Manabendra Nath Roy (21 March 1887 – 26 January 1954), born Narendra Nath Bhattacharya, was an Indian revolutionary, radical activist and political theorist. Roy was a founder of the communist parties in Mexico and India, and a delegate to congresses of the Communist International and Russia’s aide to China.
Following the rise of Joseph Stalin, Roy left the mainline communist movement to pursue an independent radical politics. In 1940 Roy was instrumental in the formation of the Radical Democratic Party, an organisation in which he played a leading role for much of the decade of the 1940s. Roy later moved away from Marxism to become an exponent of the philosophy of radical humanism.
Narendra Nath “Naren” Bhattacharya, later known as M. N. Roy, was born on 21 March 1887 at Arbelia, located in the 24 Parganas of West Bengal, near Calcutta (Kolkata)
The Bhattacharyas were Sakta brahmins – a family of hereditary priests. Naren’s paternal grandfather was the head priest of the goddess Ksheputeswari in the village of Ksheput, located in the Midnapore district of West Bengal. Naren’s father also served for a time in priestly capacity there, although the large size of his family – he being one of 11 siblings – forced a relocation to the village of Arbelia and a change of occupation.
Following the death of his first wife, the elder Bhattacharya married Basantakumari Devi, the niece of Dwarkanath Vidyabhusan and was appointed as a teacher of Sanskrit in the nearby Arbelia English school. The couple had a total of eight children, including the fourth-born Naren.
Naren Bhattacharya’s early schooling took place at Arbelia. In 1898 the family moved to Kodalia. Bhattacharya continued his studies at the Harinavi Anglo-Sanskrit School, at which his father taught, until 1905.
Bhattacharya later enrolled at the National College under Sri Aurobindo, before moving to the Bengal Technical Institute, where he studied Engineering and Chemistry. Much of Bhattacharya’s knowledge was gained through self-study, however.
Towards the end of the 19th Century revolutionary nationalism began to spread among the educated middle classes of Bengal, inspired by the writings of Bankim and Vivekananda. Naren Bhattacharya was swept up in this movement, reading both of these leading luminaries extensively.
According to one biographer, Roy gained an appreciation from Bankim that true religion required one not to be cloistered from the world, but to work actively for the public good; Vivekananda reinforced this notion of social service and further advanced the idea that Hinduism and Indian culture was superior to anything the western world could offer.
With his cousin and childhood friend Hari Kumar Chakravarti (1882–1963), he formed a band of free-thinkers including Satcowri Banerjee and the brothers, Saileshvar and Shyamsundar Bose. Two other cousins of Bhattacharya and Chakravarti — Phani and Narendra Chakravarti – often came from Deoghar, where they went to school with Barin Ghosh. A mysterious Vedic scholar, Mokshadacharan Samadhyayi, active organiser of secret branches of the Anushilan Samiti in Chinsura started frequenting Bhattacharya group.
In July 1905 a partition of Bengal was announced, scheduled to take effect in October. A spontaneous mass movement aimed at annulment of the partition emerged, giving radical nationalists like Naren Bhattacharya and his co-thinkers an opportunity to build broader support for their ideas. Following his expulsion from high school for organising a meeting and a march against the partition, Bhattacharya and Chakravarti moved to Kolkata and joined in the active work of the Anushilan.
Under Mokshada’s leadership, on 6 December 1907 Bhattacharya successfully committed the first act of political banditry to raise money for the secret society. When arrested, he was carrying two seditious books by Barin Ghosh. Defended by the Barrister J.N. Roy (close friend of Jatindranath Mukherjee or Bagha Jatin) and the pleader Promothonath Mukherjee, he got released on bail, thanks to his reputation as a student and social worker.
Unhappy with Barin’s highly centralised and authoritative way of leadership, Bhattacharya and his group had been looking for something more constructive than making bombs at the Maniktala garden. Two incidents sharpened their interest in an alternative leadership. Barin had sent Prafulla Chaki with Charuchandra Datta to see Bagha Jatin at Darjeeling who was posted there on official duty, and do away with the Lt. Governor; on explaining to Prafulla that the time was not yet ripe, Jatin promised to contact him later.
Though Prafulla was much impressed by this hero, Barin cynically commented that it would be too much of an effort for a Government officer to serve a patriotic cause. Shortly after, Phani returned from Darjeeling, after a short holiday: fascinated by Jatin’s charisma, he informed his friends about the unusual man. On hearing Barin censuring Phani for disloyalty, Bhattacharya decided to see that exceptional Dada and got caught for good.
