Mahendra Pratap : Patriot Par-Excellence
During our masters, we were perplexed about a subject termed Quantum Field Theory or more fashionably called QFT. With much mathematics in it, we were unable to extract the ‘physics’ out of it. I still remember our professor while commencing the class on QFT telling us bluntly that we shouldn’t be too bothered with the ‘physics’ since “physics is what the physicists do” and in QFT, this is what the physicists do; that is, solve challenging mathematics.
Similarly for History, it is fundamentally what the historians document and write. You might keep on frantically searching for certain events and characters, yet mainstream history books might perfectly hide them with dexterity. Mahendra Pratap is one such protagonist, who at best finds a passing comment from an accomplished Marxist historian Sumit Sarkar in his book Modern India.
However, not so known historians at times do show guts to document the life and times of such neglected individuals in India’s freedom struggle. Ramakanta Hoom is one such brave historian. On 20 December 1914, at the age of 28, Mahendra Pratap left his family to proceed to Switzerland, writes Ramakanta Hoom in his 2002 thesis for the Utkal University.At the other end, though James Campbell Ker describes Pratap as ‘a man of good family…and a rather eccentric character’, in his Political Trouble in India from 1907 to 1917, Ker also informs that Kunwar Mahendra Pratap Singh ‘was granted a passport to travel to Italy, Switzerland and France, and possibly Japan and America.’
Ker says that Pratap was granted the permission to travel abroad for the purpose of study as well as his health. Nevertheless, Kunwar Pratap reached Berlin on 10 February 1915 and of course had different plans altogether. The revolutionary Virendra Nath Chattopadhyaya (brother of Sarojini Naidu) aided Pratap in this venture. Interestingly, in his journey to Berlin, Pratap took the alias Muhammad Peer.
It was surely a historic occasion when Pratap met the German Kaiser (King). And it was none other than the German Foreign Secretary Zimmerman who had brought a car to take the Raja to Kaiser’s residence. Pratap was enamoured to know that Kaiser was interested in a prophecy, which foretold the end of the British Empire in India, writes Hoom.
From Germany to Kabul
In about two months, Pratap was part of the Hentig Mission which reached Kabul. The idea was to pursue the Amir of Kabul so that he sends his armed forces for a showdown with the British and eventually liberate India. As he left Berlin, the German diplomat Dr. Von Hentig, the chief of the mission, accompanied Pratap. Conversant in Persian language, the Bhopal based revolutionary MaulanaBarkatullah was also a part of the mission. Another critical component of the mission was a number of Afghan Afridisoldiers, who were the Prisoners of War (PoW). They had volunteered their services, which would enable them to return to their homeland.
On 2 October 1915, the mission reached Kabul and after an interregnum of about three weeks, it was received by Amir (King)Habibullah Khan of Afghanistan. Interestingly, though the mission bore the name of the German diplomat, Raja Mahendra Pratap was accordedthe first position in protocol, followed by Dr.Hentig. Pratap showed the Amir the letters written by the German Kaiser and the Sultan of Turkey. However, the Amir remained non-committal to the cause of India’s independence. Nonetheless, an Afghan official, Haji Abdul Raziq, was appointed to deal with the Indian question, tells Hoom.
At the other end, the British authorities were keeping a strict vigil on the evolving situation in Afghanistan. A British official report in fact mentioned the danger due to the Turkic-German intrigues in Persia (Iran). Though Britain was more or less sure that the Afghan Amir was averse to an anti-British stand, yet they were wary of continuous pressure put on the Amir by the mission and the surrounding geopolitical ambience. In this backdrop, orders were issued by the British Indian government to monitor the Iranian border. In July 1915, it was decide to jointly patrol the border with the Russians. The purpose was to finish off the ambitious expedition led by Raja Mahendra Pratap.
In the memorandum to the German Foreign office, Mahendra Pratap had indicatedthat the situation in India was favourable for a revolution and if the Afghan army would invade India the British Empire could be overthrown. Furthermore, the very reason whichPratap put forth for his presence in the mission, was the fact that the mission should not be construed to the Indian masses as a foreign military mission from Afghanistan. In the same memorandum, Pratapalso stressed the importance of Germany to forge linkages with the Indian Princes and nationalist leaders.
The Afghan Amir presented the view that the economic condition of his nation deterred him from joining the world war. However, members of the mission extended military assistance required by Afghanistan. The Central powers even agreed to pay a subsidy of Rs.12 lakhs annually to Afghanistan so that British help was no longer needed by them.
