovereignty, of justice, of mercy, of righteousness, and of humanity, if it is anarchism to rise for the sanctity of our homes, the integrity of our life, and the honour of our God and our country, and to slay every individual tyrant, whether foreign or native, that continues the enslavement of our great noble people, if it is anarchism to conspire ceaselessly to take human life with the only object of emancipating our beloved Motherland then we say, cursed is the man that is not an anarchist! Cursed is the man who sleeps in his bed or carouses merrily in halls of wine, women and song, while alien parasites live and grow fat upon the scarlet sweat of our brows, and blood-suckers are raging over the land and slowly, silently, and ‘peacefully’ draining away the life-blood of our nation” (as quoted in JC Ker, Political trouble in India, p.118).

Years in Paris 1910-1914

Owing the Chatto’s activities, London became too dangerous a place for him. On 9 June 1910 he left London for Paris. There he met a small group of ardently nationalist Indians, including Ms Bhikaji Rustom Cama and S R Rana. Ms Cama was busy preparing and forwarding revolutionary literature to India. She was behind the publication of two journals, Bande Matram and Talwar. In August 1907 she had attended the Stuttgart Congress of the Second International and there raised the issue of Indian independence.

On arrival in Paris, Chatto made a plan to smuggle firearms to India, but the plan fell through as his letters fell straight into the hands of the British Indian Intelligence.

In September 1910 he became a member of the French Socialist Party. There, he also made contacts with Egyptian nationalists. When the Egyptian nationalist group organised a Congress in Brussels in September 1910, it was decided that close contact be maintained between the Egyptian, Indian and Irish nationalist movements. A committee, including Chatto, was formed for this purpose to maintain close contact.

But for a variety of reasons, political and personal, the Paris group disintegrated. In the second week of April 1914, Chatto left for Germany.

Enemy of our enemy

World War 1 and Germany

The Kaiser believed that in the event of British reversals in the war, an uprising against British rule in India was a likely event. But the Kaiser and the German foreign office (AA) held gravely exaggerated views of British India’s insecurity. Likewise their estimates of a revolutionary uprising were exaggerated. All the same, the Kaiser continued to rest his hopes on the Muslim world, including Indian Muslims, whom he believed to be under the grip of Turkish influence. When it became clear on the night of 30 July 1914 that Russian mobilisation on the side of Britain and France had become irreversible, the Kaiser wrote thus in the excitement of the moment:

Now our job is to step up the whole business ruthlessly and tear away the mask of Christian peacemaking and put the pharisaical hypocrisy about peace in the pillory!!! And our consuls in Turkey and India, agents, etc. must get a conflagration going throughout the whole Mohamedan world against this hated, unscrupulous, dishonest nation of shopkeepers – since if we are going to bleed to death, England must at least lose India”.

German thinking on the question was succinctly expressed by Baron Max von Oppenheim on behalf of the AA in the following words:

Britain knows that once she is pushed out of India she may never get India back again. If there were deeper unrest in India Britain would be forced to send a major portion of her fleet to Indian waters to protect the numerous British interests, the British people there, and the British world position. British public opinion would also want it and thus Britain would have to conclude an early peace favourable to us.”

The German view on, and interest in, the Indian revolution on the eve of the war encouraged Indian revolutionaries abroad. Thus, when World War 1 actually broke out, it was only natural that Indian revolutionaries abroad would make contact with the Germans in an effort to turn Britain’s difficulty into their own opportunity. Through some valuable contacts, Chatto and Abinash Bhattacharya travelled to Berlin at the end of August 1914 and became closely associated with the existing German plans for India.

While the Germans were excited by the prospect of 300 million Indians rising up against Britain, Indian patriots harboured a strong belief in India achieving freedom through war between Europe’s two leading countries.

So Chatto, Bhattacharya and many other Indians gathered in Berlin to work in Oppenheim’s India Committee. Baron Oppenheim was the chief advisor and supervisor of the Indian work, acting as a liaison person between the Indians and the AA to coordinate and conduct the activities of Indians in Berlin which included:

(a) propaganda work among Indian soldiers recently sent by Britain to Egypt;

(b) propaganda work among Indian prisoners of war;

(c) exploring ways to send money to Indian revolutionaries at home and in the US;

(d) receiving Indians and attending to their problems;

(e) collecting reliable information about the situation in India;

(f) sending war news from Europe for circulation in India;

(g) collecting and sending weapons and explosives to India;

(h) collecting articles (and translations) from the Indians to be used by the Information Service for the Orient.