The Howrah-Shibpur Trial (1910–11) brought Bhattacharya closer to Jatindra Mukherjee.
Many Indian nationalists, including Roy, became convinced that only an armed struggle against the British Raj would be sufficient to separate India from the British empire. To the furtherance of this end, revolutionary nationalists looked to a rival imperial power, that of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, as a potential source of funds and armaments.
In August 1914 a massive European war erupted between Britain and Germany. Expatriate Indian nationalists organised as the Indian Revolutionary Committee in Berlin made an informal approach to the German government in support of aid to the cause of anti-British armed struggle in their native land. These contacts were favourable and towards the end of the year word reached India that the Germans had agreed to provide the money and material necessary for the launch of an Indian war of independence from British rule. Revolution seemed near.
The task of obtaining funds and armaments for the coming struggle was entrusted to Naren Bhattacharya. Bhattacharya was dispatched first to Java, where over the next two months he was able to obtain some limited funds, albeit no armaments.
Early in 1915, Bhattacharya set out again, leaving India in search of vaguely promised German armaments which were believed to be en route, somewhere on the Pacific. Roy would not see his homeland again for 16 years.
The actual plan seemed fantastic, as Bhattacharya-Roy later recounted in his posthumously published memoirs:
“The plan was to use German ships interned in a port at the northern tip of Sumatra, to storm the Andaman Islands and free and arm the prisoners there, and land the army of liberation on the Orissa coast. The ships were armoured, as many big German vessels were, ready for wartime use. they also carried several guns each. The crew was composed of naval ratings. They had to escape from the internment camp, seize the ships, and sail…. Several hundred rifles and other small arms with an adequate supply of ammunition could be acquired through Chinese smugglers who would get then on board the ships.”
At the last minute, money for the conduct of the operation failed to materialise and “the German Consul General mysteriously disappeared on the day when he was to issue orders for the execution of the plan,” Bhattacharya recalled.
Disgusted but still holding out hope, Bhattacharya left Indonesia for Japan, hoping to win Japanese support for the independence of Asia from European imperialism, despite Japan’s nominal alliance with Great Britain. There he met with Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen, who had escaped to Japan following the failure of a July 1913 uprising in Nanking.
Sun Yat-sen refused to assist Bhattacharya in his task of organising anti-British revolution in India, expressing instead faith instead in the ultimate liberating mission of Japan and his own powerlessness owing to British control of Hong Kong, Sun’s base of operations in South China. Efforts to raise money from the German Ambassador to China were likewise unsuccessful.
Bhattacharya’s activities soon drew the attention of the Japanese secret police, who were concerned about Bhattacharya’s efforts at fomenting revolution. Upon learning that he was about to be served formal notice to leave Japan within 24 hours and not wishing to be deported to Shanghai, Bhattacharya immediately set about leaving the country overland through Korea. He tried to make his way from there to Peking (Beijing), but by this time he was spotted and identified by the British secret police, who detained him. Only through a stroke of good fortune was Bhattacharya able to win his release from the police, due to the British Consul General’s ill ease with holding a British subject indefinitely without having formal charges first been preferred.
Further efforts to raise funds for armaments from the German consulate at Hankow resulted in a further tentative agreement. However, this plan also came to naught owing to the size of the commitment, which had to be approved in Berlin, according to German Ambassador to China Admiral Paul von Hintze. Bhattacharya determined to take his plan for German funding next to the German Ambassador in the United States, before heading to Germany itself. Employees of the German embassy were able to assist Bhattacharya in obtaining a place as a stowaway aboard an American ship with a German crew, bound for San Francisco.
Although they knew he was on board the ship, British authorities stopping the vessel in international waters were unable to locate Bhattacharya in the secret compartment in which he was hurriedly hidden. In an effort to throw the British off his trail – and in an effort to obtain more suitable accommodations for the long trans-Pacific voyage, Bhattacharya stealthily disembarked at Kobe, Japan.
In Kobe Bhattacharya made use of a false French-Indian passport previously obtained for him by the Germans in China. Posing as a seminary student bound for Paris, Bhattacharya obtained an American passport visa, bought a ticket, and sailed for San Francisco.
During his stay in Palo Alto, a period of about two months, Roy met his future wife, a young Stanford University graduate named Evelyn Trent. The pair fell in love and journeyed together across the country to New York City.