The Amir however was not unequivocal in his commitment and the matter was referred to Majlis-i-Shura (Advisory Council). At the same time,the Amir received a letter signed by 160 high-ranking Turkish military officers, which contained offers ofwar material. The letter exhorted Afghanistan to join the war against the British as a jihad. Moreover, the letter urged the Amir to allow the march of Turkish forces to India through Afghanistan. Religion was invoked by Turkey to rope in Afghanistan in the war.
Despite their best efforts, the Indian revolutionaries could not induce the Amir of Afghanistan to declare war against the British in India. Nonetheless, the Provisional Government of India was established in the independent territory lying between British India and Afghanistan on 1 December 1915. Mahendra Pratap became its President. MaulanaBarkatullahwas appointedas the Prime Minister and MaulaviObeidullah Sindhi was the Home Minister. A declaration on behalf of the Provisional Government of India was issued in Kabul whose copies were sent to India. The declaration categorically stated that the Turkish and German Governments had told in clear terms that they had no desire to establish their own rule in India, and that they simply wanted to liberate India. This was essential to obviate any doubts in the minds of the Indians.
Unfortunately, the British authorities seized the proclamation issued by Pratap’s Provisional Government. The proclamation was addressed to Indian rulers and farmers to attack the very roots of the British Empire in India as at that point of time it was under pressure due to the First World War. Pratap’s message for the Indian soldiers, police and the princely rulers was to get ready for an uprisingin order to confront the British Imperial authority for complete independence.
In this context, a very crucial diplomatic success achieved by Pratap and his group was thewritten agreement from Germany and Turkey that after achieving India’s political freedom from the British, they will recognize the Indian Government by the Indians as the legitimate government of the country. Such an agreement obviously cleared the clouds from the mind of many Indians who were unsure of the fate of the country if Pratap’s Provisional Government swooped onto India with the help of the Afghan forces, aided by the Central Powers – Germany, Turkey and Austria-Hungary. Pratap thought that the invasion of an external
army would synchronise with a general uprising of civilian-soldier combine. In a letter to then Chancellor of Germany, Pratap requested for twenty thousand troops for the Indian mission.
The British intelligence nonetheless spread rumours that Pratap’s‘Provisional Government’ contemplated that the Amir of Afghanistan would be the permanent ruler ofIndia, once the invasion succeeds. Pratap and his compatriots knew the difficulty of connecting with the Indian masses and thus at times they used the tool of religion and emotion to get across their messages. For instance, Obeidullah Sindhiattempted to involve various Arab states in the anti-British struggle.
Mahendra Pratap uttered
“We are doing our best to push forward our cause in the tribal area on the frontier. MaulaviBarkatullah’s proclamation to the Mussalmans proved very useful and inspiring. While I hope my proclamation to the Hindus and the proclamation ofthe Provisional Government to the Indians must have proved of great benefit to our holy cause.”
Pratap’s ‘Provisional Government’ sent two missions to the Russian Tsar. In March 1916, the ‘Provisional Government’ sent two of its emissaries with a letter of Mahendra Pratap to the Governor of Russian Turkestan and the Tsar of Russia. Mahendra Pratap himself had written a letter to the Tsar on a gold plate. In the letter to the Governor ofTurkestan, Mahendra Pratap wrote:
“We nourish deep respect for our great neighbour and brother in Asia. That is why we, naturally count on the friendly help of Russia. Cunning England, your natural rival in Asia, will not remain your friend for long, and we…may sometimes extend to you great help, political as well as economic.”
Meanwhile, in 1917, Russia went through a political turmoil. The Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917 however raised hopes for the Indian revolutionaries. Socialist Russia supported the Indian revolutionaries. On 29 November 1917, Mahendra Pratap arrived on the Afghan-Soviet border. The Soviet government invited him to Petrograd and the Raja met the internationalist Trotsky. After staying in Petrograd for nearly a month,Mahendra Pratap left for Berlin and reached there on 28 March 1918. Possibly, Pratapmight have been impressed with the decrees and declarations issued by the fledgling Communist Russia. The Decree on Peace on 8 November 1917 was followed by the Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia on 16 November 1917 and finally the Declaration of the Rights of the toiling the Exploited peoples on 12 January 1918.
In Berlin, Pratapcame out with a rather interesting plan for organizing an International Socialist Army which would march through Soviet Russia for the liberation of India. Actually, after the fall of Germany in the First World War, Mahendra Pratappinned his hopes on Russia. Pratap led the first representative body of the Indian revolutionaries to Moscow and met Lenin in July 1919. Pratap wanted the Soviets to recognize the ‘Provisional Government’ at Kabul. Both these requests were however not accepted by the Soviets. The Soviet Government was not prepared to lend its support to the idea of raising a liberation army outside India without preparing the masses inside the country politically as well as ideologically.