Oppenheim opened an office for Indian activities in mid-September 1914 in Friedenau with Dr H Muller as the manager.

Plans for a Turco-German invasion of India through Afghanistan came to nothing through a mixture of ineptitude and lack of trust between the Germans and the Indian revolutionaries.

A successful revolt in India could be attempted only through the help of the Ghadarites of North America, but Chatto and his earliest Indian colleagues on the India Committee had no direct information of the situation of the Indians in North America. The Committee therefore sent Dhirendra Sarkar and Narayan Marathey to the USA at the end of September 1914. The venture paid off. As a result, several revolutionary nationalists such as Jatindra Nath Lahiri, Taraknath Das, Heramba Lal Gupta and MPT Acharya, arrived in Berlin by the end of November. The presence of the Ghadarites emboldened Chatto and strengthened his positon vis-à-vis the AA. Consequent upon Chatto – Wesendonk (Legation Secretary) direct talks of 7 December 1914, Oppenheim’s India Committee came largely under the control of Indian themselves, with Chatto as its leading figure.

In January 1915, Chatto went to Switzerland, met Har Dayal and Mahendra Pratap Singh, and persuaded them to come to Berlin and work in the India Committee. Dayal arrived on 27 January and Pratap on 9 February.

Three connected programmes of the AA to instigate insurrection in India were:

1. to send an expedition to Kabul and persuade the Amir of Afghanistan to invade India with Turco-German financial and military backing;

2. to conduct propaganda among Indian soldiers posted in the Middle East and recruit Indians in the Ottoman Empire for an Indian expeditionary force to invade India;

3. Shipping arms, ammunition and as many Ghadarites from America as possible to ensure the success of the rebellion envisaged.

These programmes remained in place when the Berlin India Committee came under Indian management, albeit with an emphasis on Indian interests as perceived by the Indian revolutionaries.

The mission to Afghanistan failed because of the refusal of Amir Habibullah to cooperate.

The activities of the India Committee’s other pan-Islamic programmes in Constantinople failed because of Turkish obstruction, British spies, and problems between Indians. In the end, on 20 November 1916, the Berlin Committee withdrew from Turkey.

And owing to unforeseen mishaps, treachery, the inexperience of Indian revolutionaries, and aggressive British diplomacy and espionage, all efforts to send arms to India and stage an uprising against British rule failed abysmally.

Berlin Committee in the US after these failures.

The Berlin Committee sent Chandra Kanta Chakravarty as their representative to the US. The man was greedy to the utmost and an incurable liar. He hated the Ghadar Party and, although he had done next to nothing to promote the cause of India’s freedom, he maligned the Ghadar Party as being useless and tried to persuade the Germans to stop providing it with funds. Strangely, the Berlin Committee, run principally by Chatto and Bhupindra Nath Gupta, agreeing with Chakravarty, recommended that German grants to the Ghadarites be stopped were they to fail to cooperate with Chakravarty.

The Berlin Committee, throughout its existence, suffered from a lack of regular links with any revolutionary organisation in India, let alone a nationally organised revolutionary party. Based on the inspiring case of Komagata Maru, Chatto had hoped that, with German assistance, several revolutionary groups in the Punjab and Bengal might be brought together. It did not help, however, that Chatto was hardly known in India – a more distinguished person as the head of the India Committee might just have been more successful in bringing into being a revolutionary party in India by enhancing the Committee’s standing in the eyes of the Indians.

It was a serious failing on the part of Chatto that he supported despicable characters like Chakravarty against the serious revolutionaries of the Ghadar Party.

Mishaps, mismanagement, treason, treachery and espionage all played their part in the failure of the India Committee’s aforementioned projects.

Cheats, charlatans and spies, pretending to be genuine revolutionaries, wormed their way into the organisation. Chatto was massively duped and deceived. In the prevailing conditions, “loyalty and treachery, faith and perfidy, trust and betrayal, success and failure” became inseparable companions.

Internationalising the Indian issue from Stockholm 1917-1921

By the end of 1916 all attempts to provoke unrest in India had failed – mainly owing to aggressive measures taken by the British government. However, a new opportunity presented itself when the Dutch-Scandinavian Socialist Committee, with the support of the Zimmerwaldians and the Petrograd Soviet, took the initiative to stage an international conference in Stockholm in May 1917 to give voice to the collective desire for peace. For Chatto it was too good an opportunity to miss; so, on 13 May 1917, accompanied by an old associate, MPT Acharya, Chatto arrived in Stockholm.