It was in the New York City public library that Roy began to develop his interest in Marxism. His socialist transition under Lala owed much to Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s essays on communism and Vivekananda’s message of serving the proletariat. Bothered by British spies, Roy fled to Mexico in July 1917 with Evelyn. German military authorities, on the spot, gave him large amounts of money.
The Mexican president Venustiano Carranza and other liberal thinkers appreciated Roy’s writings for El Pueblo. The Socialist Party he founded (December 1917), was converted into the Communist Party of Mexico, the first Communist Party outside Russia. The Roys lodged a penniless Mikhail Borodin, the Bolshevik leader, under special circumstances. On the basis of a grateful Borodin’s reports on Roy’s activities, Moscow was to invite Roy to the 2nd World Congress of the Communist International, held in Moscow during the summer of 1920.
A few weeks before the Congress, Vladimir Lenin personally received Roy with great warmth. At Lenin’s behest, Roy formulated his own ideas as a supplement to Lenin’s Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and the Colonial Questions.
Material from Roy’s pen was published by International Press Correspondence (Inprecor), the weekly bulletin of the Communist International. Roy served as a member of the Comintern’s Presidium for eight years and at one stage was a member of the Presidium, the Political Secretariat, the Executive Committee, and the World Congress.
Commissioned by Lenin to prepare the East – especially India – for revolution, Roy founded military and political schools in Tashkent. In October 1920, as he formed the Communist Party of India, he contacted his erstwhile revolutionary colleagues who, at this juncture, were hesitating between Radicalism (Jugantar) and Mohandas K. Gandhi’s novel programme. Close to the Jugantar in spirit and action, C. R. Das inspired Roy’s confidence. From Moscow, Roy published his major reflections, India in Transition, almost simultaneously translated into other languages. In 1922 appeared Roy’s own journal, the Vanguard, organ of the emigre Communist Party of India. These were followed by The Future of Indian Politics (1926) and Revolution and Counter-revolution in China (1930), while he had been tossing between Germany and France.
Leading a Comintern delegation appointed by Joseph Stalin to develop agrarian revolution in China, Roy reached Canton in February 1927. Despite fulfilling his mission with skill, a disagreement with the CCP leaders and Borodin led to a fiasco. Roy returned to Moscow where factions supporting Leon Trotsky and Grigory Zinoviev were busy fighting with Stalin’s.
Stalin refused to meet Roy and give him a hearing at the plenum in February 1928. Denied a decent treatment for an infected ear, Roy escaped with Nikolai Bukharin’s help, sparing himself Stalin’s anger. Shortly after Trotsky’s deportation, on 22 May 1928, Roy received the permission to go abroad for medical treatment on board a Berlin-bound plane of the Russo-German Airline Deruluft. In December 1929, the Inprecor announced Roy’s expulsion from the Comintern, almost simultaneously with Bukharin’s fall from grace.
Roy returned to India for the first time in December 1930. Upon reaching Bombay, Roy met leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Bose, the former of whom recalled that despite significant political differences, “I was attracted to him by his remarkable intellectual capacity.”
Roy’s political activity in India proved to be brief, on 21 July 1931 he was arrested in Bombay on an arrest warrant issued in 1924. Roy was taken to Kanpur to face charges under Section 121-A of the Indian Penal Code, “conspiring to deprive the King Emperor of his sovereignty in India.”
No trial was held in open court; rather, the proceedings were conducted inside the jail in which Roy was held. Roy was allowed neither trial by jury nor defence witnesses, nor was he allowed to make a defence statement. Proceedings were conducted from 3 November 1931 until 9 January 1932, at which time Roy was sentenced to 12 years of rigorous imprisonment.
Roy was taken immediately under armed guard to Bareilly Central Jail for completion of his sentence managing, however, to smuggle out the defence statement which he was not allowed to present in court.This disallowed declaration was published in full by Roy’s supporters in India as My Defence, and in abridged form in New York as I Accuse.
