REVOLUTIONARIES AND SPIES: When Swiss neutrality hurt the Indian freedom struggle

The Café de la Couronne along with Hotel Bristol in Geneva were favoured hangouts for anti-colonial activists and foreign agents
The Café de la Couronne along with Hotel Bristol in Geneva were favoured hangouts for anti-colonial activists and foreign agents(by courtesy)

A forgotten episode in India’s struggle for Independence is revisited by new books that underline Switzerland’s role as a strategic location for revolutionaries, anarchists and foreign agents.

“He is the most dangerous conspirator in or out of India. He’s done more harm than all the rest put together. You know that there is a gang of these Indians in Berlin; well he’s the brains of it,” says a passage in British writer Somerset Maugham’s novel Ashenden: The British Agent.

The fictional character Maugham – who worked out of Geneva as a British intelligence operative – was referring to is Chandra Lal, who is based on the real life Indian revolutionary Virendranath Chattopadhyaya. He was a thorn in the flesh of the British authorities who once dispatched their agent Donald Gullick to lure him from safe Switzerland to France where he could be arrested. However, before they crossed the border both Chattopadhyaya and Gullick were arrested by the Swiss police under suspicion of being German agents and deported.

The fictional character Chandra Lal inspired by real-life Indian revolutionary Virendranath Chattopadhyaya was portrayed as a cunning and sinister figure
The fictional character Chandra Lal inspired by real-life Indian revolutionary Virendranath Chattopadhyaya was portrayed as a cunning and sinister figure(by courtesy)

Maugham’s novel has a more dramatic ending with the British spy Ashenden using Chandra Lal’s mistress to lure him to France where he commits suicide by consuming poison in order to avoid being arrested.

“Interestingly Maugham doesn’t give the Swiss much of a role in the story when in reality they were active in getting rid of everyone involved – the Indians, British, French and the Germans,” says Daniel Brueckenhaus, author of the book Policing Transnational Protestexternal link.

The whole affair, both fictional and real, is an example of how the Swiss were keen to maintain neutrality just before and during the First World War. Before the war, Switzerland was a safe haven for Indian revolutionaries seeking to escape British persecution in Europe. However, the importance of maintaining good relations with colonial powers led Swiss authorities to eventually crack down on activists.

Swiss refuge

Swiss neutrality and laissez faire attitude towards anti-colonial activists at the time made the country an attractive destination for Indian agitators. It was hard for the British and French to muzzle these revolutionaries as the Swiss government was proactive in preventing conflicts over colonialism from spilling into its territory. Many of these anti-colonial activists were backed by Germany that wanted them to foment uprisings in British and French-held territories. The Germans hoped that this would tie down French and British forces in the colonies giving Germany a better chance to win the war in Europe.

“Switzerland was a place to meet, launch campaigns and publish journals,” says Harald Fischer-Tiné, co-editor of the book, Colonial Switzerlandexternal link.

According to him, most of the Indian revolutionaries were elites, students or lecturers who came via London and Paris where it was getting too risky to carry out their activities. A prime example was Shyamji Krishnavarma, a wealthy Oxford-educated lawyer, who founded the nationalist monthly magazine, Indian Sociologist and the Indian Home Rule Society, to promote the cause of Indian self-rule in British India. He left London for Paris in 1907 when India House – a hostel for Indian students he set up in London – came under the surveillance of Scotland Yard. Seven years later, he had to flee to Geneva after French officials asked him to leave before the British monarch George V’s visit to the country. His mere presence was an insult to the British who considered him responsible for the assassination of William Hutt Curzon Wyllie – a high-ranking colonial officer at the India Office – by one his followers Madan Lal Dhingra in 1909, an event described widely in the British press as the “London Outrage”.

In Geneva, Krishnavarma pretended to be a sociology professor and rented a sumptuous five-bedroom flat near the lake. He continued to publish the Indian Sociologist from there and collaborated with other activists through the International Pro India Committee founded by compatriot Champakaram Pillai in Zurich. Krishnavarma became a sort of global ambassador for the Indian struggle for self-rule.

“American journalists would interview figures like Krishnavarma as there was no nationalist movement as such in India at the time,” says Fischer-Tiné.

The Indian government belatedly recognised Geneva-based Shyamji Krishnavarma's contribution by issuing a postage stamp in his honour
The Indian government belatedly recognised Geneva-based Shyamji Krishnavarma’s contribution by issuing a postage stamp in his honour(by courtesy)

Indian activists – key players

Shyamji Krishnavarma emigrated to Geneva in 1914. He founded Indian Sociologist magazine in 1905 and set up the India House in London, a hostel for Indian students that came under Scotland Yard surveillance. He left England in 1907 for Paris, which he was also forced to flee.

Chempakaraman Pillai was the founder of International Pro India Committee in Zurich and the editor-in-chief of the monthly journal Pro India. He was brought to Switzerland at the age of 17.

Virendranath Chattopadhyaya was associated with Krishnavarma at the India House in London. He fled to Berlin under pressure from British authorities and joined the Berlin India Committee. Along with fellow revolutionary Abdul Hafiz, he was tasked with smuggling German weapons into Switzerland for eventual use in Italy.

Lala Har Dayal was involved in the anti-British Gadhar movement in the US. He was arrested in 1914 for anarchist activities and escaped to Switzerland while on bail. He teamed up with Pillai to write articles for Pro India and also collaborated with Egyptian anti-colonial activists in Switzerland like Mansour Rifat.

Sardar Ajit Singh, was a Punjabi revolutionary who fled India and Iran and established himself in the Swiss city of Lausanne under the pseudonym Mirza Hassan Khan. He carried out political activities under the guise of teaching English.

Geneva was the Swiss hub for Indian anti-colonial activists who stayed and met at establishments like the Hotel Bristol and Café de la Couronne. The city’s proximity to France was a big plus point, especially when the First World War started.


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