Full as it was of foreign political activists and exiles, Chatto found Stockholm the ideal place for his work. But the projected conference failed to materialise owing to the failure of the British and French socialists to arrive.

The first contact with the Bolsheviks 1917-18

In Stockholm Chatto became aware of two things:

(a) the Berlin Indians had to have an office in Stockholm, and

(b) they needed to establish lasting contact with other nationalities on the basis of opposition to imperialism.

On 7 July 1917, the Indian nationalists, under the name of the Indian National Committee in Sweden, established a branch in Stockholm. Financed by German grants, it was to issue regular communications to the press of all countries to counter British lies and propaganda.

For a variety of reasons Sweden was the ideal place of Indian nationalists:

(a) there was less chance there of arbitrary restrictions being placed on their work at the instance of the British authorities;

(b) the ease of communication with India through visiting Indians;

(c) the ease of communication with Britain and the US;

(d) the ease of contact with Russia;

(e) the sympathy of some left-wing socialists in Sweden for the Indian cause, and

(f) German willingness to provide financial support.

When Chatto moved from Berlin to Stockholm in the middle of May 1917, his aim had been to shift the propaganda activities of his group to a neutral country while still having the benefit of German support and protection – especially financial support. Chatto did his best to hide his German connection at this stage.

His propaganda in Sweden aimed at internationalising the Indian question through wide-ranging publicity concerning the evils of British rule in India from authoritative sources and by cooperating with other oppressed nationalities struggling against imperialism.

This his group did by (a) publishing pamphlets in Swedish and other European languages full of criticism of British imperialism in India by prominent individuals from Britain, India and the US, and getting reviews of them published in the Swedish press; (b) issuing press releases; (c) maintaining contact with influential public figures with a view to getting them interested in Indian affairs; and (d) issuing public refutations of British lies about India.

Among the publications issued by Chatto’s group was the 1906 indictment of British rule in India by William Jennings Bryan, three times candidate for the American presidency and Secretary of State from 1913 to 1915.

All the works published by Chatto and his associates highlighted the basic evils of British rule in India:

Ÿ Extravagant militarism

Ÿ Oppressive taxation

Ÿ Colossal drain of wealth from India to Britain

Ÿ Neglect of education, health and welfare of Indians

Ÿ Denial of civil liberties and higher office to Indians

Ÿ Crushing poverty.

Select critical views of eminent former British administrators were used in substantiation of the charges made by Indian nationalists against Britain:

Even in perfidious Albion there have been some men in every decade … who have raised their voices in protest or confessed the truth otherwise” (British rule in India: condemned by the British themselves).

Even during the war, in October 1916, Hyndman asserted that ” an empire which declares that it is fighting a world war for the maintenance of national rights and national freedom cannot in decency keep one fifth of the human race in subjugation” (‘The awakening of Asia, Fortnightly Review, London, October 1916).

The extensive literature produced by the Indians was widely reported, commented upon, reviewed and, in some cases, quoted by a large number of Swedish newspapers. “Hardly a day passed without clearly revolutionary articles being read in at least some 50 to 60 papers to which we sent them”, wrote Chatto to the Folkets Dagblad Politiken, 13 October 1921.

Through these publications issued from the office of the Indian National Committee in Sweden, Chatto tried to keep alive the question of Indian freedom during the last two years of WW1.

British reaction

The British minister in Stockholm, Sir Esme Howard, naturally found the Indian campaign to be offensive and did everything to frustrate this campaign. The British authorities presented the nationalists living in Sweden as German agents and mercenaries. Chatto answered these allegations by frankly stating that, as an oppressed people, the Indians were doing no more than making use of the conflict between the two imperialist camps to obtain political advantages for themselves in furtherance of the cause of India’s freedom.

He said that the nationalists were forced by circumstances to adopt the slogan of divide et libera to counter the imperialist dictum of divide et impera.

It is interesting to note that Branting, the leader of the majority Social Democrats and editor of the Social Demokraten attacked the Indian Committee while eulogising British imperialism.

Whereas the English anti-German socialist patriots such as Hyndman, who even during this war characterised British rule in India as despotic and which must be crushed, the main organ of the Swedish Social Democrats makes propaganda for British imperialism … It is really tragic for the Social Democracy that the organ which should have been at the vanguard of the Indian people’s fight against British oppression and exploitation, has decided to follow the same chauvinistic principles and methods as those of the ‘Daily Mail’ and the ‘Daily Express'”, wrote Chatto.