Roy was unapologetic for his advocacy of the use of armed struggle against British colonialism, in his own defence declaring
“ The oppressed people and exploited classes are not obliged to respect the moral philosophy of the ruling power…. A despotic power is always overthrown by force. The force employed in this process is not criminal. On the contrary, precisely the guns carried by the army of the British government in India are instruments of crime. They become instruments of virtue when they are turned against the imperialist state. ”
Roy filed an appeal in his case to the Allahabad High Court, but this was dismissed on 2 May 1933 – although Roy’s sentence was at the same time reduced from 12 years to 6 by the court. Roy ultimately served 5 years and 4 months of this term, sitting in five different jails.Dismal prison conditions took a severe toll on Roy’s health, and he suffered lasting damage to his heart, kidneys, lungs, and digestive tract as a result of his time behind bars. Roy also lost several teeth, was frequently feverish, and suffered constant pain from a chronically infected inner ear.
Despite his imprisonment, Roy still managed to contribute to the Indian independence movement. A steady stream of letters and articles were smuggled out of jail. He also wrote a 3000-page draft manuscript provisionally titled The Philosophical Consequence of Modern Science.
Released in November 1936 in broken health, Roy went to Allahabad for recovery, invited by Nehru. Defying the Comintern order to boycott the Indian National Congress, Roy urged Indian Communists to join this Party to radicalise it. Nehru, in his presidential address at Faizpur session in December 1936, greeted the presence of Roy, as
…one who, though young, is an old and well-tried soldier in India’s fight for freedom. Comrade M.N. Roy has just come to us after a long and most distressing period in prison, but though shaken up in body, he comes with a fresh mind and heart, eager to take part in that old struggle that knows no end till it ends in success.
From the podium Roy in his speech recommended the capture of power by Constituent Assembly. Unable to collaborate with Gandhi, however, Roy was to stick to his own conviction. In April 1937, his weekly Independent India appeared and was welcomed by progressive leaders like Bose and Nehru, unlike Gandhi, and the staunch Communists who accused Roy of deviation.
In marrying Ellen Gottschalk, his second wife, “Roy found not only a loving wife but also an intelligent helper and close collaborator.” They settled in Dehra Dun. Roy proposed an alternative leadership, seized the crisis following Bose’s re-election as the Congress President, in 1938: in Pune, in June, he formed his League of Radical Congressmen. Disillusioned with both bourgeois democracy and communism, he devoted the last years of his life to the formulation of an alternative philosophy which he called Radical Humanism and of which he wrote a detailed exposition in Reason, Romanticism and Revolution.
In his monumental biography, In Freedom’s Quest, Sibnarayan Ray writes:
“ If Nehru had his problems, so had Roy. From early life his sharp intellect was matched by a strong will and extra-ordinary self-confidence. It would seem that in his long political career there were only two persons and a half who, in his estimate, qualified to be his mentors. The first was Jatin Mukherji (or Bagha Jatin) from his revolutionary nationalist period; the second was Lenin. The half was Josef Stalin…. ”
With the declaration of World War II, Roy (in a position close to that of Sri Aurobindo) condemned the rising totalitarian regimes in Germany and Italy, instead supporting England and France in the fight against fascism. He severed connections with the Congress Party and created the Radical Democratic Party in 1940.
Gandhi proceeded to foment Quit India in August 1942. In response The British imprisoned without trial almost the entire Indian National Congress leadership within hours. Roy’s line was clearly different from that of the mainstream of the independence movement. According to Roy, a victory for Germany and the Axis powers would have resulted in the end of democracy worldwide and India would never be independent.
In his view India could win her independence only in a free world. Subhas Chandra Bose took the pro-active stance that The enemy of my enemy is my friend; escaping house-arrest and India he formed the Azad Hind Provisional Indian Government in Exile and allied with the Japanese brought the Indian National Army to India’s doorstep.
Sensing India’s independence to be a post-war reality following the defeat of the Axis powers and the weakening of British imperialism, Roy wrote a series of articles in Independent India on the economic and political structures of new India, even presenting a concrete ten-year plan, and drafting a Constitution of Free India (1944).
Roy in his philosophy devised means to ensure human freedom and progress. Remembering Bagha Jatin who “personified the best of mankind”, Roy worked “for the ideal of establishing a social order in which the best in man could be manifest.” In 1947, he elaborated his theses into a manifesto, New Humanism, expected to be as important as the Communist Manifesto by Marx a century earlier.
A lecture tour to the USA was to be suspended, as Roy died on 25 January 1954.
Beginning in 1987, Oxford University Press began the publication of the Selected Works of M.N. Roy. A total of 4 volumes were published through 1997, gathering Roy’s writings through his prison years. Project editor Sibnarayan Ray died in 2008, however, and the Roy works publishing project was therefore prematurely terminated.