By Kulbhushan Kain
A fifteen-minute walk from where I stay is a sprawling unkempt compound that has a building that looks run down and unattended. Under its portico stands an old red-colored Maruti 800. A big German Shepherd keeps barking loudly, endlessly, and for no apparent reason. The young lady who I talked to was evasive and wary of the questions I asked of her.
But this is no ordinary property. Once upon a time, in it lived one of India’s most illustrious sons – Narendranath Bhattacharya, better known as MN Roy.
Sadly, neither the lady nor many others with whom I talked have heard of him – leave alone know about his philosophy and life. Whenever I asked about him, the standard reply was, “Who MN Roy?”
For a person like me, who has written an M Phil dissertation contrasting Gandhi and MNRoy, the response was not only sad but stunning. How could anyone not have heard of MN Roy – a man who rubbed shoulders with Nehru, Sun Yat-Sen, Lenin, Stalin and the entire top brass of the world in the 1920s and later? How could anyone not have heard of a man who founded the Communist Party of India (Tashkent), the Communist Party of Mexico, and who gave the mighty British Empire sleepless nights? How can most residents of Dehradun not know more about one of its most famous inhabitants?
MN Roy was born Narendra Nath Bhattacharya on 22 March, 1887, at Arbella village in the North 24 Parganas of West Bengal. From a very early age, he was involved in revolutionary activities like making bombs and planning the assassination of high British officials. Like many revolutionary Indian nationalists, Roy too was convinced that only an armed struggle against the British would help India get freedom.
To the furtherance of this end, the revolutionary nationalists looked to Germany, a rival imperial power, as a potential source of funds and armaments. In 1915, Roy went to Java and country to country to secure German arms.
MN Roy recounted in his memoirs, “The plan was to use German ships interned in a port at the northern tip of Sumatra, to storm the Andaman Islands, free and arm the prisoners there, and land the army of liberation on the Orissa coast. The ships were armored, as many big German vessels were, ready for wartime use. They also carried several guns each.”
The plan however failed and Roy had to escape to San Francisco via China, Kobe in Japan and then to Mexico, where he founded the Communist Party of Mexico in 1917– the first Communist Party outside Russia. Word of his revolutionary zeal, intelligence, and courage reached the ears of Lenin, who invited and personally received him with great warmth to the 2nd World Congress of the Communist International, held in Moscow during the summer of 1920.
Lenin asked Roy to prepare the East – especially India – for revolution. Roy founded military and political schools in Tashkent. In October 1920, he formed the Communist Party of India (Tashkent).
The fall of Lenin saw Roy cross swords with his successor Stalin, who expelled him from the Communist International. Roy moved to Berlin – where, in 1928, he met Ellen Gottschalk who was to become his second wife.
However, India beckoned and he returned incognito in 1930. He was arrested by the British and sentenced to 6 years in prison. During his defence, Roy was unapologetic for his advocacy of the use of armed struggle against British colonial rule, declaring, “The oppressed people and exploited classes are not obliged to respect the moral philosophy of the ruling power.”
The years in jail were tough and Ellen stood shoulder to shoulder with him. Their relationship developed great intimacy while he was in prison. The letters between the two reveal the emotional strains of lonesome suffering. They express his longing for his beloved. He wrote in one letter to her, “I anxiously wait for your monthly letters. I am homesick, and am eagerly looking out for the day when we shall celebrate a grand union.”
Ellen Gottschalk replied, “We must take things as they come and hope for better days. Don’t lose heart!”
However, towards the end of the six years, he wrote, “I am tired of this world. It appears to be doomed to destruction or a possible rebirth after a protracted period of torture and torment.”
He was released in 1936. Dismal prison conditions had taken a severe toll on his health, and he suffered lasting damage to his heart, kidneys and lungs.
He met Jawaharlal Nehru and Netaji Bose among others. Nehru recalled that, despite significant political differences, “I was attracted to him by his remarkable intellectual capacity.” Roy spent a week with Nehru at his house in Allahabad and joined the Congress in 1936. He however got disillusioned with both mainstream politics and Communism and evolved the philosophy of “Radical Humanism”.
In 1938, he was advised to rest for 6 weeks. He came to Dehradun. In Dehradun, he stayed at 13 Mohini Road along with his wife Ellen!
He fell in love with Dehradun and never went back and died here on the 25th of January, 1954.
What happened to his wife Ellen Gottschalk? Tragically, her body was found in a pool of blood in the drawing-room of their house on 14th December, 1960, on Mohini Road. Not much is known why she was murdered – though tongues wagged in the form of gossip.
The house on Mohini Road is unvisited and lies in disuse. It should have been a museum. But we seem to care less for our heroes than foreigners do. In faraway Mexico, the house where MN Roy stayed and set up the Communist Party has been preserved and converted into a club in the Roma district of Mexico City by French architects Emmanuel Picault and Ludwig Godefroy.
The outsides of the house have been preserved as they were nearly 100 years ago.
They won’t let the great man die so easily.
(Kulbhushan Kain is an award winning educationist with more than 4 decades of working in schools in India and abroad. He is a prolific writer who loves cricket, travelling and cooking. He can be reached at kulbhushan.kain @gmail.com)