In March 1919, Chatto obtained a permit from the Swedish police to stay in Sweden but subject to the condition that he refrain from propaganda activities. However, that same month Chatto left for Berlin without having applied a return visa. When he then applied for one in Berlin, the Swedish authorities denied it to him as a result, it would seem, of pressure from Britain. During the war, when the Swedish government considered that Germany might emerge victorious, the authorities had been benevolent towards Chatto. However, with the defeat of Germany, a pro-British tilt of the Swedish government was all too obvious.

The triumph of the Bolsheviks in Russia had alarmed the British and Swedish authorities alike. Just as some of the left-wing socialists were won over to communism, the October Revolution held great promise to influence Indian revolutionary nationalists. So the interests of the two governments coincided. The British succeeded in bringing an end to Chatto’s stay in Sweden once they had won the war.

Seeking a Comintern link

In the changed circumstances, Chatto and his comrades decided to establish contacts with the Soviet Union and the Comintern. With this aim, a 7-member delegation led by Chatto, and including the American, Agnes Smedley, arrived in Moscow at the end of April 1921, and stayed there for 4 months, which happened to coincide with the 3rd Congress of the Comintern, which began on 7 July 1921.

There they met with the members of the Little Bureau, which conducted the day-to-day business of the Comintern. It was composed of 4-5 members of its Executive Committee who generally lived in the Soviet Union.

Chatto’s mission failed to enlist any support from the Comintern or the Soviet foreign ministry basically because in his thesis he laid emphasis on nationalism, saying that the communist movement in Indian at the time was out of the question. The revolutionary movement in India was a national one, including both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Besides, he met with opposition from MN Roy who had an established reputation in the Comintern and had already been instrumental in founding the Communist Party of India in Tashkent.


After the war, Britain allowed Germany to open a consulate in India. Baron Ruedt arrived in Calcutta as the first German consul after the war. He did not think much of Indian nationalism. His main concern was to cultivate good relations with Britain in order to gain access for German goods in the Indian market.

In return for access to the Indian market, the British wanted Germany to curb the activities of Indian nationalists such as Chatto in Germany who, through their INSIB (Indian News Service and Information Bureau) were creating difficulties for Britain. In these circumstances, Chatto, unable to flee elsewhere, decided to stay in Germany and work for INSIB while German and British spies stepped up their surveillance of his activities.

Chatto and his common law wife, Agnes Smedley, faced unceasing harassment from the German police and British spies. All the same, Chatto persisted with his work as a publicist. The British demanded nothing less than the extradition from Germany to India of the troublesome nationalists living in Germany. In the end, however, Germany felt unable to go along with this demand as compliance would be nothing short of a mean-minded betrayal – unless the British government gave a guarantee of amnesty. But the German authorities did agree to curb the activities of Indian nationalists in Germany. After WW1 Indian trade legislation prohibited German businessmen from operating in India until 1 September 1926. Germany feared that this prohibition would be prolonged if she failed to take steps against Indian nationalists as demanded by the British.

Germany’s visible harassment of Chatto and his comrades persuaded the British to overcome their distrust of Germany and bring forward the removal of this restriction by a year. Lack of money and the hostility of the British and German authorities alike made the survival of INSIB impossible.

Lucie Hecht, an expert English, French and German translator, who worked for Chatto all through 1923-31, in all organisations in which he was involved, recalling the INSIB days 46 years later, wrote thus:

The Berlin-Halensee office was the spiritual, cultural and social focal point for the Indian students and trainees, Hindus and Muslims alike. It was a tragic disaster when, because of lack of money, the work had to be abandoned. Here Chatto inspired the Indians, downcast with resignation and fatalism, to action, and he hoped that they would be helpers in the Indian freedom movement and builders of the future independent India. He radiated inspiration not only through his words but also through his dynamic personality. Unremittingly active and indefatigably energetic, he was ever ready with fresh and fruitful ideas to work for the freedom of India which was the abiding passion of his life. His political life brought him many stresses and strains. but he remained undaunted and cheerful all through his political career. If thwarted in one direction, he would branch out in another. His powerful personality and self-appointed mission attracted many friends as well as enemies. But only his close friends knew his weaknesses, although he did everything openly – sometimes perhaps too openly for his own good. He could be provoked to anger, but he always rose above pettiness, malice and underhand tricks.”