On meeting Lenin, Mahendra Pratap presented his book, entitled ‘Religion of Love’. According to another revolutionary Bhupendra Nath Dutta (brother of Swami Vivekananda), Lenin told Pratap:
“In our country too Tolstoy and others tried for the emancipation of the people by propagating religion, but nothing came out of it. So after returning to India you propagate class struggle, that will clear the path of liberation.”
Nonetheless, as Amar Farooqui in his The October Revolution and the National Movement in India, published in Marxist, Volume XXXII, October-December 2016 writes, Mahendra Pratapvividly remembered his meeting with Lenin:
“We entered a big room with a big table at which was sitting the famous Red Leader Comrade Lenin. I being at the head of the party entered first and proceeded towards the figure sitting right before me. To my astonishment the man or the hero stood up suddenly, went to a corner and fetched a small chair and put the chair near his office chair. And as I arrived by his side he asked me to sit down. For a moment I thought in my mind, where to sit, asking myself, should I sit on this small chair brought by Mr. Lenin himself or should I sit on one of the huge easy chairs covered with Morocco leather. I decided to sit on that small chair and sat down, while my friends, MoulanaBarkatulla and others, took their seats on richly upholstered chairs. Comrade Lenin asked me, in what language he was to address me—English, French, German or Russian. I told him that we should better speak in English. And I presented to him my book Religion of Love. To my astonishment he said that he had already read it. Quickly arguing in my mind I could see that the pamphlets demanded by the Foreign Office a day earlier were meant for Lenin himself. Mr. Lenin said that my book was “Tolstoyism”. I presented to him also my plan of having notes repayable not in gold or silver but in more necessary commodities such as wheat, rice, butter, oil, coal, etc. We had quite a long conversation.”
Though Mahendra Pratap did not readily accede to Lenin’s advice of focusing on class struggle, but there appeared a discernible change in his approach and thought. The German Indologist, H.V. Glasenappreported that Mahendra Pratap was about to publish a booklet asking the Germans to cooperate with the Russian Bolsheviks – an attempt thoroughly denounced by the then Social Democratic German Government.
The publication of the booklet was stopped.
The undaunted patriot
Pratap’s international sojourns were unending. Wherever he went, he carried with him the flames of patriotism. He met Rash Bihari Bose in Tokyo. From Tokyo the party under the leadership of Mahendra Pratap proceeded to Peking (Beijing). Pratap’saim was to raise an insurgency in India by penetrating into India through Tibet or Nepal.
For achieving this mission, he bankedon the assistance of Afghanistan and Russia. However, the partywas stopped.
On 12 July 1926, he wrote from Peking that he had failed to reach Lhasa but established intimate relations with Tibetans. Thereafter, he returned to Japan to attend the Pan-Asian Conference. Buton 7 August 1926, Mahendra Pratap was ordered to leave Japan.
Along with Barkatullah, Mahendra Pratap visited Detroit in June 1927. In meetings arranged by the United India League, Pratap addressed the Indian audience. Mahendra Pratap’s next stop was at Chicago. In San Francisco, he stayed as a guest of the Ghadr party, which was suffering internal bickering at that point of time. He addressed several meetings at various places and mixed with Indians, but did not take side with any specific faction of the Ghadr party.
The executive of the Ghadr party however expressed its inability to extend any material help due to shortage of funds. Receiving invitations from Japan and China for the second Pan-Asiatic Conference, Mahendra Pratap left USA. Travelling once again round the world through America and Japan, he arrived at Shanghai towards the end of 1927 to attend the second and the last Pan-Asiatic Conference.
It was not for any reason that Mahendra Pratap was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1932.N.A. Nilsson, who nominated him, commented so correctly:
“Pratap gave up his property for educational purposes, and he established a technical college at Vrindaban…..He traveled around the world to create awareness about the situation in Afghanistan and India. In 1925 he went on a mission to Tibet and met the Dalai Lama. He was primarily on an unofficial economic mission on behalf of Afghanistan, but he also wanted to expose the British brutalities in India. He called himself the servant of the powerless and weak.”
It is certainly overdue to pay our obeisance to contributors to the freedom struggle like Mahendra Pratap, who though was titled Raja, yet dedicated his life for the cause of the people, like a monk. India’s 75th year of independence is the most germane period to remember individuals like him.
By Dr Uddipan Mukherjee
(The writer writes on history, insurgency, counterinsurgency, physics and foreign policy. Any opinion expressed in this piece is author’s own.)